Misunderstand Bulgaria. A brief guide.

The monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia which is frequently subject of anonymous art interventions.
The monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia which is frequently subject of anonymous art interventions.

The rotating EU Presidency has started. Bulgarians are ready to host you. European media has raised its interest and it is finally prepared to write something about the obscure country from the dark corner of the continent. The most likely result will be a perpetual misunderstanding and confusion.

The first thing you might learn is that Bulgarians nod their heads in the opposite way - up-down for no, left-right for yes. Not true. It used to be the case but most people now have learned the Euro-nod. Occasionally the result might be similar to the semantically rich Indian nod. Bulgarians have also accepted and enthusiastically practice the highly unusual in older time double hello and goodbye Euro-kiss. Next thing you might hear is that you are expected to take your shoes off when visiting a house. Even the official twitter account of the Presidency said it. Wrong again, you are not. You will hear that Bulgarians invented yogurt. It is not true. As it is not true that the Greeks have invented it. The first aerial bombardment was Bulgarian, the contraceptive pill, the computer and so on are all Bulgarian inventions. We even produced the first man made gold, which must have something to do with alchemy. While none of this is true it would be sensible if you nod your head enthusiastically (in any direction you like) when yogurt, the Cirilyc alphabet, Grigor Dimitrov or Orpheus are mentioned.

Bulgaria did have a surprisingly developed aviation in the early 20th century and in 1912 dropped a few bombs from the air over Edirne, a story that gives some credibility to the first Bulgarian air bombardment theory. The Bulgarian king Ferdinand was the first monarch to fly in a plane, apparently somewhere near Brussels. Many heads of state today do that all the time without knowing who they should thank for starting the trend. On a more peaceful and healthy note there is something called Bacillus Bulgaricus, which is exported in many countries and is obscenely popular in Japan. I am sure that Japanese believe that the success of the Kotoōshū Katsunori, a great Bulgarian sumo star there, must be entirely due to him eating lots of yogurt in Bulgaria.

Moving to issues a bit more relevant to the Presidency you will inevitably hear that Bulgaria is the most corrupt and the poorest country in Europe. This is almost like “amen” or “god be with you” of every single article on the subject. After all Bulgaria has the lowest in the EU GDP per capita and Transparency International consistently places Bulgaria very low on its corruption perception index.

If you wish to dig a bit deeper you would see that the economic picture is a bit more complicated. Bulgaria has a stable economy with the third lowest government debt (29% in 2016) in the EU after Estonia (9.4%) and Luxemburg (20.8%) and much lower than the EU28 average of 83.2%. Bulgarians have one of the highest level (82%) of mortgage free home ownership in the EU and the share of people with mortgages or paying market rental prices is negligible. The level of personal savings is also very high and growing strongly over recent years. Currently Bulgarian families keep in the banks Lv€46bn (€23bn) which is 47% of the GDP. All that doesn’t make Bulgarians rich but the poverty needs to be seen in its context.

The corruption case is also intriguing. I would be surprised if you find anybody in Bulgaria who would not say that Bulgaria is terribly corrupt. Transparency International is also very clear in its verdict on the corruption perception in the country. Not so clear cut is the picture presented by the much more detailed and professionally conducted study by the European Commission/Eurobarometer on corruption in the EU. There you could see that the corruption among Bulgarian police and custom officers might be high but among private companies, banks and financial institutions is among the lowest in the EU and much lower than in some of the least corrupt countries like Denmark or Sweden. When asked whether they are personally affected by corruption 21% of Bulgarians say that they are. This is lower than the EU average (26%), Poland or Czech Republic and significantly below the scores for Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Italy and a few others. These figures do not mean that Bulgaria doesn’t have serious problems with public procurement, abuse of monopoly, concentration of economic power, media ownership and other issues that are very well known among the European Institutions.

Another frequent label is the almost inseparable relation of Bulgaria and Russia. The reality is that in the last few years Bulgaria dumped the 3 biggest Russian projects (all energy related) which bitterly angered Russian politicians. The Bulgarian government seems to be trying to revive one or two of them but the prospects are weak. The most unquestionable priorities of the Bulgarian EU Presidency are the European integration of the Western Balkan countries and improvement of the EU relationship with Turkey. Both objectives, much more real that things like European love and affection, go seriously against the current Russian government interests in the region. The relationship with Russia however will remain complicated, shaped by misinterpreted history, Communist legacy and nostalgia among part of the older generation. All that is also fuelled by the relentless pressure by the Russian hybrid army. Recently Russian media for instance said that the Bulgarian government will raise the question about ending the sanctions against Russia during its EU Presidency. Many commentators were outraged. The government flatly denied such intention, nobody noticed.

Europe is deeply concerned about its energy security. The Energy Union is making serious strides in strengthening the EU energy position. This is a very hard job. Bulgaria is often mentioned as one often the countries with the highest dependency on Russian energy import. Not true, again. Bulgaria is one of the countries with the highest relative contribution to reducing the EU energy dependency. While in the last 30 years the EU energy import dependency has increased from 36% to 53%, mostly due to the increased import to Germany, UK, Poland and a few other countries, the energy import dependency of Bulgaria (not counting nuclear fuel import) has declined from 68% to 36%. Bulgaria however has to deal with its aging coal power fleet and the still very high energy intensity.

There are a number of other Bulgarian curiosities - about the opposition to renewable energy, discriminating ethnic minorities, destroying agriculture, the totally collapsed industry, repression of women and, Leonardo DiCaprio’s, favourite subject, the destruction of the Bulgarian forests. Plenty of things to talk about in the following 6 months.

Follow Julian Popov on Twitter @julianpopov

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