Letter from Thessaloniki

Bulgaria has long been labeled one of Europe’s crime capitals and, in fact, the country is heavily implicated in the ongoing international trafficking of women for prostitution, in political corruption, unemployment epidemics and bureaucracy, and is also branded as a state that is having huge problems meting out justice. How do I know all this? Well, because the Golden Umbrella Festival in Albena on the Black Sea coast, an international media events festival already in its 12th year, the biggest of its kind in Southeastern Europe, where I have just participated as a member of the jury last week, gave me the opportunity to watch some of most critical documentaries and TV reports on current Bulgarian life. This festival is wooing foreign investors and buyers from both the periphery of the developed world to the middle echelons of the European Union. Similar to the Greek «only-bad-news-is-interesting-news» approach to reporting everyday events, the Bulgarian state and private TV channels – only slightly worse than their Greek cousins – sparkled as a showcase of Balkan malfeasance. Reports like Vasil Ivanov’s  «Corruption in the Central Sofia Prison» by Nova TV, akin to Athens’s ANT-1 TV, full of perversions and sexual harassment, or Tsvetanka Rizova’s interview with the prosecutor-in-chief, in which Nikolai Lilchev explains the roots of organized crime in the country, stating that they can be found in the criminal nature of the privatization process, plus documentaries like «Babies Traded in Greece» by Daniela Trencheva, describing infants sold in Larissa, are just a few examples. The festival’s big prize, however, went to the excellent documentary «Fallujah – the Hidden Massacre,» produced by Radiotelevisione Italiana about the use of chemical weapons (white phosphorous) against civilians in Iraq in 2004. From the outrages at Abu Ghraib to the inferno of Fallujah, the conclusion is that it seems hard for American troops to distinguish between the enemy and the innocent. The recent killing of as many as 24 Iraqi civilians by a group of marines in the town of Haditha last November only confirms this. With its busy, youthful vibe, though not as many eccentric characters as in similar West European festivals, Albena’s «Golden Umbrella» with its sandy beach and low-income foreign tourists, is a natural setting for a TV reality show comedy. An important section of the festival was dedicated to entertainment programs. The mass entertainment so typical of Greek nightlife has already taken hold of the holiday resorts on the Black Sea coast, where the entire spectrum of the popular Greek record industry has its own enthusiastic following. Sure, there is no doubt that 17 years after the fall of communism the image of the Balkans has changed drastically. The urge to break away from past practices is so strong here that some Bulgarian politicians say on camera that they have refused to do planning because the communists planned, or to use slogans reminiscent of communist ones. On the way to the EU, the national economy might not have fully developed, but certainly it has come a long way since the first difficult years of the early 1990s. Rising standards have allowed greater consumerism and entertainment, not to mention mass migration toward the south. There is a great – if unverifiable – number of Bulgarians working right now in Greece. The 12 points that Bulgaria endowed to Greece during the last Eurovision song contest shows that in coming into closer contact with us, the Bulgarians have also developed a more positive image of Greece – something which was not the case in the past. As Bulgaria hurries now to meet the requirements to join the EU as scheduled on January 1, 2007, Bulgarian ministers have to accept at least two EU-related measures daily during the coming year. In her 40-minute documentary «A Hundred Questions Concerning the European Union,» Buriana Angelakieva stresses the positive and negative aspects of the pre-entry process. (What impressed me at this festival was that even the predominantly male image of the Balkans [tough, barbarian warriors] seems to have crumbled, at least on TV: It has mainly been women reporters and anchors who have figured as the crucial force in the process of redefining the Balkans on TV screens.) Not everybody appears to be content with what is presently happening in Bulgaria on its way to the EU. In his book «The Truth That Killed,» author Georgi Markov observes: «We are subjected to the impact of far more factors and forces than the Western citizen can imagine. While the citizen in the West is constantly striving to acquire even more, our main instinct is to preserve what we have.» Happily, there is little doubt that this region will attract more attention in the future as a transition zone characterized by rigorous internal transformation. But what until then? National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals. A nation that does not evoke enough pride in its people will find it hard to tap their capacity for achievement and sacrifice. Those with no pride in their country will have no motivation to seek their personal growth. Thus, since Bulgaria’s team didn’t qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a big fuss was made at the private BTV channel over a minor Bulgarian triumph. Raya Gronkova, a 32-year-old violinist, was among those who accompanied «Il Divo» and Toni Braxton as they performed during the opening ceremony in Munich, it was proudly reported.

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