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Where is Bulgaria? In January 1994 police trailing an underground suspect in Sofia shot two of his bodyguards. Both turned out to be officers in the Anti-Terrorist Squad who were guarding a meeting between government officials and members of the criminal underworld. An inquiry was ordered into links between the police and the mafia. It was never completed.

The 1989 Revolution was peaceful here and Bulgaria is the only ex-communist Balkan country which has avoided civil war since. But the democratic government which failed in 1992 left a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the ‘Socialist’ Party. As elsewhere, high-ranking communists had laid down Stalinism to take up increasingly open forms of gangsterism. Where now did the mafia end and the state begin? Who were the police taking their orders from? Powerful ‘security companies’ sprang up, extorting danger money from small businesses. There was runaway inflation.

Such was the legacy inherited by the Union of Democratic Forces when it mercifully triumphed at this year’s April elections. The legacy goes back to one of the bloodiest Soviet takeovers anywhere in Eastern Europe – an estimated 18,000 were murdered during the 1944 ‘revolution’ and the last of 82 concentration camps was closed only in 1962.

Situated at the juncture between Europe and Asia Minor, Bulgaria’s geography has been its fate. It twice fought off Byzantine domination to establish powerful, autonomous kingdoms, but fell under Turkish rule from 1394 to 1878. Massacres of Christians in 1876 drew indignation from the British public and a sonnet from the young Oscar Wilde but it was the Russians, in the course of their war with Turkey, who finally liberated the country.

Six months later, at the Congress of Berlin, the Western powers, Britain in particular, set about dismembering Bulgaria, hoping to limit Russian influence in the region. What is now the Republic of Macedonia was part of western Bulgaria as originally conceived, and its loss to Serbia, later Yugoslavia, is a grievance still keenly felt. After World War Two Churchill traded Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Stalin in return for Greece.

But there is another, prouder, Bulgarian past. In the ninth century, in the monasteries of Macedonia, Cyril and Methodius invented the Cyrillic script and translated the Greek Testament into it. When Tolstoy died at Astopovo railway station in 1910 he was on his way to take refuge in a Bulgarian monastery – in a sense he was returning to the starting-point from which the conversion of Russia began. This ‘other’ Bulgarian past isn’t all medieval either. Bulgaria refused to send a single Jew to Hitler’s camps. Turks, Armenians, Gypsies, Jews and Bulgarian Muslims all form sizeable minorities here.

That said, race relations are under some strain: attempts forcibly to assimilate the Turks in the 1980s failed but are not forgotten. Police brutality is disproportionately directed at gypsies though they are far from being the only victims.

The integrity of the new government does seem to be holding. The IMF has granted loans and the Lev has been tied to the Deutschmark. Oil pipelines, steel and tourism still bring in revenue. New legislation will ensure the opening of the secret-police files from before 1989 – this should go some way to exposing who is really who in the country’s governing class. Socialists oppose the bill as ‘unconstitutional’ but the truth, it seems, will finally, painfully, out.

Horatio Morpurgo


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LEADER: President Peter Stoyanov.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $1,250 (Germany $25,580).
Monetary unit: Lev = 100 stotinki.
Main exports: Hoisting and handling equipment, electro-technical equipment, chemical products. Exports totalled $5 billion in 1995.
Main imports: Mining, metallurgical and petroleum equipment, perfumes and cosmetics. Imports totalled $4.8 billion in 1995.
Industry still employs 38 per cent of the workforce, compared with agriculture’s 16 per cent. Bulgaria’s economy remains driven by exports, some 60 per cent of which go to former Soviet countries. The UN trade embargo against neighbouring Serbia has hit Bulgaria hard and it is negotiating for compensation with Western European governments.

PEOPLE: 8.8 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 16 per 1,000 live births (Britain 6 per 1,000).

CULTURE: The vast majority of Bulgarians are of Slavic origin. There is a 9.7-per- cent Turkish minority as well as lesser numbers of Armenians, Greeks, Jews and gypsies.
Language: Bulgarian.
Religion: Orthodox Christianity. Minorities follow Islam and Judaism.

Sources The World Guide 1997/98; The State of the World’s Children 1997; The Europe Review 1997.

Never previously profiled

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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Enormous and mysterious wealth of a very few, extreme poverty of a great many. The old are especially vulnerable.

[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Approaching 100% among those who attend schools. Many gypsy children do not.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Net exporter of energy but most industries in crisis. A generation of well-educated entrepreneurs is growing up but the state is dependent on the IMF.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No overt state interference with TV or the press. No political prisoners but ferocious treatment of petty criminals by police is widespread and growing.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Female prime minister, female vice-president and many MPs elected since 1989 but not without ribald comment. About 47 per cent of the workforce is female.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY
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71 years (compares with Greece's 78 years and Russia's 68 years).


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A society under great strain and it shows, but the worst excesses of neighbouring states have been avoided and the present democratic government has an absolute majority in parliament.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 297 magazine cover This article is from the December 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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