Letter from Sofia

«The infamous green line which divides nations, sometimes also happens to pass through bedrooms!» Greek troubadour Dionysis Savvopoulos was obviously in a confessional mood when last Friday evening he addressed a full auditorium at the NDK concert hall in Sofia. He recounted stories about his mother’s side of the family, which came from Philippoupolis (Plodviv) and concluded: «We, the peoples of the Balkans, love each other without really knowing it. We all grew up in the same house, which was Byzantium. Right now, we should head toward Europe and regain our common culture. God bless Bulgaria!» Then he proceeded to perform his older hits, which also included protest songs from, past, though not forgotten wars. «Vietnam-Yeah-Yeah» (1963) was among them. Incidentally, I very strongly doubted whether the largely Bulgarian audience particularly appreciated this one. Yet how could Savvopoulos («Nionios» to friends) ever have known that he happened to be in one of the most fervent pro-American countries of the present day? Notwithstanding, his concert, titled the «Balkan Cyclists,» was a considerable success. What surprised me, though, at the indispensable soutzoukakia party afterwards was the presence of a young North Korean diplomat among the guests, who spoke perfect modern Greek. The mystery was quickly solved: Pyongyang, I was told, had sent four or five young diplomats to Sofia, so they could learn correct Greek at Sofia University’s Modern Greek Department (presided over by the admirable Professor Sonya Poromanska). Why did they study Greek? But of course, for their prospective embassy in Greece. Any time now… Having experienced one of the most difficult transition periods among the post-Communist countries, Bulgaria (population, 7.9 million) nowadays has only one wish: prosperity. EU and NATO membership (not necessarily in that order) is the common goal of all parties. Even the young leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, the reformed communist party) debonair Sergei Stanishev (born in 1966) confirmed last Saturday morning when I met him in his office at the party’s headquarters in Positano Street that the major political force of Coalition For Bulgaria is also opting for the Atlantic alliance. Yet he also believes that the «EU should be able to prove its security policy by itself.» And speaking of the war in Iraq, he very diplomatically pointed out that «the first victim of this war was the unity of the anti-terrorist coalition.» Nonetheless, the transformation from communism is proving to be costly. Bulgaria seems to be caught between pleasant-sounding political guarantees from abroad and the reality of economic chaos at home. Although the 2002 budget envisaged economic growth of 4 percent, other reports say that at that rate, the country would still need some 20 years to reach the point where it was back in 1989. Happily, the worst years, 1993-1998, when poverty reached its nadir, are over. That was a terrible time, with strict food rationing and shortages of basic goods. Once again, last week there was a bit of trouble in domestic Bulgarian politics. «Nonsense! Don’t worry! Don’t give them (the UDF opposition) any credit. You’ll see! Nothing will happen. It’s not even worth mentioning anything in your article. Presently, everyone’s immediate goal is increased Western integration, accession to the European Union, and – of course – joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.» So a local journalist friend told me. He was right. All the turmoil had been forgotten in two days’ time. Now the goal is prosperity. Last February, when President George W. Bush met the Bulgarian PM in Washington, it was announced that Bulgaria would be treated «like a NATO member.» And when, at that time, premier Simeon Saxe-Coburg was asked what the country could expect after the war, he answered meaningfully, «President Bush said that he stands by his friends!» Now is the time to prove it. Last Saturday, Bulgaria’s Deputy Economy Minister Milen Keremedchiev announced that 220 Bulgarian firms had tabled their applications for participation in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. Only days before that, the Bulgarian Parliament approved the dispatching of a 500-strong battalion to Iraq. The present government is headed by a former king – and, later in his professional career, a successful businessman in Madrid. Simeon Saxe-Coburg became prime minister in June 2001 when his National Movement for Simeon II (NDS), won 120 seats in Parliament, one short of an outright majority. He (there are some in Bulgaria who still address him as His Majesty) chose to lead a coalition, together with representatives of ethnic Turks, who make up some 10 percent of the population. «There are some 600,000 more Bulgarians coming…» my journalist friend instructed me. «They are those ethnic Turks who left Bulgaria for Turkey in the Zhivkov years, in the late ’80s, and are now applying for their old Bulgarian passports, thinking that soon – in 2007 – it will be a Euro-passport.» Simeon, as he is widely called here, promised to bring Bulgaria into the European Union and NATO, to fight corruption and to secure rapid, steady economic growth. Bulgaria’s admission is generally regarded as part of an historic process to overcome the divisions of a continent. Yet Brussels knows only too well that the costs of keeping Bulgaria’s (and Romania’s) economy stable could far outweigh its means in such difficult times. And it’s not only from the economic point of view that EU entry criteria pose major difficulties for Bulgaria. Unbelievable corruption, a weak judiciary and discrimination against the Gypsy, or Roma, minority also worry Brussels. Also, there is the highly critical issue of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, which supplies around half of Bulgaria’s electricity and earns millions of dollars for the country in electricity exports. Now, under pressure from the EU, the Bulgarians half-heartedly agreed to shut the two oldest reactors by 2006. During my stay in Bulgaria last week, there were many politicians that complained about the Greek presidency. I really didn’t expect that. «They should have completed the seven chapters that they have promised us, yet they did not. Who knows, perhaps it was because of the war in Iraq. Poor fellows, they have been so busy with that…,» they said – in private talks – with not-so-benevolent smiles. Romanians had similar reproaches one week ago. Only they formulated it more politely: «Now, we hope in the Italian presidency…»

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