BULGARIA SOCIETY

FACING THE PAST, BUT FAILING TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE

In its short post-Communist history Bulgaria has tried, with varying success, to slough off elements of its past and its behaviour as a Balkan nation where Communist-era propaganda used to distort or ban outright any public debate. These elements include, but are not limited to, the historically controversial figure of King Boris III, Bulgaria's last king. A war-time ally of Hitler, he was father to Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the country's prime minister in 2001-2005.

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MILITSIONERSHTINA

The pun is unintended and probably bad, but if you can't pronounce the headline of this article you are unlikely to understand what is really going on in Bulgaria under Boyko Borisov and Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

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SECURITY BITES

In the wake of the Burgas terrorist attack Bulgaria's top policeman, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, announced "tightened" security measures to prevent possible further attacks. These include "enhanced protection" of Israeli and Jewish sites throughout the country, as well as a greater police presence at coach and railway stations, and on the Sofia underground.

Are they working?

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TOLERANT PESSIMISTS

According to a public opinion survey on www.opendata.bg conducted by the Open Society Institute-Sofia, in May 2012, more than half of the Bulgarians consider the present conditions in the country "unbearable." A mere six percent say they feel satisfied. The pessimists who think the situation has deteriorated make up 13 percent, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 2011. This, however, does spell more happiness, but can be explained with the fact that a higher 32 percent of those interviewed say that in 2012 things are as bad as they were the previous year.

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STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE

Health and social issues, education and culture, integration of minorities, ecological and human rights problems: NGOs could bring a lot of positive change to crisis-struck and austerity-crippled Bulgaria, but they are failing to deliver. The NGO sector in Bulgaria is struggling to survive and is in a state of severe internal crisis, as shown by the annual report of the non-government sector of USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development.

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BIRALI BIRALI

Ever since Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 the relationship between the Christian majority and the sizeable Muslim minority (an estimated 1 million in 2012) has been, at best, controversial. Immediately after independence Bulgarian sentiments towards those Turks who had stayed behind in Bulgarian territory was mainly tolerant. However, various campaigns throughout the years leading to the Second World War were aimed at "Bulgarianising" the Bulgarian Muslims by name-changing, various religious repercussions and so on.

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BULGARIAN TRAGEDY

At first sight, this looks like an improbable chain of events that ended in tragedy, such as could happen anywhere in the world. However, the details expose what many Bulgarians would see as a typically Bulgarian mixture of stupidity, negligence, poverty and criminal indifference that has come to characterise life in the EU's newest member state over the past few years.

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OUT IN THE VILLAGES

Britons buying in rural Bulgaria came here to acquire property and land at rock bottom prices. Considering the language and cultural differences, the time constraints and the plentiful enterprises established primarily to separate them from their money, the vast majority seem to have ended up with more or less exactly what they had hoped for. Whether they were aware of it at the time of purchase or not, they were also committing financially, emotionally and physically to their new, declining rural communities.

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DREAM OR NIGHTMARE

By the dawn of 2002 most Britons’ optimism for the New Millennium was already fading. We began to realise New Labour was just Old Tory with a more sophisticated PR machine. The current economic crisis was beginning to look inevitable and the cost of living was on the increase. As a nation, we hunkered down and turned to our favourite distraction for solace and escape – television.

Programmes like A Place in the Sun and No Going Home held the nation captivated.

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FOREIGN AND STUDYING IN BULGARIA

Twenty-five years ago, when Communism was alive and kicking, foreigners on Bulgarian streets were a rarity and mostly restricted to the Black Sea resorts and some major tourist sights. Otherwise, most of the visible non-Bulgarian faces in the country were in the cities with major universities. There, young people from the Arab countries mingled with Vietnamese and South Africans, the result of Communist Bulgaria's propaganda of the Socialist lifestyle outside Europe.

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BULGARIANS ABROAD

The history of Bulgarian emigration is long and complicated. These descendants of Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians, who themselves arrived in the Balkans about 1,400 years ago, have rarely been afraid to set off in search of a better future elsewhere. At the beginning of the 19th Century whole villages moved to Russia after its unsuccessful wars with the Ottomans. When the Titanic sank in 1912, dozens of Bulgarians from poor mountain villages disappeared with her, indicative of the mass migration to the United States.

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BLAME GAMES AND CRISIS PR

Instead of asking the uncomfortable questions, most of the media preferred to run after coverage hungry politicians. Even on the very day of the disaster, the reports from Biser were less about the victims and the destruction and more about Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

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HARSH LESSONS LEARNED?

Before 2012 the village of Biser was known only vaguely to Bulgarians as the setting for the romantic poem "The Spring of the White-Legged Girl" by the Revival Period poet Petko Slaveykov. But in February 2012 harrowing images of the bucolic community were not only reaching the rest of Bulgaria but also the wider world. In a brutal winter, that will be remembered across Europe for years to come, Biser for a short time seized and surpassed all other headlines.

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DAY IN, DAY OUT

An increasing number of economists, as well as ordinary citizens, view the economic policies of Boyko Borisov's establishment as being, at the very least, "inconsistent." They claim that they are designed to keep the state coffers in order, while impoverishing the middle class and crushing whatever small and medium-sized businesses still survive the ongoing crisis.

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HOW CORRECT?

Theoretically, data produced by an EU government, with the possible exception of Greece, should be trusted. At the same time, the Bulgarians have this joke about the three levels of lies. There is a small lie, there is a big lie, and then there is statistics...

So, how correct is the data produced by the 2011 census?

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NO PHOTOGRAPHY!!!

For a country that is spending hundreds of thousands of euros trying to create an image of itself as a tourist destination where a rich ancient history combines with modern, high-tech sports facilities, all amply seasoned with plenty of shopska salata, Bulgaria can be surprisingly restrictive when it comes to one of the main pastimes of tourists: taking pictures.

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POLYTHENE PEST

One of the most disgusting peculiarities of life in Bulgaria is the ubiquitous polythene bag referred to by locals as potnik, or undershirt (because it is very thin and has two characteristic carrier strings, just like a potnik). You see these bags everywhere in Bulgaria, as vendors sell you anything from bread and banichki to ground coffee and raw meat in these cheap little bags. They are generously doled out by chemists, sock-sellers, food stalls in the market and bookshops, even though getting warm banichki or raw meat in one of them is a horribly messy business.

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NEW SCAMS ON THE BLOCK

If you read the newspapers either in Bulgaria or abroad you will get the largely correct impression that Bulgaria in 2011 is a state where organised crime and politics have – somewhat uniquely even by Balkan standards – amalgamated themselves into a far-reaching network of corruption and nepotism. The sole purpose of this is quite simple: to steal money either from the state coffers or from ordinary taxpayers, from EU funds allocated to various projects or even from Western NGOs which donate to what they think are worthy causes.

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ESCAPE TO BULGARIA?

The fear of being caught and returned home. Nightmares of policemen, sirens and submachine guns. A constant feeling of being pursued, feeling unsafe. Cold sweat down your back when someone asks to see your documents. All of that might sound far-fetched, but not if you are considered an illegal immigrant in Bulgaria. When you are running away from your country there is always the fear that your escape might be foiled. 

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NOT SO VESELIE*

What should a Bulgarian do? Believe his or her eyes and common sense, or take in whatever is fed to them by omnipotent Civil Service officials, who can be maddeningly rigid in their attempts to stick to the letter of the law, while sometimes completely ignoring its spirit?

The case of Veselie, until a few years ago one of the last development-free sites on the Bulgarian southern Black Sea coast, provides an excellent, if completely absurd illustration.

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