Issue 63-64

THE DAY OF THE COCK

The cock was carefully chosen in the autumn and put on a special fattening diet, and now the proud bird struts around the yard like a king surveying his domain. Its days are numbered, however, because on the second day of February it is going to play the lead role in an ancient ritual.

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BOYANA CHURCH

Shivering in the biting cold of the Boyana Church, you look at the 13th Century portrait of Desislava and you wonder if this image, painted 100 years before Giotto revolutionised medieval art, is truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has Desislava (and the tourists around you) fallen victim of hype?

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STEFANO BENAZZO MODELING TOLLERANCE

"I am not more interested in tolerance than anyone else. I was just surprised to find that, in Bulgaria, there is such ethnic, linguistic and religious tolerance; a diversity without which Bulgarians would not have survived the last 800 years. I mean that this somehow even predates Ottoman rule, that something in the Bulgarian DNA made it possible for different people to live together. I know Katunitsa exists, and not only Katunitsa; I know what some people think.

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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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ARMY OF TROUBLES

In the 22 years since the end of Communism, the Bulgarian army underwent great changes. It was "depoliticised," and from being a staunch Warsaw Pact member became an enthusiastic NATO one. The draft was abolished in 2008 and women were allowed in active service. Bulgarian military missions went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and an American military training site appeared on Bulgarian soil. The number of military personnel was reduced to about 44,000.

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IN FOR A RIDE

A French girl emerges from Sofia Airport and, before she even looks round for a taxi, she is bombarded with offers of a ride into the city. Some even reach for the luggage in her hands and inform her insistently in broken English that they will give her the best possible price. The flustered girl picks one of the men in dingy track suits and lets him lead her to the yellow car, not suspecting that she is about to be ripped off to the tune of tens of euro for the short trip to the city centre. This scenario unfolds several times a day.

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A MONTH'S RENT

Back then I was broke, even broker than usual. Completely broke. This situation landed me straight behind the reception desk of a crappy hotel in the run-down part of downtown – where Sofia's buildings had shown enviable determination and had thumbed their noses at the bombs. Where Churchill said he planned to plant potatoes, I started working (relatively speaking) as an administrator. It was only for a month's rent's time, that reassured me, as did the word "administrator." The hotel wasn't from the time of the air-raids, but everyone thought it was. It was easy to get confused.

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ANNA

A biographical novel of Lev Tolstoy

Chapter 1

The engine shed in Yasenki was a low, gray building made of slatboard next to the rail line. A set of tracks emerged from beneath the door and angled onto the main set that led north. The door was slightly ajar. Several lines of footprints in the snow led across the tracks and to the doorway. Lev tied off his horse and followed the prints to the open doorway.

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HIDDEN SALONIKA

Thessaloniki is easy to describe. Even in a year of economic instability and rising prices, visiting it remains the quickest, easiest and undeniably the most pleasurable way of buying new clothes and overeating on excellent fish or meat. For centuries the busy port city has been one of the most cosmopolitan places in the Balkans; and where there is a diverse population, many and various stories invariably arise.

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FORGOTTEN VICTIMS

When you travel through Bulgaria you will most likely be stunned by the sheer number of ugly "heroic" monuments dotting the countryside. They all depict more or less one and the same thing: Soviet soldiers holding submachine guns, local peasants wearing raincoats and flat caps, busty women usually carrying a bunch of wheat stables. Stars, hammers and sickles – the symbols of Communism – are omnipresent, and so are plaques celebrating local partizani, or Second World War Communist resistance fighters.

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WHERE IN BULGARIA ARE YOU?

The reasons why a series of Bulgarian post-Communist governments decided to ruin the railways system are many and varied, but come down to the usual mixture of corruption, shortsightedness and the by now proverbial lack of interest in the public good.

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HIGH VOLTAGE

When Boyko Borisov came to power in 2009, he promised to review all the expensive energy contracts that bind Bulgaria to Russia. Two years passed. In June 2011 the Ministry of Economy, Energy and Transport issued its long-awaited strategy programme for the development of the energy sector. At the very beginning, the document openly pointed out that energy dependence on Russia is still one of the major issues of the Bulgarian economy. This country imports about 70 percent of its energy needs, mainly from the Russian Federation.

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C FOR CONFISCATION

Among the easiest ways of putting a mafia boss behind bars is to prove him guilty of tax evasion: Bulgarians seem to be well familiar with this rule of thumb. Brian de Palma's masterpiece The Untouchables is often run on Bulgarian cable TV, though not so much because of its cinematic qualities but because of its distant year of production and, accordingly, the low broadcasting rights.

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A WORLD OF VRAZKI

Boyko Borisov's government, which came to power in 2009 largely owing to its promise that it would fight corruption, has spectacularly failed to deliver. Instead of improving what many citizens view as a hopelessly corrupt society where nothing can be achieved unless you know and bribe the right people in the right places, it has got itself so enmeshed in the practices of its predecessors that Bulgaria has been downgraded, according to the Transparency International global annual index.

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NOT MY CUP OF TEA

GERB, the party led by former policeman and mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borisov, has ensured it conveniently controls most aspects of political and economic life in Bulgaria. Consequently, its chief lieutenant, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, is trying to impose his heavy-handed control over the country's judiciary.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

My daughter Daria is one little Socialist now but she will grow up to become a big Socialist.

BSP leader Sergey Stanishev

I don't have breakfast, I don't have lunch, I have only supper. I play football during my lunch break.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

The main conclusion is that television won over the refrigerator.

President Georgi Parvanov on the latest presidential and local elections

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FIRE HERE, FIRE THERE, FIRE EVERYWHERE

The arsonist, or arsonists, usually choose mid-range models, often third- or fourth-hand vehicles that have no insurance. They usually operate in car parks in housing estates such as Lyulin, Mladost and Druzhba. In one such case, a traffic policeman was right next to a car being set on fire. The policeman somehow failed to do anything to stop the incident, not could he identify or arrest the arsonist.

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