IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST TANKS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Elena Filipova

Second World War tanks still guard the border with Turkey

burried tanks.jpg

The easiest way to drive Bulgarians crazy is to steal a piece of what they perceive as their cultural or historical heritage – even if they regard it as scrap iron.When military police arrested Germans Thomas Martin and Matheus Meier and Bulgarian army major Aleksey Petrov for smuggling a dismantled tank that had been lying half-buried along the Turkish border, Bulgarians were infuriated – especially when the media announced that this rarity was worth a million euros on the antiquities market.

Until then, dozens of Russian T-34 and German Panzer III and IV tanks, dug in as “permanent firing points” after the Second World War, had been rusting undisturbed near the villages of Lesovo, Fakiya, Sharkovo and Voden. The only people aware of their existence were petty scrap metal collectors who stripped their detachable parts, men who did their compulsory military service in the area, and VAGABOND readers.

Before publishing our article about the tanks in our February 2007 issue, we requested information from the Ministry of Defence with the assistance of a lawyer from the Access to Information Programme (http://www.aip-bg.org). The military's only reply was that the tanks were considered operational armament, were buried in the 1980s and constituted a state secret. Journalists from the 24 Chasa daily writing in August 2007 received a similar response – they were told, however, that the tanks were deployed along the border in the 1950s.

Last September the Access to Information Programme awarded the Ministry of Defence its anti-Grand Prize, a knotted gold key, for the most absurd refusal to information requests during the previous year. Predictably, no top brass came to collect it.A group of enthusiasts from Yambol who asked the ministry for permission to buy one of the tanks to restore and use as a tourist attraction were not even lucky enough to get a reply – probably because the machines are “classified information”.

But when the three thieves smuggled out a whole tank piece by piece via Romania, even the military forgot their confidential status. Lieutenant Colonel Todor Todorov told the Telegraph daily that until 2001 the tanks took part in field exercises and claimed that Greece and Turkey had similarly “functional” systems along their borders with Bulgaria.

Later, as always happens when Bulgaria's national historical heritage is endangered, Bozhidar Dimitrov, the director of the National Museum of History, stepped in. 24 Chasa reported that Panzers sold for 50,000 euros, but Dimitrov raised their price to one million euros. He also told Telegraph that “the fortified line was built in the 1950s by Valko Chervenkov. They used to call it Chervenkov's Line.” Chervenkov was a Communist dictator who promoted his own Stalin-like personality cult.

Conditions were also ripe for a diplomatic scandal. “I have been visited by military attachés bringing all sorts of gifts to get me to tell them how they can acquire such an artefact,” Lieutenant Colonel Milenov, deputy director of the National Museum of Military History, told the Focus News Agency. Bozhidar Dimitrov went further: “We are in a military alliance with Greece and Turkey, so it may seem like we don't need these defences. But who knows? Hypothetically, a coup in a neighbouring NATO country could lead to its sudden withdrawal from the organisation. In such a case, our guns would be very efficient.”

The scandal gradually subsided and the three were released on bail. Thomas Martin claimed that he worked for a German museum and that he wanted to buy the tank officially, but he could not figure out how to do so.

Likely story. In any case, our experience with the Ministry of Defence shows three things: in Bulgaria the only sure way to establish contact with the authorities is through a lawyer; operational armament may rust buried in weeds; and hypothetically classified information may be all over the newspapers when it is a matter of hypothetical national pride.

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