BULGARIA REGAINED

BULGARIA REGAINED

Sat, 12/01/2007 - 16:55

Vagabond remembers the 10 events that shook Bulgaria in 2007

THE EU continues to expand, and on 1 January Bulgaria and Romania join with a fanfare and celebrations. The festivities are alternately fraught with exuberance (the government employs the special effects manager of German rock band Rammstein to produce a fireworks extravaganza), officialdom (President Parvanov gives a solemn speech and attends a flag blessing ceremony with Prime Minister Stanishev), and at times contradiction (fireworks light up the building that until 1989 was the central headquarters of the then ruling Communist Party). Bulgarians themselves react to their new EU citizenship with mixed feelings.

Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant's Reactors No. 3 and 4, which many Bulgarians consider a precious if dangerous source of national pride, are shut down. A yet more precious resource, homemade rakiya, is threatened by unwelcome new taxes. The Socialist idea that somebody in the driver's seat - in this case, the EU - should be responsible for the welfare of the people shows itself to be little more than a pipe dream. Local cheeses have stood up to competition from foreign producers so far; but this may be due to the fact that resourceful German cheese makers have not yet succeeded in reverse engineering the delicious Bulgarian kashkaval.

Halfway through the year prices jump drastically with inflation reaching a worrying 12 percent. The reasons include market speculation and a year of extreme weather that damaged the grain crops. The average Bulgarian, however, blames the EU. To top the bittersweet cake, the UK places strict limits on the number of work visas issued to citizens from the new EU member states.

Nevertheless, EU accession isn't all bad. For example, Bulgarian Meglena Kuneva gets appointed EU consumer protection commissioner. Producers who have got their acts together in time to certify the origin of classic Bulgarian food and beverages (such as the famous Karlovska lukanka, or Karlovo sausage) and who managed to meet the EU's production standards have begun exporting these delicacies to unsuspecting Western palates.

Although Bulgaria applied for EU membership as early as 1995, negotiations only began in 2000. In 2005 then Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg signed the EU Accession Treaty. Despite numerous and less-than-subtle hints from the European Commission that it might invoke safeguard clauses to delay Bulgaria's accession, the country joins the EU on the originally appointed date: 1 January 2007.

FIVE BULGARIAN NURSES return home after eight years in a Libyan prison. A visit to Tripoli by France's first lady Cecilia Sarkozy turns up as the Deus ex machina.

Kristiana Valcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropolu, Valya Chervenyashka, Snezhana Dimitrova and the doctor Zdravko Georgiev are arrested in Benghazi along with 17 other Bulgarian medical workers in February 1999. After extensive interrogations, during which they are subjected to torture, the six Bulgarians are accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus.

Similar charges are brought against Ashraf al-Hajouj, a Palestinian doctor working at the same hospital. The subsequent trial raises serious doubts about the fairness of the Libyan legal system. The charges are based on confessions made under duress.

Crucial evidence is not taken into account, including arguments by international experts such as Swiss scholar Luc Perren and Luc Montagnier, co-founder of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, which show that the AIDS epidemic had begun before the arrival of the Bulgarians and was due to poor hygiene. In 2004 the court finds Dr Georgiev not guilty, but sentences the remaining defendants to death by firing squad.

While the verdict is being appealed, Muammar al-Qadhafi seizes the opportunity to rehabilitate Libya in the eyes of the West over the 1998 Lockerbie attack that killed 270 people. In 2006, suspicions of double-dealing increase when the families of the infected children demand compensation from Bulgaria to the tune of $11.6 million per child, approximately the same amount Libya offered to victims of the Lockerbie attack.

Officially, Bulgaria refuses to accept, saying its citizens were unfairly convicted. It does, however, write off Libya's $56.6 million foreign debt, instead donating the sum to the international Benghazi Fund created to help the infected children. For their part, the parents give up their demands that the "guilty parties" be put to death. Shortly afterwards, the Libyan Supreme Court upholds the Bulgarians' guilty verdict, but commutes the death sentences to life in prison.

The denouement occurs on 24 July, when Cecilia Sarkozy brings the five nurses, Dr Zdravko Georgiev and Ashraf al-Hajouj (who by that time received Bulgarian citizenship) to Sofia; ostensibly to serve their sentences there, since Libya and Bulgaria have a legal assistance agreement. On the following day, Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Tripoli, where he and al-Qadhafi agree that France will build a sea water desalinisation nuclear facility.

Back in Bulgaria, however, Libyan nuclear reactors are the least of anyone's worries: attention is focused solely on the "medics". The very day they land on Bulgarian soil President Parvanov officially pardons them.

Freeing the nurses has a number of unexpected consequences, however. Bulgaria agrees to purchase four French corvettes for its army, and Bulgarians begin to realise that being a member of the EU does have its perks. A novel has already been written about the incident, Hollywood is negotiating film rights to the story, and Kristiana Valcheva has published a memoir.

The tale does not have a very happy ending for its main characters, the Sarkozy family, who have since divorced. Both have been accused of using the situation for personal PR; the five nurses and al-Hajouj have even been called before a French inquiry committee to testify about the circumstances of their release.

PRESIDENTBUSH'S trip to Bulgaria is the first such visit by an American head of state since his predecessor Bill Clinton came to Sofia in 1999 to mark the 10th Anniversary of the fall of Communism. Bush's stopover on 11 June 2007 is the final leg of his whirlwind tour through Europe. Not surprisingly, Bush's schedule is packed: he and his counterpart Georgi Parvanov discuss the elimination of American visa requirements for Bulgarians (visas remain), American support for the liberation of the nurses in Libya (the nurses are freed, but mainly thanks to British and French assistance) and a possible increase in the Bulgarian military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq (still an open question).

Bulgarians respond to the president's visit with mixed feelings. While some are happy that Sofia's grimy streets are scrubbed clean ahead of the visit, others grumble because large parts of the city are cordoned off. The Bulgarians who wait to greet President Bush cannot compare with the huge, jubilant crowds that rejoiced on his appearance in Tirana, his stop off before Bulgaria. In Sofia, protesters critical of US policies number 200 at most. Fortunately, no one steals the president's wristwatch as he glad-hands the crowds.

The electronic barriers on Graf Ignatiev Street in Sofia top our list of the year's most absurd news items. In theory, the stretch of street between "Popa," or the statue of Patriarch Evtimiy, and the intersection with Rakovski is pedestrianised; technically only trams and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive through. In Bulgaria, however, theory remains theory, especially where bans are concerned. Thus traffic on this section of "Grafa" is no different than on any other street. Shortly before the local elections, Mayor Boyko Borisov demands a "solution" - 24,000-leva electronic pop-up bollards that can only be retracted by cars fitted with a remote control. The pricey new humps, however, fail to befuddle Sofia's wily drivers as they rise back into place far too slowly and allow cars to sneak in on the tailgate of passing trams. Some drivers do pay the price for their own daring, but it seems ruined cars are not a sufficient deterrent. Perhaps a couple of fairly incorruptible traffic cops might do the job?

THE ENVIRONMENT emerges centre stage in Bulgarian public debate following the entrepreneurial construction frenzy on the Black Sea coast and in the mountains, which surpasses both common sense and good taste. The first protests against the unlawful destruction of natural resources begin in 2006 with campaigns to save Irakli, one of the last remaining undeveloped strips of coastline north of Burgas. In 2007, however, the movement snowballs into mass demonstrations. Environmentalists voice their opposition to the removal of Irakli from the Natura 2000 network of protected areas; they also oppose development in Irakli and the illegal ski lift being built in the Rila Nature Reserve. Massive protests cause the Supreme Administrative Court to revoke Standzha's status as a nature park; the ostensible reason for this decision is a complaint lodged by the Tsarevo municipality and the construction firm Crash 2000, which is illegally building a resort complex in the territory.

Strandzha is the largest ecological reserve in Bulgaria, but the court finds some procedural inaccuracies in its status. Environmentalists make their demands clear in Bulgaria's first-ever flash mob, which chokes traffic in central Sofia. Police respond by arresting demonstrators and interrogating the blogger who posted information about the protest on the Internet.

In the end, the "Green Idea" wins. Parliament passes new legislation that precludes any changes to the boundaries of national parks.

THE COMMUNIST-ERA SECRET POLICE FILES of public figures who used to be DS agents are made public. A law, adopted in 2006 to open the Communist-era archives, makes Bulgaria the last former East bloc country to expose its shady history. Among other things, the DS, which was the Bulgarian equivalent of the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Romania, was responsible for the murder of dissident writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

However, the panel's announcement that President Georgi Parvanov himself was an agent, codenamed Gotse, prompts neither a resignation, nor even an apology. One year earlier, just before embarking on his re-election campaign, Parvanov admits that he had "got his hands on the Gotse File". Yet, during the whole period of his collaboration, he claims to have thought he was working for the Foreign Ministry rather than the DS. The declassified documents, however, make it plain that Agent Gotse knew very well who he was taking orders from. Such a scandal would have been grounds for impeachment in any other country. But not in Bulgaria. The president himself seems as short on explanations as he is on apologies; he has not even clarified why certain pages are reputedly missing from his file.

Sadly, Parvanov is far from being the only former agent now holding a high government office. As many as 11 of his cabinet members also have ties to the DS, and since 1990 a total of 140 MPs have had connections to the DS' shady past. The largest number of stooges was in the Grand National Assembly in 1990 - the body that adopted Bulgaria's present Constitution. In the sitting parliament, 19 of the 240 MPs were collaborators, primarily from the BSP, the extremist Ataka, and the DPS.

The official reaction of those in power is reminiscent of a dental patient getting a tooth pulled: they simply grin and bear it as something annoying, yet necessary. At the end of the day, the powers-that-be argue that the files are not really all that important. "Only a sick person could be interested in the files," declares Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, after Parvanov is exposed as a collaborator. When the BSP announces that its candidate for mayor of Sofia is General Brigo Asparuhov, who has never tried to hide his DS past, Stanishev remarks that having worked for the DS is nothing to be ashamed of.

In the meantime, his comment about the "sickness" of those interested in the files has prompted several people to bring legal action against him for moral damages. The Sofia City Court has already allowed one such case to proceed.

LOCAL ELECTIONS are hotly contested, since mayors and municipal council members will be divvying up money from EU funds. These historically unprecedented stakes, however, fail to bring voters to the ballot boxes; only 43 percent turn out in the 4 November runoff.

The election results clearly indicate that a new star is blazing on the political horizon: GERB. Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov is re-elected in the first round on 28 October, without even bothering to organise a campaign. He nevertheless soundly trounces his nearest rival, finishing nearly 30 points ahead of Martin Zaimov, the candidate of the alliance between the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS, and the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, or DSB. GERB also gains 10 regional mayoral seats, while the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, which for years has dominated local elections, wins only a modest 11.

Unlike voters, the political parties recognise the importance of the election and pour massive amounts of energy and resources into their campaigns. Reports of vote buying are more frequent than usual, but legal loopholes thwart public prosecutors. Parliament decides not to enforce the "principle of residency," thus thousands of Bulgarian citizens who live outside Bulgaria's borders return to vote. The vast majority are emigrants to Turkey who return to their hometowns in Bulgaria on free buses especially for the occasion. In such "election tourism," transportation costs are typically paid by a political party in exchange for the passengers' votes.

The 2007 elections indicate that some changes are afoot, however. For example, "election tourists" from the Republic of Macedonia also take part in the voting. After Bulgaria's accession to the EU, an increasing number of Macedonian citizens are applying for Bulgarian passports, claiming Bulgarian origins.

Two days before the election, the panel in charge of opening declassified files announces the names of mayoral candidates with ties to the Communist-era State Security, or DS. The startling number of former stooges standing for mayor - nearly 400 in total - does not seem to faze voters, who elect 117 of them. The political party with the highest number of informers-turned-mayors is the Movement for Rights and Freedom, or DPS: almost 40.

STRIKES AND PROTESTS turn out to be the most effective means of communication between citizens and the government. The school year opens on 15 September, but not with the usual flowers for teachers. What parents and kids get is a nationwide strike as teachers demand a 100 percent salary increase. According to the trade unions, nearly 85 percent of all schools and nurseries in the country join the strike. As negotiations with the government drag on for more than 50 days, the teachers organise three high-profile national meetings in Sofia and at first generally gather public support. Sympathy disappears, however, when union leaders initially accept a government proposal to raise the average monthly wage from 444 to 650 leva, only to reject the deal later because they "didn't fully understand it". School begins at the beginning of November. In the final settlement, the government agrees to raise teachers' salaries 18 percent as of November, followed by a gradual increase to 650 leva by next July.

While teachers may be the most visible, they are certainly not alone in taking to the streets. Forest rangers, public transport workers in Sofia, and medical personnel at Sofia's Pirogov Hospital also go on strike to demand higher wages - and succeed.

Pensioners also head to the picket lines to protest their miserably small pensions - which they argue amounts to a hidden form of "genocide" - and return home with slightly heavier purses. A strike by miners from the Maritsa Iztok pit, who also demand tax exemptions on food and clothing, is not so peaceful. Police clash with the protestors, and three miners land in hospital. Not all protestors' demands are met, however.

Unrest by more than 400 inmates in men's prisons in Sofia and Pazardzhik ends in defeat. For three days they insist on broadening the eligibility for an upcoming amnesty law.

In the long list of protests and strikes, the prize for the most unusual demands goes to Sofia's taxi drivers. The murder of a cabbie, in the city's outlying Lyulin district, causes them to gather in front of parliament, effectively blocking the whole city - without having a permit for the demonstration. They present a list of 12 demands, including mandatory life insurance, repealing corporate income tax, finding the assassin (he gives himself up a few days later) and... revoking the seatbelt law. The protests are illegal, but the police refrain from getting involved, and Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov openly supports the taxi drivers' demands.

COMMUNIST HOLIDAYS vanished from the official Bulgarian calendar 17 years ago, yet some Bulgarians continue to act as if the Democratic Changes of November 1989 never even took place.

On 9 September monuments to the Soviet army and to the Bulgarian guerrilla fighters who staged the 1944 Communist coup are once again decorated with flowers. The revellers celebrating this "glorious day" range from diehard members of the now tiny Bulgarian Communist Party - who consider themselves the true heirs of the former Communist rulers - to supporters of the reformed Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP. The local BSP chapter in Sliven even inducts its new members on that day, while the BSP youth organisation in Burgas lays flowers at a local monument to "anti-fascists who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of Bulgaria".

There is also no shortage of nostalgic citizens to mark 7 November, the 90th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution that catapulted Lenin's Bolsheviks to power. Sofia's subdued celebrations are confined to flowers placed in front of a monument to the Soviet Army; in Plovdiv, however, locals manage to dig up real live Russian soldiers to join the festivities in front of the gigantic statue of a Soviet soldier - affectionately known as The Alyosha - who stands guard with an AK on one of the city's tepeta, or hills.

DEVASTATING FIRES AND FLOODSduring the summer recall biblical visions. Heat waves push the temperature above 45?C, scorching wheat in the fields before it even has chance to ripen. Bulgarian villagers, unfamiliar with exotic inventions such as drip irrigation and agricultural insurance, turn for help to the same source as their ancestors did: God. Before the church services and prayers for rain have a chance to work their magic, however, fires break out. Thankfully, none of the Bulgarian blazes reaches the magnitude of the infernos in Greece, but nevertheless more than 500,000 acres of land are decimated. The worst hit regions include Lovech, Smolyan and Pleven, while the government declares states of emergency in the Haskovo and Stara Zagora regions. Some of the fires are the work of individuals whose trade in charred wood is a lucrative if illegal business, while others are started by villagers who still consider the burning of stubble fields (forbidden) the most effective way to clear and fertilise their fields.

A few days later, the rain comes - and it pours. Tsar Kaloyan, a city in northwest Bulgaria, is literally swallowed up by a two-metre-high tidal wave. The flooding kills eight people, leaves hundreds homeless, and provokes arguments between the local community, the companies in charge of several nearby reservoirs, and the government. The locals as well as meteorologists claim the rain in Tsar Kaloyan was not heavy enough to cause such flooding, much less a tidal wave. They accuse the companies of not paying adequate attention to the reservoir walls.

In 2005 Bulgaria suffered from similarly disastrous flooding; in that case its cause was traced to poorly maintained reservoir walls and uncleared riverbeds.

Heavy rains affect Montana, Burgas, Sozopol, Knezha, the Pleven regions, Kyustendil and the village of Nisovo near Ruse, where a local priest perishes in the floods.

THE ELECTRONIC BARRIERS on Graf Ignatiev Street in Sofia top our list of the year’s most absurd news items. In theory, the stretch of street between “Popa,” or the statue of Patriarch Evtimiy, and the intersection with Rakovski is pedestrianised; technically only trams and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive through. In Bulgaria, however, theory remains theory, especially where bans are concerned. Thus traffic on this section of “Grafa” is no different than on any other street. Shortly before the local elections, Mayor Boyko Borisov demands a “solution” – 24,000-leva electronic pop-up bollards that can only be retracted by cars fitted with a remote control. The pricey new humps, however, fail to befuddle Sofia’s wily drivers as they rise back into place far too slowly and allow cars to sneak in on the tailgate of passing trams. Some drivers do pay the price for their own daring, but it seems ruined cars are not a sufficient deterrent. Perhaps a couple of fairly incorruptible traffic cops might do the job?

Issue 15-16

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