24 May 2004

Bulgarian Wrestlers versus Democrats

I regret having to dump a tub of icewater over our (or at least my) enthusiasm for the "Black Sea Mafia" in Japanese sumo, but a "differently informed" perspective on the origins of these wrestlers needs to be considered. The following passage begins the chapter titled, "Wrestlers versus Democrats," in Robert D. Kaplan's book Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Vintage, 2000).
Within twenty-four hours of crossing into Bulgaria by train from Romania, I had begun hearing two words over and over again: wrestlers and groupings, with an emphasis on Multigroup, the Orion Group, and the Tron Group. "They run the country," I was told, or at the least were as palpable a presence in people's lives as the elected government. In early May 1998, a few weeks after I left Bulgaria, Anna Zarkova, a local journalist who had exposed these groups in her articles for the daily Trud, was doused with sulfuric acid hurled at her face at a bus stop. Zarkova, the mother of two children, lost her left ear and the sight in one eye as a result of the attack. For this reason, I cannot name the private citizens who gave me the following information without endangering their lives.

In the Communist era, Bulgaria had a great Olympic wrestling tradition. When the regime favorites lost their subsidies, many of them went into racketeering--with the help of their friends from the security services--and amassed tremendous wealth during the power vacuum that followed the regime's collapse. A close friend, a Bulgarian woman in her mid-twenties who specializes in human-rights cases, told me:

"The wrestlers are all big and tough, with cell phones, fancy cars, Versace suits, and young girls on their arms. All their girlfriends look alike: thin, with blond hair and vacuous expressions, and adorned with gold. At a restaurant where a meal cost more than most Bulgarians make in a month, I heard one of these girls repeat over and over to her wrestler boyfriend, 'This is so cheap. I can't believe how cheap this is....' The wrestlers and their girls go to expensive nightclubs with loud music, where go-go dancers sing cheesy lyrics, like 'I love shopska [peasant's] salad.' We all know that our cars will be stolen if they are not 'insured' with one of the wrestlers' insurance companies. Another name for the wrestlers is the moutras--the 'scary faces.' We are all repulsed by their behavior, but we have to deal with them. This is a country where people have put their life savings into sugar and flour because of inflation [and where the monthly salary is $140], yet there is a criminal class with stolen Audis and Mercedes."

I saw the wrestlers frequently in Sofia. A late-model high-performance car would screech to a halt, muscular men in fashionable clothes would emerge with cell phones, wearing enough cologne to be noticeable from fifteen feet away. The boss would occasionally have two beautiful women with him, one on each arm. It was both frightening and pathetic. Their expensive homes, on the slopes of Mount Vitosha, above the haze of pollution that hovers over Sofia, were surrounded by two-story-high brick walls and punctuated with satellite dishes. Nearby sprawled a vast Gypsy settlement of muddy shacks, growling dogs milling about.

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