FAILING TO DELIVER

by Libby Andrews; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Theft, incompetence and nosiness render Bulgaria’s postal service farcical

bulgarian posts.jpg

How many people does it take to post a letter? It's not a trick question. In the UK, the answer would be two: yourself and the clerk behind the post office counter who sorts out the stamps and takes your money. Of course, you could always buy your stamps from a machine, reducing the answer to one.

In Bulgaria, the answer is five. You hand the letter to a sullen woman behind the counter who chastises you for not writing the address Bulgarian style – in reverse order. She takes the letter from you and passes it to a dull girl in the background. She weighs it, mutters and then hands it over to the nice lady who always seems to know what she's doing. The nice lady calculates the cost, and then tells the dull girl how to write the registered post docket, while the sullen woman takes your money. The fifth person? She is the enquiring lady who checks up on your welfare, your neighbour's welfare and your neighbour's dog's welfare.

Bulgarian Posts Plc is the national postal service. Since March 1997, it has been a joint-stock company, managed by a five-member board appointed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. It operates around 3,008 post offices and a total of 80,060 km of postal routes.

The Communications Regulations Commission regulates the postal sector. The Postal Services Act 2000 sets out the provisions of universal services and licensing. The act clearly states that all post operators and participants in the provision of postal services undertake to observe the confidentiality of correspondence both while providing the service and afterwards. Article 82 of the act states that “the post operators are not entitled:
1. To misappropriate parcels
2. To open parcels
3. To take anything from parcels that have been opened
4. To give parcels to third persons for the purpose of knowing their contents
5. To provide information on parcels and the content thereof except to the sender and receiver or to persons authorised by them
6. To inform anybody about the post traffic between persons.”

Anybody who breaches Article 82 is fined between 500 and 5,000 leva unless the act constitutes a crime. The same rules apply for letters.

So it's illegal in Bulgaria to open someone else's mail, to discuss its subject matter or to steal the contents. And yet, just about every expat I know has had at least one parcel “lost in the post”. In many post offices, you have to seal the parcel after showing the contents to the counter clerk. You can imagine the excitement among the staff “Here, Sevda, get a hold of that parcel!”

“What this one here in the official yellow box? What's in it this week?”

“A lovely jumper – would suit your Mum. A bag of toffees – we can have them with our coffee – and a load of make-up…”

Working at the post office is even more lucrative now that there are so many foreign residents. Yet not all post is opened purely for theft. Kathleen O'Keefe from Rogachevo regularly receives her UK pension statement unsealed: “I receive a monthly statement from my pension company. It usually arrives in a tear-off envelope, which you can't reseal once open. Several times now I have received my statement open and placed in a plain white envelope. I feel enraged that the whole village probably knows the value of my private pension. When I complained at the post office, they were most apologetic, claiming it left them in perfect condition. I don't think it was them. The problem is they give the post to anyone who enters.”

No postman!? Exactly! In Rogachevo an old lady distributes the mail. She has done this for 15 years. Unfortunately, she has no transport to and from the post office, three kilometres away, so the post office sends the mail with any villager who happens to drop by the office. (Admittedly, they do not give out parcels in this way). When the old lady receives the post – I usually leave it on her doorstep, after yelling “Poshta” – she strolls round the village, distributing it haphazardly. Most villas have a mailbox but letters are left in the doorjamb or on the patio table. People have found sodden phone bills fluttering about on lawns, bank statements gnawed by rats and month-old mail lying in bushes.

The situation will change now with EU membership, most likely at the expense of Bulgarian Posts. The EU favours liberalisation and privatisation of post services within its borders and plans a complete opening of the market from 1st January 2009. There will probably be a de-facto liberalisation in three of the four largest postal markets by then. Postcomm, the UK regulator, decided that the market would be fully liberalised from 2006, so ending the Royal Mail's monopoly.

Seventeen private postal operators now have licences to provide postal services in the UK.

So far, in Bulgaria, competition is growing in the liberalised direct mail sector and four operators have been licensed to provide Postal Money Transfers, which form part of the Universal Postal Service. Last year, the regulator licensed two private postal carriers, T-Post, owned by express delivery company Tip-Top Courier, and Ekont Express. Of the two, only T-Post has opened a postal office so far.

More people are sending items via express delivery services like DHL. Although more costly, it offers peace of mind and an efficient service, which allows senders to keep track of their post on-line. The Bulgarian postal market exceeded 166 million leva last year. Express delivery services and parcel shipments accounted for 67 percent of the market. This particular segment of the postal services market, which accommodates 45 operators, showed an 87 percent increase in revenues and all at the expense of the incumbent Bulgarian Posts. Its share shrank from 50 percent in 2004 to 36 percent last year.

Bulgarian Posts have other problems. If they are losing revenue and share in the transport of parcels, can they keep their share of the letters' market? Mail in today's Internet society is becoming obsolete. Electronic media dubs the traditional postal system “snail mail” because delivery via computer is much faster. Hence, demand for postal services has fallen as people opt to correspond by email, Internet Messenger and SMS. Online banking and bill payment facilities have also dispensed with the need to send postal cheques, a trend likely to continue.

At the dawn of the digital age, many wondered how postal services in industrialised nations would survive. At first, they tried to encourage letter-writing because it was more personal. The US Postal Service also tried to encourage people to email the Post Office a letter, which they would print out and deliver to someone's mailbox. Yet the virtual world may have just saved the day for post offices around the globe. The advent of eBay, the online auction site and other online stores has boosted postal services in the West as individual shipments of packages from residential users have dramatically increased. The US Postal Service has jumped onto the eBay bandwagon and now offers training days about selling and shipping using eBay. Their website says: “eBay Day is a FREE event where you'll learn how to make eBay and the US Postal Service work harder for you.”

This presents a dilemma for Bulgarian Posts. Their share in the parcels' sector is, deservedly, declining. Letter sending is also rarer due to the Internet. Chronically overstaffed and equipped with outdated technology, there is still, however, one area where Bulgarian Posts excel – ignoring some of the parcels' contents. Everyone has stories of sending or receiving cigarettes from Bulgaria and most expats have the folks back home send them cheese, even though this is now illegal. But how about sending a gun or a package of drugs? Bulgaria's Drug Enforcement Unit at Sofia Airport recently seized a large number of parcels containing anabolic steroids, hallucinogenic Peyote cacti. Other items intercepted in the post include four antique icons dating back to the 17th Century on their way to Spain, a 6.35 mm calibre pistol plus nine cartridges, 150g explosives, a detonator and a cord intercepted by guards at Pleven prison and 2,900 forged US dollars hidden inside a magazine addressed to a man in the Netherlands.

“Don't bother with that small box Sevda; it's just more of that rubbish white washing powder…”

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