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BULGARIA


  
  

 

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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 19,859 15,608 13,600 69
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,130 1,790 1,650 106
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 157 - (27/06/10)

Geopolitical realities
There is no doubt of Bulgaria's commanding location in the Balkans. It neighbours all its important players, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, while being adjacent to the Bessarabian gap dividing it from Moldova - and so Russia and Ukraine beyond.

It is located at the south-eastern corner of the Balkans. It commands overland routes used by the Ottomans in their conquest of the Balkans in the 13th century. To this day, the primary routes that go through the river valley created by the Maritsa remain key arteries between South-eastern Europe and Asia Minor.

As such, Bulgaria’s strategic importance to Russia has always been as a “plug” atop Turkish ambitions in Europe. Russia’s close relationship with Bulgaria for more than a century hitherto also ensures its presence in the Balkan Mountains, which stretch in an east-west direction down the middle of the country. This allows for the consolidation of the Danubian plain to the north — the fertile Wallachian plain of Romania — and the Bessarabian gap further to the northeast, a key transportation route between Europe and Russia that avoids the Carpathians.

Bulgaria owes its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century to Russia, which fought the Russo-Turkish War with the intent of creating a “Greater Bulgaria” with access to both the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea — precisely the route the modern day Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline would take. The plan backfired when the rest of Europe realized that Russia would be gaining warm weather ports in the Mediterranean. This was one of the issues that prompted the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which in part decided to resolve the Balkan question by greatly reducing Bulgaria’s territory.

From Moscow to the EU, the US – and beyond!
There is no doubt that Bulgaria wants to loosen its ties to Russia, its once all-important mentor since 1878 when the Russians liberated it from its previous minder, the Turks. Its movers and shakers want it to diversify its links to the wider world. It is already a member of the EU. It is edging closer to Washington, while even conceiving China as a possible new key partner.

A significant pointer here is that Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said on June 11 that Bulgaria was “giving up” on the $1 billion-$1.5 billion Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline project decision, and that construction on the planned Belene nuclear power plant had been suspended. The comment was unexpected and threw off even Borisov’s own energy minister who, when asked about the decision, remarked that he “could not believe” his prime minister had said that.

In a rapid about-face, Borisov retracted his statement on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis project hours later, saying that “the Bulgarian government hasn’t made a final decision regarding the construction of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline.” It would after all mean a definitive rupture with Moscow. The pipeline is designed to take Russian oil to the Bulgarian port of Burgas, by-passing the Turkish straits, and on to the Greek port of Alexandroupolis, alleviating the acute energy shortages of Greece and its neighbours.

The episode certainly brings into question the Moscow-Sofia relationship. Russia was supposed to play a key role in the construction of both projects. The Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline was intended to further Russia's presence in the Balkans. Cash-strapped Greece, moreover, was hoping that the project would give it some much-needed capital.

The Belene nuclear power plant, meanwhile, is supposed to replace the aging Kozloduy nuclear power plant built in 1967 that produced around 40 percent of the country’s electricity until reactor Units 3 and 4 were shut down. The four oldest reactor units of Kozloduy were taken out of operation as a condition of Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union.

According to Borisov’s initial statement, the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline was cancelled due to environmental concerns, as well as fears that the pipeline could adversely affect Bulgaria’s budding tourism industry. Meanwhile, Belene is perceived to be economically unfeasible for Bulgaria in the midst of its economic crisis.

The contretemps with Russia comes on the heels of the revelation by the Bulgarian government at the beginning of 2010 that it was considering hosting elements of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) in the country, an issue that has bedevilled relations between Moscow and two other Central European capitals, Prague and Warsaw.

It also comes right after a two-day visit to Sofia by the CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was given a rapturous welcome by everyone during his stay. Bulgaria’s relationship with the United States is clearly improving, which brings into question, to say the least of it, Sofia’s longstanding “special relationship” with Russia.

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The bigger Bulgaria
A very recent decision of the Bulgarian government to create a gigantic new industrial zone near the capital Sofia is an important event.

For some it demonstrates that the Cabinet is completely oblivious to the country's monstrously pressing development and economic issues.

It is certainly a titanic event. The Borisov cabinet has decided to approve the establishment of a brand new industrial zone at the town of Bozhurishte on 190 hectares of land currently owned by the Defense Ministry.

A Bulgarian- Chinese axis to the fore
Even though this became apparent only a few days later, the Cabinet even started trying to lure Chinese investors in order to turn the new industrial park into a “Bulgarian-Chinese project.”

Bulgaria is of course a splendid place, right in the very heart of Europe. A Beijing-Sofia axis makes a lot of sense. Why not have a Chinese outhouse in the centre of the action?

A crowded capital
The only problem with this otherwise marvellous initiative is that Bozhurishte is just 3 km from the wider Sofia City District. That is, the new industrial zone will be one more nail in the already well sealed coffin of what should have been balanced regional development in Bulgaria.

This is about much more than just complaining of the traffic jams and the overcrowded sidewalks in the capital, the terrible quality of the air, or the fact that you would experience higher radiation levels in downtown Sofia than if you are sitting down reading a newspaper between reactors 5 and 6 of Kozloduy, the nuclear power plant which somehow became a notorious scarecrow around Europe.

Thus, with its recent decision about the Bozhurishte industrial zone, the relatively new Bulgarian government demonstrates that it is going to follow the policies of its predecessors of concentrating everything in the capital Sofia – or around it, in the best case scenario. The net result is that today's Sofia is increasingly becoming a city-state, a country within the country. Without ever having been anybody's colony, Bulgaria looks more and more like a post-colonial state with one major city and a vastly dilapidated hinterland.

Unless this trend is effectively reversed any time soon, it will exacerbate the demographic meltdown of the Bulgarian nation. It will keep Bulgaria economically underdeveloped and with a low quality of life pretty much everywhere, including the capital. It will even have grave political consequences that might open a can of worms.

Currently, Sofia has at least 2.5 million people out of fewer than 7.5 million living in Bulgaria, and that balance is continuing to shift in its favour.

The disregard by the state administration of this imbalance is demonstrated by the data it provides. If you ask the state statistics offices, they will tell you Sofia's population is only 1.2 million – as it was in the late 1980s. This is simply because most of the “new” Sofia residents are not registered in the city. But if you take a minute to look at the public transport figures, you will find that at least 1.5 million people ride the city buses, trams, trolley buses, and metro daily, and this does not include the other million or so trying to ride their cars in the congested capital. 


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