When the archives of the former Bulgarian State Security services were opened, one writer remembered with amazement an odd day of his life. Each of the members of his family, even his neighbors, had been summoned by various state institutions under different pretexts at the exact same time. Years later, reading his state security dossier, he learned that security agents had needed to empty out his house in order to install eavesdropping devices.
Nowadays, it is hardly necessary to orchestrate such complicated operations just to eavesdrop on someone. No computer or phone is absolutely secure. Critics argue that eavesdropping is just as common in a democratic state than in a communist one. Both can track correspondence, tap phone conversations, and surveil their citizens. Does Big Brother control not only Orwell’s Oceania but also every country in the world?
With this in mind, do we have the moral right to claim that security services differ in democratic and in communist regimes? This question can only be raised by people living in a democracy. For those who have lived under communism, the answer is clear. The difference stems from the nature of the communist regime. The examples listed here are from Bulgaria, but the context is surely comparable to the Soviet Union in the 70s, Cuba in the 90s and North Korea in 2017.
The first difference is that special services under communism inflict “extrajudicial repressions,” either hard (jail, concentration camp) or soft (so-called “administrative measures”). These punishments, carried out on the commands of top Communist Party leadership, are inflicted without a judicial order or an independent verdict. During the 1940s and 1950s thousands of people in Bulgaria were sent to concentration camps under no higher authority than the signature of the Deputy Minister for Internal Affairs and Head of State Security.
In the mid-1960s, Bulgaria’s concentration camps were shut down, but State Security continued its extrajudicial measures. Through the end of the 80s, the security services continued using “administrative measures,” a euphemism for arbitrary, unappealable punishments. In a system characterized by myriad administrative restrictions, there were innumerable points at which citizens could be “tripped.” They might be denied the residence permit necessary to live in a certain city, permission to attend university, or the exit visa required to leave the country, with absolutely no need for the state to justify its decision or to reveal the reasons behind it. Who did the “tripping”? State security services had the right to interfere with the state’s administrative procedures at any time, again with no need to prove that their decision was justified, proportionate, or reasonable.
Secondly, there were no fixed rules that defined who got on the security services’ radar or why. A jealous husband or quarrelsome neighbor’s claim that a person was telling “anti-state jokes” could be enough to deny him or her an exit visa. Far from being a fanciful example, this is based on real cases from State Security records. In the words of the Bulgarian philosopher Assen Ignatov, the only discernable pattern explaining who was subject to state security’s “administrative measures” was the “lottery principle.”
This arbitrariness was a strength. It was felt intuitively by the citizens, forcing them to fear others, to trust only their closest relatives and to distrust most strongly the neighbors and colleagues they interacted with the most. Citizens knew they could be “tripped” at any moment. Thus state security controlled society as a whole without needing to control every individual.
The third and most important difference is a function of the previous two: the absolute lack of judicial oversight of the security services. Bulgarian State Security required no permission from any external state authority to take action, whether that meant bugging someone’s phone or forcefully displacing them from their home and depriving them of education or work. At first glance, some of these measures might look “soft” or even pain-free, but when they are applied continuously for decades, they instill a distrust that permeates the entire structure of society.
For the sake of objectivity, it is necessary to point out that democratic states sometimes extend security services’ prerogatives through special legislation, as the US did after 9/11. However, the services remain under the control of independent institutions, civil society, and the media. Moreover, the additional power given to the security agencies is restricted to concrete categories of crime and their potential perpetrators, and reaching across these lines can have high political and juridical costs. This situation is incomparable to the limitless power security services enjoy in communist countries.
Do we have the moral right to insist that security services in democratic countries are different from those in communist regimes, after all? Indeed, we do. The distinction lies in the consequences of the actions of these services. In a democracy one can remain free even if one poses a potential danger to society—mere suspicion is not enough to warrant an arrest. By contrast, under communism, one can be sent to a concentration camp or jail or have one’s life ruined through no fault of one’s own. Indeed, this means that it is more likely for a potential criminal to go free in a democracy. But all this proves is that freedom is a matter of choice, and that it has a price.