A death in Sofia revives memories of a shady past

Nov 20th, 2006

A death in Sofia revives memories of a shady past

SOFIA — In a Cold War-style drama in one of the last places in Europe to tackle its Communist-era legacy, the sudden death of the man in charge of a key Bulgarian secret police archive that was about to be declassified has created a political uproar. The man, Bozhidar Doychev, 61, had served since 1991 as director of the National Intelligence Service archive, which is believed to contain information about the 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II and the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, as well as records on current officials who may have worked for the secret police.

In shrinking Bulgaria, where are the people?

Oct 10th, 2006

In shrinking Bulgaria, where are the people?

LUKY, Bulgaria — This socialist mining town of the future was so new when it was founded in 1959 that it had a new, modern maternity ward and no cemetery. Today the population is 4,000, down from 10,000 in 1990. Only two of the five lead-zinc mines still operate, unable to compete on the world market. Eight of the municipality’s nine schools have closed because there are so few children. The maternity ward has long since shut its doors. “We have almost used up the cemetery we have now,” said Todor Todorov, mayor of this town in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria. “We’re in a hurry to find terrain for a new one.”

Bulgarian rock

Oct 2nd, 2006

Bulgarian rock

Correspondent Matthew Brunwasser reports on a small Bulgarian town where heavy metal still rules.

Malta divorce report

Aug 15th, 2006

Malta divorce report

Matthew Brunwasser reports from the Mediterranean island of Malta — where divorce is not an option for troubled marriages. Malta’s conservative Catholic society does allow married couples to separate — but they can’t re-marry.

For Europe, a lesson in ABCs (of Cyrillic)

Aug 8th, 2006

For Europe, a lesson in ABCs (of Cyrillic)

SOFIA — When Saints Cyril and Methodius gave the Slavic world its first written script, their mission was to draw the Slavs under the influence of Constantinople and away from Rome. A thousand or so years later, Cyrillic is heading west – this time to a united Europe. With Bulgaria scheduled to enter the European Union along with Romania on Jan. 1, Cyrillic is becoming the bloc’s third official alphabet, after Latin and Greek; by the end of the decade, if Bulgaria succeeds in joining the euro zone, it may even appear on euro banknotes. Although Bulgaria has no commitment to reciprocate by displaying signs in the Latin alphabet, “We are doing it,” says Nikolay Vassilev, minister for state administration and administrative reform. “More slowly than I would like.” With one of the world’s largest translation services, the EU does not expect problems adding Bulgarian and its Cyrillic alphabet to the array of languages it already handles. Still, linguistic diversity comes at a price. For 2005, the total cost of all language services – written translation and spoken interpretation – in the EU’s 20 official languages was €1.1 billion – about 1 percent the total EU budget, or €2.28 per person across the 25-member bloc. With the addition of Bulgarian and Romanian in 2007, along with Irish becoming an operational language, the cost is expected to increase by a total of €30 million, or $38.5 million. [...]

Bulgarian Gypsy transvestite pop-folk star

Aug 2nd, 2006

Bulgarian Gypsy transvestite pop-folk star

When it comes to popular music in Bulgaria, it’s Chalga. Chalga is a blend of eastern Turkish rhythms, western pop and local folk music. The King of Chalga is a singer named Azis. He’s a controversial figure. Many Bulgarians love him, but he also inspires a lot of animosity. Matthew Brunwasser has today’s Global Hit.

In Bulgaria, a fleeced public is left in cold

Jul 27th, 2006

In Bulgaria, a fleeced public is left in cold

SOFIA — The director of the Sofia central heating company might not have a glamorous job. The company, a Soviet- era behemoth, is more than €50 million in debt and is owed €80 million by customers unable or unwilling to pay their heating bills. The pay for the director is just €500 a month. But Valentin Dimitrov, the director until April, managed to live well: making a splash at high-society parties with Elena Tihomirova, Miss Bulgaria 2003, living in a villa worth €400,000, or $506,000, and driving a customized Lexus sport utility vehicle. After 10 years in the post, through three governments involving all the major political parties, Dimitrov inadvertently provoked the end of his career by seeking in February to raise consumer rates by 12 percent.

Bridge to a new era for Bulgaria and Romania

Jun 14th, 2006

Bridge to a new era for Bulgaria and Romania

VIDIN, Bulgaria — Construction has not yet begun, but a new bridge over the Danube is already lifting hopes among Bulgarians and Romanians on both sides of the river. The bridge, which will span the Danube from this downtrodden city to the dusty Romanian town of Calafat, will not just forge new connections, but is also meant to help one of Europe’s least developed regions. After eight years spent arguing over the location and four years of looking for funding, the €230 million, or $290 million, project is expected finally to enter the construction phase next year thanks to European prodding and finance.

Border officials living in opulent villas

May 10th, 2006

Border officials living in opulent villas

STAVRI DIMITROVO, Bulgaria — A powerful illustration of how Bulgarians see border officials living according to separate rules is the so-called “customs officers’ village” here on the Ivailovgrad Reservoir, 30 kilometers from Svilengrad, the town nearest the Kapitan-Andreevo border station. Half of the 40 or so homes in the village are luxurious weekend villas built by former and current border officials and “businessmen.” The first sight upon entering the village is a hotel-sized mansion on the other side of the reservoir being built by Rumen Atanasov, popularly known as “The Goat,” a hotelier and the former Black Sea representative of Georgi Iliev, a Bulgarian ex-wrestler and organized crime boss who was shot and killed last summer.

In Bulgaria, a porous gateway to EU?

May 10th, 2006

In Bulgaria, a porous gateway to EU?

KAPITAN-ANDREEVO, Bulgaria — The spindly observation towers on the Turkish side of this frontier post’s barbed- wire fence stand abandoned, like decaying concrete dinosaurs of a distant Cold War past. “This border was built to force people to pass through very slowly” from Bulgaria to Turkey, said Nikola Karaivanov, chief of customs at the Kapitan-Andreevo border station. “Now,” he said, “it needs to be changed in the opposite direction” – to control passage into the European Union. EU officials say that this sprawling border area about 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, southeast of Sofia will soon become one of the EU’s busiest external frontiers: 35 lanes of increasing trade and passenger travel between Turkey and an expanded, 27-member bloc.