According to Business insider Bulgaria is still the most corrupt country in Europe. In this Blog I'll explore what this means for living and working here.
I moved to Bulgaria in 2003. For all intents and purposes Bulgaria was a failed state. After the colapse of socialism the country was a Mafiocracy. Might had right and the robber barons ruled the roost. It was a strange and sometimes scary time. My family and I wanted to build a factory in Bulgaria due to cost and location but there were red flags popping up everywhere. A meeting with the Bulgarian ambassador in London ended with him suggesting that if we did invest we would lose all our money and probably end up shot.
With this warning ringing in their ears my family called me back from the Hindu Kush and sent me to Bansko with a suitcase full of money and a business plan. Bulgaria wasn't as dangerous as running around the Afghan border and there were less guns. That said it wasn't exactly Ibiza either.
In my first 3 years here I had two guns pulled on me, I was extradited twice, refused entry once and threatened by various officials countless time. I never paid a bribe, I never bent the knee. I fought and fought and fought every step of the way. My main motivation was that if I paid up even once I would be paying for the rest of the time I was here so I didn't. It wasn't easy and at times it was unpleasant but I stuck to my position that I would never pay.
Bent coppers and civil servants were pretty easy to get around. Simple jobs took weeks, paperwork was a Sisyphean task, everything was made as difficult as possible to encourage you just to pay up to get the job done. But we just plugged away at it. "Oh you also want form B filled out? No problem! A copy of my mothers birth certificate? No problem! Unicorn tears? No Problem!!!" They wanted it I got it and slowly slowly we moved on.
The biggest problem was always immigration. The law was grey enough that the vile little rat of a man who ran the immigration office in Blagoevgrad had a free reign to squeeze you as much as he liked. The 5 other foreigners in south west Bulgaria all paid up. If you wanted to live here it would cost you 200 euros and a bottle of scotch every year. If you didn't pay the little toad would reject your application over and over until you over stayed your visa and then he would kick you out.
I would drive down to Greece get a new visa and then try again the next day. When he worked out what I was doing he would ring the border guards and they would try and make it impossible for me to come back into BG.
The list of civil servants trying to make an easy buck on the back of foreigners was very long. From the fire brigade to the hotel inspectors, the health and safety office to the tax man, everyone wanted a little brown envelope full of cash to leave you alone. Like a cloud of mosquitoes they swarmed around desperately trying to get their drop of blood.
I've been here 18 years now. I still haven't paid anyone anything. My family has been threatened, my business has been threatened and I've been threatened but still I didn't pay. As the years have gone by things have improved. It's been a very long time since anyone was gunned down in the streets and it has been a long time since a civil servant has asked me for money.
The police do their jobs and so do most of the civil servants. The paperwork is still excessive but not impossible and the taxes are low so we carry, happily, on. The vast majority of foreigners in BG now don't even come across corruption in their daily lives. If you open a business the paperwork is annoying but a good accountant can deal with that. If you just want to live here Bulgaria is pretty much paradise. Low cost of living, great food and wonderful nature. Add to that the lovely people who you meet every day and there isn't much to dislike.
Today with some trepidation I went to immigration in Blagoevgrad. I didn't take a lawyer or a translator. I did take every document I possess and I was 100% sure that it was going to be nightmare. I warned my son that it was going to be a horrible day. I parked the car around the corner from the immigration office at 9am and when we got round the corner I saw a queue of over 100 people, my heart sank. It really was going to be a nightmare.
As we got closer to the queue I noticed all the people were Bulgarians, so just to check I strode into the office. The EU application desk didn't have anyone waiting at it. Being British I expected them to tell me to go and wait outside. Nope the sweet smiling lady said it was ok and started asking for documents.
Some I had, some I didn't have. Every time we came across one I didn't have she just smilingly asked if maybe I had something else similar. Slowly but surely we put together a dossier. She pointed me in the direction of an office down the street that would copy all of the documents and told me to come back.
Armed with my slab of paperwork she started talking me through the forms. Tick here, sign there, fill out this, fill out that. With the paitence of a saint she guided me through it all. A credit card payment and a photo, a sweet smile and she sent me on my way.
By 11am I was sat in cafe Yoanna, slightly stunned and just a little smug, eating icecream and drinking coffee.
Bulgaria WAS a failed state
Now it's not! In the last 15 years Bulgaria has transformed itself beyond belief. Running a business here is simpler than most EU countries. For the common man corruption is a thing of the past. Yes there is paperwork but lawyers and accountants are very reasonably priced especially if you are a small or micro business.
The days of police stopping you for no reason and asking for 20lv are long gone. I can't remember the last time a civil servant started telling me that I had a big problem that only he could fix. In my every day life now, I always assume incompetence rather than conspiracy.
I am not saying Bulgaria isn't corrupt. If you want to buy ten thousand second hand kalashnikovs I could put you in touch with a man. You want to buy a Nuclear power station? Probably possible. Did the ex mayor of Bansko build a 2 million lv house on a 2 thousand lv salary? That's the chat. BUT for us, the little guys, Bulgaria isn't really corrupt at all. For us Bulgaria is paradise!