Bulgarian mafia bosses, Albanian drug lords, and the 'Umbrella Assassin' - welcome to John Hamilton's world
Issue 6, March 2007
by Lucy Cooper; photography by Dragomir Ushev; illustration by Gergana Shkodrova
These figures from the dark underbelly of society seem strangely at odds with the dashing, yet unassuming person of British journalist John Hamilton. But beneath the quintessential English chap lie nerves of steel – “I always get very nervous before interviews,” Hamilton bashfully admits before revealing that his most nerve wracking experience was interviewing an Albanian drug lord whose pizza joint had just been blown up by a rocket propelled grenade.
Hamilton lived in Bulgaria from 1997 to 2001, during which time he covered the infamous case of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident killed in London by a poisoned umbrella, interviewed kings and mafia bosses, and was witness to the changes in a Bulgaria shedding its Communist past and embarking on the road to the EU. His experiences inspired a book Chashata na Gadetelkata or The Cup of the Soothsayer, released in Bulgaria last December, relating Hamilton's Bulgarian experiences alongside the country's own “post-Communist adventure”. The English edition of the book is due out soon under the title The Good Balkans.
Why did you decide to move to Bulgaria in 1997?
I picked out the country by looking at a map of Europe. Bulgaria was the least known country I could find. An editor in London then told me that if I could understand what was really going on there, I could go anywhere and work out what was going on. The challenge decided me.
What are the biggest changes, for the better and for the worse that you have witnessed in the country since that time?
The best change has been that there is so much more going on in Bulgaria and so many more opportunities for Bulgarians. This is most visible in Sofia which has become a really great and lively city.
The worst change has been an underlying psychological one, which is the growing cynicism of many people and is so at odds with the advances that have been made on the surface. It seems bitterly ironic that in spite of the country's entry into the EU many people are deeply disillusioned with the government and its leadership.
Why did you leave in 2001?
After five years in the country I felt I had to make a decision. I either had to pick up my old life in England or let a huge part of it go. It wasn't an easy decision. Bulgaria is a permanent part of my life now too.
Where is home now?
My home is in London, but recently I have been travelling a huge amount, including to Bulgaria and also to Spain, where my wife is from.
Please tell us about Chashata na Gadetelkata. What inspired you to write it? What is it about?
My book is a memoir not only of my experiences in Bulgaria, but also of the country's own post-Communist adventure. I was impelled to write it after meeting so many remarkable people and having so many fascinating adventures in the country. I filled it with insights into history, politics and anthropology. But I've tried to keep it personal too, to give a feeling for the country rather than just facts and figures. It is going to be published in English in a month or so under the title The Good Balkans. To make life even more complicated my English penname is Jack Hamilton.
What was your most nerve-wracking experience as a journalist in Bulgaria?
I always get very nervous before big interviews and when I have to ask questions at press conferences – even minor ones. But I think my actual most scary experience was trying to ask an Albanian drug lord in Tetotovo in Macedonia about his brother who had been imprisoned in Austria for smuggling. This man's pizza parlour had just been wasted by a rocket propelled grenade, so he wasn't in a good mood. OK, it didn't happen in Bulgaria, but next door!
The most interesting and the most difficult interview you did in Bulgaria?
The most difficult one was the interview that never happened. Although I spoke to King Simeon on the campaign trail, I never sat down to ask him a prepared list of questions. But having read many other journalists' efforts it seems like he is impossible to get good answers from. One of the most interesting was with Iliya Pavlov, reportedly then Bulgaria's richest man and because of what he didn't, or couldn't, say. Pavlov was shot in the heart on 7 March 2003. He was CEO of Multigroup, widely believed by foreign intelligence to have been one of Bulgaria's largest mafia organisations involved in laundering money for the former Communist regime.
Which two Bulgarians, alive or dead, would you most like to interview, what would you ask them?
I would love to interview Vasil “the Skull” Bozhkov to ask him if he is worried about being Bulgaria's richest man – considering what happened to the previous two. As for dead Bulgarians, I bet Stefan Stambolov (1854 -1895) could say a few things about how the country was put together. He was a Bulgarian revolutionary and statesman, considered to be one of the most important and popular “Founders of Modern Bulgaria.”
How did you get involved in reporting on the Georgi Markov case?
No English reporter working in Bulgaria could fail to be interested in this story. So many journalists have uncovered different parts of the truth about this murder, and still there is more to know.
What developments, if any, do you expect to see in the case now?
I am sure that one day compelling information will come out of the Bulgarian archives that will make it impossible for the Bulgarian state to avoid taking responsibility.
Do you think Bulgaria's Secret Service archives should be opened?
I have no doubt that they should be. I know that many Bulgarians think the idea is irrelevant and unpleasant. But future generations need to know what happened under Communism. I don't care so much about who was a chenge. But I look forward to knowing about the decisions, the systems, the processes, in other words, the mechanism of that evil regime.
How free is the Bulgarian media?
On the face of it completely free, but in fact deeply constrained. There are so many things which the press either is prevented from writing about, or else prevents itself from writing about.
Do you think the coverage of Bulgaria in British media in the runup to accession was unfairly critical?
I wish they had criticised some things more strongly, for instance all that corrupt shenanigans about the free shops. But the fear of a great wave of Bulgarians “swamping” Britain was sad and mistaken. The paradox is that being able to travel freely will make it easier for many Bulgarians to make lives for themselves at home.
What do you think are the biggest challenges now facing Bulgaria?
To find a fresh vision for the people to look towards now that it is a member of the EU and they are waking up to the fact that their lives are not all that different from how they were before.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers