Bulgaria: Can Soccer Success Mean Business?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sofia, Bulgaria. -- If the United Colors of Bennetton, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Honda have all reached Bulgaria, can McDonald's be far behind?

"No," says Brad Trask, a McDonald's media spokesman. "We plan to open in Sofia by the end of the year."

In post-Communist Bulgaria, the avant garde of free enterprise appears as fast food, fast cars and colorful clothes.

And in this country where the collapse of communism meant the wilting of industrial production, money changers, those inevitable pioneers of the free market, abound as in the Temple at Jerusalem. But it's unlikely that anyone will cast them out. The lev is not a currency you want to be stuck with in great amounts. The dollar now buys twice as many leva as it did a year ago.

Progress toward capitalism has been slow. Just about 20 percent of the economy has been privatized. The new Bulgarians evicted Georgi Dimitrov, their old Communist nemesis, from his Lenin-style mausoleum almost instantly. But they're just getting around to taking his face off the money.

Dimitrov, the head of the Communist International in the 1930s, was probably the only globally famous Bulgarian until the World Cup soccer made names like Stoitchkov, Mikhailov and Kostadinov pronounceable in the Western world.

Bulgarians are ecstatically, nationalistically happy about their soccer team. Their brave showing against the big guys put Bulgaria on the map.

After Stoitchkov and company beat the Germans, President Zheylu Zhelev grabbed a plane for United States, in time to see Bulgaria lose a semi-final match with the Italians. East European leaders may be a little slow in grasping free-market economics, but they figure out electoral politics pretty fast.

Bulgarians are convinced that this month's soccer glory will give their salesmen entree into the boardrooms of the world. At least now, they reason Western bankers won't mistake Bulgaria for an exotic form of paprika.

President Zhelev just this month got around to signing the "final" version of Bulgaria's "mass privatization" act, four years after the last Communist government.

Business deals take a long time. Rover started looking into the the possibility of assembling cars in Bulgaria three or four years ago.

'We are at the stage where I still do nothing but sit and smile," Phillip Burley, director of Rover Bulgaria Ltd., told the Bulgarian Economic Review.

But not everybody thinks privatization is a good thing.

The National Assembly is split about equally between a union of democratic parties with 110 seats and the renamed Communist Party with 106. A recent poll shows the old Communists considerably more popular than the new democrats.

The remaining 24 seats in the 240-member assembly belong to a party that represents the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. The country is governed by a coalition of the former Communists and the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedom.

Turks fared badly in the last years of the Communist regime, when they were ordered to adopt Slavic names and faced other repressive measures. A certain historically based suspicion of Turks continues. The Ottoman Empire ruled here for about 500 years.

Memorials abound commemorating the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Bulgaria and Russia have had a long and close relationship ever since. Even though Bulgaria was an ally of Germany in World War II, it never declared war on the Soviet Union.

Several hundred thousand Turks left Bulgaria in the late '80s, but the Turkish minority still numbers about 800,000, in a population of nearly 9 million.

At least 400,000 Gypsies also live in Bulgaria. They make up a large share of the beggars who cruise the streets of downtown Sofia. Gypsy women gather in St. Nedelja Square to tell fortunes, and they get lots of customers. Gypsy musicians provide music for the wretched "dancing" bears that shuffle through the streets of downtown Sofia.

For people whose average wage is said to be about $80 a month, passers-by seem extraordinarily generous in dropping their leva into outstretched hands. And this in a country where unemployment last year was 16.5percent in a work force of 4.5 million.

Downtown Sofia is a vital, bustling place buzzing with people until fairly late into the evening. Restaurants and cafes are full, the food passable and sometimes even good. Coffee, beer and wine are just fine. Bulgaria has been the world's fourth-largest wine exporter.

A bottle of wine that might sell for $5 in London sells for about 75 cents here. Bulgarian men drink prodigious amounts of vodka, but you don't see drunks on the streets.

Few shops are empty downtown. Small businesses open and close with great rapidity. American observers here say small businesses are often disastrously underfinanced. But they keep trying.

People generally look well-fed and nicely dressed, mostly in what might be a discount-mart style in the United States, but you can get very pricey Hugo Boss suits here.

Young people wear the ubiquitous jeans, T-shirt and athletic shoe fashion that has served international youth for about a generation. American sports team logos proliferate on thousands chests and breasts, "Chicago Bulls" maybe most frequently. Bulgarians are gaga about soccer, but they also adore basketball.

Women are often quite smartly dressed. Up-to-date fashion magazines from France, Italy and Germany fill nearly half of the many, many news stands. Bulgarians are voracious readers. Book stands line the sidewalks for blocks on Vitosha Boulevard, one of the main shopping avenues. Many of their books deal with computer technology.

Bulgaria was a center of the computer industry for Comecon, the Soviet trading bloc, before communism collapsed. The Bulgarian computer industry dissolved in the competition from West and Far East. Now Apple Macintosh computers are sold from many shops.

Stephen King and Robert Ludlum are among the favorite authors from the West. One young Bulgarian said he admired Mr. Ludlum's ability to present complex international matters in an exciting manner.

And one of the blessings of the new freedom Sofians enjoy is that Harlequin romances are available in steamy profusion and Bulgarian translation.

Carl Schoettler is a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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