2008

  1. A likely Story

    December 2, 2008 by Christopher Buxton


    Sofia Airport closed by anti government protestors
    Middle Classes in People Power Revolt
    President Purvanov’s flight re-routed to Dupnetsa

    Dressed in blue pinstripe shirts and Manchester United scarves, the men turned us back from their makeshift Audi barricade at the entrance to Sofia Airport. Despite lines of waiting police, their confidence seemed high. News had reached them that middle ranking Army and Police Officers had sent their support.

    Four days into the airport occupation and the signs are that the coalition populist government has been paralysed by this unexpected explosion of middle class wrath. The present location of Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev is uncertain, following the occupation of his residence. There are rumours that he is hiding out in the mountains close to the film set where Stefan Danailov is shooting the heavily subsidized Turkish Partizan.

    Meanwhile leaders of CRAP (Civil Restoration Anti-Mafia Party) have demanded the instant resignation of the government and the dissolution of all existing political parties. The government, which draws its support from peasants and ethnic minorities, has been accused of buying votes with rakia. Politicians from all parties have been mired in corruption scandals.

    Beneath portraits of Dimitur Berbatov, Bulgaria’s only living hero, CRAP leaders speak every day to cheering thousands of protestors occupying the Arrivals and Departures Hall. Leading light and frustrated golf entrepreneur MV pinpointed the reasons for middle class fury. “Corruption! Corruption! Corruption! We are the pariah of Europe – an execrable tribe! Our politicians buy votes so they can grab what’s best and give juicy contracts to their friends. Only Berbatov can save us!”

    The emergence of the Manchester United striker as a possible saviour has surprised many opposition leaders who now find themselves rejected by CRAP. Even on the first day of the protests Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov turned up with a posse of Media reporters and a spade to help in the building of the first women’s barricade only to be told to fuck himself. For the Tom Jones of Bulgarian politics this was extremely hurtful.

    Back in the airport a handful of Brits sit surrounded by their luggage. Nearby a hundred strong delegation of American evangelists read their bibles. Because of the non stop noise from CRAP protestors they have not managed a hymn in four days. On Stage ageless Lily Ivanova leads choruses of Yes We Can.

    The Frustrated Brits’ counter-chorus of No we can’t seems churlish under the circumstances. They do admit that protestors have treated them well but complain that the promised cups of speciality Maika Tea never seem to arrive.

    Meanwhile there are signs that the occupation is affecting important trade links. With frontier posts also occupied, vital elements of the Bulgarian economy are under threat. Customs officials are complaining of lost revenues and legitimate businesses in cigarette, narcotics and human resources are having to lay off their fat-neck workers. Unemployment has reached dizzying heights.

    Yesterday government spokesmen were thin on the ground. In a campaign of voluntary self inflicted euthanasia, several ministers have managed to use their left feet to blow their brains out with multiple bullets. Attempts on the life of Ahmed Dogan are suspected.

    Bulgaria watchers are unable to predict the outcome of this extraordinary upheaval. In the villages government supporters are promising resistance at every kilometre provided they can retrieve the metal road signs previously sold for scrap. Mr King – otherwise known as Saxewhatsisnamovski has donated one of his mountain tops to pro government radio stations.

    Foreign Office advice to Brits planning to travel to Bulgaria is as always ambiguous. The only spokesman we could find was overcome with emotion following a briefing with Gordon Brown. We are monitoring the position closely. He said before staggering against the No 10 doorpost. Beer in Romania is not as good. I usually holiday with Spas Roussev in Montecarlo but we must not forget the needs of the poor – I mean disadvantaged – British holiday maker. The Home Office predicts an increase in alcohol fuelled crime this summer on Britain’s streets if Bulgaria continues to be closed.


  2. Response to Kapka Kassabova and Dylan Jones

    December 1, 2008 by Christopher Buxton

    It all depends on where you are sitting

    In the last few days three articles have appeared in the UK press that reflect on contrasts between culture and experience in Bulgaria and the UK.

    In ‘Britain is scarier than Bulgaria’ appearing in the Sunday Times on November 23rd, the Bulgarian born writer and poet Kapka Kassabova draws an uncomplimentary comparison between the lawless streets of weekend Edinburgh and the quiet boulevards of Sofia where the only night-time disturbance comes from stray dogs and pensioners scavenging through rubbish bins.

    The stimulus for this article may in part have originated in a question raised by a reader at the Sozopol Literary Festival presentation of Kapka’s Kassabova’s latest book Street without Name. Upset by “Chalga blaring out from every restaurant” and horrified by the indignity of being served by a “dark faced gypsy in a local café” the reader wanted to know how Kapka reacted to the “awfulness of everyday life in Bulgaria”. Instead of the expected dose of Bulgarian O Tempora O Mores, Kapka treated the woman with the lightning sketch of life in a UK city which she has since worked up into her article. Key features are drunken youths, urine soaked streets, smashed cars and the threat of a bottle in the face of any resident brave enough to come out and remonstrate.

    This picture of life in the UK will come as no surprise to any British reader, who from the comfort of his breakfast table is treated to apocalyptic stories of national decline in the Daily Mail every day. In Britain as in Bulgaria petty crime is actually falling, but the impression fuelled by dramatic headlines is different. The real target audience for this article I suspect is the Bulgarian reader who believes that Bulgaria is uniquely miserable and does not want to hear even from compatriots that life anywhere else could be worse. The UK is civilized. They live like white men there.

    Editor of GQ, friend of David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, author of Mr Jones’ Rules for the Modern Man, Dylan Jones is undoubtedly a white man in every Bulgarian sense of the word. In December 1st’s Spectator article: ‘How I became Bulgaria’s etiquette guru’, Jones celebrates his welcome to Sofia where his opinions were sought on every topic including the competence of the British Prime Minister. Jones goes on to describe his wonder at finding himself a hero in a land that “looks like Birmingham” but contains sufficient Berbatov look-alikes to benefit from his sartorial advice. To the Bulgarian media – hungry for his every word – he is comfortably patronizing. Not everyone looks like Borat.

    Jones has read Misha Glenny and knows about Bulgaria’s corruption problems. Bulgarians know as much about corruption as Daily Mail readers know about drunken crime. On the other hand as Jones has discovered Bulgarians are also impressed by dazzling success. Media and telecommunications mogul Spas Roussev appears in Jones’ article as a glittering socialite and more importantly publisher of Jones’ book. The fact that Roussev represents with all his extravagant wealth the aspirations of Bulgaria’s nouveau riche is good enough for the editor of GQ magazine. Therefore he is described as obviously a great man. .

    Bulgarians probably know a lot more about Spas Roussev than does Jones. In 2002 Roussev hosted a cards party on his yacht in Monaco. Players included the then Minister of Finances Milen Vulchev and the now assassinated gangster known as the Doctor. The card game became emblematic of Bulgaria’s mafia problems.

    But then the lesson from these two articles is that particular point of view is everything – whether you are flying into Sofia on a ten-seater NetJet Falcon or you are negotiating streams of urine in Edinburgh. Living in corrupt but cheap and relatively petty crime free countries has been fine for countless British ex-pats. They can sun themselves, drink cheap beer and complain about the natives while thanking their stars that they have escaped rat-hole Britain. Only a few will wake up one morning and find they have been conned out of their money and property and that there is no recourse to a legal system because they are dealing with powerful locals who are better connected.

    This is precisely the experience described in a 25th November Guardian article with the headline: A ski resort, a lost investment, and a Bulgarian murder. British Nicola West has lost her money and all hope of a dream home in the ski resort of Bansko. On top of that she has been assaulted by a mad property agent. The Bulgarian lawyer in the case shrugs her shoulders and says “C’est la vie.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/nov/27/bulgaria-property-dream-homes

    http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article5188287.ece
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/3043221/how-i-became-bulgarias-etiquette-guru.thtml


  3. Ministry of Extraordinary Situations

    November 30, 2008 by Christopher Buxton

    The Ministry of Extraordinary Situations can be found opposite Sofia’s Saint Nedelya Cathedral – itself the location of an extraordinary situation in 1925 – the communist bomb outrage that was aimed at the then monarchist elite.

    The Ministry is not the invention of a Bulgarian JK Rowling, though most Bulgarians could easily believe in a governmental parallel universe of magical mischief.

    They have to face an extraordinary situation every fifteen minutes of their waking lives. Extraordinary situations range from the mundane life threatening – the kamikaze mothers who have to push their children’s buggies out into the street against the flow of traffic because the pavements are occupied by parked cars; to the dramatic – finding that a former minister has bought up all the land around your seaside small holding and has cut off all access to your land; to the more extraordinary – that off duty policemen who got drunk and shot a walker in the woods for fun cannot be prosecuted as they are protected by the Minister of Internal Affairs.

    Extraordinary situations are so dramatic, so sensational and so frequent that after a flurry of headlines and wild speculation they are swiftly forgotten. Revelation is rarely proved and seldom leads to any judicial closure.

    Here today for example the release from prison of drug dealer Mityo the Eyes and a celebration party that involves the alleged rape of two girls. Tomorrow – quite likely – all will be forgotten as the girls withdraw their allegation.

    The latest fashion in extraordinary situations can be found in the reported “suicides” of prominent people. Right handed bankers blow holes in their heads with guns held in their left hand. Politicians manage to place multiple bullets in their brains. In the last few weeks the suicide of Ahmed Dogan’s right hand man has led to speculation that there was a plot to assassinate the allegedly corrupt leader of Bulgaria’s Turkish speaking minority. And in a playground Bulgaria’s most famous pathologist was found hanged, leaving sufficient clues to bewilder Harry Potter let alone the Bulgarian police.

    Bulgarians did not need to be told by the European Union Commission that their government has not been effective in combating corruption. What perhaps hurts the most is that they are now behind Romania at the bottom of the class. Throughout the country people can quickly cite examples of outrageous bending of the rules in favour of powerful interests. Bookshops are full of lurid best-selling paperbacks describing colourfully named Mafia bosses whose careers are more likely to be ended by a bullet or bomb than by any action by the police. Down the entire Black Sea coast dunes are razed and conservation areas ignored as Las Vegas style spa hotels jostle with gated villages and golf courses.

    Specific detail on how all these extraordinary situations came about is hard to come by. There are a few very brave investigative journalists. One of them – Ognan Stefanov – is fighting for his life in hospital having been attacked by men with iron bars. His articles on President Purvanov’s business links may have upset someone. Assen Yordanov who used his Karate training to resist a similar attack following his investigation into land deals around the Stranzha nature reserve, pinpoints a further problem. The same forces that are responsible for high level corruption also own all media outlets. Having found an editor temporarily brave enough to print his article in a national newspaper, Yordanov had to personally deliver copies to interested readers as all other copies were purchased by one person at the point of retail delivery.

    Bulgarians no longer need to be told how they were fooled during the heady years following the fall of the Berlin wall. Ilya Troyanov in his book Dog Times has documented how intelligent communists had foreseen the necessity of democracy and filled the ranks of the new opposition parties with trusted former comrades – mainly from former State Security. While “Insurance firms” run by ex-criminals and former wrestlers terrorised fledgling businesses, the big boys in whatever government were busy with money laundering and selling each other choice land and other worthwhile assets at knock down prices. Old trade channels through former Yugoslavia continued to be used for narcotics and people smuggling.

    Today the wrestlers no longer swagger down the main street and empty cafes and gangsters prefer to be called businessmen. However many people felt a quiet satisfaction at the withdrawal of EU funds. They thought they could rob Europe like they’ve robbed us, but the Europeans were on to their tricks.

    The irony is that despite corruption at the top and the creation of a new tasteless leather-faced aristocracy, middle Bulgaria is booming. Vanya Bichova is typical of the new entrepreneurs. A teacher in Communist times, she found months without pay sufficient stimulus to start up a quality shirt business that now exports across the world.

    But the middle class is politically disengaged and cynical. They are not likely to follow their Thai or Venezuelan counterparts and take to the streets. Vania Bichova tells me There’s no point in voting. The politicians just fill their stomachs but so what? They have no power. They are at the beck and call of NATO America and Europe. Alongside this fatalism is a curious optimism based on a blinkered determination to focus on their own local interest and to succeed no matter what.

    Meanwhile the real Ministry of Extraordinary Situations disperses money for the cleaning of river beds. The belief is that most of the money will find its way into the wrong pockets.


  4. Big shout for Assen Yordanov

    November 17, 2008 by Christopher Buxton

    The fearless fighter for journalistic truth, Assen Yordanov has got involved with Milka Vulkanova’s struggle with the Petrol company. See previous posts on the threat hanging over Milka’s only source of income.

    Assen was responsible for some excellent TV reportage, showing how the building that Mr Subev wants pulled down is in fact in very good shape and being used by satisfied tenants.

    Assen was even able to interview the Sofia professor Subev paid 36,000 leva. This professor declared that he never said that the building was in any danger of falling down. But it was this professor’s name that Petrol used to convince the town council that the house on Renaissance Street should be pulled down.

    Meanwhile in a new development the Town Hall has asked for a further commission without however rescinding its demolition order.

    Milka’s representatives were called to an urgent meeting at the Burgas football stadium and were met by Mssrs Mitzov and Subev. There are signs that as a result of Assen’s intervention leather faces may be softening.

    On the other hand they may just be waiting out the storm.


  5. Bulgarian thoughts from abroad

    October 30, 2008 by Christopher Buxton

    Being away from Bulgaria is a bit like coming off cocaine.

    UK is gripped by financial crisis and a febrile debate on whether to publicly decapitate two highly paid TV/Radio presenters – but it all seems incredibly boring. I trudge through piles of leaves, the days are alternately crisp and then soggy, the daily drama is just not there.

    My fingers stray across the keyboard to access Bulgarian sites – somehow to recapture that daily confrontation with excessive melodrama. I see that “suicide” has taken the place of street assassination in Bulgaria’s continuing soap opera of corruption in high places. A crucial Bulgarian question is whether a right handed man can shoot a revolver into the left side of his brain. Don’t experiment with this at home unless you’re sure the gun is unloaded and you have nothing to do with Ahmed Dogan.

    Previous episodes of “It was suicide wasn’t it?” feature businessmen who were able to shoot two bullets into their heads. Police seem to be baffled. I personally knew a fine young woman whose tragic shooting in a firing range was described as suicide in the papers the next morning even before the police had been able to produce an inadequate report. It was fortuitous that the papers got her name wrong as everybody who knew her found the suicide allegation ridiculous. However the ex-DS owners of the firing range had access to important journalists – the kind that don’t ask questions, don’t get beaten up,don’t have their stories spiked.

    Meanwhile western journalists see their articles on Bulgarian corruption driven to obscure pages by coverage of breast jobs, Madonna’s marriage, the banking crisis, celebrity bonking and the American election. Its good that Bulgaria still has those fearless fighters in Baties Boyko and Voden (Ha ha) Tout le meme chose – tout le meme shit.

    Still no progress on A Bulgarian Story! Petrol continue to avoid contact with Milka, in spite of a promised meeting with Mitko (above me there is only God) Subev. The Town Hall too will not provide adequate explanation as to why a perfectly sound building must be pulled down. Implementation of the Subev doctrine that every building which is built before 1996 should be deemed unsafe would leave Burgas looking like Dresden after the air raid.

    So while Milka sits in a raft without a paddle in the middle of the fast moving stream, Mitko Subev and the Town Hall watch from the bank. Now only just round the bend are the cascades, rapids and waterfall that will smash her raft to splinters and pitch a defenseless old woman into the rocks.


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