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.