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Secretive police

February 5, 2010

According to the EU, Bulgaria is the state with the least transparent police force. In a nation that still struggles with its Communist past, people place little trust in their police. But that may be about to change.

Bulgarian farmers clash with the police
Bulgarian police enjoy little public trustImage: AP

The Bulgarian police is one of the country's most notorious and unpopular institutions, but now the man responsible for it has won an award. A major Bulgarian radio station recently ran a poll for "Politician of the Year" and listeners chose Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

Since he came to power six months ago, Tsvetanov has been outspoken about the relationship between organized crime and the police. As he accepted the award, he once more took a firm line on the issue.

"We've been seeing it for the past 20 years - all the things the police and the judiciary have allowed to happen," he said. "Certain individuals commit crimes, but they always escape the justice that they ought to face."

Tsvetan Tsvetanov
Tsvetan Tsvetanov has a wealth of experience in security mattersImage: Wikimedia Commons/Vladimir Petkov

Over the past 20 years, Bulgaria has seen about 150 gang-related murders. While there have been arrests, not a single person has been convicted, and it is difficult to find out why, because information about the investigations is never made public.

Secretive police

According to European Commission figures, of all the European Union member states, Bulgaria releases the least amount of information to the public about what its police force does. There is no public data about the police's budget, for instance, and there are no reliable crime statistics.

Zvezda Vankova, police expert with the democratic rights organization Open Society Institute (OSI), says that in many cases the police simply does not have the data. "What I've seen in my fight to get information is that it's not very systematic," she says. "They lack a good system for getting data and making an analysis. I don't think they have any expert groups who are able to produce the necessary analytical papers."

Minister Tsvetanov confirmed Vankova's opinion at a recent public event. "One weakness recently discovered in the work of the Interior Ministry is that it lacks sufficient information and analysis about what is going on in the local police precincts," he said.

Old attitudes die hard

Another OSI expert, Ivanka Ivanova, says that when data is available, the police's instinct is not to share it. "The Bulgarian police have this hangover from communist times that leads them to believe that if they reveal more information about their activities, they will be less trusted by the public," she told Deutsche Welle.

Silhouette of secret agent in Bulgaria
Police secrecy is a remnant of Bulgaria's communist pastImage: DW

But comparative research suggests that the opposite is the case.

"EU countries such as Finland, Denmark or Germany who reveal the most information about their police also have the highest levels of public trust," Ivanova concludes.

In fact, the Bulgarian police actually enjoys the least public trust in the EU, according to the European Commission. Experts agree that releasing data would change that. If people knew what the police were doing, the average person on the street might have more respect for them.

But many members of the public are happy for the police to get on with the job and find democratic control a distraction from the real issue.

"I would trust them more if they had a bit of authority maybe," Bulgarian citizen Konstantin Georgiev told Deutsche Welle.

Bulgaria is a society in transition, and not everyone sees the need to create structures that are more accountable to the public. But with the EU putting pressure on Bulgaria and a new interior minister who looks like he means business, the police may at last start to become part of the democratic state.

Author: Yaldaz Sadakova (bk)
Editor: Rob Turner