With the support of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe and Open Society Institute – Sofia
"Goodness gracious! An English woman wants to come and live in Bulgaria? Can we switch places?" Such was the lively response I got from the clerk at Toplofikatsia Sofia, the capital city's heating utility, when I called to enquire if there was any way by which a London friend of mine, who's moving to Sofia, can check her bills in a language other than Bulgarian. The official, however, quickly became matter-of-fact, admitted she was joking and said that heating bills were delivered by courier and were only issued in Bulgarian.
My London lady does not exist. I invented her to illustrate the way some institutions and community service providers operate in Bulgaria. If you start by dialling the officially available phone numbers of their press offices (if you're lucky enough to find any), you run the risk of wasting hours without getting any answer at all. You might be asked to send your question in an e-mail – which nobody checks – or you might be sent, in case you do get an answer, some long official document in which there's not a single sentence about the matter you're interested in.
But if you call an information officer and give them a true-life story – well, a specially invented one will do, too – you will get an answer, sometimes seasoned by humour, which is way out of character for Bulgarian customer care workers.
By definition, all public information ought to be easily available, but in Bulgaria actually extracting it from public institutions and service providers can be a cat-and-mouse game, especially for a foreigner whose Bulgarian language skills are limited.
Apart from Toplofikatsia Sofia EAD and its Bulgarian-only customer relations policy – the website www.toplofikaciasofia.bg is available only in Bulgarian – most of the public service providers have updated their online presence. At the websites of power utilities E.ON (www.eon-bulgaria.com) and CEZ (www.cez.bg) you can check your bill online by entering your client number, which you can get from your bill. The three mobile service operators, M-Tel (www.mtel.bg), Globul (www.globul.bg) and Vivacom (www.vivacom.bg), have English language versions of their websites, and these companies also offer customer assistance in English over the phone. In addition, some of their employees speak some English and can help you resolve a problem or navigate through your bill.
Other public service providers have chosen a different approach to their foreign clients. Possibly because of its Austrian owners, power utility EVN (www.evn.bg) has opted for Bulgarian and German as the languages on its website.
It's a bit more complicated with the water utilities. Because they are local companies, some of them – ViK Burgas (www.vik-burgas.com), for example – have an English language version of their website. Others, like Sofiyska Voda (www.sofiyskavoda.bg), refer clients who have no knowledge of Bulgarian but need assistance with their bills, payment options or water meter services to some of its offices or to the company's customer hotline, 700 121 21. Some companies, such as ViK Varna (www.vikvarna.nat.bg), only operate in Bulgarian.
When bill-paying time arrives, you could grab a handful of bills and start visiting the cash desks of the utilities one by one. You could also pay all your bills at once using Easy Pay (http://easypay.bg), a company which processes the bills of most utility service providers, including cable TV networks and internet providers. Additionally, you can pay at an ATM or a bank or via www.epay.bg, an online payments service with an English language version.
Whatever their peculiarities, the public service providers have one thing going for them. For the most part, they are interested in taking your money and this prompts them to be somewhat responsive when they see you struggling to overcome the language barrier.
The sluggish roll-out of Bulgaria's e-government (www.egov.bg) still prevents you from using its services and obtaining information about important issues – for example, your residence address registration – in any language other than Bulgarian. When it comes to the so-called electronic municipalities things are like the water utilities. Some, such as the Municipality of Burgas, have English language web pages. You can use them to enquire about, for example, an entry document. But the websites of the Veliko Tarnovo City Council – where many expats live – are only in Bulgarian.
Accessing information from public institutions through their websites is the obvious way to communicate in the early years of the 21st Century. Next comes the making of a phone call or the writing of an e-mail to the authorised personnel. In this way, you are exercising your right of access to public information, which you share with all Bulgarian citizens.
Your rights are protected by the Access to Public Information Act, or APIA, which has been in force since 2000. This law lets you seek and obtain information from all national and local institutions. If you are denied information you are entitled to without proper grounds, you can sue the respective institution.
What sort of questions may you ask? "A foreigner who resides in Britain but wants to buy a country house in Bulgaria can file an access-to-information request with the local environment and water authority to enquire about the levels of pollution in the village," said Gergana Zhuleva, chairwoman of the Access to Information Programme (www.aip-bg.org), or AIP, the NGO that works to spread the word about the APIA. The organisation offers assistance to all who want to exercise their rights under the law.
By the same token, you can enquire how many neutered stray dogs there are in your municipality and the measures that the authorities are taking to control their numbers, about the household crime rate, about the steps the municipal authorities have taken to control illegal taxicabs, and so on.
Verbal enquiries with the authorities are APIA-regulated acts and you can also register your query by e-mail or in writing. You must provide your full name, as well as contact details, even though you are not required to either give reasons for your enquiry or to sign it. However, a range of institutions has consistently referred to the absence of a signature as their reason for refusing – without grounds – access to information from people who filed their requests via e-mail and did not apply an electronic signature, Gergana Zhuleva said.
The institution you have sent an enquiry to is obliged to give an answer within 14 days. This must be done either in writing or by sending a copy of the documents you requested. (You must pay for all photocopies, CDs and other materials at prices set by the finance minister.) The period may be extended by up to 10 days, if the amount of information you have requested is considerable.
But this is the best-case scenario. The authority may turn down your request if it constitutes a state secret. If you seek information about a contract with a third party – for example, about a concession or a subcontractor agreement – you will be denied this information if the third party has not given its express written permission for disclosure. If you consider the grounds for a refusal unjustified, you can move to start proceedings.
How many foreigners have used their right to seek public information? In 2009, there were 57 and before that no records were held about the nationality of information seekers.
Some of the foreigners living in Bulgaria seek public information to resolve private matters. A Dutchman and his Bulgarian wife used the help of AIP to track down 1940s land ownership records in a municipality near Sofia. They were told that the information they asked for was unavailable because the old registers had been lost. This may happen frequently because, after 1944, certain documents that proved land ownership were destroyed during the collectivisation of agricultural land. Sometimes, however, documents "get lost" just because someone wants them to.
There are also foreigners who seek information for the public good, said Aleksandar Kashamov from AIP. For example, a German requested information from the municipality of Varna about the status of the so-called Aleya Parva, or Alley One, in Varna's Sea Gardens. In recent years this has been a thorny issue. The Varna authorities have permitted building in the area between the shoreline and the garden, despite a prohibition on any type of construction in that zone. The contractor involved is believed to be close to the local business group TIM.
If you do plan to use your right to obtain public information, be aware that you can do so only in Bulgarian.