WHO ARE THE TRUE PRUSSIANS?

by Milen Radev

In former times, the enterprising spirit of the Bulgarians was compared to that of Berliners. Today, similarities still exist - but they are not so pleasant

Modern Bulgarians prefer speaking English rather than German - or at least they try to, but only 60 years ago it was a different story. Since the end of the 19th Century, Germany had been Bulgaria's major economic, political and military partner, a relationship established on the basis of Bulgaria's desire to break away from the Russian sphere of influence and the accession of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty to the throne. Because of the economic rise and successful military campaigns against their neighbours, the press dubbed the Bulgarians the "Prussians of the Balkans".

Two national catastrophes and two world wars later, the Bulgarians think of themselves in terms of this journalistic commonplace only if they are trying to impress a German business partner. They have lost their desire to war with anybody and their industriousness and enterprising spirit are fiction rather than fact. The Bulgarians remember the time when they were the Prussians of the Balkans with the same nostalgia as when they recall "how well we used to live under Communism, when we didn't get a lot but we didn't work a lot, either" - 17 years after the democratic changes. However, the media cliche has not lost its accuracy altogether. It's just that the two parts of the equation have changed places.

Today, it is more correct to say that the "Prussians are the Bulgarians of Europe". Let's start with the Bulgarians. The democratic changes have turned a not particularly optimistic population into a nation which is permanently dissatisfied with the injustices of life. Or, to be precise, with the injustices of life in Bulgaria.

At first glance, Berlin, the capital of one of the most economically developed countries on the European continent, is a completely different matter. The inhabitants of the city, which was the borderline between two hostile political systems during the Cold War, have a long-standing experience of resisting different historical circumstances. Those living in West Berlin preserved their independence despite the Soviet blockade. Those in the eastern part rebelled in 1953 and carried out a peaceful revolution in 1989. Life on either side of the Berlin Wall required lots of energy, self-assuredness, resourcefulness and courage. But 17 years after its demolition, it seems that fewer and fewer citizens of the capital possess these qualities.

Recently, two of Germany's most respected public figures, former Bundespräsident Roman Herzog and Hans Olaf Henkel, the influential former head of the Association of German Industries, have voiced things about Berlin and Berliners that they could not afford to say while in their previous posts. In their view, the capital is in a state of uncontrollable degradation. "The city," Herzog said, "appears rotten to the core. Henkel added that he knew of no other OECD capital that had degenerated to such an extent. Berliners didn't even pay attention any more to the badly maintained streets or the dirt and graffiti on the underground trains and buildings. This is why Herzog and Henkel accused them of losing their optimism, energy and resourcefulness; forgetting about solidarity and mutual support and resorting to lament and self-pity.

Even visually Berlin is turning into a city of incongruity. Its new urban centre is a collection of wonders of modern architecture, but hundreds of thousands of square feet of brand new office spaces are empty. Property prices are stagnating and the few large companies left are moving out of Berlin and relocating in the East. Unemployment is at 16-17 percent in the capital and well in excess of 20 percent in the surrounding areas. Despite the construction boom, there are over 40,000 construction workers without a job. The threat comes from Poland. It is only an hour's drive away and you will hear mostly foreign languages spoken on Berlin's building sites.

For a city with a population of 3.5 million, Berlin has a remarkably high debt of 61 billion euros and its budget is balancing between solvency and bankruptcy. Some put the blame for this on political blunders and malpractices of the coalitions between Social Democrats and Conservatives, who ruled for many years without a strong opposition against them. Others blame the present pink-red government of the SPD and the former East German Communists from the PDS. Political apathy and distrust of the politicians are widely spread.

Seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is still divided into an east and a west part. This time the barriers are psychological. Even the young people prefer socialising within their own regional, cultural milieu.

Ironically, the only thing that has united the two halves was the outrage at Herzog's and Henkel's criticism. The public indignation filled the pages of the yellow press and the accusations were thrown back at those who first voiced them. For Berliners, the only culprit for the present state of affairs is the state, which does not care enough for its capital and citizens.

Completely in the style of post-totalitarian Bulgarians, who blame their ruling classes for everything: from low pensions to the lack of a taxi drivers' trade union. The state is to blame for everything and the citizens are its victims.

There are even more similarities. Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit commented on the problems using a proverbial phrase which seems as if straight from the mouth of his Sofia counterpart, Boyko Borisov: "Berlin may be poor, but it's sexy."

Who can deny the resemblance between the Prussians of Berlin and those of the Balkans? The bad thing is that these relations have obeyed the third law of thermodynamics and Bulgarian lack of organisation has outweighed German accuracy.

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