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Euro-loathing in Bulgaria

Gabriel Hershman

hershman3Two tenants live side by side. One lives frugally and strictly within his paltry salary. He is just about able to pay for food, rent and other necessities. His neighbour earns more but gets greedy, making all kinds of extravagant purchases. It transpires that the richer neighbour has defaulted on his rent for so long that he now owes a fortune. In the end he is faced with eviction. Should the more frugal tenant feel sorry for his spendthrift neighbour, even – God forbid! – bail him out and assume common side with him against the (wealthier) landlord?

That’s how Bulgaria feels about Greece and why, a few communists and fascists notwithstanding, few Bulgarian officials or citizens feel much sympathy for Athens. Bulgaria, it should be stressed, is Greece’s (tangibly) poorer northern neighbour. Greece’s state sector wages and pensions are generous by Bulgarian standards. (2012 figures show Greece spending 17.5 per cent of GDP on pensions, compared to 8.5 per cent in Bulgaria.) Yet if Bulgaria were to be part of the eurozone club, a strange spectre would emerge – it could yet be forced to contribute towards the wealthier country’s salvation.

The Greek referendum has not really changed anything. In Bulgaria’s view it just confirms Greece’s ongoing denial of its problems. It’s now official – the patient is irresponsible AND bonkers. Syriza’s election did not endear Greece to Bulgaria in the first place. Not only does Bulgaria see Greece living beyond its means and defaulting on debt payments but electing the kind of government that Sofia was glad to see the back of 25 years ago.

The referendum result will have some supporters, of course. Putin will be delighted because it makes the break-up of the EU more likely. Nigel Farage will welcome it as giving Brussels a well deserved kick. Leftists in the UK – those emboldened by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid – will doubtless see Syriza as a step towards socialism. Yet from Bulgaria there is scarcely any solidarity. Whatever view you take of how to solve the crisis, there is no denying the ongoing profligacy of successive Greek administrations. So although there may be some sympathy for the privations of cash-strapped pensioners caught in the maelstrom, there is no support for the government. One Bulgarian economist said that he envisioned Greece would need humanitarian relief, rather than debt relief, within a few days. And with each passing hour that prophesy looks like coming true.

Not that Bulgarians have a prejudice against their southern neighbours. On the contrary, Greece is a favourite holiday zone; last year, one-and-a-half million Bulgarians holidayed down south. The hospitality and service are better, the weather is more reliable and the sea cleaner. The resorts of Halkidiki in Greece and the Bulgarian Black Sea are both a four-hour drive from Sofia. If you could afford Greece, it was always a no-brainer – the Med won hands down.

So how will the crisis affect Bulgaria? Bulgaria has withstood so many disasters that it rather prides itself on its sang-froid. In the short term, the question Bulgarians will be asking themselves is simply – is it feasible/safe to still holiday there? Bulgarian tourists – and nearly all come by car, remember, not by plane – will have to fill up their tank on their side of the border. If they carry wads of cash, will it be stolen? Obviously the more protracted the crisis becomes, the more Bulgarian companies dealing with Greek firms will be affected. Yet we are assured that subsidiaries of Greek banks in Bulgaria are not subject to Greek rules.

Truth is, Bulgaria is fed up with the concentration on Greece’s problems. But the tendency is not to overstate the dangers too much lest they become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps there is one significant long-term change. Don’t expect Bulgaria to join the euro soon.

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