MILLIMETRE DEMOCRACY

by Dimana Trankova; illustration by Vladislava Vidinova

In Bulgaria only fools seem to follow rules, and vice versa

GRAFIKA_original.jpg

Today someone tried to kill me. Three times. As I crossed the street at a zebra crossing, a sports car shot through a red light and miraculously missed me. A plumber saved me from falling into a gaping manhole by sticking his head out of it just before I was about to step in. A chunk of plaster the size of a small dog came crashing down off a building as I passed by. And this was on a good day - the pack of stray dogs that usually prowls the pavements on my way to work must have had the day off. Bulgarians have a saying zakonat e vrata v poleto, or the law is a door in a field - sure, you can go through it, but it is much easier to go around.

This mentality has transformed Bulgaria into a place where the only law is the law of the jungle, and the only rule is to break all rules. Anyone who does otherwise is considered a fool.

If you've lived in over regulated countries, this may sound refreshing - as long as you don't become a victim like Ann Gordon, an English woman living in the village of Nedyalsko who was killed by her neighbour's dogs. Every year Bulgaria - with its modest population of seven million - loses 10 times more people to car accidents than the number killed in all of NATO's foreign operations combined. The National Insurance Institute reports that 157 people died in workplace accidents in 2007 alone, with construction workers accounting for the highest number of fatalities - 34.

The worst thing about these grim statistics is that they are not the exception, but the rule. This is everyday life in Bulgaria.

In light of this, it's amazing that anybody is still out on the streets. Speeding, bad roads and corrupt cops are some of the well-known causes of deadly traffic accidents. However, there are thousands of seemingly small, yet no less fatal offences stemming from the misguided urge to save money.

Bulgarians prefer to bribe companies that perform annual car safety inspections and to drive with shoddy brakes, rather than to pay for repairs. They don't turn on their headlights in fog to save their spark plugs. One dark night as I was driving along a first-class road, I came across a horse cart that didn't even have reflectors. The passengers alerted other drivers to their presence by emitting lights from their… mobile phones.

Such corner-cutting turns out to be costly in the long run - and not just on the roads. No one forbids employees to change light bulbs on a job.

Every Bulgarian knows how - just as they can unplug drains, hammer nails, glue tiles and paint walls at the drop of a hat. The downside to this is that many construction companies don't require the workers they hire to build apartments, hotels or office complexes to possess anything more than these basic skills. On their part, construction workers consider hardhats an unnecessary nuisance, often steal building materials and are careless in their work. For this reason, sometimes concrete slabs collapse under their feet or bank awnings in the centre of Varna cave in under the weight of snow, killing passers-by.

Bulgarian disregard for the law not only contradicts common sense - it also goes against the instinct for self preservation. Every day retirees and mothers with prams step out into oncoming traffic to cross the street - despite the pedestrian underpass only metres away. Others place their three-year-old toddlers in the front seat of their cars - without the booster seat required by law for all children under 12. Between November 2007 and January 2008 nearly 20 children poisoned themselves at Sofia kindergarden with medicines carelessly left within their reach.

Of course, Bulgaria does have laws. However, laws are either not followed at all or are taken to absurd extremes. The nine people killed on the Sofia-Kardam night train might still be alive if it weren't for security measures. The carriage windows do not fully open to thwart fare dodgers, the train's external doors are locked to prevent sleepy passengers from mistaking the exit for the WC, and the fire extinguishers are kept locked up in the guard's compartment!

Outsmarting the law is a Bulgarian national pastime, the result of 500 years of Ottoman rule. The empire was never a sterling example of an effective administrative and judicial system. Bulgarians soon realised that bribes were the easiest way to secure a permit to build a church, to avoid landing in jail or to clinch a lucrative deal to supply the army with sheep meat.

After Bulgaria's liberation, things didn't change much. Nobody enjoys paying taxes, no matter what their nationality. Bulgarians, however, are perhaps the only people in the world who have a literary and national hero like Elin Pelin's villager Andreshko, who dumps a tax inspector in the middle of a swamp in the rain at dusk.

The Communists, who came to power in 1944, reinforced the belief that laws are made to be broken. In principle, Communist Bulgaria was hyper-regulated - salaries, holidays, housing and careers depended solely on the party. This offered Bulgarians an opportunity to perfect their talent for hoodwinking the powers that be. They pretended to work and even to excel at their duties, yet stole whenever possible to build their own “bourgeois” paradise, complete with villa, colour television, car and pair of blue jeans.

The government itself also ignored the law and sheltered the illegal currency trade, for example. Bulgarians' suspicion of the government deepened, thanks to the party-controlled media, whose news reports had to be read between the lines.

Ubiquitous signs with messages such as “Clean streets measure citizens' cultivation” didn't inspire much faith, either. While scepticism in most such cases was a sign of common sense, it nevertheless impeded the creation of a civil society.

When the Democratic Changes came about, the game really got rough. Few former government officials were charged with crimes committed under the Communist regime - including the concentration camps. Organised crime took over the streets, selling drugs and demanding protection money, while the police and prosecutors largely turned a blind eye. The government seemed to take its cue from the chalga hit Za kokoshka nyama proshka, za milioni nyama zakoni - there's no mercy for a stolen chicken, there's no laws for the stolen millions. So ordinary Bulgarians began breaking the law whenever and however they could. Some built hotels in protected areas. Others knocked down supporting walls on the ground floor of their apartment blocks in order to turn them into coffee shops.

State institutions are no exception. For example, the Sofia District Court has for several years “forgotten” to implement the fire marshal's orders, transforming the building into a veritable powder keg.

The apartment block I live in is in a similarly sad state. Without asking for permission, some residents expanded their apartments by building up the shared hallways and closing them off with gates. This cluttered one of the staircases with old furniture, and as a result the 16-storey building now has only one staircase for emergency evacuation. Attempts by the building manager to solve the problem culminated in a general meeting, where the decision was made to clear out the stairway. Nobody, however, has bothered to do so. After all, we are in Bulgaria.

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