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What is rule of law and is it possible in Bulgaria?

Published on , , Sofia-Brussels-Sofia

Travelling throughout Europe by car no matter how tiresome and wasting time it might be, is an extremely teaching adventure. In spite that one cannot stop in towns, villages and cities, still quite a lot of things can be seen and felt. This is why I have many times preferred a car instead of a plane. With a plane things are a little distorted - you travel from the airport to the city centre by taxi, bus or train and in fact only in couple of hours you change the environment but see the city centre only where things might be slightly different - more light, more order, more European.

By car, however, one has the opportunity to pass through villages, neighbourhoods, small streets and see how people there comprehend the world.

On the way to the European Council in Brussels

We left Sofia on October 25 around 10 am. Going out of the capital is always linked with a lot of nerves, tension and a lot of caution. Fortunately, at this hour we had a "window open" and escaped the traffic jams and the nerves. The road to Kalotina (at the Bulgarian-Serb border) was renovated 2-3 years ago and is good but ... in the day. Our objective was to travel from Sofia to Zagreb where we had some personal things to do and this was why we decided to sleep over there. It is incredible how landscape changes yet with the very entry into Serbia.

Firstly, meeting Serbian border police if not always funny, at least makes you smile and feel something like a "normal person". There is always someone to say a joke or just to smile at you and sincerely wish you a safe drive. Or to mention "wow, are you going to Brussels, that far?" Leaving Bulgaria is different. Border police are strict but just and do not allow themselves any liberties - work, what can we do.

I have passed the road Sofia-Brussels by car many times and every time I am amazed by the speed with which everything changes west of our border. Not that the Serbs are so much more advanced than us but their highway has already passed Nis (in the direction to Bulgaria), they have renovated the tunnels before Nis (in the direction of Belgrade), every exit of the highway is illuminated (without even 1 bulb missing), the marking is perfect. Well, the asphalt is not the best, there are some unevennesses on the way, patchwork, but nonetheless it is worth paying the toll fee. After all we have to note that the Serbs spent too much time at war, under sanctions, division and diminishing. Nonetheless, they are constantly working on their highways and their roads.

Already at the Serb-Croatian border the landscape changes dramatically: the highway is several times better than the Serb one, driving becomes easier and more pleasant because no one is pushing you out to take over. It's true that there are some that do that, as a whole the tempo slows down but not the speed. The speed limit in Serbia for highways is 120 km/h which is ridiculous against the backdrop of drivers' manners, but all foreigners are afraid of Serbian police and this is why they drive safely.

In Croatia the limit is 130 km/h and there are cameras (not many, but there are). Entering Croatian capital is a pure entering in Europe - in that sense that you just feel it with your soul. The marking, the signs, the buildings, the streets, the traffic lights, the people, the public transport stops. Everything is truely European, clean, neat, nothing in excess but many useful things that make you ask yourself "should I turn the GPS off?" People are smiling and welcoming.

On October 26 (Tuesday) we left Zagreb on our way to Frankfurt. The first Schengen border is 15 km from Zagreb - Slovenia. The feeling of Europe increases with several more doses. The border policeman looked nothing like he would be eager to talk about anything different than your ID card and purpose of entering, not to mention offer him a bribe. Not that I wanted to but I thought about it while I was watching the number of cars with "German" license plates, who were in fact Turkish gastarbeiters. I wouldn't say that there was any attitude towards us, the Bulgarians, but you could feel that strictness of the law about which you inherently understand that it is inevitable. We passed through the check, we bought a vignette (even for Austria, as you have the opportunity to by a package instead of lining up again in Austria). In other words, people had given it a thought.

The last time I passed through Slovenia was three years ago. Then more than two thirds of the road was of two lanes - one for each direction - it's true that it was perfect in terms of asphalt, signs and everything but still a two-lane road and the traffic-jams were monstrous. Back then the Slovenians were still constructing the highway and we had to wait or pass through other roads. Three years later tiny Slovenia has an entire highway connecting Croatia to Austria. And a lot of cameras. The beautiful and snowy Alps create the feeling that we are in Austria but we weren't - this is Slovenia: beautiful, clean, neat, wonderful.

The minute we entered Slovenia we stored our id-cards - we no longer needed them. Then I thought what Schengen actually was. Yes, it is nice that we are visa-free but waiting at border check-points only to be wished safe drive is a waste of time and is boring. And from Slovenia one enters Austria directly. Both countries still have not removed the buildings of the old-time check-points, but passing through is quick.

In Austria there are also a lot of cameras and snow as well. As we expected the highway was cleaned from the snow and the fact that we were still with our summer tires on did not make our perspective for still a long way to go worse.

Travelling to Brussels is boring, especially after exiting Germany and entering Belgium where the speed limit reappears and sticks at 130 km/h. There is no such sleepy speed but, instead, there are so many cameras that there is no way that you could break the rules. Unlike Germany, where there are the perfect conditions for driving without limits: perfect roads, well trained drivers who always know what to do and always think about the rest of the traffic participants; they also think at least 2 moves ahead in order to avoid making maneuvers in the very last moment. Thus, driving even with 200 km/h is a harmony, without stress, hysteria, without showing the finger and cursing.

What I like the most when driving in Germany is the fact that no matter if you are with an old car, ultra expensive car or a fast one, or a lorry, the rules apply for everyone - with this tight and dynamic traffic no one would leave you lag behind a lorry, waiting to take it over - you just switch the blinker on and you are always allowed to pass. And when you do the same, you start feeling happy - so it's possible, it's happening! And everyone reaches his or her destination safely, without being exhausted from driving. This is why driving hundreds of kilometers is not tiresome at all. In fact, driving from Frankfurt to Brussels is twice as faster than from Sofia to Varna, in spite the fact that the distance is longer.

On our way back

Returning is always very painful. When one thinks of where he is going, he becomes sad. How can to leave these wonderful highways, drivers, behaviour? We finished our work at the European Council in Brussels around 4 pm local time and headed towards our sleep-over place in Germany.

The road to the place where we usually sleep over in Germany from the highway is a mountain road, but is perfect. Perfect asphalt, although some patchwork can be seen but cannot be felt by losing you tooth filling. And the marking looks as if someone is constantly refreshing it. Probably you would laugh at me for being impressed by such things but as a person that drives in Bulgaria, may be I have the right to be happy with the side-road pegs with light reflectors that we call "cat eyes".

We used to have such pegs in Bulgaria too, but no longer now. The masters are masters and they can drive without cat eyes. Me, however, I am not a master and I find it extremely useful in the dark to be able to see where the road ends and the forest begins, so I really enjoyed the cat eyes. Maybe because of them the speed limit is 100 km/h. Yes, yes, one hundred! My driving with 80 was boring for the locals who were overtaking me every time they could, but without causing me any trouble.

German highways have this specialty - they are constantly in repairs. Be it because they are being expanded or to change the asphalt (which, if you don't know has an expiry date and the Germans do not care whether the asphalt is good or not, once it has expired it is being changed). Nonetheless, the traffic never stops. On top of it, they do not put any idiotic speed limits like 40 km/h or 60 (in the best scenario), when the lane is being encompassed by concrete walls. You can still drive by 80 or 100 km/h, depending on the situation. The repairs marking is being made by yellow-orange plastic tape, which then is being removed, leaving no trace at all.

Returning home is always difficult because you pass the way back - if travelling from Sofia to Europe is a progression from bad to better on the way back it's just the opposite.

Several interesting stories

In Germany we saw a very indicative incident. Driving on the highway in the opposite lane we saw a huge traffic jam. When approaching we found out that a car accident had happened. It was minor but what was impressing was that in front there were already ambulances and a truck was heading via the reserve lane to remove the wrecked cars. All other drivers were staying in their cars, waiting patiently for the slow passing of the cars in the rightest lane - one by one.

Some time later we saw another accident which looked more serious this time. Aside from the ambulances and all the rest of equipment, in front there was a medical helicopter. It is amazing what kind of organisation these people have in order to secure traffic, to create conditions all victims to receive care and also all wrecked cars to be swiftly removed. Another impressive thing is that in both accidents there was no chain reaction. This means that in spite of the lack of speed limit, drivers succeed in taking into account what is going on and stop in time, without hitting the front cars. But this is more like the old anecdote about the English meadow - you water it, you mow it repeatedly for 400 years.

And if you are asking how this watering and mowing happens, the explanation is simple. Regularly civil police cars drive on German highways. Quite new and quite fast cars. If there is a suspicion for something wrong, such a car will take over you and signal with the special stop "polizei" in order to invite you to follow. The checks are being held extremely politely, without any conversations and redundant questions. They do their job, order everything back in place, wish you a nice drive or a nice day and get away.

I have never had a case to be fined this is why I cannot say what is the attitude then, but I suspect that it is the same - they fine you in the politest possible manner, again wish you a nice day, without caring for what reasons you have broken the rules and whether these reasons are worth anything. It is improbable that you could offer them money so that they could close their eyes. Another reason for the discipline on German roads is that drivers' lessons pass according to the principle "if you do not learn how to drive, you become dangerous not only for yourself but for the rest too", which is why no compromise is being made with teaching.

The second interesting story was in Croatia. We had just passed Zagreb by when all of a sudden a beige Audi A8 with Belgian plates approached us. An expensive car. I must immediately admit that we were speeding a little bit over the allowed speed limit of 130 km/h, but that guy was obviously driving with no less than 180 km/h. Not only that he approached us but he started signaling with the headlights so that we could clear the way for him, no matter the fact that at that point we were in a process of overtaking. However, he was so close behind that we were forced by hitting the breaks to move away.

I myself got mad but as I was not driving at the time, I was just cursing quietly. In a while a brand new BMW with Croatian plates overtook us. It seemed like it wanted to demonstrate to the Audi that he was a greater man. I started yelling at the driver to start blinking with the headlights to these bastards, why are they pretending to be men at me - go away, bastards! Fortunately the driver did not listen to me, because here is what happened: the Croatian BMW forced the Audi to retreat, overtook it and switched the stop "police" on, then had it driven away. Would you believe me that I felt enormous happiness. I told myself - wow, since there is no God, there is police. Thank you!

Then I thought that the Croatians might be having some issues with the International Court in the Hague and with their dark past in former Yugoslavia, but they definitely have a rule of law. Furthermore, any speculations that Croatia might also be imposed with the Control and Verification Mechanism in the area of justice and home affairs, sound ridiculous against the backdrop what can be seen with a bare eye.

Our traffic law also forbids, by the way, forcing anybody to move away from the overtaking lane on the highway because you are in a great hurry. So what? Do you know anyone who was fined for such a violation? I don't. In the same time, however, our law stipulates another important thing - after overtaking you must go back to the right lane immediately. Have you observed how many Bulgarian drivers do that? Obviously there is something very attracting in the left lane and one feels somewhat stronger there.

So, I fully share Croatians' bewilderment how is it possible Bulgaria to join the EU and Croatia not? I ask myself the same question for years now. I have been to Croatia for thousands of times, these people lived through war, but I have never lost the feeling that this country is in Western Europe (maybe a little bit poorer but still light years away from us). The cheerful mood that I got retribution did not leave me until the Croatian-Serbian border. And then it started - from behind, from above, from below, everywhere, head-lights, any demonstration of supremacy. The Bulgarian license plates became more frequent with the same approach. It becomes somewhat nice and homely, you start adapting back, hitting your head many times with the question - where are we going!

Serbian police are not at all exigent about blinking headlights but they are unbending with speeding. Instead, they are easy-going with solving the issue, especially with foreigners (I have no idea how it is with the locals). The reason is that they want you to pay your fine in dinars (the national currency) and when you don't have dinars, which is ordinary on your way back, you cannot pay in euro. This is why the procedure is as follows: go now to that petrol station, change money and come back to pay the fine. At 3 or 5 o'clock in the morning no one is inclined to do the exercise. Furthermore, you can pay with euro in gas stations, which makes it weird why not paying your fine in euro, especially for foreigners, but laws, what can you do? However, there is no problem if you do not want a ticket, to pay in euro a sum, determined in an agreement with the police.

I hate passing through Serbia at night. Firstly, because of the worse asphalt (especially when going back from Western Europe) and, second, because there most drivers drive with their long headlights on. They simply don't care if you switch your long headlights too. Besides, just like in Bulgaria, in Serbia drivers often put their long headlights on when they decide to overtake, maybe to ensure that you would see them. This is probably due to the fact that a lot of foreigners pass by who are used to take over right away without waiting for "a permission" from the superior drivers on the road. Obviously for the macho Balkan soul this is quite humiliating - why should I wait for your overtake, I have such a nice car, who are you?

In the full darkness and after 10-12 hours of driving, one is so tired that the battle with the headlights and the aggressive machos is exhausting indeed. Anyway, after more frequent changes of drivers, we manage to reach the Bulgarian border. I should admit that I don't have this thrill anymore that I used to in the past when coming home. Before I used to get excited - wow, home, my country! Now I feel reconciled with the fact that I'm coming home, but its alright, next time. The police are polite at the border, especially if you are polite too. But they ask: where are you coming from, what did you do there, do you have alcohol, cigarettes - hey, people, this is a single market, what alcohol, what cigarettes? Not that they check, but they ask.

Anyway, the last meters usually are the hardest. At night the asphalt from Kalotina to Sofia is like a black hole. I don't know what it is made of but obviously it has the ability to swallow light, together with the marking. Of course, there are no pegs aside the road and you have to be cautious to find out where the road ends. It is is divided into four lanes - two for each direction, so it makes it ridiculous to drive with 60 km/h. But, after all we have to pay our tribute to the traffic police who have a booth near Slivnitsa and even the greatest masters slow down to 40 to be sure. Fortunately, the traffic is not intensive, otherwise I cannot think of the traffic jams these limits might cause.

Besides, this road had obviously been attractive for many entrepreneurs who had built whatever shops aside the road without a slowdown lane. This is why the traffic police have solved the issue from its core - maximum speed of 60 and that's it. Why would you hurry?

To Europe and backwards

Each travelling to Brussels reminds me of the painful Aleko's* stories about his character Bay Ganyo, dating back more than 100 years. And I say to myself, well, we are a member of the EU for almost 4 years. Why can't we not only reach them but we are even running in the opposite direction? Why do I have to suffer each time when I come home? Not only for the bad roads but for the fact that no one wants to think about the others - the Road Agency to think how drivers would feel in the day, night, in fog, rain; the traffic police to think that if they do not fine a violator but take a bribe, this might some day harm them; the municipalities - how to attract people instead of repulsing them.

And, deliberating, I realise that we have been accepted to the EU only politically, not because we share the European values. Be it because we do not understand them or because we do not like them, but we do not share them for sure. Our Balkan free soul cannot abide to some stupid rules. The rules are for the stupid. The truth is, however, that everywhere in Europe there are people that get bored by the rules, no matter that they understand their purpose. More interesting is that the free Bulgarian soul starts inherently abiding with the rules once leaving the country. Is it because it knows that there it hurts? Or because we do not want to ruin our image before the foreigners?

Whatever, every travelling to Brussels and back shows one cruel fact - Bulgaria is quickly moving away from what we used to refer to Europe 20 years ago. And what is worse is that the border is shifting steadily and quickly towards us. If before Western Europe used to begin somewhere after Hungary or Slovenia, now it has reached our own border. In several more years, I am sure that even in Serbia things would be considerably different. This is why it is high time for us to answer the question - what do we want in fact? So that we could finally start achieving it.

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