FT: BULGARIAN KINGMAKERS WERE IN THE COUNTING HOUSE...

Views on BG | July 26, 2001, Thursday // 00:00

The Financial Times

Expatriates set the agenda for government, says Phelim McAleer

As its name suggests, the Counting House pub in the City of London was once a bank, and legend has it that a Roman town hall once stood on the site.
Over the past three years, the pub has also been home to a political movement in exile, which helped see a former king elected prime minister of Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian City Club, a group of expatriate professionals from the impoverished east European country, largely drafted the former king's economic strategy and some of its members now hold positions in his government.
Most prominent in the new administration of Simeon Saxe-Coburg, formerly King Simeon II until he was deposed by the communists, are Nikolai Vassilev, deputy prime minister and economy minister, and Milen Velchev, finance minister.
Mr Vassilev (31) who has studied in the US, Japan and Hungary, worked in the City of London's financial district for the past three years, most recently as an emerging markets analyst with Lazard Capital Markets. Mr Velchev, 35, who also studied in the US, was vice-president of the emerging markets unit at Merrill Lynch, the investment bank, where he worked since 1995.
However the Bulgarian City Club's influence on the government is unlikely to stop at these ministries. Members are being approached for other important positions, such as the privatisation agency, and Mr Vassilev envisages a role across the government for the group and its newer sister club on Wall Street.
"I want the members to be part-time unpaid advisers to the government. They will be the country's think tanks," he said.
All this is a long way from the club's beginnings as a social group. And its first attempt at intervening in Bulgarian affairs was neither political nor economic, but charitable.
Some members heard of a Bulgarian child who would die unless DM 150,000 ($67,000), a huge sum in a country where the average salary is around $100 a month, was raised for an operation.
They started fundraising, and found to their surprise they were taken seriously as a group. The money started to pour in. This gave them confidence to start thinking about how they could help their fellow Bulgarians in other ways.
"It was an example of what we could do when we tried," said Mr Vassilev.
The next step was to set up an e-mail group where they debated and refined ideas on the country's economy. Many of these became part of the new government's strategy.
Yet those thoughts might have stayed in cyberspace were it not for an initiative by the centre-right government at the time, which probably inadvertently sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
In 2000 the government, which was elected in 1997 with a reformist agenda, organised a Bulgarian Easter conference, bringing together hundreds of professional expatriates with local politicians and business people.
Club members wrote a paper based on their e-mails. It was politely received and ignored by the government, which many of the group had supported when it came to power.
This year's Bulgarian Easter conference was different. The government did not even listen politely. "It was a tragedy - like one of those boring, useless party conferences from the 1950s. The government ignored us, the minister for the economy showed up, didn't answer questions and left after an hour," said Mr Vassilev.
"They were very hostile to criticism," added Mr Velchev.
It was at this point that Mr Vassilev and club members decided they could not rely on the established politicians to follow reformist policies.
"We realised our generation cannot change the country unless we do it ourselves," he said. This realisation coincided with the former king's entry into politics.
What no doubt helped the club in its political connections was the fact that one of Mr Saxe-Coburg's sons, Prince Kyril, was a founding member and is the current president.
"The king started to attract a lot of young, talented people and we knew if we didn't go now we would condemn another generation to live without hope," said Mr Vassilev.
While the club had the economic ideas, the former king brought his own political skills to the team. He announced his commitment to pursuing European Union and NATO membership, and attracted support from many poorer Bulgarians with promises of pay and pensions increases, and interest-free loans. He also said he would not tolerate corruption.
Mr Saxe-Coburg won the June election with a promise that Bulgarians would notice a change in their standard of living within 800 days. Since then, Mr Vassilev and Mr Velchev have been putting the finishing touches on a strategy which was first proposed in the Counting House.
The plan includes allowing profits that are re-invested to be free of tax, to reduce income tax, to negotiate a new deal with the International Monetary Fund - officials of which met with the new government on Wednesday - and to draw up a balanced budget. The government also aims to privatise remaining state assets as quickly as possible.
Across the world, pubs have been forums for the articulation of great ideas and ambitions that somehow never seem so bright in the light of the morning after. Bulgaria has 800 days to find out if some of their citizens' bar room chatter is different.

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