Why is Bulgaria still in the EU with a prison system little better than Somalia?

Bulgaria’s institutions still have a communist ‘darkness at noon’ feel to them. Entry to the EU was definitely premature. Dissecting that word, actually I doubt Bulgaria will ever be ‘mature’ – at least not in my lifetime.

If I told you that a young Australian was sentenced to 20 years for intervening in a street brawl when a young Roma was being attacked and defending himself from a gang of drunken thugs, you would consider it far-fetched. Yet this is what happened in Bulgaria in 2007. The whole judicial process was blatantly, transparently corrupt.

I’m especially perturbed by the conditions inside Bulgarian jails. I’ve been a regular visitor since my Australian friend was effectively buried alive seven years ago. The prisoner in question, highly intelligent and socially conscious, has been attacked countless times by prison guards – ill-trained, peanut brained Rottweilers, probably recruited in the gym and sustained by Red Bull and rakiya. Visitors are made to feel like criminals too.

My friend has spent most of the past seven years lying on his bed – at one point almost 23 hours a day. No parole system and no checks for good behavior are in place. It is not so much a case of institutionalised sadism as institutionalised neglect. Prisoners are left to fester. Even overnight cries from the sick go unheeded. On my last visit I was told that one of the inmates was a penniless Roma convicted of stealing a chicken. I wouldn’t be surprised if the chicken were incarcerated too!

The Australian prisoner would be front page news in the UK if he were British. The Bulgarian press ignore him except, occasionally, to allude to his conviction for ‘hooliganism’. The rights and wrongs of a case matter little. News is censored, not as an instrument of policy, of course, but the effect is the same. Dissenting views, those that challenge vested interests or prick the egos of the corrupt elite, are not aired.

Now take the mayor of the village of Kovachevitsa who has refused to house a small group of Somali and Afghani children in his local school. He took the action, he said, because he was convinced the other children would soon be speaking Arabic. The parochial mindset – the casual xenophobia against cherubic children – is not a sensible policy to ward off multiculturalism. Bulgaria has very few immigrants. It is, in fact, a legacy of communism. It was, after all, a policy of former communist leader Todor Zhivkov that all Turks had to change their names to Bulgarian ones. The state still tramples on the basic rights of the individual.

Post-totalitarian societies, whether of Left or Right (and is there any real difference?) do not recover overnight. Attitudes stay the same. People who lived through communism are devoid of initiative and new ideas.

The EU should not have allowed Bulgaria into its club. Did someone even look inside Sofia Central Prison? How can you flout the rules so openly? It’s this kind of madness that makes the EU look pointless – which it probably is anyway. What does this blue flag, fluttering above all of Sofia’s buildings, actually mean? It certainly doesn’t mean ‘harmonization’ of acceptable prison conditions among its member states. (In fact, none of Bulgaria’s institutions have standards in line with western Europe). Successful prosecutions of hardened criminals in Bulgaria are very rare. The relationship between judges and those involved in a particular case is sometimes too obviously ‘incestuous’ – as was the case with the trial of the young Australian in question.

My life in Bulgaria is not unpleasant. Most individual Bulgarians are quite charming. But – fortunately – I have little contact with institutions. When I do, I come away – usually enraged – with one question. What would Bulgaria have to do in order to be thrown out of the EU? Send its Roma population into the gas chambers? I suspect even then the same blue flag would still be flying …

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