Bulgaria Today

Just 6 months before Bulgaria's admission to the European Union (Jan. 1, 2007), E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn criticized the country's laggard performance on some key criteria for joining the E.U. Key among them were that no progress had been made dealing with corruption and the powerful underground barons who control as much as 25% of the Bulgarian economy and wield a troubling political influence, and the existence of human and drug trafficking activity in Bulgaria. The ultimatum was clear, and a month later Bulgaria's politicians delivered a task list that promised "zero tolerance" in the offending sectors. Bulgaria's reforms have had some success, and it still is having difficulties with corruption and other issues. How sustained efforts to implement the reforms will play out remains to be seen.

Tourism increasingly is becoming Bulgaria's most important economic engine. One area that could affect the country's tourism industry adversely is its atrocious infrastructure and the absence of any planning or design standards for building along the Black Sea Coast. Resorts and condos in that prime tourism region have been built and overbuilt while highly leveraged by banks. Like many real-estate ventures in the same situation in the 2008 U.S. market, some Black Sea developments are in financial trouble. Add to that a worldwide decline in tourism linked to oil prices, currency fluctuations, rising prices (because of Bulgaria's E.U. integration), and subpar service standards in Bulgaria's tourism industry (Bulgarians are learning), and a potential slowdown in the country's economic growth is not an unrealistic prediction.

Bulgaria's complicated and shifting political landscape is another factor that will have great influence on how long it will take Bulgaria to right its ship of state.

Currently, Bulgaria is managed by a fragile coalition between three very disparate parties: the toothless, class-based BSP; the hugely resented Movement for Rights and Freedoms, predominantly supported by ethnic Turkish minorities of the south; and the newly popular Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Grazhdani za Evropeysko Razvitie na Bulgaria, or GERB, which means "Coat of Arms" in Bulgarian). The Nationalist Movement Simeon II party (headed by the ex-prince who stands in the shadow of his Italian cousin's corruption trial for drug and human trafficking) still exists, though it has barely 5% of the populist support and popular opinion is that the former king only arrived on the scene to reclaim his family lands, which likely were misappropriated from the people a century ago anyway.

How these factions will carve up power is an unknown, but it is clear that the key challenge for government remains how best to achieve structural reforms that will have a lasting effect, not only on corruption, but productivity and accountability, so that ordinary Bulgarians -- too many of whom still live beneath the breadline -- can experience the kind of living standards long enjoyed by their wealthier cousins to the west.

A Look at the Past

Fragments and tools uncovered near the coast (on view in Varna's fascinating Archaeological Museum) date human habitation here back some 10,000 years, but these pale in significance when viewing Bulgaria's most exhilarating archaeological finds: the Thracian treasures, known as "the oldest gold in the world," proving that a highly sophisticated civilization flourished in Bulgaria from 3000 B.C. to 200 B.C.

What little we know of the Thracian tribes was recorded by the Greeks, who described them as "savage, bloodthirsty warriors," and appropriated a few of the Thracian gods, including Dionysus and Orpheus, for themselves. Weakened by infighting, Thracian numbers were reduced and finally absorbed by the Romans, who arrived in droves in the 1st century, only to be turned out during the 5th century by the Bulgars. In 681 Khan Asparoukh claimed the First Bulgarian Kingdom, a region comprising latter-day Serbia, Macedonia, and parts of northern Greece. But Bulgaria remained a cultural backwater until 855, when the saintly brothers Cyril and Methodius created the Glagolic alphabet (later simplified into Cyrillic) primarily to translate the Bible into their indigenous tongue, but thereby creating an independent literary tradition for Slavic communities as far afield as Russia.

In 1018 Bulgaria fell to the Byzantines, who ruled for almost 170 years before the Bulgarians wrested it back. This launched the second Bulgarian Kingdom in new capital Veliko Tarnovo, from where they ruled the Balkans from the Adriatic to the Aegean. Jealous of its strategic position, the Ottomans invaded in 1398, ushering in a 500-year tenure that came to be known as the "Yoke of Oppression." A groundswell of nationalism, which spawned the flourishing 19th-century design and art that came to be known as "National Revival" or "Bulgarian Renaissance" style (the best examples found in Plovdiv and Koprivishtitsa), led to the 1876 April Uprising. Following its brutal squashing, Russia finally came to the rescue, helping to oust the Ottomans in 1877. For that act, the Bulgarians remained permanently in Russia's debt, erecting numerous monuments and churches, like the Alexander Nevski in Sofia, as proof of their "special relationship."

This may explain why Bulgaria so meekly accepted the Soviet "invasion" after World War II (during which Bulgaria sided with Hitler in the mistaken hopes of finally reclaiming the territory it lost in World War I). Ostensibly an independent Communist state, Bulgaria in reality once again found itself dominated by an outside power, this time under the "yoke" of the hard-line dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled until 1989, when he was quietly removed from power.

Bulgaria's first free elections were held in January 1990, when the Bulgarian Socialist Party was voted into power. Predictably, the poorly managed transition to a free market economy resulted in hyperinflation (579% in 1996), and by the end of the millennia Bulgaria was at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which introduced austere reforms. In 2001 Bulgarians, ill disposed to their fledgling democracy and overwhelmed by the return of their tsar-in-exile, voted with their hearts. Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, who fled after World War II at age 9, was placed at the helm a few months after his return, but the gray, characterless tsar did little to improve the fortunes of the country or the average person.

Bulgaria still is managed by a fragile coalition, and it still lacks strong, selfless leadership. Voter sentiment is highly positive over Boiko Borissov -- Sofia's mayor and Todor Zhivkov's former security chief -- and the improvements that finally have been made in the capital. Borissov's popularity is strong enough for the local press to speculate on his presidential ambitions even though he has many ties to past regimes. The ideal of an accountable, transparent leader with no tentacles into the shadowy past is clearly not one held by all. Without economic reform, real freedom remains elusive.

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