Bulgaria – Beyond the Cold War and Mafia Hype

Kovachevitsa, Bulgaria

If you do a random search on Bulgaria you’ll uncover a lot of talk about the Mafia and safety issues for U.S. travelers going to this once-upon-a-time Communist country in Eastern Europe. And if you buy into the U.S. State Department’s warnings about the country you’ll spend your time in-country casting fearful glances over your shoulders expecting someone to kidnap you at every corner, rob you or kill you. But take it from someone who spent six years traveling to the country and two and a half years living in the capital of Sofia: Bulgaria is not a dangerous place.

The first thing you need to do before anything else is forget anything negative you’ve ever heard about Bulgaria, because it’s largely hogwash and absolute malarkey. This is a not a country full of ex-commies waiting with baited breath for an American to stumble into their country so they can snatch them up like hungry spiders and then ransom them off or sell them into sex slavery; these are myths perpetuated by a government that doesn’t want you spending your dollars in a foreign country where they can’t reap the rewards of that spending. It’s propaganda 101.

The real Bulgaria is a country of pristine and untouched countrysides, of rolling hills and mountains and valleys and forests and rivers and canyons and miles and miles and miles of vineyards and farmlands and seaside resorts and thousands of years of history going back to the days of the Thracians and the well-known hero Spartacus.  The people are warm and friendly and will share their fire, their food and their rakia with you at a moment’s notice, regardless if you are a stranger, and while they have their own national pride just as any other country does, they are not vehemently opposed to outsiders the way some countries have been trained to be.

Bulgaria is a pro-Western country that emerged from the Cold War era with a bit of a stumble and a bit of a lurch, but since the early 1990s has continued to gain traction despite a series of flawed political parties which have had a reputation for being full of corrupt, ex-Communist officials bent on leeching every last penny of funding they could before being ousted out of office. And while yes, corruption does exist and yes, the Mafia has a very real presence in this Eastern European country, the chances of you having any sort of interaction with them is almost that of you being struck by lightning: it’s so remote as to be almost nonexistent.

The Mafia as it exists today is very similar to the Mafia in the United States and other countries; it’s organized crime, which means it exists at all levels of business and government and has its fingers in everything from local politics all the way up to national politics. It’s organized, thus the eponymous title. They own hotels, resorts, casinos and strip clubs and are for the most part legitimate business owners. And while yes, there is still drug trafficking and sex slavery, these things have largely faded into the background in the 21st century. In other words, these aren’t the primary means of making money.

With entry into the European Union in 2008 came increased scrutiny from E.U. officials intent on cleaning up the country and bringing it to Western standards, and the Mafia has had to adapt in order to survive. Rather than continue battling with officials over drugs and violent crime, they have moved into big business and politics.

What this means for you as a traveler or an expat living in Bulgaria is simply this: the Mafia doesn’t care about you. They aren’t interested in tourists, because tourists aren’t investing millions in real estate, property development, construction and politics. As someone just visiting, or even living there as I did, you are just a normal, everyday person, which means you aren’t even on their radar. Just as the everyday individual living in a place like New York or Chicago – both of which have thriving organized crime groups – will rarely come into contact with the Mafia of their own home town.

If you have money to invest, you have the potential for landing on the radar, because the Mafia does have a very real presence in Bulgaria on the political and investment level. If you are just going to be picking up a local piece of property to live in, that’s not an issue, but if you plan on starting a business of some kind in Bulgaria that will have a profit of anything over a quarter of a million euros, you are probably going to end up dealing with the Mafia at some point or another.

To give you an example of what I mean, when I was living in the country I was involved with a Bulgarian girl whose family ran a large chain of grocery stores within the CBA franchise. Every time they opened up a new location they not only had to pay local taxes and deal with the typical city registration…but they also had shuffle some funds the way of the mutri (gangsters). The fees ranged anywhere from €15,000 to €25,000, but it was something they factored into their business plans every time they planned on opening a new store.

Most of the time, the Mafia’s presence in these cases is felt through their political connections. The mayor of a town, for example, will have two cousins who are mutri  (the Bulgarian term for gangsters), and they also both hold public office because that’s how organized crime operates; by balancing the line between official and unofficial. Through this method they are able to keep tabs on all the “official” going-ons in a given place, and thus step in when necessary to enforce their extra fees. Such as if you want to open a profitable business in their territory, you’ll pay some extra tax. Sort of how you pay city tax on top of state and federal taxes; you are paying for the privilege of doing business in that area. There’s nothing sinister or violent about it. It’s just territorial.

Violence is rare these days, although it can still happen. For example, on January 5th, 2010, a radio host named Bobby Tsankov was shot on Alexander Stamboliiski Boulevard in downtown Sofia in broad daylight as part of a contract killing, due to the publishing of some material which detailed the underworking of the Mafia’s sex trafficking and drug trade, as well as corruption of certain local officials. It was a retaliation hit, pure and simple…and it had absolutely nothing to do with foreigners, tourists, travelers, investments or expats.

But of course the moment the incident happened there were numerous Western news agencies which started throwing around the “Bulgaria is dangerous!” flag, but the reality is that Sofia, for example, only has a 6 in 100,000 murder/violent crime rate compared to Washington D.C. at 31.4 in 100,000, or New York City at 9 in 100,000, which means you are 25 times (roughly) more likely to die from an act of violence in the capital of the U.S. than in the capital of Bulgaria. Those numbers are the same across the country; Bulgaria is one of the least-violent countries in the world to live in, far safer than the U.S.

The reality is that Sofia – and Bulgaria as a whole – is an extremely safe place to live. Random acts of violence can occur anywhere, anytime, and just because they happen in an Eastern European country where the Mafia still has a visible presence doesn’t make them special.

As an everyday person traveling to Bulgaria to explore its rich cultural history, its vastly untapped wine country, the hidden secrets of the Rhodope or Rila Mountains, the Balkans, the Thracian Plains or the coastal regions of The Black Sea, or even as an expat choosing to live a quiet country life on a little farm somewhere in the heartland of Bulgaria, the Mafia is nothing more than a headline you will occasionally read in the newspaper or see on the television. While they do exist, they aren’t interested in tourists and travelers, only in local politics and big business, and as long as you aren’t there to invest a quarter of a million dollars (or more) in something, you’ll never even know they exist.

Don’t forget to check out our photo albums on Facebook for Seven Rila Lakes, Milanovo, Nessebar, Leshten, Melnik, and Kovachevitsa.

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.

12 Comments

  • Cheers, Andrey.

    I think living there depends on whether you are Bulgarian or not. It’s the same thing here in Mexico. As a foreigner, it’s certainly true that I’m shielded somewhat from the daily aspects of living in these countries…but after you’ve been long enough on the ground you get used to the same things the Bulgarians are used to. Paying off police for speeding tickets, for example.

    As far as wages go…that’s the beauty of the Internet and social media. One of our most recent articles, Breaking the Chains of Minimum Wage, looks specifically at how Mexicans and others, such as Bulgarians, can completely bypass the low wages and start making triple or quadruple the salary the average Bulgarian makes.

    As far as corruption and the mafia go…I’m on the other side of the fence than you :) It exists, but it’s not tearing the country apart, at least not while I was living there from 2008 until mid 2010. It’s simply part of the way of life, as it is in any other country. The Mafia exists just as prevalently in the United States as it does in Bulgaria or even in Mexico, Colombia or other countries. It always seems more obvious to the people living in the country/born in the country than it does to outsiders.

  • Andrey says:

    Thumbs up! One of the most positive articles I’ve come across about Bulgaria. As a Bulgarian, I can say, that for the most part you are totally right. Especially if you are taking it from a tourist point of view. But as a Bulgarian you come to notice some things during the years. For example, low wages, high immigration, absurd laws (or lack of laws), and the part where you can’t get a decent job in government institutions, or as a matter of fact, in any other well-paid field, the only way is your father or some relative being a former communist party member/Secret Police official.
    The country is very beautiful, modern only in its bigger cities, but ultimately the corruption and mafia is tearing it apart and as a result more than 2.500.000 million people have immigrated after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. So, there are always two sides. I definitely agree, that Bulgaria isn’t a dangerous place, but it is not a good place to live either, visiting and sightseeing is of course something else.

    Keep up the good work!

  • @ Will:

    Yes, crime exists *EVERYWHERE*, it’s just that the Western media does such a good job of painting this picture as though only the cities outside of the U.S. are the dangerous places. It’s important for people to realize that, as a whole, the U.S. is actually way down on the list and is actually *not* the safest country on the planet.

  • Will says:

    Hi Tim,

    Good comparison about NY/Washington D.C. to Sofia – cities across the world have thugs/criminals. There’s crime everywhere you go but how often do you interact with the criminals?

    Will

  • @ Amer:

    It always seems that way, no? The countries with the worst reputation according to the media tend to be filled with the nicest, most loving people in the world.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  • Amer says:

    great writeup on Bulgaria. Unfortunately the country is still receiving quite a bad rep amongst other European countries too. Went to Albania last year, despite having a bad rep too, had a great time visiting the country. The people are the friendliest I’ve ever met in any of my travels!

  • @ Turtle/Michael

    It is anything but bleak terrain :) If you have the time, look up The Rhodope Mountains, the Rila Mountains, Seven Rila Lakes, the town of Veliko Tarnovo and beyond :) The country is a vast landscape of untainted countryside, pristine villages, rolling hills, forests, mountains and the Black Sea coastal resorts as well. I also have a slew of pictures from various little villages over at the Facebook page for Marginal Boundaries via the links in the post.

    Here’s hoping you make it there :) It’s a wonderful country, completely developed and modern, and the food, wine and countryside are amazing.

  • Turtle says:

    Interesting read. I had never given Bulgaria much thought before but this certainly isn’t what I expected. It sounds like it’s got some beautiful natural landscapes. I’ve always just associated it with bleak Soviet terrain.

  • @ Adela. Indeed it is a shame. To be honest with you, I can’t wait to get back after I wrap things up down here in the Latin part of the world. I truly enjoyed Bulgaria, they have a lot of good things going for them, and even though there are a few negatives (all countries have them), the positives far outweigh! I highly suggest the country to anyone who enjoys good food, clean air, mountains, seasides, forests and nature.

  • It’s such a shame when a country gets stereotyped like this. Thanks for the article, you make it sound like a lovely and safe place to visit

  • Hola, Deej.

    Yep, they still exist, although really only as described in the article. Everyone wants their cut!

    They are slowly dying out, though. More EU regulations = less generalized crime and cracking down on corruption, but you can still find pockets of organized crime wherever large amounts are changing hands. But that exists in the U.S. and U.K. just as much as it does in Bulgaria. I have a brother and several friends living in Chicago and the mob there is still just as prevalent as it was 100 years ago; it’s just organized now, so you don’t see it because they are all store fronts and real, actual businesses fronting.

  • Interesting piece…I actually had no idea there was a big mafia presence in Bulgaria. Crazy to think that they enforce a “tax” on basically all new businesses…

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