Teachers and priests go begging in Sofia

You can find Father Serapheim in the middle of Sofia at an intersection just down the road from the Sheraton-Balkan Hotel, not far from offices of the government and the president. In his threadbare cassock, Father Serapheim stands for hours with one hand stretched out and the other holding an icon of the Virgin. He came to Sofia from a town in the north, hoping to live off the charity of anyone who might have a spare leva for another human being. «I’m tired of our rulers’ promises and the infighting among church leaders. I have nothing to eat; that’s why I’m out on the street,» he told us. Father Serapheim is just one of thousands of beggars in the Bulgarian capital trying to survive on the philanthropy of others or searching through garbage bins in the hope of finding a not-too-stale tin of food or an empty aluminum can to sell for recycling. «If you sit by a garbage can for half an hour, you’ll see at least a dozen people stop and rifle through the rubbish. Some are looking for cans, others for cardboard to protect them from the cold, some for food,» said Nikolai, a shopkeeper on Maria Louisa Street. «Most of these people are not who we would usually imagine begging. Some of them are civil service pensioners, teachers, intellectuals on the poverty line who have no other option,» we were told by a Bulgarian journalist who preferred to remain anonymous. The large number of beggars in Bulgaria today are a reflection of the difficulties faced by the middle and lower classes due to the harsh economic policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund over the past few years in an attempt to create conditions for long-term economic growth and in turn improve the standard of living. It is a policy that has driven 60 percent of the population down to the poverty line. In this particularly cold winter, most households have no heating because the owners’ paltry wages cannot be stretched to pay for fuel. Many families move in with relatives and rent out their own to foreign students or businessmen in order to boost their income. Two million of Bulgaria’s population of 8 million are pensioners, living on 30-50 euros per month. Maintenance costs for an apartment, including heating, are of the order of 100 euros. A kilo of meat costs half a monthly pension. These people are not sure they will be around to enjoy the economic prosperity which their leaders promise will follow Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union and NATO, and which is the reason for the austerity policies. The government of the former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, came to power last June promising pay and pension increases, tax breaks and an improved standard of living within 800 days. However, the former monarch’s plans were soon dashed by the IMF, resulting in the cancellation of some government handouts and tax deductions in order to shore up the 2002 budget. The prime minister’s popularity has plummeted from the 44 percent he received in the elections to 13 percent, according to polls, and he appears to have lost the trust of the majority of the electorate. This does not automatically lead, as it would in other countries, to rapid political developments, although some western analysts claim that fresh elections should not be ruled out. The strength of the inexperienced Simeon, say political commentators in Sofia, lies in the weakness of his rivals, the socialist and center-right opposition. The government has managed to remain in power because the socialists, although gaining ground among voters who elected the socialist leader Giorgi Purvanov as president of the republic, prefer «constructive opposition» to assuming the burden of solving the economic crisis. The center-right, meanwhile, is busy settling accounts within its own ranks. In any case, the IMF does not permit any divergence from policy, no matter who is governing. Priority is on joining NATO and the EU, but this is a long way off, and for most people, just surviving from day to day is becoming more and more difficult. Despite the austerity policy of recent years, official unemployment stands at 17 percent, although the unions put it at above 20 percent. The trade deficit is growing, sales of industrial products are falling, while organized crime and corruption make the government’s effort to impose healthy conditions in the private and public sector even more difficult. One wonders what can be done, given the circumstances. Bulgaria’s leaders are calling for patience, but as any Bulgarian will tell you, patience is all they have had for the past 12 years. The collapse of the IMF’s policy in Argentina has cast fear in the hearts of some western politicians and economists as to what could happen in Bulgaria, if that patience ever gives way to desperation.

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