Letter from Sofia

«It is really some crazy situation, isn’t it?» says old communist Angel Wagenstein, after Bulgaria’s former Communist Party – the Bulgarian Socialist Party – was the top vote-getter in the country’s general elections last week. «It is now the Bulgarian Socialist Party which should help build capitalism in Bulgaria,» said the 82-year-old internationally acclaimed author, prize-winning filmmaker and former diplomat and parliamentarian. «That illustrates some of the paradoxes of current Bulgarian politics.» Led by 39-year-old historian Sergei Stanishev, the Bulgarian Socialist Party is expected to cooperate with pro-business parties to build a coalition for a new government. Stanishev attracted voters by promising better wages and healthcare and more jobs. He also changed the party’s image, downplaying its former image as a Soviet-era apparatus. Instead, he talked about the party’s modern attitudes, such as its support for EU accession. Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg and his center-right National Movement came in second. It was a blow to the former royal’s party, which had won in a landslide in 2001. The current foreign minister told reporters that the National Movement lost because it paid «the political price for very painful reforms» carried out so that Bulgaria could join NATO and the European Union. The Communists had ousted Saxe-Coburg once before – when he was the 9-year-old child-king Simeon II. Even now, people still call the 68-year-old prime minister «the czar.» He now says he wants to try organic farming on one his family’s royal estates. There were 22 parties participating in the latest election in Bulgaria. All of them failed to get an outright majority. To run the country, the Bulgarian Socialist Party must form a coalition with one or two centrist parties. But this week, Bulgaria’s wait for a new government will likely end. Until late last night, the Bulgarian Socialist Party was trying to form a possible coalition with Ahmed Dogan, the leader of the mostly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms. A third party would need to join these two to reach a majority. But the new government faces a challenging year. Bulgaria is scheduled to enter the European Union on January 1, 2007, and the country must achieve key reforms before then. The change in government could mean a delay in accession by a year. Wagenstein predicts that Bulgaria’s 40th parliament must skip summer vacations «to make sure EU affairs go to plan.» Many Bulgarians are worried whether their country, and neighboring Romania, will make it into the EU by 2007. Brussels could deem both countries – which would be the poorest ones to join the EU – «manifestly unprepared to meet the requirements of membership.» Membership could be delayed by up to a year. Therefore, January 1, 2008 would be the latest possible membership date. But since the rejection of the European Constitution, even that date is unsure. In Germany, polls show that only a fourth of Germans approve of Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union. Some 70 percent of respondents approached by the Alensbach Institute said Bulgaria and Romania are not ready to join the bloc. Some Europeans fear that organized crime based in the two countries will expand its network into other European Union member states after the next 2007 expansion. Greece is also worried about this «danger from the north.» Mariano Simancas, who is the acting director for the European police, or Europol, said in a statement that «organized crime groups focus on facilitating illegal immigration and trafficking in human beings, because they consider this a low-risk crime with a high profit.» Currently, crime is seen as Bulgaria’s major weakness. A recent article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel mentioned that Bulgaria cannot join the EU before its judicial system is reformed. The anti-corruption measures promised by Saxe-Coburg are not working, the magazine claims. Seven parties will share the 240 seats in Bulgaria’s unicameral parliament. This is a political precedent because, until the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, there were no more than five parties who managed to pass the 4 percent threshold. «What came as the greatest shock to most of us was the fact that the ultra-nationalist coalition Ataka [‘attack’] that have been promoting shamelessly racist beliefs not only surpassed the threshold of 4 percent, but also gained a significant percentage, something like a shocking 7.9 percent,» Wagenstein said. «That makes them one of the most influential parties in the 40th Bulgarian parliament.» Why did these elections turn out this way? Wagenstein said there were many Bulgarians dissatisfied with the pace of reform in Saxe-Coburg’s government. «They are struggling with unemployment, poverty and economic hardship, which are traits for Bulgaria’s transition from communism to capitalism,» Wagenstein said. «There are always political forces eager to exploit this dissatisfaction.»

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