Letter from Sofia

One week ago, NATO’s Secretary-General Lord Robertson announced in Brussels that the alliance’s troops in Kosovo (where, incidentally, 96 Bulgarian policemen are serving) will intensify cooperation with UN police units to crack down on the territory’s thriving organized crime gangs. On the same day, Greek Orthodox Church leaders paid a historic visit to Pope John Paul II, Kathimerini’s Stavros Tzimas reported that Athens has begun to speed up efforts to activate the long-delayed Greek plan for Balkan reconstruction, which it announced in 1999, and Minister of Macedonia-Thrace Giorgos Paschalidis crossed the Greek-Bulgarian border for a two-day official visit to Bulgaria. During a snowstorm, the minister of Macedonia-Thrace (a job which, two decades ago, was plainly labeled minister of northern Greece ) first visited the construction site of one of the three new border crossings that will connect Gotche Delchef (former Ano Nevrokopi) with Exochi, Kato Nevrokopi, and Drama. This will give Bulgarian citizens – who no longer need a Greek visa to enter Greece – passageway to the Kavala harbor. He then drove on to Sofia. Incidentally, we journalists accompanying Mr Paschalidis on this trip were told that only 11 percent of those who had already passed through before the abolition of visa requirements – some 300,000 in all – did not return within the appropriate deadline. On the border the minister stated that his presence there was tangible proof of Greece’s desire «that the works can be hastened.» «I could, of course,» he continued, «say that there are slight delays as far as the project is concerned as a whole, but I am not here to lay the blame. I have come to show the willingness of both governments, because such discussions were made both by the Greek and the Bulgarian prime ministers, for these works to be completed quickly. We do not want roads leading nowhere.» Last Tuesday was a trying ministerial day, which included conferences with Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who has been promptly invited to a conference taking place on May 22 in Thessaloniki, plus with lesser government officials. The minister of Macedonia-Thrace also met with the newly elected president of the Union of Democratic Forces Party, former Foreign Minister Nadezda Michailova. Mr Paschalidis also met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Konstantin Paskalev, with whom he agreed to establish a joint Greek-Bulgarian Committee of Specialists to watch the course of the project concerning the opening of three new border crossings, and to also investigate «next time if their names have common roots» as the Greek politician said in jest. This contrasted with the gestureless common politicians in cast-iron suits. Mr Paschalidis is cool. The Bulgarian officials got what they so badly wanted to hear; namely, formal Greek support for the rather desperate efforts being made by Bulgaria to become a member of the EU and NATO. There is a still huge question-mark regarding that issue. In its March 11 Country Monitor issue, the authoritative Economist Intelligence Unit reported that it is unlikely that Bulgaria will join the EU in the next wave of expansion, despite encouraging comments from western European politicians. «Although we doubt that Bulgaria will be able to meet the technical conditions for NATO membership by the alliance’s Prague summit in November 2002, some western countries are emphasizing the risks of a «double exclusion (from EU and NATO) of Bulgaria and Romania,» the analysis emphasizes. In Sofia, the conventional wisdom currently is: «Politicians, all politicians, are crooks; in the end, everyone betrays.» Not unlike Greeks, Bulgarians will repeat these words to one another, not only when the time comes to elect a president, a member of Parliament or a mayor; and then they will either stay home on election day or, with due resignation, drag themselves off to the polling station to cast yet another vote for the two main parties, which seem to be the only ones in the electoral contest. Demoralized citizens here see corruption as a way of life that the international community tolerates for the sake of political compliance. Last Sunday’s dailies reported that senior policemen have been fired in Plovdiv for poor performance and suspicions of corruption. The only hope seems to be a membership in the (somehow better functioning) European Union. Who could resist? This Monday, the EU’s chief negotiator with Bulgaria, Michael Leigh, from the Enlargement Directorate General of the European Commission, arrives in Sofia for the Wilton Park Conference (March 18-21) on EU Enlargement. Michael Leigh is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, Deputy Foreign Minister and Chief Accession Negotiator for Bulgaria Meglena Kouneva, and National Assembly European Integration Committee Chairman Daniel Vulchev. All of them are quite powerless. He would better meet with Boyko Borissov (note : not OUR Kathimerini correspondent with the same name, but Interior Ministry Chief Secretary General Boyko Borissov, a national Zorro-like anti-corruption hero about whom rumors circulated last week that he was going to replace Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as prime minister. «Nonsense,» he commented from Kosovo, where he is on a visit. «They have crushed me mentally,» said the general, adding: «I know where I started from, I know who I am. I was only the prime minister’s bodyguard.» OUR Boyko Borissov lamented to me: «Do you know how many requests for interviews I get every day? We are both listed in the Sofia telephone-directory.») It is not just idle speculation. At present, «8 percent of Bulgarians stand at the top of the social stratification pyramid and account for 30 percent of all consumption,» as Kantso Stotsev, managing director of BBSS Gallup international recently declared. Gallup projects that the purchasing power of the population will decrease 6 to 8 percent in 2002. Currently, 42 percent of all Bulgarians live on income generated by the gray economy. Taking into account the projected rise of unemployment rate from 20 to 24 percent, due to redundancies in the civil service, one can easily comprehend why Sunday’s Bulgarian press gives prominent coverage of the results of an opinion poll conducted by the MBMD opinion research agency made public on Saturday. «SNM [the ruling Simeon II National Movement] is being reduced to a third political force,» read a front-page headline in the Monitor. Sure enough, the also-published response of Prime Minister Saxe-Coburg-Gotha has been prompt: «I do not work with ratings. Confidence is something one has to win every day with one’s work and not with polls,» but most people here are convinced that the ex-king «is out.»

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