Justifying Petty Corruption

Jeremy Klemin

Repeated encounters with corruption while travelling cause Jeremy Klemin to ponder the various forms of corruption as well as the “moral framework” within which corruption is enforced

Soviet-style housing in Sofia, Bulgaria

We felt we’d seen enough of Sofia in the few days that we were there, so my friend Alfred and I decided to take a day trip to Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria. We were itching to leave the capital — I had insisted on Sofia for mostly immature reasons; I wanted to go to the capital of a country nobody I knew had already been to. Sofia was objectively interesting, but felt rather sterile otherwise. I was hoping that Plovdiv would redeem Bulgaria for us. It was about two hours each way, and cost 13 euros round trip. This was more than twice the nightly cost of our hostel, but it was well worth it. Plovdiv was a quaint, historically fascinating city, a treasure of a town located not far from the Turkish border.

After spending the day in Plovdiv and wishing that we had allotted ourselves more time there, we ended up back in the bus station. Having regrettably fallen asleep for the entire bus ride, we groggily made our way towards the exit of the bus station after buying some water. Before we could get out the door, we were stopped by a pair of police officers — it was initially unclear whether they were security guards or city police, but I would find out towards the end of our exchange that they were the latter. One of them addressed us in Bulgarian and I stared blankly at him for a moment before he switched to English. The two officers asked why we were in Bulgaria (a fair question), for our passports, and upon inspection, asked if we had any drugs or if we smoked cigarettes — I still have no idea why he asked the second bit. We had nothing illegal, but the English-speaking officer forcefully insisted that he thought we did, and that they would be conducting a thorough search of our bags and our multiple layers of coats — it was well below 0° C at the time.

Plovdiv was a quaint, historically fascinating city, a treasure of a town located not far from the Turkish border.

We were taken to a sort of corner room, which was really just an alcove below a set of stairs sectioned off by a sliding curtain. There were no chairs in the nook, only a table. Before we started unpacking our things, a third officer appeared — the room now, if it can be called that, was very, very cramped. I am consistently amazed by the immediacy of these sorts of exchanges; there’s never time to reflect on what’s happening while it is happening. Both of us had woken from a nap thinking only of finding water, and now we found ourselves in a makeshift room with three Bulgarian police officers.

“We think you have something illegal,” repeated the chief officer. “If you’ll look around, you’ll see there are no cameras in this room. If you take out what you have now, we can solve this here. But if we have to search your bags and we find something, we will take you straight to the police station.”

We were already both a bit nervous, but being told that there are “no cameras in a room” by a person in a position of power is incredibly unnerving. What I first took to be a veiled threat was less an act of aggression and more an insinuation. “There are no cameras in here” coupled by, “we can solve this here” seemed at the time and still seems to me today a solicitation for a bribe. In my limited experience with semi-bureaucratic corruption, any time a representative of the state volunteers that an issue can be resolved in the moment rather than through conventional legal channels, it seems like they’re looking for money.

I was no longer scared for our safety, but both Alfred and I were wary of the fact that we were in an extremely confined space with bags and multiple heavy jackets with plenty of pockets. If the officers had wanted to, they would have had little trouble slipping a bag of weed or powder in with our things. They saw, however, that both of us had almost no cash. Between us, we had the equivalent of just a bit less than six euros. And so, after emptying our stuff and diligently looking through our wallets, they concluded that we had nothing illegal. They left the corner, and Alfred and I began to repack our things and put our coats back on.

This wasn’t my first experience with corruption; it wasn’t even my first experience with corruption that week. On a bus ride from Bucharest to Sofia, I watched the bus driver simply pocket my ticket fare and not register my information in the ledger. He kept winking and saying, “Gentleman, no problem.” I got the impression that his English vocabulary was built around interactions like these; when I asked how much the tickets were, he used his phone to show me the number. Likewise, a volunteer at the hostel in Sofia had mentioned that a sleepy bureaucrat had repeatedly insisted she pay a “tax” that amounted to over six times the initial cost of sending her package to begin with. Nor is the country I currently call home, Portugal, totally devoid of unlawful traffic stops. The above examples are relatively easy to follow, though. In the case of the bus driver: greed at the expense of the bus company; the bureaucrat: greed at the expense of the general public. Likewise with the occasional police officer in Portugal.

I assume that the entire point of the stop was to extract money from us if they found something illegal, and given the lack of subtlety involved in the officer’s suggestion that we “figure this out now,” I’m hard-pressed to arrive at a different conclusion. If either of us had had money in our pockets, perhaps our exchange would have ended differently. If this is the case, though, why attempt to extort money from us under ostensibly legal auspices? Instead of looking for weed, why not just invent a bogus traffic law, or mumble something about improper documentation, or prey on tourists who have already thrown away or lost their bus ticket receipts? Perhaps this isn’t how petty corruption works in Bulgaria; once a culture of doing something a certain way becomes routinized it becomes very difficult to uproot, even for seemingly “logical” (i.e. fiscally-driven) reasons. In any case, the options above all seem to be exponentially easier ways of earning extra income, especially the latter two options.

This wasn’t my first experience with corruption; it wasn’t even my first experience with corruption that week. On a bus ride from Bucharest to Sofia, I watched the bus driver simply pocket my ticket fare and not register my information in the ledger.

It could be that the officers’ reasons for trying to extort foreigners in this manner are pragmatic, though it would be relatively difficult to prove that the officers had done anything wrong in this case, and any claims of bribery solicitation could probably be waved aside as a misunderstanding or a poor command of English, or something to that effect. But really, what power would a tourist have to call out corruption had it been more overt? If, for example, the officers had decided to insist upon seeing a bus pass that I no longer had, and then immediately demanded I pay a fee of, say, 100 euros, what legal action could I take? The officers probably wouldn’t give us their ID’s if we asked, nor would I have been in Bulgaria long enough to ensure that my complaint at the police department would be taken seriously.

And so I return to the question. If you’re a police officer looking to make some extra money, why make your corruption depend on somebody actually doing something illegal? This is, to me, a sort of half-hearted attempt to still operate according to some moral framework. It seems as if the officers have decided that only those who break Bulgarian laws and bring drugs into their country are the ones worthy of being extra-legally persecuted. The logic seems to go as follows: YOU have transgressed. YOU have broken our laws, and so as a result, your subsequent extortion is justified.

If there is a moral difference between outright corruption and corruption based on legal premises, it seems negligibly small. By being overly meticulous with their drug searches, do the officers believe that they’ve happened upon a sort of moral purgatory, where their intent to steal is cancelled out by the legally productive act of confiscating illegal drugs? Perhaps there’s a sort of tacit unspoken agreement between the three officers, and one or two of them only feel ethically comfortable with soliciting a payoff if they’re also doing a bit of good at the same time. I can trace this thought process because I’ve made similar moral compromises before, concessions that were internally coherent but otherwise totally absurd. This is not to say that these sort of moral concessions are being thought about as they happen, or being consciously thought about at all, really. If mental gymnastics happen in situations like these, they happen outside of conscious thought. It is only in retrospect that we’re able to pinpoint the bargains we’ve struck with ourselves; to do this in real time would probably constitute some form of neuroticism or another.

In my native United States, why does a police officer acutely aware that she hasn’t hit her monthly ticket quota wait until a person has gone 61 km/h in a 60 zone to give them a ticket? Why not just lie and say they were going 61 when they weren’t? It’s not as if the person is going to have immediate proof they weren’t going that extra bit faster. Is this for conscience’s sake or for the sake of legal justification? Based on my years of run-ins with the police, skateboarding, I can’t help but feel it’s the former, but I could be wrong.

Why, at the age of 16, did a police officer wait until I had done something technically illegal but completely unenforced to enact vengeance on me for giving him the middle finger, which is legal in the States? The moral difference between making up a transgression and enforcing an antiquated, generally ignored technicality seems to me an imperceptibly small gap. In the State of Mississippi, for example, it’s officially illegal to swear in front of two people or more in public, but obviously totally ignored. If a police officer with a vendetta against someone decided to enforce this law or some other similarly obscure ordinance, would they be any less morally repugnant than a police officer who simply made up a reason to pull someone over? See: “I pulled you over because you were swerving.” “I pulled you over because I thought you had broken taillight” “(I pulled you over because your vehicle matched the description of _____, etc.)” Black young men living in inner cities have heard these wholly arbitrary reasons over and over again.

Why, then, do we still try to act under a vague, convoluted moral framework when we’re clearly exploiting others? Very few of us are willing to admit our wrongdoings; or as the writer Teju Cole puts it, nobody wants to see themselves as the villain of their own story. I am simultaneously puzzled and fascinated by my interaction with these three Bulgarian cops: my perplexity far eclipses any residual anger I felt at the police (after all, I didn’t end up receiving a ticket or anything of the like, which makes me even more confused). Amorality is an easy enough concept to understand; labyrinthine, half-assed morality is a far, far more interesting phenomenon. This point seems, too, to have been recently reiterated by Fidel Castro’s death — my resolutely socialist family in Portugal were quick to point the considerable advances in healthcare and education he made for Cuba, and my gun-toting family in the States were just as quick to point out his numerous human rights violations. Neither of them are wrong, and neither of these things, it seems, are necessarily incompatible.

Why, then, do we continually insist on doing a bit of good when our intentions are clearly malevolent? I still don’t completely understand why the officers didn’t slip something into our pockets or make up a bogus law — I can only tentatively conclude that there was an allowable level of corruption that one or more of their consciences would permit, and to solicit a bribe outright would pass that threshold, at least in retrospect. All of us are guilty of mental gymnastics, and while embedded, systemic (also called “grand”) corruption is a different issue. I feel I understand, at least a bit better, how ordinary bureaucrats and the police are able to cut large corners and remain convinced that, in the end, they’re still performing a public good. My concluding thoughts, then, are more conciliatory than definitive. I suppose humans do weird, contradictory shit all the time, and still manage to more or less reach the clearly insufficient six hours of sleep at night all the same.


Jeremy Klemin studied Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh for his MSc. You can find other pieces of his in This is Africa, 3:AM Magazine, and The Flaneur. He can be found on Twitter @JeremyKlemin. 


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