by Anthony Georgieff; photography by BTA

Ugly face of Bulgarian gangsters define nation's lifestyle, uneasy transition to democracy

bulgaria underworld.jpg

Mutra is one of those short and easy-to-pronounce Bulgarian words that is also relatively easy to translate. Mutra, or mutri in the plural, is also a social, cultural and legal concept that is impossible to define in the brief space of a magazine article.

"Mutri out!," was one of the most repeated slogans of the protests that rocked Bulgaria in July. But what exactly is a mutra, a foreigner used to the easy ways and relatively refined life of craft beer-drinking, startup-obsessed Sofia might wonder? They just need to look around at the beefy men in (sometimes genuine, sometimes not) skin-tight designer-label T-shirts with close-cropped heads who frequent a certain type of posh bars and restaurants, and recklessly drive around shiny German cars. Being a mutra in modern Bulgaria is a lifestyle for a few, an aspiration for many, and a defining factor in politics that affects the whole society from top to bottom.

Under Communism, the Bulgarian word mutra generally meant mugface. It was used as a slur to describe someone, usually a man, as ugly and repugnant. After the collapse of Communism, in the 1990s, the meaning of the word changed. Bulgaria started its traumatic transition from a regulated Communist society and economy to a democracy. Factories and collective farms closed down. The state was unable or unwilling to continue funding anything outside the absolutely essential. Engineers and craftsmen, who had had their lives mapped out for them in the government-run plants and factories, suddenly found themselves out in the street scrambling to make a living. Culture outside the then nascent chalga music scene was dealt a heavy blow as there were no more state subsidies for theatres and concert halls. Professional sportsmen and Communist-era State Security operatives were also made redundant.

Under Communism, sport was seen as ideologically important as it attracted crowds and could easily be used to display internationally the supposed superiority of Communism over capitalism. The government paid out huge sums of both convertible and non-convertible currency to sportsmen of all shapes and sizes, with an emphasis on some sports where Bulgarians traditionally did well: weight-lifting, wrestling, boxing and so on. The thick-set guys who had been groomed to become world champions had plenty of muscle and guts, but in the 1990s there was no one willing to pay them. They were out.

So were the agents belonging to the former State Security and many other departments of the Communist-era Interior Ministry. State Security was disbanded as early as 1990. At about the same time the now non-Communist government went ahead with an attempt to "depoliticise" the police department and its related services. Rank-and-file servicemen and their superiors were given a choice: either leave the Communist Party or leave the service. Apparently, many preferred to keep their jobs. One notorious exception was a then young Fire Department lieutenant, who would rather keep his membership of the Communist Party than his salary. His name was Boyko Borisov. Young Boyko set up his own security company. Twenty years later he would go on to become a vitriolic anti-Communist, in words if not in deeds, and in 2009 ascended to the post of... prime minister.

Assassinations of prominent mutri happened often in the 2000s

Assassinations of prominent mutri happened often in the 2000s

Back in the early 1990s those newly unemployed boxers and weight-lifters made a logical yet not very holy alliance with the unemployed State Security agents. These were the salad days of the Bulgarian mutri. They became involved in activities of varying degrees of unlawfulness. They went around neighbourhoods offering "paid protection." Some Bulgarians feared them. Others aspired to become like them.

Significantly, the mutri created a whole new subculture: close-cropped heads, black T-shirts, huge gold neck-chains often carrying Orthodox crosses. Fast German cars and long-legged fake blondes. And plenty of chalga music which advocated easy sex and money.

In no time, a nebulous network of organised crime that involved drugs, prostitution, smuggling, human trafficking, weapons and the illegal export of oil was in place. The mutri operated with impunity as they knew the police would rather look the other way, provided bribes and favours had been exchanged.

The 1990s were also the time when mutri jokes proliferated. Resorting to the tried-and-tested way of venting public anger, Bulgarians of all shades and hues made fun of the stupidity, brutality and lack of taste of the mutri. The Bulgarian language acquired new words. Mutro-Baroque is one of them, signifying the ugly, marble-and-gilt architecture that became a standard for the mutri idea of affluence and luxury. Another was mutresa. Grammatically, it is the female version of a mutra but no – it does not mean an ugly woman who is a gangster, but rather the type of pretty broad who would go out with a mutra.

At the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, Bulgaria appeared to be on course to genuine democratisation. Membership of NATO and the EU were in sight. The mutri began to evolve. They now wore bespoke suits and acquired yachts in Monaco. Gone were the days of neighbourhood protection. Occasionally, some mutri would kill other mutri, and there were some high-profile assassinations of underworld bosses. Boyko Borisov was appointed this country's chief of police, formally known as the chief secretary of the Interior Ministry.

In the 2000s Bulgaria acceded to both NATO and the EU. The mutri were quick to adapt. The early-1990s baseball bats got stashed away. The mutri no longer needed to show off unless, of course, other mutri were in attendance. Bulgaria's mutri were now whitecollar. They were surrounded by smart lawyers, sleek executives and sexy office managers. Their money had been successfully laundered and reinvested in legal businesses. The integration between organised crime and the state was complete.

Funerals of notorious mutri attract huge media attention

Funerals of notorious mutri attract huge media attention

By 2009, when Boyko Borisov became prime minister, Bulgarians had a new adage in their language: every state has a mafia but only in Bulgaria does the mafia have a state. Under Boyko Borisov, the state itself started to act like a mutra, using its agencies to extort money from businesses and punish those who refused to cough up. Freedom of speech declined. Mutri bought their own media and started using them as baseball bats for the character assassination of opponents or whistleblowers. To offset the damage they did in public life, they set up foundations to promote cultural heritage and paid for arts events. They started donating to charity. The Orthodox Church was happy to receive handouts to modernise rundown rural chapels.

By 2020 the system of mutri that evolved under Boyko Borisov had assumed monstrous dimensions. Covid-19 and the economic crisis it spawned coincided with an entirely new iteration of mutri. Bulgarians now feel that the chief lieutenant of the mutri is none other than the chief prosecutor. They feel that even when the chief prosecutor uses the power of his office to chase down some of the most outrageous mutri he does it not to administer the law but to mete out punishment for perceived disrespect or unpaid dues. At the same time the prime minister sleeps happily with wads of 500-euro notes in his bedside drawer and a handgun next to his head.

Our hypothetical expat in Sofia who likes the easy ways, the bars and the girls need look no further to understand that the short and easy-to-pronounce Bulgarian word mutra holds the whole of Boyko Borisov's Bulgaria in itself. A mutra may mean an ugly face but mutri collectively is a lot more than meets the eye.

Bulgaria in the 2020s bears little comparison to what it was in the 1990s and 2000s, yet some things have remained unchanged. Many citizens fear the mutri, including the state that has groomed and tolerated them for so long. But others – for obvious reasons – still want to become like mutri themselves.


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