Corruption exists everywhere around the world. In some countries however, it`s a lot more visible and obvious. Bulgarians can still expect to be made pay some extra money whenever they deal with police officers, doctors and teachers, but the situation has improved a lot since the mid-1990s when money could buy virtually anything ? including passports, driving licenses and diplomas.
Random police checks along the road are the most probable way for people to get involved with corruption in their daily lives. Local police officers have small salaries and they have developed their own ways of increasing their daily pay-outs. They will easily find excuses to fine a car driver, and are glad to accept some compensation money instead of issuing an official fine.
`I paid some extra money to make sure my surgery would be carried out in the right way`
Stefan (38) explains that Bulgaria has a points system for driving licenses. A fresh one comes with 39 points, which slowly run out with every offense to traffic regulations. `If you are caught speeding, you do not want points to be taken from your license and the police officer may offer you the option of paying 20 Levs to get away with it. That also saves you the 50 to 100 Lev fine that you would otherwise have to pay. So, there`s something in it for both parties: the police officer keeps the 20 Levs in his pocket, the car driver saves himself up to 80 Levs and keeps the points on his driving license`, Stefan says.
`But obviously, it`s easy for the one in power to take advantage of the situation. When you`re caught for one offense, you will also be fined for whatever else the police officer wants to fine you for: weak head lights, papers missing, speeding, anything. All of the offenses can be compensated with a little unofficial payment, up to the point that some people just insert some banknotes in their driving license when they hand it to the police. They have a fair chance of getting away without any further checks or comments`, Stefan says. He further tells me that the government is trying to eradicate these practices by monitoring police checks on cameras: `Police officers are now less likely to take actually ask for the money, but for now, most of them will be too happy to accept a small bribe when they are offered one.`
Corruption thrives when one party is, implicitly or explicitly, intimidated by another party. When dealing with the police, it`s usually the police officer who is in power, but Svetlozar (27) has an example of the opposite: `I was once driving home from a party when I ran into a police check. I had been drinking and was almost sleeping, I was driving my dad`s car, a Mercedes, and had no papers on me whatsoever, not even my driving license. The police officer asked me if I had been drinking and I obviously said no. Then he saw a sticker of a construction company on the window of the car, and asked whether I happened to be driving my dad`s car. I said yes and they let me go without any further questions. They probably thought that my dad was some important guy working in the real estate business and they`d better not fine me and get in trouble.`
Svetlozar thinks that corruption is a matter of mentality, which makes it very difficult to solve the problem. It also makes it unlikely that simply raising the salaries of corruptible people will cause them to be less corrupt. `We have had poor politicians who were corrupt, but we have had just as many rich politicians who possibly took even more money. Corruption is just an expression of poor long-term thinking. It`s based on fear and power, which are two emotions that Bulgarians are sensitive to. And neither of them is likely to lead to sensible behaviour.`
Silviya (29, photo) recently had two operations in hospital. `I offered the surgeon 500 Leva (250 euros) to make sure that it would be him carrying out the operation, not somebody who happened to be on service. When I first spoke to the surgeon on the phone, he said it was not necessary for me to pay him, but when I offered him the money prior to the operation, he happily accepted. I had a vague idea of the amount of money he was likely to expect for the service. It`s something people talk about, like they talk about salaries`, she says.
I ask Silviya for other situations that are likely to involve corruption at one point in the process. She tells me what happens when people buy land or property: `The civil servant who needs to authorize the transaction will ask how much the requesting party expects to pay to charity. Which is nothing less than asking how much money they are willing to give him if he arranges for the necessary documents and licences.`
Ups and downs
Corruption also existed in communist times, but it was usually more innocent and less visible back then. Silviya remembers how there was always a shortage of everything, so you would be happy to pay somebody a little bit more to make sure you got it: `We used to have bananas only at Christmas time, which by the way led us to believe that bananas were harvested in winter time. Anyway, in order to get some more bananas than you were allowed, it would be a habit to pay the shop owner some advance money. In that way, he could hopefully reserve some extra bananas.`
`Corruption used to be really bad in the 1990s, but it is slowly getting better. When I graduated from university, my final thesis dealt with corruption in politics. Until then, only one organisation in all of Bulgaria was investigating the problem of corruption. The problem seemed not to exist. When I was defending my thesis, I was blamed of citing only one source of information. But there only was one at the time`, Silviya explains. `In recent years, the EU has put corruption in the spot light and we are making slow yet steady progress to ban `charity` from our territory.`
And while Bulgaria is illegal fighting corruption on one side, it is opening the door to the legal version of the very same phenomenon: insurance companies. Silviya laughs at the idea of funeral insurances which are common in some Western European countries: `Bulgarians may put some money aside and hide it somewhere in their houses. Insurance companies are a relatively new phenomenon. People still need to get used to their presence. But that won`t take long - they are popping out of the ground everywhere. To teach us how to properly pay money without actually buying anything.`
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