Voices against corruption labor in Bulgaria despite dangers Intrnl_Herld_Tribune - 2008/11/12
When the white-haired coroner of Bulgaria's capital died hanging from the jungle gym of a placid city playground, he left behind a series of what his longtime staff considered cryptic clues.
These forensic examiners balked at the horror of preparing an autopsy of their former teacher, Stoycho Radanov. At the time of his death at 76 in mid-October, he was still vigorous, presiding over politically radioactive cases that uncovered botched investigative work and a deadly beating by top police officials.
Could the death of the coroner be murder? Or was it suicide provoked by the pressures of challenging the system?
"We can't say for certain what drove him," said Stanislav Hristov, head of the forensic department at the Alexandrovska Hospital in Sofia. "But his clear message was that we always have to fight for the truth."
Exposing corruption is not a battle for the fainthearted in Bulgaria, one of the newest and poorest nations in the European Union where graft has seeped into the fabric of life, tainting everything from sausage-making to highway construction.
This month the Bulgarian government is pressing to avert the loss of millions of euros in European subsidies for road-building and agriculture that were frozen after the European Commission concluded the money was vulnerable to fraud, organized white-collar criminal networks and weak financial controls.
But there are quiet corners of this country of seven million people where voices rise against corruption, including journalists, two nonprofit organizations, several environmental groups and even some politicians. Many corruption-busters labor in obscurity, methodically gathering information at local nonprofit organizations to expose systemic graft that prompted Transparency International, a nongovernmental global watchdog on corruption, to dub Bulgaria the most corrupt country in the 27-nation EU.
Some journalists and researchers have taken their fight public, facing death threats, a home bombing, telephone calls from organized crime figures and even the bone-shattering blows of pipes and hammers. Environmentalists regularly face off against burly private bodyguards, including one who slammed a car door into a demonstrator's head.
"Corruption affects the entire population, from clerks in the countryside to senior government officials. Unfortunately, people are becoming apathetic. They accept it as a part of life," said Ognian Stefanov, who almost a year ago started Frognews, a news Web site funded by Mladen Mutafchiyski, a wealthy Black Sea hotel owner.
At age 54, Stefanov winced as he talked, rolling his shoulder in a burst of pain. He was wearing a bright track suit and unlaced sport shoes, but there is no place he can run from his wheelchair parked among brittle autumn leaves outside a Sofia hospital.
"Certain people weren't happy with things that we've been writing," said Stefanov, a journalist for 25 years who was accustomed to ignoring threats. "We began to expose connections between organized crime and politics, corruption that's obvious to everyone."
There was no warning on the September night that he left the Kiparisite restaurant in Sofia after meeting Evelin Banev, a real estate entrepreneur who is under investigation for money laundering. Stefanov was attacked by four men in black with pipes and hammers, who methodically shattered his most sensitive bones, breaking his elbows and both legs in four places. Banev intervened and suffered a broken nose and concussion.
"Certain people just decide they can react anyway they choose," said Stefanov, who needed eight hours of surgery and remembers that night as a blur of pain. "The saddest thing is that they can decide anything they want. They are untouchable here."
No one has been arrested, and the co-owner of Frognews, Mutafchiyski, called the police investigation "pathetic." But the site's Web traffic has leaped from 40,000 hits to more than 250,000. And Stefanov's second-in-command, Alexander Ivanov, has been working his news beat with two police officers discreetly trailing behind him.
Ivanov's new companions arrived after he heard the shrill buzz of his apartment intercom and a crackly, anonymous threat: "Your beating will be even worse."
"It's very hard for journalists in Bulgaria to write about corruption," Ivanov said, noting that he got his threat on the day a newspaper promoted a coming interview with his boss at his hospital bedside.
But with European pressure on Bulgaria to root out graft, anti-corruption crusading has emerged as a fashionable notion and even a sharp political tool. Opposition figures to the Socialist-led coalition government have used corruption charges to undermine rivals, making it hard to determine the difference between pure and murky motives.
"The fight against corruption has become a political show," said Stefan Popov, executive director of RiskMonitor, founded in 2006 and financed by the Open Society Institute in New York and Sofia. "If everybody is against corruption, it means that nobody is against corruption. Then you can use fighting corruption for your own political purposes."
With eight researchers headed by Popov, RiskMonitor examines money laundering, organized crime and vote-buying where city governments are under siege from criminal networks drawn by the billions in EU subsidies that could flow to Bulgaria through 2013.
RiskMonitor also hosts annual summits on Bulgarian organized crime, bringing experts to develop counterstrategies. There has been no backlash, but some anxious board members worry about the safety of the group's ground floor offices.
One RiskMonitor researcher is Iva Pushkarova, a lawyer who also heads the Bulgarian Judges Association, which represents more than 900 judges in a judiciary tainted by graft. "Fighting against corruption is actually fighting for democracy, human rights and rule of law," said Pushkarova, whose group is developing training programs and ethical codes.
Within the Bulgarian legal elite, she said, lawyers are well aware of judges with criminal ties. "How do we know? They have marriage connections or business ties with organized criminal bosses. They are neighbors. Usually organized crime bosses live in protected territory in compounds and they live in the same area."
Her organization's efforts at higher standards have led to strains. A rival group of about 100 judges started in the last two years. "They know that the European funds are coming to Bulgaria," Pushkarova said, "and a lot will be allocated for projects for judicial reform."
Bulgarians who investigate corruption and organized crime often develop personal strategies to minimize hazards. Tihomir Bezlov, a longtime criminologist with the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, speaks openly on television and radio, betting that a high profile offers protection.
Atanas Atanasov, an opposition Parliament member and former counterintelligence chief who has made a political career of exposing corruption, takes a mordant view: "My grandfather used to say that if you're destined to be kicked by a horse, you're not going to be kicked by a donkey. Someone has to say what's going on."
But the atmosphere is more baffling for outsiders like David Hammerstein, a Spanish lawmaker and European Parliament member from the Green Party who toured Bulgaria to investigate suspect land deals.
In May in the mountainous Rila National Park, Hammerstein and a group of Bulgarian environmentalists were confronted by a private security guard in a forest area where a road is being constructed without environmental permits. The guard ordered them out, he said.
"Cars arrived full of guys in black leather jackets and they followed us for 40 to 50 kilometers," Hammerstein said, referring to a distance of about 25 to 30 miles. "That's very common for people on a local level."
When Hammerstein returned in October, he experienced petty corruption firsthand. A taxi driver from the airport charged him five times the normal fare to reach the city. Hammerstein protested directly to Bulgaria's transportation minister, but got no comfort.
For Radanov, who helped found Bulgaria's criminal forensics, questioning authority was the thorniest part of being a coroner. When police said a drug dealer died of a heart attack in custody, Radanov concluded that he was killed with a heavy blow to the head. He also cast aside findings that two teen sisters were raped and battered to death with stones, concluding instead that they were struck by a car. His conclusion last May was that police mistakes destroyed evidence.
For two weeks before he died, his colleague Hristov said, Radanov seemed preoccupied. He was facing a potential fine of Euro 25,000, or $31,000, in a defamation lawsuit filed by a professor angered that Radanov questioned her competence in the investigation of the girls' killings. He was worried about selling a country home he built himself to raise money.
Radanov left no note, but Hristov said he was sure the coroner planned his clues, including the strange choice of the playground. His body, for instance, should have shown signs of a struggle if he had been dragged below the climbing bars to his death by someone else, Hristov said. But there were no marks, proving to the staff that it was a suicide.
On Radanov's hospital desk, Hristov found two titles, the coroner's own autobiography and a book of poetry by a friend, entitled "Testament." It was marked at a poem about the struggle of a person walking through storms.
"Society did this to him," mused Hristov, smoking a cigarette by antique wooden bookcases stocked high with medical titles donated by Radanov. "I don't exclude this as a motive."
His staff has collected money for a marble sculpture on Radanov's grave that will be installed in late November, 40 days after his death. Hristov would like an epitaph inspired by the coroner's clues: "Always tell the truth."
Author: Doreen Carvajal