Bulgarians Remain Ambivalent Over Europe

Sofia residents celebrated signing of treaty bringing them into EU, but many still have mixed feelings about whole project.

Bulgarians Remain Ambivalent Over Europe

Sofia residents celebrated signing of treaty bringing them into EU, but many still have mixed feelings about whole project.

Several thousand participants in the "Euro BG Street Parade" gathered in front of the national cathedral in Sofia on April 25 to celebrate Bulgaria's signing of the EU accession treaty that day.

Dressed in traditional costumes from towns throughout the Sofia region, they joined marching bands, folk dancing groups, baton-twirlers and groups of fur-clad "kukeri" (masked dancers), chasing away evil spirits with clanking cowbells.

Organised by the youth wing of the ruling National Movement for Simeon II, the event was clearly designed to squash fears that EU membership will mean a loss of national identity.

When Romania and Bulgaria signed the EU accession treaty on April 25, they made a fifth round of EU expansion irreversible.

The two poorest states of the former Soviet Eastern Bloc will become EU members on January 1, 2007 unless Brussels deems them "manifestly unprepared to meet the requirements of membership".

If so, membership may be delayed by up to a year. Either way, January 1, 2008 will be the latest possible membership date.

The four more developed ex-Eastern Bloc countries, known as the "Visegrad 4", namely, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, joined the EU in the fourth round of expansion on May 1, 2004.

Apart from sharing a relative economic strength, they also shared a sentiment that EU membership marked their long-awaited "return" to Central Europe and to a place they occupied before the Red Army separated them from the West after the Second World War.

For them, EU membership has simply healed an artificial division that was created by Stalin.

But for Bulgaria and Romania, joining the EU poses different challenges. Bulgaria's history, for example, has followed a very different path from that of the Visegrad 4 states.

A Turkish province for 500 years, it only became formally independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Located in the continent's deprived southeast, Bulgaria was never closely integrated with Europe, politically or economically, in the modern era.

However, in spite of centuries of subjugation by the Ottoman and Soviet empires, Bulgarians are proud of their democratic and European traditions.

The Bulgarian constitution of 1879 was more liberal than most in Europe at the time. In the early 20th century, Bulgaria took in thousands of Armenians refugees from Turkey while in the Second World War, the country saved all 50,000 of its Jewish citizens from deportation to Nazi death camps.

Ivaylo Ditchev, a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, said, "Bulgaria is joining the European Union because we aspire to a common idea of what a European country should be."

But many of those watching the unruly procession winding through the centre of Sofia this week were more ambivalent about their European destiny than the professor's words suggested.

Ivan Georgiev, 32, a computer programmer, said, "I hope we change the EU's culture and that they don't change us. I hope we don't accept blindly what they offer."

Maria Papazova, 25, was equally unsure what a meeting between Europe and Bulgaria would achieve. "I'm sure the EU will do positive things for Bulgaria, but also bad ones," she said.

Television shows have picked up on this air of ambivalence about the European future. A humorous TV debate show called "Sblusuk" (collision), satirised the fears of many about life in the EU.

One episode showed a delicious Bulgarian tomato, some homemade rakia (grape brandy) and pirate software speaking out against EU membership, as they feared for their existence.

A policeman was shown worrying that after prices go up in 2007, his 10 lev (five euro) customary bribe would also have to jump to 20 euro. "No one will want to pay me. How will I live?" he wailed.

Humorous skits like that try to reflect the uneasy balancing act that many Bulgarians have with their respective Balkan and European identities.

The ambivalence about the West dates back at least to the early 19th Century, when wealthy Bulgarians began sending their sons to Europe to be educated, only for them to return with western ideas and find their efforts to modernise the country frustrated by oriental sloth.

Bulgarian culture shares many traits and customs with other former provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including foodstuffs, drinks, music, expressions, social customs and many other traditions.

The country's unease about its Balkan heritage has ranged from simple derision to violent denial, most recently in the 1980s, when the communist regime forced the large ethnic Turkish minority to adopt Christian-sounding names.

Mixed feelings about "Balkan-ness" remain strong today, concerning such issues as popular folk music, which is Turkish influenced and seen by some as eastern and vulgar.

"The elite in Bulgaria feels deep shame about what is called pop-folk music, which they consider degrading and uncivilised," said Ditchev.

"But when tourists come, the first thing they buy is pop-folk music because they consider it the natural folklore here - the music people live by."

As the pro-EU procession in Sofia ended near the National Palace of Culture for a concert given by a cast of celebrities, Tsvetana Rangelova, 83, watched from a nearby stall.

"My life is over," she said, bluntly. "What can [the EU] possibly mean for me?" she asked, motioning to a small battered stand, displaying sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

"But for the young people who want to do something, I hope it means something happier."

Matthew Brunwasser is contributor to the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN - a newly localised IWPR project in the region.

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