POLICE DEPT, INC

by Anthony Georgieff; photography by BTA

Interior Ministry institutionalises the sort of corruption it is supposed to fight

Tsvetan Tsvetanov.jpg

What in most European societies would have blown up into a major scandal, possibly causing the resignation of the whole government, is being played down in Bulgaria, or overshadowed by other scandals, real or imaginary, that Bulgarians are increasingly becoming inured to. At stake is the whole idea that the impartial enforcement of the law and the independence of the judiciary is central to democracy, but those responsible take little action, while ordinary Bulgarians do not seem to care.

The scandal unfolded at the beginning of the summer when a couple of whistleblowing police officers approached the media with information that the Police Department – and the whole Interior Ministry – was at the receiving end of "donations" from various companies and individuals. The contributions included cash payments, sometimes in the thousands of leva, as well as donations "in kind," usually in the form of petrol, office materials and computer equipment. Traditionally secretive, the Interior Ministry initially refused to respond, citing security considerations, but later revealed, under media pressure, that in the first half of 2011 it had reportedly received cash to the tune of 15.5 million leva. In terms of cash, this is a major accomplishment compared to the 1.2 million leva collected by the Bulgarian Christmas charity run by President Georgi Parvanov and the 2.5 million leva garnered by the commercial TV show Big Brother-2. Senior police officials and, first and foremost, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov defended the practice, saying the Interior Ministry lacked state funds to conduct its operations.

As anyone who has spent some time in Bulgaria knows, there is no such thing as a free lunch here. What was the Interior Ministry doing in return for the cash donations? First, it allegedly "repaid" them by little favours here and there. Some of the contributors to Tsvetan Tsvetanov's portfolio included gambling and casino companies, some of whose operations were conveniently being overlooked by the police. Another contributor was a major construction company that set up, and still operates, what are seen as illegal ski lifts in Bansko. Even Hristo Kovachki, the notorious mining and power engineering entrepreneur convicted of tax evasion, is among the "donors" to Tsvetanov's department.

The list of donors the Interior Ministry was forced to reveal under the Access to Information Act is long and very disturbing. It includes large companies such as LUKoil and Carlsberg and small ones such as the little known Rapid EOOD owned by a Greek businessman in Radomir, Bulles-25 in Petrich and Timber Processing and Precision in Yakoruda.

In addition, the traffic cops, traditionally seen as the most corrupt branch of the Bulgarian police, were given "lists of donors" whose cars should not be pulled over for routine checks or speeding violations. All traffic police vehicles were reportedly equipped with such lists, and most of these were got rid of just hours before the TV cameras were about to start rolling.

The actual amount received by the Bulgarian Police in the form of "charity" may be a lot greater. A senior police official revealed that the amount cited above failed to take into consideration at least 3.5 million leva worth of contributions "in kind," the reason being that these were not recorded by approved accounting methods.

The whole affair shows beyond any reasonable doubt that a major arm of the state, its national police force, had been put – deliberately – under obligation to various commercial and private benefactors, some of whom are of dubious standing. The police were allegedly returning them "favours." To put it another way, the police told you to produce a present, or else...! This is institutionalised corruption, the kind of police racket seen in the past in parts of Africa and Latin America, that no European country has witnessed in living memory, one analyst said.

One of the whistleblowers, Konstantin Ivanov, was immediately reprimanded and several disciplinary actions were started against him. One of them established that he had turned up for work with "unclean shoes." Ivanov resigned after 20 years in the police department.

The funding of the Bulgarian police was promptly noted by the European Commission, which advised in a report that the practice should cease. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov promised it would, and the budget gap created would be filled with cash provided by the state. Yet, in Bulgaria, as one former senior German diplomat noted in an interview, there is a long way between passing a law and actually implementing it. For the time being, it remains to be seen whether the Bulgarian Interior Ministry under its current boss Tsvetan Tsvetanov will comply and whether this kind of "donation" to the police will not be substituted with other "voluntary" contributions to help the Bulgarian police "serve and protect" whoever coughs up the cash.

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