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Bulgaria: Everything Turkey is Not

March 24, 2011

To get back in to things, I’ll be doing a country-by-country recap of the Balkan tour I just did, and talking about their relevance to Turkey. It’ll hopefully be more interesting than it sounds.

I sincerely doubt this is the right audience, but maybe some of you know something about the Baseball Hall of Fame in the United States. Basically, an arbitrary committee votes every year on who the best players in baseball history are, and a player must receive 75% of votes. There’s lots of arguments every year about who “belongs” there, as if baseball awards are a birthright. But a lot of those arguments focus around “Well, Goose Gossage is in, so Bert Blyleven should be.”

The European Union works in much the same way. And for the past few years, Turkey’s greatest argument for being in the E.U. was something along the “Well, Bulgaria’s in.” lines.

The overnight train into Sofia is pleasant enough. You get a couple of beds and some crisp 3AM air at the border stop. You can wait before your train leaves at the best dessert shop in Sirkeci, Hafiz Mustafa. And then you get into Sofia at about Noon and wonder where all the people are.

There are two principal theories on where the Bulgarians “came from” in that sort of creepy nationalistic sense. The first is, of course, that Bulgarians have been there forever (much like the Macedonians oh hey Macedonia you want to be part of Bulgaria?) and the second is that they came from the steppes between the Caspian and Black Seas. How much of either strain is DNA or culture is kind of historically irrelevant: this is the Balkans, its a big mixing pot. But the idea that there are strong cultural ties is amusing when you realize the terrible things the groups have done to one another.

Really, the best thing Bulgaria has going for it, EU-wise, is having one-tenth the population of Turkey. Oh, sure, they’re GrOrdox (or, to be technical, BulgOrdox), but that’s got as much to do with “European Ideals” as anything. Fun aside: Russia declared Napoleon an “Enemy of Humanity” when he invaded Russia. To be fair, Bulgaria has a huge industry & mining focus on their economy which allows European companies to get theirs in an EU state. Having an EU presence on the Black Sea means that Russian gas and oil can come all the way through to Germany without having to deal with pesky Ukrainian nationalist politicians or the obscenely expensive North Stream. There’s stuff to offer.

On the other hand, Misha Glenny can tell you all about the fair amount of badness going through Bulgaria. I’ve personally never been offered so many prostitutes in my life as I did in 2 nights in Sofia. That city, the capital, is one of those flat-as-all places where I’m convinced I could roll a bowling ball down Vitosha and it would keep going until it fell into the Black Sea. My erstwhile traveling companion said, repeatedly, “Man, this reminds me a lot of Irkutsk,” especially in reference to the Gucci, Burberry, and other high-end stores with absolutely nobody in them. There is a patina of wealth over an impoverished core. You do not want to be like Irkutsk.

But I suppose it could get better. The mountains outside of town were beautiful and where I learned how to drive stick. Anytime you get more Cyrllic into your life, you’re doing a good thing. And modern Bulgarian history did treat us with one of my favorite pieces of trivia: in 2001 the Bulgarian people elected their king as Prime Minister. He was king at age 6 because his father made a deal with Hitler, but hey! Neat!

I’m probably being unnecessarily gruff on Bulgaria, but one thing’s for sure: it’s no Turkey. You’re not being an entrepreneur there, you’re not dealing with highly complex geopolitical maneuvering, and you’re not eating terribly well. I have a good friend who spent 8 years in Sofia and I still don’t understand how. Bulgaria teaches us that if you want to be in the EU, you can either make difficult reforms and drag your country into the 21st century, or you can be an energy corridor. Either way.

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