Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Bulgaria's Border Blues

Bribery and corruption appear routine among officials on what may soon be the gateway to the European Union.
By Marcus Tanner

At the Bulgarian border with Serbia between Dragoman and Dimitrovgrad, lorries, cars and buses fan out into several lanes before the flashing lights at the checkpoint.


This is a busy frontier, handling growing freight traffic between Turkey and the West and an increasing number of tourists and shoppers heading to and from Bulgaria, where the retail sector has improved dramatically in recent years.


The checkpoint has been upgraded to suit the fact that, in 2007, this border will mark the external frontier of the European Union with the western Balkans, if Sofia’s application for membership is approved.


But if this is going to be Europe’s front door in two years’ time, both Europe and Bulgaria have a lot of cleaning up to do first.


Corrupt practices appear routine among both Bulgarian and Serbian customs officials, and the giving and soliciting of bribes is flagrant.


IWPR investigated this malpractice by catching a regular bus service from Sofia, 55 kilometres east of the frontier, for the Serbian city of Nis, a further 100km west.


The vehicle, owned by Serbia’s state-owned Nis Ekspres company, reached the border on time at around 4.45pm.


It then spent four and a half hours standing there, as passengers argued openly with customs officers over the scale of bribes the latter sought before they would let the bus through.


The trouble started immediately, when the customs on the Bulgarian side diverted the vehicle into an inspection zone.


It was hard to see why a regular passenger bus which plies this route several times a week should be diverted into an inspection area designed to reveal secret caches of goods or human beings in or underneath sealed lorries.


The garage, in which inspectors can stand in deep trenches enabling them to combing the underside of suspect vehicles, is hardly designed for use on buses with glass windows, where everything is visible. What could be hidden in, or under, a bus, we wondered?


But our fellow passengers were not surprised. Nor did they expect the bus actually to undergo an inspection. It was, they said, a waiting game.


Some of the more experienced passengers on this route got off to talk to the customs officials. Before they did so, they casually solicited money from fellow passengers while ignoring us, the foreigners.


The negotiators returned later, disappointed. “They want more,” one of them announced, referring to the customs officers. “How much more?” I asked, revealing for the first time that I understood their language. “Have you got ten euro?” the man asked, hopefully.


The first collection of money had clearly got nowhere and now the man wanted ten euro from everyone before he returned to negotiate with the officials. We were carrying no euro, but agreed to hand over some Bulgarian levs, worth less than half the required amount.


While we stood outside, waiting in the night air, a Roma trader stood alongside, smoking furiously and cursing the customs officers for their greed.


The woman pointed to another bus that had arrived after ours, but which was now passing rapidly and painlessly through the checkpoint, while ours remained behind.


This surprised us, as it contained more than twice as many passengers as our own bus and the opening of the hold – inspected only briefly – revealed stacks of bottles of alcohol and other merchandise.


“That belongs to a private company,” she said. “Their driver will go in and press 200 euro into the officials’ hands.


“Our bus,” she added, “belongs to a state company. The driver has no money to give them, so we must stay.”


The woman’s acceptance of this regime of casual extortion and paid favours shocked us, but her views, she said, reflected years of experience gained by making this journey every week.


“I buy clothes in Sofia to sell at the market in Nis, and it is the same wait every time – four or five hours, or even longer,” she told IWPR.


Sometimes, she said, the bus and its passengers were still waiting there when the customs officers’ day shift went home. Then, they had to start the whole process anew with the night shift.


“The big shots go through – it’s small fry like us who suffer,” she said, bitterly.


“They take the last crust out of our mouths, while they buy villas and big cars on the money they take.”


I understood her bitterness, as the bundles of goods of the small traders on the bus would probably not have attracted the attention of customs officials on a “normal” frontier.


This woman’s goods consisted of some blouses and shirts, which filled three, torn medium-sized plastic bags. Her income from these sales does not exceed a hundred euro a month.


“You try keeping a family of four on that in Serbia,” she said. Her husband had lost his job in Nis five years ago, so she was the sole earner. Her worn and malnourished face told its own story.


The 4pm bus from Sofia to Nis, which should have reached its destination within three hours, arrived at 11pm. In the end, the Bulgarian customs officials let us through. They always do, apparently - it is just a question of who gives in first.


Perhaps the customs officers had finally accepted that our last little tribute of levs and Serbian dinars was all that they were likely to squeeze out of this particular lemon.


The second half of our four-and-a-half-hour ordeal was to be spent at the hands of the Serbian customs, whose practices appeared to mirror those of their Bulgarian counterparts.


The difference is this: Bulgaria is soon set to join not only one of the world’s most power powerful trading blocs, but a body that claims to set standards of good government.


Serbia has not even applied to join. Standards of conduct on Serbia’s border are to an extent its own affair. The standards adhered to by Bulgaria, however, will soon reflect on Europe as a whole.


Marcus Tanner is IWPR’s editor/trainer in Belgrade


More IWPR's Global Voices