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Bulgaria - the melting pot of poverty and corruption

IT is a scene of utter desperation, reminiscent of the poorest shanty towns in Brazil, South Africa and India.

What roads that exist are little more than dirt tracks strewn with rubbish and excrement. The slightest rainfall turns them to rivers of mud. Rats and disease are rife.

In one hastily-erected shack, a single room with ill-fitting windows and no heat, nine children lie on filthy mattresses, some no more than babies, their tears leaving tracks across their dirty faces as they cry for food and the warm embrace of parents who are not there.

In another hovel, a man showed me how his family of five shared a single room, with three beds clustered around a stove. There was no plumbing and he explained that they would go to his mother?s home nearby to use the toilet.

Those that are lucky enough to have a single bare light bulb hanging from their ceiling obtain their electricity by running illegal cables from nearby homes. ?Others do without.

There is no evidence of the NGOs and humanitarian projects found in the poorest parts of the Third World, because this is not the Third World. This is Bulgaria, the newest addition to the European dream.

Scandalously the suburb of Fakuteta,?an area of less than a square mile in which 55,000?Romas live cheek-by-jowl, is just three miles from Bulgaria?s Parliament building and from?Sofia?s city centre where Bulgaria's elite ostentatiously parade their new-found affluence as they drive their luxury Mercedes or Porsches.

Romas account for about half a million of Bulgaria?s population of 7.5 million, one in five of which lives below the poverty line.

?In Soviet days, it was matter of pride to integrate Romas within society,? said linguist Naruana Hill.

?Children would be collected from their homes every morning, given showers, and taken to schools. Families would be given homes within apartment buildings and live next to Bulgarians. It was a matter of prestige to state that everyone was equal. Now schools are segregated and they are left to fend for themselves.?

In order to survive, many find themselves embroiled in organised crime, particularly the illicit trafficking of narcotics and cigarettes.

And it is over Bulgaria?s notorious and Government-sponsored corruption that the two worlds collide, as state bodies turn a blind eye to illegal activities in return for support at the ballot box.

In this way Romas, desperate for short-term gains, sentence themselves to a lifetime on the fringes of society.

Corruption in Bulgaria is at least three times higher than the EU average, according to the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD).

Its report cites 150,000 bribes every month, across all sections of society from the judiciary,?police and?customs to businesses needing government licenses to operate.

When challenged about the figure Tsvetan Simeonov, president of Bulgaria?s chamber of commerce and industry, replied: ?Well, we can?t know exactly but 1,000 more or less doesn?t make any difference.?

So far-reaching is corruption throughout every strand of society that ?Bulgaria is one of the few ? if not only ? European countries with no proven political corruption,? said the report.

The Sunday Express spoke with victims, including Nikolay Tonev, mayor of Galabovo who was suspended from his democratically elected post after daring to object when the state-owned electricity operator illegally installed facilities on municipal land, and Ivan Slavkov, owner of A-Division football club Spartak Varna who spent four years in jail without being sentenced by a court after being framed for financial fraud. He was released after appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

Signs of EU regulation exist, but it is all too clear that they are little more than sops to Brussels.

While Italy and France heavily enforce the ban on smoking in public places, in Sofia restaurants and hotels have no fear in providing ashtrays, despite a ban six months ago, with the full knowledge that they will not be fined.

?The Government doesn?t even try to hide the corruption here,? said Petar Jakimov of the Bulgarian anti-Mafia League.

?For instance, in 2008 more than 21 billion cigarettes were seized. Last year official figures were 11.6 billion. There is no way that smoking levels have halved in Bulgaria and it is absolutely not the case that customs officers have become more efficient. What we see here is a manipulation of statistics, nothing else.

?In the same way VIP prostitution and trafficking of heroin and amphetamines is all being done with full Government knowledge.

?Because of its geography, the Mafia in Bulgaria is especially adept in logistics ? establishing the infrastructure for the trafficking of contraband and prostitution to Western Europe.?

In 2008, 101.9 kg of amphetamines were seized by customs. Last year the figure was zero, according to official statistics.

According to the US Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement affairs, this is because custom officials are now placing "an increasing priority on the search for taxable contraband and have reduced the priority on narcotics."


A report by the European Commission last year concluded that organised crime groups "exercise a considerable influence over economic activities in the country. From an economic perspective, this restricts competition and deters foreign investment. It also gives these groups a platform from which to influence the political process and state institutions."
Petar was himself jailed when he and his sister protested at a charity event hosted by Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov.

?We had a sign saying ?Borisov, Drugs, Elections? to protest against Government-sponsored crime. We were thrown into jail. My sister was made to spend the night in the corridor with her hands handcuffed to a rail.

?The following morning we appeared before a judge who immediately dismissed the case. This was in 2011. Now things are much worse ? we wouldn?t have the result in court today.?

Critics say that Bulgaria reverted to totalitarianism two years after its 2007 EU accession with the election of Byoko Borisov and the GERB party.

Despite being part of one of Europe?s largest centre-right movements, the European People?s Party, Borisov maintains substantial ties with Bulgaria?s former communist elite.

Bulgaria?s new hope lies with Slavi Binev, the charismatic business tycoon and European Taekwondo champion who became an Independent MEP on an anti corruption ticket. He will fight general elections in August as leader of the Civic Movement for Real Democracy GORD (Proud) party.

From shop workers to taxi drivers to students, every Sofian interviewed by the Sunday Express was critical of the current regime and spoke of Slavi, as he is known, as their only hope for freedom.

Speaking last night, Mr Binev said: ?While Bulgaria continues to be a totalitarian regime, while the national press is controlled, while corruption is so high that people suffer, that the majority of businesses cannot function, there is no future for Bulgaria.

?I want a country where honest Bulgarians can find jobs and not have to go elsewhere.?

Even with a change of government, it is likely to take a generation before Bulgaria is economically able to hold its own. In the meantime, its gain will be the EU?s loss, as criminals and honest workers alike leave their home in search of new opportunities abroad.