The barbed-wire fence supposed to prevent refugees from entering the EU's poorest member state, Bulgaria, is almost ready. After about four years of construction work, the roughly 240-kilometre fence now proudly stands in the middle of the Strandzha forest, in what is supposed to be a nature park. Its usefulness is disputable and there are ongoing allegations of misappropriation and wrongdoing.
The Fence, as it has become known in Bulgarian daily language, has a long and controversial history spanning almost six decades.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s what was then Communist Bulgaria built a barbed-wire fence along most of its southern and western borders. Greece and especially Turkey were then NATO enemies, the whole Bulgarian military doctrine was focused on a "probable" attack by the West. Tito's Yugoslavia to the west was mistrusted. Though it was a Communist country as well, Tito had just quarrelled with Stalin and embarked on his non-aligned path. Bulgaria would remain firmly pro-Soviet up until 1989. That first fence was not just some barbed wire hanging from poles though. It was an element of an intricate system of defence fortifications, patrolled by conscript soldiers under orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross either way.
Officially, the purpose of the early fence was to stop any incursion from capitalist Turkey and Greece. In reality, however, it was meant to stop any Bulgarian or other East European refugee fleeing into democratic Turkey and Greece. In those days Turkey was West.
The collapse of Communism and the East bloc in 1989 led to immediate liberalisation in the other former Warsaw Pact countries and to gradual and at times painful attempts at democratisation in Bulgaria. The fence was affected. Bulgarians were now free to travel and the politicians of the 1990s saw no further need for a barbed-wire fence. The barbed wire and the poles were first abandoned and then dismantled. In many cases the wire was stolen to be sold by impoverished Bulgarians for scrap metal.
However, in the late 2000s Bulgaria's new politicians hardened their stance in an attempt to funnel the growing public nostalgia for Communism and the perceived need for a "hard hand" to tackle the country's problems. Initially, the Council of Ministers made a decision to erect a new fence to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease that Bulgarian politicians said was coming from across the border with Turkey. Plans were made, funds were allocated, but the project went nowhere.
Then came the war in Syria, an erstwhile ally of Communist Bulgaria and a country where many Bulgarian specialists of the Communist-era generation sought work because their salaries would be paid in dollars. Millions of refugees penetrated Turkey. Some of them wanted to go on into Europe. Bulgaria was in the way.
Bulgaria's increasingly nationalist politicians saw a good chance to deflect the growing public discontent with the embattled reforms and low living standards into a mass hysteria building on the fear the country would be overrun by Muslim criminals, rapists and terrorists. The fact was that the trickle of asylumseekers entering legally or illegally was negligible compared to what Greece and Italy experienced. But with the help of the media the politicians made their point. A new, modern fence was badly and urgently needed to stop anyone from entering.
Plans were drawn, the cash (most of it coming from the EU) was secured. Building the new fence started in 2013, under the short-lived and ill-fated government of Plamen Oresharski. Some 30 kilometres of it were built in the easiest part of the terrain, in the plain near Svilengrad. The government then declared the project of national security significance, which meant it could pick its contractors without a public bid.
The Oresharski government was overthrown following mass street protests in Sofia. Boyko Borisov's GERB returned to power. One of the things it did was amend the Public Works and Contracts Act to enable itself to go on selecting contractors for the fence without a bid. It argued it needed that to be able to complete the fence as a matter of "urgency." That was in 2014. The price of the fence, in the meantime, was going up. It also emerged that some of the constructed sections were already in need of repairs.
Though the new barbed-wire fence was popular with the majority of Bulgarians, some critical voices were also heard. They argued the fence was too easy to penetrate with a simple ladder or a spade. Significantly, erecting a physical barrier to make life more difficult for asylumseekers would only boost the "business" of human smugglers some of whom were connected to the police.
The overwhelming majority of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country have no intention of staying in Bulgaria. For them it is just a port-of-call, an inevitable stopover on their way to Western Europe, mainly Germany, which has accepted 33 percent of all Syrian war refugees within the EU. The human smuggling business, therefore, is thriving.
The total cost of the fence so far has been 150 million leva.
The fence is now completed save for a short 5-kilometre stretch. Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov of the National Front for the Salvation for Bulgaria is happy. He recently flew over the new fence in a helicopter and reported that everything was OK. According to Slavi's Show, a popular TV programme, he owns a hotel less than a mile from the Malko Tarnovo border checkpoint with Turkey. The hotel is fully booked by… border guards sent from the whole of Bulgaria to catch "migrants."