Bulgaria: Rotten Politics, Rotten Tomatoes
On 14 November, Nikolay Kolev, a Bulgarian poet with a Tolstoyan beard, wrote to his country's six leading institutions with his plans to throw a tomato at each.
"All of you manage institutions that are directly responsible for the condition of our country in recent years," he said, accusing them of corruption. "I can no longer remain a hostage to hope and good manners." As Mr Kolev's first tomato hit the parliament, 40 policemen pounced, and arrested him. But demonstrations against corruption, which social networking sites called the tomato revolution, followed last weekend.
There seems little prospect of a tomato revolution. But Mr Kolev has a point. According to Transparency International, Bulgaria has overtaken Greece to be the EU's most corrupt member state and Sofia's Centre for the Study of Democracy estimates Bulgarians pay 150,000 bribes each month. WikiLeaks cables detail how organised crime has moved beyond bribery to direct participation in elective politics. Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, a former fireman and bodyguard with a black belt in karate, campaigned on fighting corruption, but after three years in power has yet to prove he is tough enough to act.
Many Bulgarians look past their state and put more trust in the EU. Accession negotiations with the EU were rushed, leaving the Bulgarian state unreformed. Mercifully, Sofia has few debts and the national economy is stable. But with the onset of the global economic crisis, around a third of households cut back on basic utilities and staple foods, and 8% skipped meals, according to the World Bank. Sofia's European interlocutors must now marshal their efforts to spur reform; all the while convincing Bulgarians there shall be no second-class membership of the EU.
The central fact of Bulgarian life remains the botched transition across the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism: a tragedy of chaos and plunder for which local elites and Washington share blame. Today's visitor to Sofia notices how little, apart from shopping malls, has since been built for the public. Bulgarians who lived through communism record their nostalgia for it in poll after poll. And hundreds of thousands of their children have simply emigrated, decimating the population, but providing their families with a flow of remittances.
A land that wrought its culture in gold before most of Europe left any mark and which established the Cyrillic alphabet is not to be underestimated. Bulgarians are right to look to Europe, for Bulgaria's fate rests as much as anything on whether the European project frays, or whether a European democratic culture can be woven. That, and perhaps a few more tomatoes.
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