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11 August 1997

There is an article in the April 1997 issue of National Geographic entitled Moscow The New Revolution. This article contains many statements that are so appropriate to Bulgaria that I must use them to give you a better idea of life here.

Street names change overnight, erasing honors given decades ago to Bolshevik warriors; … a gay bar opens down the street and features ‘transvestite night’…

It is interesting to note that street names in Bulgaria were also changed to the Russian Bolshevik names (from the names of Bulgarian warriors) and are now being changed back. In April I went with Molly, our Peace Corps Medical Officer, and the couple from Haskovo to a recently opened gay bar in Sofia. Didn’t stay but for one drink and it was early so the place wasn’t really hopping yet. But, what was very interesting was that it was ‘3 M Night’ and we received a complimentary roll of 3 M Magic Scotch Tape as we entered. They also had a VCR tape running on an oversized TV monitor advertising all kinds of 3 M products. Can you imagine a 3 M Night at any gay bar in the States? The experience was stranger than the people who were coming in!

The rules of class and privilege in Moscow are approaching the draconian code of the industrialized West. Money talks and nobody walks. If you have cash (or a credit card) in Moscow, you can taste it all:…

This is an apt description of Sofia, Plovdiv and other large cities in Bulgaria also, with one big exception; credit cards are not accepted except at the most expensive hotels. There is virtually no banking system here so most charge slips are shipped to some out of country bank for subsequent processing. Then accompanying 4 pages of photos is this caption in part.

Misha’s parents worked the land as peasants in Safonikha, a village 60 miles northwest of Moscow. Now in order to feed themselves, Mish and Nina, who have no children, tend a third of an acre there from April to September, living in the one-room family home. Though both suffer from health problems, they toil long hours all summer, growing bushels of cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, onions, cabbages, and potatoes. During the winter, which they spend in Moscow…every month Nina and Misha visit Safonikha to collect food

This is the same pattern that you see in Bulgaria; it is the very unfortunate that don’t have the village garden to go back to.

Pensioners, a quarter of Moscow’s population, are among those least able to adapt to the new Russia. Says Nina, 67, ‘it’s better to be young’. It takes cunning, flexibility, privilege, and youth to make one’s way in the new world. Suddenly an outwardly classless society has fractured into classes of radically different experiences and levels of wealth, and the result has been a Moscow filled with resentment, confusion, and jealousy.

This is also true today in Bulgaria. There is a proverb in Bulgarian “I don’t want anything for myself; I only want less for my neighbor”. That proverb is no longer holding true, there are Bulgarians that want it for themselves and they want a lot of it!! Although there is no overt discrimination, except against the Gypsies, there is the feeling by people in the cities that they are superior to the country bumpkins. Even more so than the city versus country attitudes that exist in the States. Here you also have the old guard intellectuals that no longer have a place in the society. They are highly educated by communist standards; but all their training is now worthless because the ideological principles behind that education have been deemed worthless. There is much more to the article and I recommend reading it for an understanding of what is going on in Moscow/Russia but probably all of the old Soviet Block also.

I am becoming very Bulgarian! On Friday, 25 July, we had visiting Bulgarians from an NGO in Sofia that were here to verify that we had distributed a grant from the Soros Foundation as the Foundation had prescribed. They had with them two representatives of Refugees International (an American NGO), a man about my age and a girl that appeared to be in her twenties, who were doing a needs assessment of Bulgarians. As the meeting started Zdavko, my Executive Director, introduced all of the Zlatograd people and the American’s interpreters (they each had one) translated. I heard him introduce me as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgarian but did not hear the translations. As the meeting progressed I only offered a short comment from time to time but spoke a few sentences about the replacement pedestrian bridge that is now under construction. After that short speech the young girl said in an aside to the other American ‘He speaks with an American accent’. I then said ‘That is because I’m an American’. She had not understood during the introduction that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and thought I was just another one of the Bulgarians in Zlatograd. At dinner, after the meeting, we talked briefly and she emphasized this point by stating ‘You fit in; I thought you were Bulgarian.’ Now if I only knew the language! A brief word about dinner. It began at about 2130 and followed the pattern that I have described before. The only thing that I want to comment on here is the main course. It was Chavarma (phonetically with long A’s) which is lamb that has been roasted on a spit over an open fire. I had it one time before but on that occasion I didn’t see it on the spit. This time I had the opportunity to see it and found that here they roast the WHOLE lamb; I mean it is roasted with the head attached. So when they bring you a cold plate of roasted lamb it may in fact include some choice, morsels carved from the head; I didn’t ask, didn’t see any eyes on the plate and I didn’t want to know.

Not knowing the language brings up the shocker to my easy going days. Milka has quit and gone to Sofia to work for a Bulgarian construction company that also has offices in two or three foreign countries. I knew she was very unhappy here in Zlatograd, was having troubles with her husband, and had made application for at least two jobs since the beginning of the year. I had written a recommendation for her for one of those applications and did what I could to encourage and help her. But, at the same time I had those mixed emotions that have been described as “It is like watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your brand new BMW”. I was without any counterpart/translator for a week plus and now have a college student helping out in the office; her English is minimal and only reinforces how good I had it with Milka. The plus side – she is beautiful! Milka is very attractive but this Nevena is a real knockout. Zdravko is looking for someone to work full time starting in September; Nevena will be going back to school then and we will need someone. The chances of finding anyone here in Zlatograd with English that is a good as Milka’s was is rather remote so I will probably be learning better Bulgarian because I must. The crutch has been removed!

You may have had news there about the flooding in northern Europe. That flooding was mostly on the Oder River between Germany, Poland, and Czeck Republic which does not flow into the Danube and will not affected Bulgaria. The Oder flows north into the Baltic. Was your trip down the Danube plagued with rain or were you gone before it started? We had no heavy rain here; only what I would call normal afternoon thunderstorms and maybe not even normal rainfall from them. It seems to be drying up here and I see more people irrigating their gardens if they have the water available. But, what that does is lower the water pressure to my apartment and it may have contributed to a burst water main near me this last Saturday. My water was off part of Saturday, Sunday, and again Monday morning when I got up. So it was a cold water shave and cold water sponge bath; I keep a bucket full of water available for such eventualities. This weekend I saw news of a land slide in the “Snowies” of New South Wales with a number of people killed as well as reports on the European flooding. I found the opening remark by the CNN International reporter to be rather absurd. He said “Today’s news is headlined by the weather, most of it all bad”. Have you ever watched, or listened to, a newscast where the weather was the headline news and it was about GOOD weather. If the weather isn’t BAD and killing people it is not news! This is particularly true of CNN International; the network of today’s killings in all the wars around the globe and any other acts that may have taken human life. I have reached the point that I don’t like to watch it and prefer Euronews TV if I can get it.

To follow up on last months Long Letter; some additional comments on land restitution in Bulgaria and the impact on agriculture. This is quoted from Bulgarian Business News.

Before taking a summer recess, Parliament passed an amendment to the Agricultural Land Tenure Act, transferring jurisdiction over applications for supervisory review from the Supreme Administrative Court to the district courts.
The cases filed with the Supreme Administrative Court by July 1st, 1997 added up to 5,770, which means that their finalization will take more than three years, experts say. They believe that the revision will speed up farm land ownership restitution.
According to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (NSI), by July 1st, 1997, or six years after the entry into force of the Agricultural Land Tenure Act, title to 34,318,000 dca, or 62.4 per cent of all restitutable land, has passed to the rightful owners. Of this area, 18.7 per cent has been restituted within existing or restorable old physical boundaries, and 43.7 per cent through land distribution plans, the NSI figures show. Restitution of the remaining 20,717,000 dca, or 37.6 per cent of all land subject to repossession, is in progress. Most of this land, 18,196,000 dca, has been allocated for use for one or more years, albeit not to its rightful owners. This procedure, called ‘provisional entry in possession’, has taken hold in recent years as land reform in Bulgaria has been delayed. Provisional entry in possession is used mainly to allocate land to cooperatives, of which 3,119 have been registered so far, and they farm 43 per cent of the country’s agricultural land, the NSI said.
Nearly BGL 4,500 million have been spent since the land reform began in 1992, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. According to expert’ estimates, completion of land reform will cost some USD 19 million.
The pace of farm land restitution slackened last year, the experts admit. Since the start of land reform, former owners or their heirs have repossessed 6 percent of the land in 1992, 9 percent in 1993, 18.8 per cent in 1994, and 16 per cent in 1995, according to NSI statistics.
Land reform in Bulgaria is not exactly deadlocked, but is running into serious difficulties with the unending amendments to the Agricultural Land Tenure Act, the Ministry says.
The Act was originally adopted in February 1991 and has since been revised on ten occasions. Lingering ambiguities and gaps in the legislation have been one of the reasons for the delay in farm land restitution in recent months, agricultural experts argue.
Nearly 13 million decares, or 27.6 per cent of the cultivable land in Bulgaria, went untilled and unplanted last year, statistics show. The idle land almost doubled from the 6.5 million decres left unused in 1995.
More than half of the abandoned land is privately owned, according to Agriculture Ministry figures. In mountain and highland areas, more than 90 per cent of the farm land has been derelict for two or three years now, which irretrievably damages its fertility. Fifty-two per cent of the owners of restituted agricultural land live in urban areas and are not willing to engage in farming.

You would think that after 6 years and 10 amendments to the Act there would not be any “ambiguities and gaps”. However, I think it was probably to someone’s benefit that there were delays. The first group that I see benefiting are the cooperatives that have been “allocated land under provisional entry in possession”. They have been using land that doesn’t belong to them a no rental cost to them. I suspect that the people that did the “allocating” probably also benefited; so maybe the cooperative did pay rent, so to speak, but not to the rightful owners. If the owner does not wish to farm the land he can not sell it and it’s only value to him is it’s rental value. The saga continues!!