'GREAT WALL OF BULGARIA'

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Barbed-wire fence now stretches all the way from Rezovo at Black Sea to Svilengrad

border wall bulgaria turkey.jpg

The barbed-wire fence supposed to prevent refugees from entering the EU's poorest member state, Bulgaria, is almost ready. After about four years of construction work, the roughly 240-kilometre fence now proudly stands in the middle of the Strandzha forest, in what is supposed to be a nature park. Its usefulness is disputable and there are ongoing allegations of misappropriation and wrongdoing.

The Fence, as it has become known in Bulgarian daily language, has a long and controversial history spanning almost six decades.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s what was then Communist Bulgaria built a barbed-wire fence along most of its southern and western borders. Greece and especially Turkey were then NATO enemies, the whole Bulgarian military doctrine was focused on a "probable" attack by the West. Tito's Yugoslavia to the west was mistrusted. Though it was a Communist country as well, Tito had just quarrelled with Stalin and embarked on his non-aligned path. Bulgaria would remain firmly pro-Soviet up until 1989. That first fence was not just some barbed wire hanging from poles though. It was an element of an intricate system of defence fortifications, patrolled by conscript soldiers under orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross either way.

Officially, the purpose of the early fence was to stop any incursion from capitalist Turkey and Greece. In reality, however, it was meant to stop any Bulgarian or other East European refugee fleeing into democratic Turkey and Greece. In those days Turkey was West.

The collapse of Communism and the East bloc in 1989 led to immediate liberalisation in the other former Warsaw Pact countries and to gradual and at times painful attempts at democratisation in Bulgaria. The fence was affected. Bulgarians were now free to travel and the politicians of the 1990s saw no further need for a barbed-wire fence. The barbed wire and the poles were first abandoned and then dismantled. In many cases the wire was stolen to be sold by impoverished Bulgarians for scrap metal.

However, in the late 2000s Bulgaria's new politicians hardened their stance in an attempt to funnel the growing public nostalgia for Communism and the perceived need for a "hard hand" to tackle the country's problems. Initially, the Council of Ministers made a decision to erect a new fence to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease that Bulgarian politicians said was coming from across the border with Turkey. Plans were made, funds were allocated, but the project went nowhere.

Then came the war in Syria, an erstwhile ally of Communist Bulgaria and a country where many Bulgarian specialists of the Communist-era generation sought work because their salaries would be paid in dollars. Millions of refugees penetrated Turkey. Some of them wanted to go on into Europe. Bulgaria was in the way.

Bulgaria's increasingly nationalist politicians saw a good chance to deflect the growing public discontent with the embattled reforms and low living standards into a mass hysteria building on the fear the country would be overrun by Muslim criminals, rapists and terrorists. The fact was that the trickle of asylumseekers entering legally or illegally was negligible compared to what Greece and Italy experienced. But with the help of the media the politicians made their point. A new, modern fence was badly and urgently needed to stop anyone from entering.

Plans were drawn, the cash (most of it coming from the EU) was secured. Building the new fence started in 2013, under the short-lived and ill-fated government of Plamen Oresharski. Some 30 kilometres of it were built in the easiest part of the terrain, in the plain near Svilengrad. The government then declared the project of national security significance, which meant it could pick its contractors without a public bid.

The Oresharski government was overthrown following mass street protests in Sofia. Boyko Borisov's GERB returned to power. One of the things it did was amend the Public Works and Contracts Act to enable itself to go on selecting contractors for the fence without a bid. It argued it needed that to be able to complete the fence as a matter of "urgency." That was in 2014. The price of the fence, in the meantime, was going up. It also emerged that some of the constructed sections were already in need of repairs.

Though the new barbed-wire fence was popular with the majority of Bulgarians, some critical voices were also heard. They argued the fence was too easy to penetrate with a simple ladder or a spade. Significantly, erecting a physical barrier to make life more difficult for asylumseekers would only boost the "business" of human smugglers some of whom were connected to the police.

The overwhelming majority of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country have no intention of staying in Bulgaria. For them it is just a port-of-call, an inevitable stopover on their way to Western Europe, mainly Germany, which has accepted 33 percent of all Syrian war refugees within the EU. The human smuggling business, therefore, is thriving.

The total cost of the fence so far has been 150 million leva.

The fence is now completed save for a short 5-kilometre stretch.  Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov of the National Front for the Salvation for Bulgaria is happy. He recently flew over the new fence in a helicopter and reported that everything was OK. According to Slavi's Show, a popular TV programme, he owns a hotel less than a mile from the Malko Tarnovo border checkpoint with Turkey. The hotel is fully booked by… border guards sent from the whole of Bulgaria to catch "migrants."

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM GENERAL ELECTION 2024.0
As ballot counters concluded the relatively easy task of turning out the record-low number of votes in the 9 June general election, some unpleasant truths emerged.
BETWEEN THE FRYING PAN AND THE FIRE
Тhe overwhelming majority of Bulgarians who will go to the polls in June to elect their next National Assembly will do so with one all-pervasive sentiment. Disgust.
WHY DO SO MANY BULGARIANS LOVE RUSSIA?
In the 1990s and early 2000s Bulgaria, a former East bloc country, was an enthusiastic applicant to join both NATO and the EU. Twenty years later the initial enthusiasm has waned.

LIARS OR BEING LIED TO?
Тo understand the current predicament of the Changes Continued political party, one of whose leaders, Kiril Petkov, was prime minister in 2021-2022, one needs to consider the characteristically complicated background.

WITH BOTH EUROS IN THE PAST
In spite of the protestations of the ruling "fixture" between PP-DB (Changes Continued of Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev and Democratic Bulgaria of Gen Atanas Atanasov and Hristo Ivanov) and Boyko Borisov's GERB about the "top national pri

WHO IS AFRAID OF VASIL 'SKULL' BOZHKOV?
While Bulgarians left, right and centre are quibbling over the fate of a pile of stones crowned by some sculpted Red Army soldiers in central Sofia, the state prosecution service quietly terminated a case started by Vasil Bozhkov, one of this country's weal

RUMOURS OF GERB'S DEMISE TURN OUT TO BE PREMATURE
Polling agencies got it wrong again

CHURCH OF DISCONTENT
Colourful and gilt-domed, looking like a toy, the St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker church in central Sofia is known to Bulgarians simply as the Russian Church.

PP-DB'S FALSE STARTS
Notwithstanding the amendments to the Constitution proposed by Nikolay Denkov's "fixture" (the word he uses to describe the government), several bits of legislation put forward by the rulers and quickly voted into law have raised eyebrows and prompted a sig

UPS & DOWNS OF BULGARIAN ANTISEMITISM
А crudely-cut cartoon circulating on social media shows Former Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, who is Jewish, being held by two Nazi-clad soldiers. The text (in Bulgarian) reads: "If you don't want Russian gas, we will give you some of ours."

IT'S THE HISTORY, STUPID!
In 2013, when the Inland Revenue agency started a probe into alleged wrongdoing by then President Rosen Plevneliev, he famously excused himself: I am not a Martian. Plevneliev had been a minister for Boyko Borisov.

BYE-BYE, IVAN GESHEV
Three years after the event, the massive street protests that blocked the traffic in Central Sofia in the course of months, in 2020, seem to have achieved their original aims.