To Shanghai and Back - 117 Years Later
"Bulgarian Curiosities" – this is the sign hanging above the Bulgarian pavilion at the Expo. In the foreground, near the kiosk, two dummies dressed in national costumes are propped. On both sides around the entrance there are two old-fashioned window panes with all kinds of old and new coins, postal stamps, maps; inside on display is everything that could be purchased from our country women in the last years – embroidered towels, handkerchiefs, socks, earrings, rings and hundreds of other trinkets peasant women use to adorn themselves. The shed is decorated with rugs on which bagpipes, traditional shepherd’s wooden flutes, mandolins, horns, casters, wooden vessels, prisoners’ purses are freely hanging, while a wax figure is sitting in the back, dressed as a bride, decorated with a whole arsenal of coins and metal jewelry, with limp hair covering her face and a huge halo of boxwood around her head. On both sides of the bride, on the wall, the portraits of the Bulgarian Prince, Prime Minister, and Defense Minister are hung. The pavilion keeper sits behind the cash register and looks with suspicion at the curious visitors…
The year is 1893; the book – To Chicago and Back; the author – talented Bulgarian writer, Aleko Konstantinov, describing his visit to the modest Bulgarian pavilion on the famous Midway Plaisance at the Chicago World Fair, comparing the display with the glitz and glamour of the other attractions. This “Bulgarian Curiosities” pavilion became the place where Aleko invented his famous character Bay Ganyo - the petty rose oil dealer turning into a big-time politician.
Behind an obscure entrance of a shared building, the Bulgarian pavilion is a scale model of an old fashioned street market where a cardboard house with architecture typical for the Bulgarian Revival, two dummies with national costumes and a trellis vine are propped on the background of a photo wall mural. The 4 Bulgarian guides don't speak Chinese.
The year is 2010, and this is the description of the Bulgarian pavilion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China entitled “Better Life, Better City” – the largest international fair with participants from over 200 countries and some of the most glamorous fireworks, ambitious pavilions and lavish displays ever.
The official organizer of Bulgaria's representation in Shanghai is the Plovdiv International Fair Association. The decision to eliminate any public tenders and assign all tasks in connection with the country’s display in Shanghai to the Association was made in August 2006 by the then Council of Ministers. The amount slated – BGN 4.6 M. In November 2009, however, the new government of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party and its Ministry of Economy notified the organizers that the funding is scaled down to BGN 1.3 M from the State and about another BGN 1 M as assistance from China over the economic crisis and its hardships. The Association countered by announcing they already spent much more having in mind the BGN 4.6 M promised earlier and there is no way to organize Bulgaria’s representation for less.
Recently, the management of the world Expo 2010 in Shanghai gave Bulgaria an ultimatum to provide additional financing by May 14 otherwise the country's pavilion will have to be closed. From the BGN 2.3 M, slated by the Economy Ministry and the Chinese, only a mere BGN 19 000 remain, making impossible maintaining the pavilion until the end of the expo in October. Economy Minister, Traicho Traikov, however, insists that closing the display is not an option, and vows help, not money because there isn’t any, but something else, like sending more staff. How is this going to keep the pavilion open remains unclear, but this is another story…
Amidst the raging war between the cabinet and the Economy Minister as its representative and the International Plovdiv Fair, and their mutual accusations, the way the money was spent and the author of the pavilion’s design, described by eyewitnesses as shabby, drab and dismal, remain unknown. Both, Georgi Gergov, who is the majority shareholder of the International Plovdiv Fair, and its Director, Bogomil Bonev, vehemently deny the design has been selected without competition, but refuse to give the names of the author and/or the company claiming confidentiality of information.
It is however well known who Gergov and Bonev are:
Georgi Gergov is one of the wealthiest and most influential people in Bulgaria, whose name is connected to numerous shady privatization schemes and alleged financing of the election campaigns of Socialist President, Georgi Parvanov. Born in 1956 in the small village of Dzhurilovo, Gergov, a self-proclaimed supporter and member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), rose to riches and power from the post Executive Director of the pig farm in the village of Manole during the Communist regime. Since then he has acquired shares in several upscale hotels in Plovdiv and on the Black Sea coast, the Central Department Store known as CUM, the Plovdiv Fair, the Plovdiv Sugar Factory, other plants, farms, road construction, cable TV and much more while Bulgaria’s second largest city of Plovdiv is jokingly nicknamed “Gergovgrad.”
Bogomil Bonev was born in 1957 in the town of Radomir and became a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1977. A graduate of the Police Academy in Sofia, he has held several high-ranking positions at the Interior Ministry, including Interior Minister from 1997 until 1999 when he was released by then Prime Minister, Ivan Kostov. The reason for his ousting remains unknown, but there have been rumors of a secret report revealing corruption among high-ranking politicians. Bonev also ran for president in 2001.
Since the GERB cabinet and the GERB majority came into power in the summer of 2009, several topics keep coming up more than others and almost on a daily basis – the criminal activities, corruption and squandering of the former, Socialist-led government; the raging war between Socialist President, Georgi Parvanov and GERB Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, and the need for everyone in Bulgaria – from professors and businessmen to farmers and retirees to tighten their belts over the cash-strapped State.
In this story, the mystery surrounding the way the Plovdiv Fair Association spent the money is probably no surprise to most, but it is mind-boggling, in the light of the above paragraph, why did GERB honor the decision of the ex cabinet and bestowed the organization of the country’s representation at such prestigious business forum to a company, associated with BSP and Parvanov; why in times of crisis millions were spent without any control and monitoring of this company, which Traikov, himself, recently sent to court in an attempt for the State to get back the Plovdiv Fair over violations of the Trade and Privatization Acts. (At the time when Gergov acquired the majority share package by purchasing them from restitution owners, the company was listed among businesses with a state-owned majority shares whose privatization was banned.)
The results are bleak – a missed opportunity to impress and attract investors in the heart of the modern economic boom known as China and the embarrassment from our dull representation. Maybe it would have been better to not participate at all?
According to reports from Shanghai, countries from our region such as Turkey, Romania Serbia, and even Bosnia and Herzegovina have displays much more impressive than ours similarly to comparing Sofia, which, except some of its beautiful downtown, looks like a giant dump site, to Istanbul or Belgrade.
Sadly, our representation in Shanghai probably did not deceive many expectations. The shabby display is a reflection of our entire State, our life, our country – drab, worn-out, confused, and uninspiring; a place where petty rose-oil dealers turn politicians and pig farmers become millionaires…
*Some of the information in this story came from an investigative report of the Bulgarian weekly “Capital.”
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