BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

Fri, 12/01/2006 - 11:35

Corruption survival guide

Anti-corruption advertisement
Anti-corruption advertisement

Driving innocently along a Bulgarian road when you're flagged down by a cop who wants 20 leva not to write you a ticket? Want to open a guest house, but an official won't give you an all-important certificate unless you give him a kickback? A customs officer at the border won't let you bring in your laptop because he says you're going to sell it in Bulgaria? All these situations, and many more, are all too real. But you needn't despair. With some sound advice, and a lot of common sense, you, and not some dishonest official, will be bringing it all back home

The Western press is demonstrating a zeal seldom seen elsewhere in its coverage of all things corrupt in Bulgaria and would have us believe that it is impossible to walk the streets of Sofia without being besieged by corruption. But what does corruption mean for the ordinary citizens going about their everyday life? How does it affect foreigners living and working here? What, in fact, constitutes corruption – is it when the bouncer on the door of a strip club demands 400 euros "entrance fee", or when the hotel where you're staying demands you pay 60 euros a night, while your Bulgarian friend pays 60 leva? What official ways are there to report corruption and have the culprits punished? And, most important of all, what are you supposed to do when that cop demands 20 leva from you for no apparent reason at all?

Vagabond spoke to Nikolay Spasov, head of the Inspectorate Department, the Interior Ministry body that deals with corruption tip-offs, in an attempt to shed some light on the murky world of corruption in Bulgaria.

The anti-corruption hotline (phone: 982 2222) and website (www.nocorr.mvr.bg) are the latest initiative in the Interior Ministry's National Anti-Corruption Strategy. The project is financed by the PHARE programme and is a result of the Interior Ministry's collaboration with the Scotland Yard anti-corruption unit. Initially, the hotline was designed only to deal with claims of corruption involving Interior Ministry employees, but Interior Minister Rumen Petkov, who is also chairman of the Council of Ministers' Committee on the Prevention and Countering of Corruption, decided that it should deal with cases of corruption in all state and administrative institutions. So, the hotline now represents your first port-of-call for reporting instances of corruption in any institution, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, "if, for example, one wants to complain about the high price of candles".

Since 30 June, when the anti-corruption media campaign was launched in Bulgaria, the hotline has received about 5,000 phone calls. Between 2,700 and 2,800 of these calls were classed as "real tip-offs". However, only between 300 and 350 cases were subsequently investigated, as most of the information callers gave was "too vague" to act as grounds for investigation. "What we need is concrete, detailed information about a concrete institution," says Spasov.

Two people man the phones on the hotline, and they are "overwhelmed with work". However, during the day there should always be someone to take your call and provide live help for callers. From 5:30 pm to 8:30 am calls are recorded on voicemail and transcribed the next day, along with the tip-offs received on the anti-corruption website (www.nocorr.mvr.bg). The inspectorate then discusses the tip-offs and, if they decide there is enough evidence, an investigation is launched.

Spasov claims that the calls received show an increased trust in the Interior Ministry. In the past, similar hotlines run by various NGOs were launched, but he says these were not effective. Spasov says that their method ensures all calls are dealt with: "We investigate every call we receive, no matter how trivial it seems. There is no danger of a tip-off being missed because each of them is classified under a certain number, and the time and the date of the call are impossible to erase. Then the information is transcribed."

Once it has been decided to launch an investigation based on a call, things progress according to the nature of the case. "If it is the A-traffic-cop-stopped-me-and-asked-for-20-leva type of call, the case is investigated by the police authorities in Sofia or the regional centres. When it is a more serious case of corruption, the interior minister or the general secretary of the Interior Ministry issue a directive and a committee is summoned to investigate the case thoroughly."

To find out what exactly this means for the man on the street, we put forward several scenarios as examples of situations in which foreigners in Bulgaria are most likely to encounter corruption, and asked what the correct course of action was in each.

Culture of Corruption

Unfortunately, people in Bulgaria are used to paying bribes: they break the rules, take out the money and pay. The anti-corruption unit carried out a test this summer, in cooperation with the Scotland Yard's anti-corruption unit. "We had some of our employees disguised as citizens and five out of seven police asked for money - between 20 and 30 leva," says Spasov.

So far, the hotline has not received any concrete tip-offs from foreigners.

There was one case in which some foreigners called from a striptease club in the centre of Sofia, claiming they had been ripped off. "We inspected the site but it didn't turn out to be a case of corruption. I guess the anti-corruption phone numbers are not very well known among expatriates in Bulgaria. We give out brochures in English at every passport check desk at the border. I strongly advise anyone who doesn't get a brochure with these numbers to ask for one."

We have yet to see these English brochures however. The only ones we have come across so far are in Bulgarian, which may go some way to explaining why the hotline hasn't really taken off with foreigners.

Spasov claims that the calls received show an increased trust in the Interior Ministry. In the past, similar hotlines run by various NGOs were launched, but he says these were not effective. Spasov says that their method ensures all calls are dealt with: "We investigate every call we receive, no matter how trivial it seems. There is no danger of a tip-off being missed because each of them is classified under a certain number, and the time and the date of the call are impossible to erase. Then the information is transcribed."

Once it has been decided to launch an investigation based on a call, things progress according to the nature of the case. "If it is the A-traffic-cop-stopped-me-and-asked-for-20-leva type of call, the case is investigated by the police authorities in Sofia or the regional centres. When it is a more serious case of corruption, the interior minister or the general secretary of the Interior Ministry issue a directive and a committee is summoned to investigate the case thoroughly."

To find out what exactly this means for the man on the street, we put forward several scenarios as examples of situations in which foreigners in Bulgaria are most likely to encounter corruption, and asked what the correct course of action was in each.

Which institutions are most affected by corruption?

Most instances of corruption have been reported regarding the Interior Ministry, with 270-280 tip-offs received. The Ministry of Finance has received 80 complaints. These are followed by healthcare, with fewer for the civil service, the judicial system and the local authorities, according to the Interior Ministry Inspectorate Directorate anti-corruption unit.

TRAFFIC COPS

Scenario one

You are pulled over by the traffic police who claim you were driving at 80 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. They ask you for 10 leva. Later, you report the case in detail, stating the date, the names of the police officers involved, the type of car, and say you were driving at 50 km/h. It's your word against theirs, how can it be proved who is right and wrong?

"If we have information about the date, the time and the place (some people even provide the number of the police car or the names of the employees), the radars are inspected. They store information about each car that has passed, which is impossible to erase," says Spasov, though he admits that "cops are notorious for using tricks".

If the information on the radar proves that the driver was right, disciplinary measures are taken, or the employees in question are moved to a different unit.

Vagabond's Advice: Don't pay the cop, it is an offence to pay or to accept money in this situation, and the money will obviously go straight into the cop's pocket. Try to talk your way out of the situation. If things get nasty, insist on being provided with an interpreter. If things get nastier, tell them you are going to call the anti-corruption hotline. The thing with the radar doesn't work. While it is true that the information on the radar is kept on file, there is no way to prove that it was your car passing round that corner at 3:15:18 pm, and not someone else's. Remember, any passenger in the car is as good a witness as the police officer's colleague (who will probably be sitting in the police vehicle looking the other way).

Scenario two

You are a foreigner who can't speak the language, and you think a traffic cop is asking you for a bribe.

The inspectorate recommends you call the hotline immediately. "You will find billboards with the anti-corruption phone numbers at many places in the country, especially on busy motorways". These are all in Bulgarian.

"I can guarantee that no matter which part of the country this happens in, we will send over a team to investigate the case in 15-20 minutes," Spasov states. However, the inspectorate cannot guarantee that once the team arrives you will be able to communicate with them. "The language competence of our employees is a serious problem," he admits. "We organise language courses and try to have people who can at least understand what people say, or who are able to say a couple of basic phrases, at least on busy highways where there is a bigger flow of foreigners. But there is still a lot to do in this field."

As for the hotline, "If the person on the phone can't speak the language, the call is recorded and we look for colleagues who can help." But this "might take a while".

Vagabond's Advice: Don't sign anything unless you get an authorised translation. Traffic cops have a certain Akt, or ticket, quota to fulfil during their work hours. When they see you are reluctant to pay 20 leva they might as well let you go and concentrate on other matters.

Scenario three

A foreigner is stopped and the traffic cop does issue an Akt, or ticket.

There is some confusion as to what your rights are in this situation. The inspectorate acknowledges that there is a suggestion that fines of up to 50 leva can be collected on the spot. However, they state that "traffic police have no right to collect money on the road. If they do, then it is considered corruption". But an explanation of how to proceed is not forthcoming. "I can't tell you how it works with foreigners at the moment," says Spasov.

In some countries the practice is to stamp the foreigner's passport and you then have to pay the fine on leaving the country, but the inspectorate states they "don't think the traffic police have the right to stamp passports, either".

"Let's hope that come 1 January 2007, there will be a new better-set mechanism, according to which Bulgarian traffic police will be able to notify the tax institutions in the other countries so that they can collect the fines themselves. Another idea is to introduce a system which allows foreigners to pay fines upon leaving Bulgaria."

So, it seems that, at present, there is no set procedure for dealing with this situation. Paying cash constitutes an act of corruption both on the part of the person paying and the person receiving the money, but there is no procedure in place for collecting the fine at a later date.

Vagabond's Advice: Keep the Akt as a memento.

SETTING UP A BUSINESS

The scenario

You are a foreigner who wants to set up a business in Bulgaria, for example, a pub on the Black Sea coast. You will need to have your premises inspected by various officials who will then issue you with the necessary documents to open your establishment. Some of these people may put pressure on you to pay over and above the cost of the document; in other words, they ask for a bribe.

The inspectorate has dealt with similar cases in the past and states that, while these cases are more difficult to prove, it is not impossible. "In such cases, if the person agrees to cooperate with us, we will need several days to investigate it, using special investigative devices". These special devices include hidden recording equipment.

The inspectorate admits it is possible that the long, bureaucratic procedure involved in investigating these cases can discourage people from cooperating, but says that "these are the laws of the country and we try to abide by them. The special investigative devices are only one way to go about cases of corruption. The procedure cannot start immediately after the person's call, it takes a couple of days."

Be prepared to go "undercover" in this situation.

The procedure for dealing with claims of corruption in state institutions is essentially the same as that for dealing with private businesses, but there is a special unit in the General Directorate for Combating Organised Crime dealing with corruption in the state administration and the judicial system, to which these cases may be referred.

Vagabond's Advice: Keep a record of what you do, whom you talk to, and when. You never know when this will come in useful.

DUAL PRICING

Until 2005, a system of "dual pricing" was in operation in Bulgaria, whereby foreigners were charged more for certain products and services than Bulgarians. This was most in evidence in the tourism sector, where it was common for prices to be listed in euros for foreigners and leva for Bulgarians. Restaurants often had separate higher-priced menus for foreigners, and hotel rooms, ski passes and so on would have one price for Bulgarians and another for foreigners. This foreigner pricing is now banned, but many places will still try to charge foreigners more than Bulgarians.

The scenario

You are booking into a hotel. The receptionist quotes you 60 euros for a room. The price as listed in Bulgarian is 60 leva. Is this corrupt practice?

According to the inspectorate, "Although it is not right to have higher prices for foreigners, this is not corruption." This is because corruption is a two-way process in which one party asks for a bribe and the other pays. The matter of double pricing comes under trade relations and as such does not constitute corruption.

Vagabond's Advice: Insist on your rights. If you have a lichna karta, or Bulgarian ID, always use this rather than your passport when checking in. If they still insist on you paying the higher price, find another hotel and write to us.

PROTECTION OF YOUR RIGHTS

Concerns over personal safety can act as a major deterrent to people speaking out against corruption. Despite the fact that callers' identities are treated with confidentiality, people fear that they may suffer repercussions for reporting corruption. So, how does the Interior Ministry guarantee that the citizens' rights will be protected?

"The people who work in these units have been specially selected and we guarantee that they do their duties conscientiously." But, if a case reaches court, problems could arise. The inspectorate "cannot guarantee anything after the case reaches court as the latter is a completely separate institution. For example, the director of a big company has been caught taking or paying bribes and he goes to court. Then his solicitor has the legal right to review all the documents of the case and it is possible that the plaintiff's identity might be revealed". However, they say that it is difficult to leak information and "if everything is in order, even after the case has reached court, there shouldn't be any problems at all".

"Wherever you see a man who gives someone else's corruption, someone else's prejudice as a reason for not taking action himself, you see a cog in The Machine that governs us," John Jay Chapman, American writer and politician (1862-1933).

Agony Aunt

If you feel you've been victimised by a corrupt official, please, write to us at editorial@vagabond-bg.com. We will do our best to sort things out for you, or at least give you some advice.

Issue 3

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