|Reading Misha Glenny’s McMafia, about how the fall of Communism in the east hastened the development of a criminal kleptocracy which enveloped Russia and the Balkans in the 1990s. It’s a fascinating, disturbing read, because it accords with so much of what I’ve witnessed, particularly here in Bulgaria, where the mafias which took power after Zhivkov have never relinquished their hold on the state and over the lives of ordinary Bulgarians, in spite of their 20007 entry in the European Union.
In fact, entry to the EU was largely seen here as a new teat to suck on; there is no romantic association in the eastern Slavic countries with the wonders of European culture. Bulgarians still prefer Cyrillic to Latin characters, and their Cyrillic is closer to Russian than to Greek, as is their mindset. When I go to my gym in the spanking new Piccadilly Park mall (ПИКАДИЛИ ПАРК in Cyrillic) the evidence of the klepto class is everywhere to be seen. Varna is the second biggest port in Eastern Europe for the transportation of contraband, including cars, guns, and opium. The cars are obvious; burly guys in designer clothes driving huge BMW and Mercedes SUVs. They sit around the cafés of the mall taking phone calls on their mobiles, while their stick-thin, tanned-to-leather and surgically-enhanced girlfriends sit, bored, playing on their own phones. No ordinary Bulgarian goes to Piccadilly Park; they can’t afford anything in the boutiques (a Bulgarian prof at a prestigious university told me she makes about 550 Euros a month—about $10000 a year). That’s alright, because the boutiques are essentially playthings purchased by the bully boys for their girlfriends. They don’t have to make money; they just have to launder it.
As Glenny notes, there’s a reason Bulgarian men are obsessed with strength, going far beyond the country’s traditional love of wrestling and strong man sports. A sportsman can make a successful entry into the kleptocracy at the entry level if he’s willing to use his muscle for violent ends.
All of which begs the question as to why the EU was so anxious to ignore its own statutes and admit a country they knew was in the thrall of the Balkan mafia. The Balkan mafia is a model of interculturality; it unites Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians and Greeks. The internecine fighting that goes on between these peoples is a handy window dressing to disguise a multinational effort at criminalising every aspect of Balkan life, from your car, to the parking tickets you avoid, to the work that gets done on your home.
Yet I love this place. The Black Sea remains incorruptible, a source of beauty and tranquillity. Primorski Park, the 6km long urban forest where I stay in a boutique hotel owned by a cheery former Secret Service agent (how else does one score a hotel in a restricted heritage site?), is leafy, overgrown, filled with happy families. Varna is a port town par excellence: classy and crude, open and secret, full of life. Much like the Bulgarians themselves.