Mugged by Bulgarian cops

by Anastas Vangeli

[It’s a shame I stopped blogging, and only this thing makes me restart the blog]

This writeup is intended to serve as an unofficial report about a close encounter with the Sofia’s law enforcement (“Ohranitelna Politsiya”). This apparently comes at a time of significantly increased police presence all around Bulgaria, what is widely considered a publicity campaign. Either way.

The event took place on Sunday, February 09, 2014 at approximately 5 AM , at the Central Bus Station in Sofia. I arrived by bus from Skopje, with my final destination being the Sofia International Airport (I usually fly through Sofia). I was extremely exhausted since I was catching deadlines regarding a paper on the methodology for my prospective doctoral dissertation.

As soon as I arrived at the bus station, I was approached by two officers, both of them quite tall and physically imposing (in addition, they both had buzz cuts). They were previously talking to some other young man, and looked like they were carrying out some operation. They had some heavy equipment with them – I guns and batons at least (can’t be 100% sure what their equipment consisted of, but they for sure had a lot of compartments on their belts). I gave no apparent reason for them to approach me, I was just walking towards the exit of the station.

They immediately ID-ed me and asked me where I was coming from, and what was my destination. “Macedonian, huh?” “To the airport, huh?” “A student, huh?” “You often fly through Sofia, eh?” Then they proceeded to take me in for what they told me is a “routine check” and “nothing to be afraid of.” I complied since I assumed since it took place in public and so far seemed civil enough.

However, then I was taken to a nearby room, which looked like an abandoned shop, or perhaps a post office/exchange office, judging by the design. However, there was no public visibility, and it was just me and the two officers. I realized I was screwed, but still hoped that everything will end well. I now realize I was naïve, but I had two thoughts in mind: a) this is Sofia, and not some remote location; b) this is an EU country, so probably this all can be explained.

I tried asking questions about the reasons and the legality of the whole procedure, but to no avail. The responses suddenly started getting rude and along the lines of “are you doubting the law,” “are you doubting our integrity.” I was ordered to empty my pockets, while one of the officers took my luggage, opened it and went through my belongings. They said I looked suspicious and were looking for drugs. At this point, I have to state, I assumed they belonged to some kind of anti-smuggling/customs unit. Turns out “Ohranitelna Politsiya” is something along those lines – a Chief Directorate “Combating Crime, Protection of Public Order, and Crime Prevention.”

The moment one of them started picking things inside my wallet, I snapped and pulled the wallet out of his hands, demanding them to legitimize themselves. However, they did not oblige. Instead, they went on commenting about my belongings, books, China-related stuff, all of which made them conclude that I am a “well-traveled kid.”

Then, they picked a standard box of Macedonian cigarettes, containing several packs. I brought them from Macedonia for a friend – I am not even a smoker myself. However, the cigarettes allegedly gave them the legal grounds to “detain me” as they put it. Moreover, they said that I looked like a smuggler, and that they doubted my intentions were re-selling the tobacco “in the EU.” Then they also picked up my bag of medicines – I always stash on medications when I go back home, however nothing out of the ordinary – and they said they implied I was “also gonna do something with them.” By this point, I was not anymore in an 21st century EU capital, but back to “McMafia” by Misha Glenny – a book on the organized crime and the corruption in the Balkans.

Now – it seems that the regulations of bringing cigarettes in Bulgaria are tricky, as in 2010, Borisov’s government allegedly limited the amount of cigarettes to be transported across land borders tax-free is two packs (a total of 40 cigarettes). Anything above, should be reported, and the transporter should pay luxury tax or so. However, at the border, the Bulgarian customs officers did check some of the other passengers, and did let them transport the boxes (containing 10 packs) – such as mine – commenting that “we could fine you if we wanted to.” Either way, this is not a crime that calls for arrest and detainment.

Yet, since the police officers labeled me a smuggler, they concluded – there is no other option but to take me to the police station for questioning and to charge me a fine which sounded astronomically high. Moreover, they explicitly added “It seems to me like you are missing your flight. So get your stuff and let’s go.” At this point they started getting more assertive and intimidating, and by this time I got completely freaked out.

I apologized for breaking any laws, and said that I don’t even care about the cigarettes (I still hadn’t explicitly offered them to take the box). To this, they responded with something along the lines “Hey man, why the fuck would I need your shitty cigarettes, I don’t smoke. I don’t need them. You can leave the cigarettes either way, but you are not getting on that flight. You can do better than this, you’re a rich kid.” – one of them started losing patience.

By this point I had refused to believe that this was one of those things. But it was. Which makes it an extortion. I pulled a bill. They didn’t take it. They bullshitted a bit, and they asked for more. I gave them more. They let me go. They reminded me not to forget my cigarettes – after all, the amount of 10 packs is legal when crossing the air borders of Bulgaria, they added.

This was probably one of the most disappointing experiences in my lifetime. What added to the disappointment, however, were the comments and the double victimization by people when I told them this happened:

  • I was asking for it since I look “like a foreigner” and rich
  • I was asking for it since I was bragging with my China books and looked rich
  • I was supposed to know and expect this kind of things
  • I was supposed to hold my grounds better, e.g. not let them take me to a room, not let them get my money
  • I am supposed not to complain, as this stuff happens every day and I am not special

These are all statements that not speak only of the reality of omnipresent corruption and abuse of office and power, but about the complete lack of empathy, or even consciousness that one day it might be you. Moreover, it is an indicator that people have given up the hope that things will change; but also the responsibility that they should contribute to such change. At the end of the day, the state holds the monopoly of the use of force; I was mugged by those who are supposed to protect me (even though I don’t have a Bulgarian passport – no pun intended). So all kinds of relativizing comments are completely out of place on this.

Except maybe the one that I should be, in a weird way, grateful, as my dissertation topic is legitimacy and (anti)corruption, and one of the cases Bulgaria – this will certainly make a good introduction.

PS. Apparently I am not the only one who was abused by the police at the Sofia bus station. @mi6boom reported the exact same “routine” procedure, which apparently is illegal, and of course, is nothing but a robbery.