War next door hurts Bulgaria's party
Cultural festival, featuring 2,500 performers, is beset by Balkans' economic woes.
When Bulgaria's second-biggest city was chosen as the site of the 1999 European Month of Culture, Tomi Petrov was excited.
Mr. Petrov, who sells wooden souvenirs, expected the decision by the European Commission, the European Union's governing body, to bring loads of foreigners to his 3,000-year-old hometown, a center of Thracian, Greek, Roman, and Turkish civilizations. The visitors would buy his flutes, Russian matrioshka nesting dolls, and other tchotchkes.
The inappropriately named month of culture, which actually began May 28 and runs until Aug. 1, is featuring more than 2,500 performers, many from beyond Europe. Attractions include the Bolshoi Ballet, heavy-metal band Metallica, theatrical productions in 13 languages, music and dance groups from around the world, and a seminar on "ethnocultural communication in the Balkans" with noted linguist and author Noam Chomsky.
But aside from the performers, few international visitors have come. Petrov sits patiently at his table on a narrow cobblestone street in the old-town district. Business is bad, he says, even worse than last year.
Two months before this month's celebration, NATO started bombing Yugoslavia, 150 miles away. The war has since ended, but the damage is done.
Like many Bulgarians, Petrov feels that even though his country wasn't involved in the war, it has suffered the economic consequences. "We have a long history here of tolerance," he says. "We are quiet, and we behave, and what happens? Nothing. The only news people hear about us is when something bad happens. Should we start a war? Maybe that is the way help will come."
With the NATO bombing, Bulgaria has seen the disappearance, virtually overnight, of its markets and transport corridors through Yugoslavia, which provided the main road, rail, and river links to the rest of Europe.
This Tennessee-sized country in the southeast corner of Europe already needed help. Bulgaria was the biggest loser of the former Soviet bloc, largely because of its heavy dependence on Russian markets and cheap energy.
Bulgaria now has set its orientation due West, politically and economically. Four percent of Bulgarian exports now go to Russia - mostly food and textiles - compared with 60 percent in 1992.
BUT last year's financial collapse in Russia terrified foreign investors in "emerging" markets, and unemployment from privatized state factories and enterprises comes at a time of global economic downturn. Then Bulgaria found itself on the doorstep of a war zone.
"The war has had more of a psychological impact than anything," says Ken Lefkowitz, an associate at European Privatization Investment Corp., a Vienna-based investment banking house. "Investors who haven't been here think it's very exotic. Even seasoned investors have turned away. If there is some real commitment to pour money in here, investors will look differently."
And there are other problems. For one, Bulgaria's birthrate is the lowest in the world, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. This demographic nose dive coincides with the emigration of the most skilled and ambitious young people.
The festival is just one part of a government effort to strengthen links between Bulgaria and the rest of Europe, and organizers remain optimistic about its ultimate impact.
"We believe that if you show people that this is a nice, civilized country where people live peacefully, then it will become a tourist destination," says Minka Peeva, program coordinator for international events at the festival. "This also increases the investor interest in the place."
Few Bulgarians expect a regional reconstruction effort on the scale of a second Marshall Plan. For Yugoslavia's neighbor, spared the firsthand horrors of war, the end of fighting means the positive gains of recent years can start to be rebuilt.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society