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Rapid Downward Slide Has Bulgarians Fearful of Future

July 21, 1996

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) _ Wanted: a leader and a program to arrest Bulgaria’s breathtakingly rapid slide into political and economic chaos.

The crisis _ the gravest in post-communist eastern Europe _ is so complete that the president warns of riots spawned by hunger. Many Bulgarians talk improbably of restoring monarchy or turning to military dictatorship to replace the squabbling politicians who dither over reforming the economy.

Pointing to the rise of criminals and shady businessmen, a senior Western diplomat says Bulgaria could conceivably fall under the sway of gangsters, who are well-connected to the war profiteers of neighboring Serbia.

It sounds extreme. But so is the situation: Monthly inflation is running at 20 percent and worsening. Bread and electricity prices more than doubled in the past month. The value of the national currency, the lev, has plunged 30 percent against the dollar since mid-June.

``In a crisis like this, the first thing you lose is the ability to forecast,″ said Ognyan Minchev, a respected political scientist. ``If somebody knew what was going to happen in six or even three months, then the crisis would not be so deep.″

Worried Bulgarians daily crowd banks to withdraw savings and convert their leva into dollars, marks and other hard currencies.

Banks are struggling to stave off insolvency. With official interest rates set at 108 percent in a failed attempt to stabilize the value of the lev, money-losing state enterprises cannot afford to make loan payments.

Small shops and businesses that mushroomed after the end of Stalinism in 1989 also are failing. Most stores offering fashion or Western consumer goods have slashed prices by half, but buyers are still few. Shop assistants linger all day outside storefronts, smoking and chatting.

Many owners mortgaged their houses to go into business. Even under communism, 80 percent of Bulgarians owned their home. If they now default on loans and lose those homes, a new cycle of impoverishment will start.

``I can’t see how we’ll get out of this,″ said Tsonka Belcheva, a saleswoman at a private shop in Bulgaria’s second biggest city, Plovdiv.

She said the store sells at most one pair of children’s shoes each day. However, she was feeling grimly lucky that day because she had just found two loaves of bread in a city that has been short of the staple for more than a month. ``Even the Russians don’t have this,″ she said.

The Russians also lack Bulgarians’ traditional apathy. Despite tangible anger over Plovdiv’s bread shortages, just 400 people showed up for a recent protest rally called by the anti-communist opposition.

``We Bulgarians are such people _ we suffer and do nothing,″ said Maria Vaseva, an unemployed electronics specialist standing in line hoping to buy bread in Plovdiv.

News media reports on widespread corruption evince no popular concern or protest among Bulgaria’s 8.5 million people, Minchev, the political scientist, noted.

Petko Bocharov, a popular newspaper columnist, sees ``an absence of a feeling of national belonging.″ Monuments to national heroes are defiled, or melted down for metal, he observed, and ``nobody cares, nobody cares.″

``This, here, is a population,″ he said. ``This is not a nation.″

No help has come from the parliament, which has shown no unity of purpose in addressing the worsening problems.

The ruling Socialists _ the former Communist Party _ blame the anti-communist opposition. The opposition faults the government.

In the 1994 election, Premier Zhan Videnov’s party won a solid majority in the 240-member parliament and a seeming mandate finally to enact reform dallied over since Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was dumped in late 1989.

But Videnov has done almost nothing. The Socialists are divided between Stalinists and social democrats, leaving the party unable to initiate change.

The Socialist Party ``is a giant rock on the road,″ said Minchev. ``You have to pass it, but it’s blocking the whole road.″

President Zhelyu Zhelev, a philosopher and former anti-Communist dissident, seems to be maneuvering to fill the leadership vacuum even though he is supposed to give up his office when his term expires in January.

Warning of the danger of mass unrest, Zhelev says the solution to the country’s problems is to change the constitution and give his mainly ceremonial post real power.

Others place hope in King Simeon. Exiled by the Communists as a 9-year-old child in 1946, he made a triumphant return in May and June, drawing Bulgaria’s biggest crowds in decades. Many people said he made them feel a bit better about being Bulgarian.

But restoration of the monarchy is banned by the constitution _ even if Simeon wants to preside over the mess created by half-hearted, half-finished reform.

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