A spate of detentions of alleged criminals result in few meaningful prosecutions
Under Boyko Borisov and his Interior Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the Bulgarian public has become used to almost daily police operations designed to reassure that the government is doing something meaningful to thwart corruption and organised crime. Bearing exotic code names such as "The Impudent," "The Crocodiles," "The VAT-ers," and "The Magistrates," these early-morning police raids are filmed by a team of Interior Ministry cameramen and then relayed to the major TV stations, which willingly broadcast them. The footage does look spectacular on prime time TV – and has prompted some unusual reactions, such as the American ambassador, followed by his EU peers, publicly applauding the Bulgarian government for what it was doing to combat crime.
However, few of these arrests have resulted in any credible prosecutions, with the overwhelming majority of the detainees being released within a day or so for lack of evidence or procedural wrongdoing.
Significantly, the general public has felt little if any improvement in the overall corruption picture, leading senior public figures to conclude that what Boyko Borisov and his lieutenants are doing is more of a stage act designed to boost his own popularity, rather than a well thought-out and professional police operation to tackle organised crime.
Commenting on rumours that Boyko Borisov is targeting some criminal gangs while protecting others, Jürgen Roth, the German investigative journalist, confirms that it "does look that way." Speaking on the Deutsche Welle, Roth said: "Many of these operations are just for show. Ostensibly, there is legislation against organised crime and corruption but of what use is it if it isn't applied properly? What is the use of the many operations against the criminal structures in the country if it remains unclear whether those charged will be tried according to the rules?... In Bulgaria today there are huge criminal groupings that no one has touched at all."
Roth, who has been monitoring the situation in Bulgaria for years, has brought upon himself the wrath of many Bulgarian politicians and "entrepreneurs," who say his claims are unfounded. He is currently being sued for libel by Rumen Petkov, the former Bulgarian Socialist Party interior minister, but refused to appear in a Bulgarian court earlier this year, citing fears for his own safety in Bulgaria.
Tatyana Doncheva, a prominent former MP who has become famous for her outspokenness, put it even more bluntly: "It's one gangster group fighting another."
Commenting on the veracity of the Interior Ministry video clips, Nikolay Radulov, a senior cadre of that ministry under the 1990's reformist government of Ivan Kostov, said in some instances the footage appeared to be cinematography rather than documentary. Radulov told Mediapool that in some cases the events appeared to have been staged in order to make them more spectacular.
In one bungled operation black-clad and hooded special forces stormed the home of a famous pop singer and briefly detained him – in a case of mistaken identity. They did apologise. However, former Defence Minister Nikolay Tsonev was not so lucky. He was arrested on embezzlement charges while he was sick and in hospital. After he was handcuffed, the supervising prosecutor, Roman Vasilev, shouted to him: "On your knees, you criminal!" That was caught on video and broadcast on the same day. Vasilev would only pass with a disciplinary reprimand for making someone in a hospital knee after he had already been chained.
Typically, Tsvetanov, who is habitually worried-looking and never diverts from the strict officialese of the Bulgarian Interior Ministry's bureaucracy, condemns the courts and the legal system in general for its failure to put the alleged criminals in jail. Echoing one of his boss's most notorious gems from the time when he was chief secretary of the Interior Ministry ("We catch 'em criminals, but the judges let them go free"), Tsvetanov recently put it this way: "There are judges that one can do exemplary business with... judges that are very objective and want to familiarise themselves to the full." But he added, "Then there are other judges who are a lot more selfless in their communication with and upholding the interests of solicitors and the accused than they are in their perseverance in protecting the interests of the state." In a country that has been plagued by all- invasive corruption and organised crime, the general public wants action. Yet, it also wants to see the consequences of that action – it wants real convictions and a genuine change in the corrupt practices at all levels of the state. Watching Tsvetan Tsvetanov's vid- eos, it has little option but to applaud – and Tsvetanov's popularity now is measured as greater than that of President Georgi Par- vanov (whom he is slated to challenge at the next presidential election).
But, at the same time, this is a country that does not have much living-memory tradition of democracy and judicial independence. Against that background it is odd, to say the least, that the current administration insists aggressively that it is the job of the courts to protect the state. Odder still is the fact that no one in Bulgaria actually bothered to assert that the job of the courts in a demo- cratic country is to administer justice regardless of which govern- ment identifies itself with the state because it happens to be in power at the moment. Perhaps the American am- bassador and his EU peers should again have a chat with Messrs. B. B. and Tsv. Tsv.?