ARMY OF TROUBLES

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Secrecy, exploding munitions and dead souls haunt the Bulgarian Army

abandoned bulgarian military base.jpg

In the 22 years since the end of Communism, the Bulgarian army underwent great changes. It was "depoliticised," and from being a staunch Warsaw Pact member became an enthusiastic NATO one. The draft was abolished in 2008 and women were allowed in active service. Bulgarian military missions went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and an American military training site appeared on Bulgarian soil. The number of military personnel was reduced to about 44,000.

However, the army did not go through these changes without trouble. In the recent discussions for the 2012 budget, the decision of the GERB government to cut the number of enlisted soldiers and curtail their privileges drew criticism from both military personnel and President Georgi Parvanov. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Here are some of the other problems that plague the Bulgarian army.

DARK PAST

When the Committee for the Disclosure of the Archives of the former Communist State Security Services announced in 2011 the results of its probe into the top brass, no one was really surprised. The Committee found that 149 of the 928 names looked into (or about 14 percent) had been agents for the security services, mainly military counterintelligence. About 40 of them were still working for the Defence Ministry and the army at the time of the probe.

There are only two government institutions with a higher percentage of former agents in top positions – the Foreign Ministry (47 percent of its senior personnel) and the Interior Ministry (22 percent).

When the news broke, Defence Minister Anyu Angelov commented that the real number of former State Security agents was in fact less, with only about 10 on active service. He did, however, recall the military attachés to the United States and Ukraine on account of their State Security past.

THEY MOVE IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS

According to a report by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a liberal think tank, corruption in the Bulgarian army takes many and various forms. These include the appropriation of military equipment and property, the suppliers, the trade in armaments and military equipment and the human resources management, among others.

Here is a recent example. At the beginning of December 2011, a report for the Bulgarian Audit Office revealed that in 2009 the Ministry of Defence had approved public tenders in breach of legal requirements. The procurements in question included the supply of airplane spare parts and the repair of frigate depots.

One of the shadiest adventures of the Defence Ministry in recent years has been the building of the so-called "Military NDK," a concrete and glass monstrosity near the genuine NDK, or National Palace of Culture, in central Sofia. The building of the National Army Complex, whose practical benefits remain unclear, began in 2004 under the administration of Defence Minister Nikolay Svinarov. Seven years and 32 million leva later, the complex is still unfinished, although in the midst of the economic crisis the GERB government has promised to pour another 10 million leva into it. Some of the money is for interior redesign. The original building had conference facilities and hotel rooms, which will now have to be turned into offices.

Every now and then, stories appear in the press about military personnel on trial for corruption. The most publicised was the arrest of former Defence Minister Nikolay Tsonev in April 2010. The charges against him included corruption and abuse of power, but by December 2011 Tsonev was cleared of almost all of them.

TICKING BOMBS

On 3 July 2008 Sofianites were awoken by the rumbling of explosions and the smell of gunpowder. Hours passed before the reason was revealed: unused munitions in the Chelopechene depot, near the capital, had detonated.

The ministry started a campaign to decommission obsolete munitions, but in September 2011 Anyu Angelov informed the Parliament that the attempt had failed. There are still 14,000 tonnes of unused munitions in depots dangerously close to towns and villages in Bulgaria. One of the reasons for the failure was the public tendering procedure. Its requirements were so restrictive that only one company met them. The procedure was halted and the company is now suing the ministry.

In November 2011 another depot blew up, this time near the village of Lovnidol, in the Sevlievo area.

DEAD SOULS

Cuts, cuts and more cuts: in years of severe economic restrictions in the ministries there is great pressure to discharge personnel. However, the Defence Ministry showed that you can dramatically reduce your workforce with hardly any redundancies.

In the summer of 2011, Minister Angelov announced that he had pared back the ministry administration by about 50 percent, decimating it from 1,432 to 796 people. Later however, before parliament, he stated that 10-12 percent of the personnel in the ministry and the army, or about 5,000, were so-called "hollow positions."

The practice of "hollow positions" is actually widespread in state administration. Everybody loves it, because the budget of an institution is based on the total workforce, which is made up of real and "hollow," or phantom, employees. At the end of the year, management trumpets the huge sums that "have been saved" – the salaries of the "hollow positions," that is – and with a clear conscience redistributes the "spare" money among the actual staff.

Before the elections this autumn, Angelov's administration declared that it had clawed back 16 million leva from unpaid salaries and more than 12 million from "other expenses." The minister promised to turn this "saved" money into personnel bonuses, but after the elections he backed down.

The hollow positions are also an easy scapegoat for every drive for reductions and "optimisations." When cuts are needed, the dead wood is the first to go down the drain. Even in parliament, however, Angelov did not disclose how many of his summer cuts were in fact hollow ones.

WHEN THE SICK CARE FOR THE HEALTHY

Until the end of 2011, the incomes of military personnel were tax free and they could retire after only 25 years. Upon their retirement, they received 20 monthly salaries and their pensions were some of the most generous in the country. Some retired military personnel, however, remained in the Defence Ministry but in administrative positions. According to Mediapool, the number of re-employed retired military personnel in the ministry remains classified.

This, added to the expense of providing similar privileges for policemen, imposes a heavy burden on the social security system. In 2010 the pensions of military and police personnel led to a deficit of 290 million leva in the social security budget.

But the army didn't avoid the winds of change. In December the government passed a reformed retirement plan. Increasing retirement age of military personnel with two years was part of it.

 

COALITION OF THE UNWILLING

The monthly salary for the lower ranks in the army is about 550 leva, while the national average salary in September 2011 was 704 leva, according to national statistics. This explains to a certain extent why many military personnel are not very happy with the situation in the army, despite the perks. You will also hear complaints regarding nepotism, inefficiency and lack of proper equipment and housing facilities.

Statistics give a clearer idea of the consequences. This summer the Defence Ministry announced there were 2,000 vacancies for soldiers, sergeants and other officers, with the infantry being most prominently understaffed.

In 2010, about 1,300 soldiers and officers left the army, citing as the most common cause the insecurity generated by the expected reforms. The GERB government is adamant about reducing the size of the army, with about 5,700 active servicemen and 1,300 civil servants planned to fall under the axe by the end of 2014.

Open Society Institute – Sofia logoThis periodical has been selected to be supported in a media pluralism promotion contest funded by the Open Society Institute – Sofia. The content of publications in it is responsibility of the authors and in no circumstances should be regarded as an official position of the Open Society Institute – Sofia.

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