Thursday, May 29, 2008

The good and the bad side of Bulgarian money

Bulgarian money (image copied from here). At the bottom of the photo, i.e. the right sides of the bills, you can see the figures for recognition by the blind - circles, triangles and rectangles.

Current US dollars can be recognized by vision only. However, as Monique Garcia wrote in Chicago Tribune on May 21, "A ruling Tuesday by a federal appeals court in Washington may change all that. The judges found that because different denominations of paper money are indistinguishable by touch, the government is discriminating against blind people. The decision could force the Treasury Department to make significant changes to currency, such as printing different-sized bills for different amounts or giving them raised markings."

The news, plus a link to Garcia's article, was reported by a member of autism-disability forum AutAdvo. This started a discussion about how bank-notes (bills) could be made distinguishable to the blind. I wrote, "Our bills of higher nominals already have signs for the blind. They are circles and triangles about 3 mm big and slightly protruding." In fact, as you can see in the above image, even the smallest bill of 2 leva (EUR 1) is marked by figures, in this case two rectangles. I was mistaken because I don't rely on the raised marking to recognize bills. When holding a bill, I can only sense that this place of it is different; I hope that blind people with their trained touch can really sense the figures.

This money story makes me proud of my country (which doesn't happen often at all). We have surpassed much more developed and civilized nations. Watch us, Americans, and learn from us!

However, there is a sad moment in my delight, because I remember a night radio program in late 1996 or early 1997. The radio host had invited the representative of the International Monetary Fund for Bulgaria - an unusually high-ranking guest for a program broadcasted live between 12 PM and 4 AM. The host asked him whether he would advise Bulgarians to trust their currency and if so, what arguments he would use. The IMF man replied jokingly, "Yes, I would tell Bulgarians to like their money, because it is very beautiful!"

This dialogue, taking place in the most surreal hours of the night, quite fitted the surreal situation in Bulgaria at that time. We were suffering hyperinflation of the type usually observed after a world war. Upon receiving my salary, I thought what I could do to prevent it being eaten away by inflation and decided to buy paper for the printer at my workplace. (Of course my employer had to buy this paper, but Bulgarian university teachers are forced to finance their work with their meager wages.) So I went to the bookstore just to discover that a package of print paper costed a little more than 3 my monthly salaries. At the maximum of hyperinflation, my salary had thawed to the equivalent of $ 4, and $ 0.6 of it was actually held as income tax.

The next government, after quashing the hyperinflation, made a monetary reform. The beautiful bills to which the IMF representative was referring were replaced by new ones, also beautiful, and with raised marking for the blind. So far so good.

However, poverty remained chronic in Bulgaria and ordinary people were trained to think that there is nothing wrong if their incomes increase at a slower rate than inflation. Now, analysts are warning us to prepare for a new surge of inflation, based on increase of fuel and food prices.

But at least we have better money than the Americans.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Realpolitik about Georgi Stoev

Most Bulgarian bloggers who are worth reading write under their true identities. An exception is the right-wing political blog Realpolitik, by anonymous author(s).
My previous post was dedicated to the death of Georgi Stoev, a writer who exposed the organized crime in present-day Bulgaria. Realpolitik also has a post on the subject, written on the very day of his death (Apr. 7) and titled They murdered Georgi Stoev for the sake of us all. Below, I'm translating several lines of it:
"Our analysis: Georgi Stoev was shot dead by the Monterey Ring, this is obvious. There was no way for them to let him talk all over the place that Lyuben Gotsev is capo di tutti capi and an old friend of the Margin. There was no way for them to let him testify against Madzho... On Realpolitik, we have been writing about the Monterey Ring for a long time. When we started the blog, we had a discussion whether to reveal our names. The opinion not to show them on the site prevailed because we didn't want to be entangled in made-up lawsuits. The story of Georgi Stoev showed the existence of dangers far more serious than a made-up lawsuit. In Bulgaria, they already assasinate writers in order to shut them up."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The death of Georgi Stoev

I rarely write about the organized crime in Bulgaria and its powerful grip on our lives and when I do, the posts are of copy-paste type such as the ones dated May 19, 2006 and the May 11, 2007 . Not only have I no expertise in this subject, but reflecting on it for too long fills me with hopelessness and apathy, because I see no sign that rule of law and civil society in Bulgaria will ever prevail over the mafia.
However, when a writer is murdered and there is strong suspicion that this is because of his writings, no other writer (in the broadest meaning of the term) can remain silent.
On Apr. 7, writer Georgi Stoev, 35, died after being shot in the street with three bullets. It is not known (and is unlikely ever to be known) who pulled the trigger, but the victim knew it was going to happen. He left behind a 7-year-old daughter. He had separated himself from her mother, perhaps to spare her and the child the inevitable risk.
In his youth, Stoev was involved in Bulgarian organized crime. He had first-hand experience with its two most important groups, designated with the acronyms VIS and SIC. Later on, he turned his back on mafia and began to write books about it. He was an example of the writer of the future as Varlam Shalamov imagined him - not a person educated in literature with little knowledge of reality, but a person with much real-life experience and expertise, plus innate gift of writing.
I didn't know his works because in recent years financial reasons force me to stay away from the book market. However, after the murder my husband bought one of his books, SIC. It was describing not only the racketeering activities of the mafia thugs but also their ties with high-ranking members of all major political parties. After reading it, I told my husband that I wonder how the author of such things could survive that long. He suggested that it was possible because Bulgarian crime lords and politicians don't read books (though, unlike us, they can afford whatever books they wish).
However, it is not quite clear whether Stoev's murder was really motivated by his books, because there was also another story centered around Mladen Mihalev, nicknamed Madzho (Madjo). Journalists call Madzho "a businessman", which in Bulgaria has become a standard euphemism for any person with a huge income of murky origin. Madzho was portrayed in SIC and other books by Stoev. In fact, SIC was dedicated to "M.M. - M.", a clear reference to Madzho. The 2007 dedication stated, "I am not certain about our present relationships and wouldn't call you a friend now, though I used to. But I am not afraid of you, we'll meet as equals and this time I'll set the rules of the game." This makes me think that Stoev either was too naive or had too little instinct of self-preservation.
I am sorry that this post turns more about Madzho than about Stoev, but this seems inevitable if we want to face the truth about why Stoev died and in what a country we continue to live. I am translating from an unsigned article titled Do you remember who Madzho is from the May 18, 2007 issue of Capital weekly:
"... His name made headlines when the gangster war broke out in 1993... Madzho was the person whose nerves yielded and he fired an entire charger of bullets into the entrance of the Sevastopol casino at Rakovski Street in Sofia. Unfortunately for him, (rival gangster) Karamanski had made an ambush and Mihalev was wounded by a shot from an apartment across the street... His "business career" included supplying oil to Serbia during the embargo and forcible insurance... Mihalev was one of the four founders of SIC in late 1994... In 1995, Mladen Mihalev bought First East International Bank... In 1996, several hotels in (the mountain resort of) Borovets were privatized by Madzho. He later bought and built several more hotels in (the sea resort of) Sunny Beach... Because the (rival gangsters) Margin brothers are threatening his life, Mladen Mihalev is now living abroad, most of the time in Switzerland... Madzho's activities are allegedly directed by the former Interior Minister and Deputy Director of First Administration of (former Communist) State Security service, General Lyuben Gotsev... The general doesn't deny he knows Madzho but denies any influence upon him."
The reason Capital weekly paid attention to Madzho were some events that took place on May 16, 2007. Let me quote Reporters Without Borders:
"18.05 - Bulgaria: Court security officials beat photographer. Emil Ivanov, a photographer for the newspaper Express was beaten up by court security officials in Sofia on 16 May when he tried to take photos of underworld figure, Mladen Mihalev, key witness in a trial for the murder of an associate, Milcho Bonev. Tight security has surrounded the hearings, including systematic searches of journalists. Interior minister, Roumen Petkov, announced the opening of an investigation."
The "key witness" actually appeared in court with a 3-hour delay to give completely useless testimony. However, his appearance made big news because of the way it was handled by police. They took unprecedented security measures, "occupying" the Palace of Justice and its surroundings in the center of Sofia. Eyewitnesses told shameful stories of policemen standing side by side with the thuggish private guards of Madzho and indistinguishable from them, of judges stopped by police and forced in the most disrespectful way to prove their identity in order to be let into their own offices. Nobody was surprised when 55-year-old Emil Ivanov, after photographing these security measures, was brutally beaten by police and forced to erase his photos. (More details here and here, in Bulgarian.) All commentators agreed that there was no real threat to Madzho's life and the entire parade of force aimed to show the public that Bulgarian state supports Madzho. The investigation mentioned by Reporters Without Borders later vindicated the uniformed beaters. One of them even threatened to sue his victim for libel. It is a sad Bulgarian reality that our police and prosecution not only let organized criminals do whatever they want, but help them terrorize the population by beating and prosecuting whoever tries to expose them (another example: our authorities wanted to prosecute BBC journalists for reporting a ring of child traffickers).
Let me return to Georgi Stoev. He claimed that recently Madzho contacted him and ordered him to organize a group to carry out assassinations. Stoev didn't want to do this and passed this information to the prosecution. The result was disastrous: information leaked from the prosecution to Madzho. Stoev wanted to testify against him but only after his arrest. Prosecutors were not going to arrest Madzho and, as they claim, instead offered Stoev the protection our law has for such cases (which is essentially useless). I doubt that they were ready to do even this; it is easy for them to say it now - he is unable to refute it. I cannot figure out how Stoev, knowing our prosecution, could think they would do their duty; and even if they wanted, they had no evidence against Madzho other than Stoev's words. Anyway, they were not interested in charging Madzho, turned Stoev away and after a short time he was dead.
A day before Stoev's murder, "Borislav Georgiev, the executive director of a multimillion-pound energy company in charge of maintaining a controversial nuclear power plant, was shot outside his apartment block" (quote from The Independent). These two contract killings in two days finally led to the resignation of the Interior Minister Rumen Petkov, presumably after pressure from EU. Petkov's reputation was already marred by many previous deeds, notably a meeting with two underworld bosses known as Galev brothers. Nevertheless, Petkov retained a high position in Bulgarian political life and was included in the talkes about the new Cabinet.
So Stoev was silenced, his characters who killed him are untouchable and enjoying their dirty money and high positions. Trying to construct some good end to a story that has none, I think of my husband's reaction. He usually skips voting, but now every time when Stoev's name is mentioned in the news, says, "I will vote next time - and not fot them."
"They" are today's rulers who transfered their power to the underground world.