States and leaders are usually modelled on other states and leaders - not so in Kalmikiya, the autonomous republic within Russia, which no one had heard of until recently when it advertised itself as the only Buddhist country in Europe.
Whether playing politics or chess, the republic's president, Kirsan Ilumjanov, is both ingenuous and cunning. Mr Ilumjanov came to power in 1993, when he was just 31. As part of his election campaign, he promised a 50 percent reduction in the price of bread and butter - and he delivered, out of his own pocket. In addition, he presented the local militsiya, or police, department with a Mercedes, and the supervisor of the local Orthodox church with a Lada. The president himself drives a Lincoln.
Ilumjanov has modelled the country upon his hobby (chess) and his favourite fictional character (Ostap Bender, the charming rogue in one of the finest examples of Soviet literature, The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeniy Petrov). One of the main thoroughfares in the capital is named after the "Great Combinator", and there is even a larger-than-life statue of Bender in downtown Elista.
Just as the book predicted in 1927, Kalmikiya became the world capital of chess in October, when Bulgarian World Champion Vesko Topalov pictured here on horseback, pitted his wits against Vladimir Kramnik of Russia.
Unlike Ilumjanov, however, Vesko Topalov did make a few wrong moves - and lost the series of nerve-racking matches amid accusations that Kramnik's frequent visits to the gents had distracted his opponent from the game. Silvio Danailov, Mr Topalov's manager, was obviously inspired by the Ostap Bender imagery, and vowed he would erect a similar statue in central Sofia.
Checkmate? Not really.
No More Beep
The Bulgarian government will shut down the BBC World Service broadcasts on FM to the Sofia area, Raycho Raykov, the chairman of the Electronic Media Council, told National Radio. He justified the planned move by quoting the terms of the BBC’s license to use an FM frequency to broadcast in Sofia, saying the BBC had violated these by broadcasting in English only. The licence, he said, had been granted on condition the programmes would include some Bulgarianlanguage broadcasting. The frequency, he said, would be relocated to a Bulgarian radio station.
The BBC terminated its Bulgarian language service at the end of 2005 as part of cost-cutting measures to secure funds for an Arabic TV service. Its current programming to Bulgaria is in English only.
No date for the closure has been specified.
The BBC reportedly tried to convince the Bulgarian Government not to withdraw the licence, saying Bulgaria would need at least one English language station ahead of its accession to the EU in 2007.
The British Government refused to take a stance on the issue.
In a language reminiscent of the Cold War Raykov advised listeners to tune in to Short Wave frequencies used by the BBC to broadcast to the Balkans.
With a Mountain on His Chest
To show that he appreciated the news of Bulgaria’s EU accession, President Georgi Parvanov awarded European Commission representative Dimitris Kourkoulas the highest state order, the Stara Planina.
Kourkoulas had supported Bulgaria’s application to join the EU in January 2007 by insisting that the government had made progress with reforms in the judicial system and the fight against corruption.
Ordinary citizens, however, remain wary as they struggle through everyday officialdom and complicated bureaucracy.
Spirit of the Law
The world's top lawyers gathered in Sofia to take part in the 20th Jubilee of the Academy of American and International Law’s European Annual Alumni meeting. Lawyers from 18 countries including Brazil, Argentina, Japan and the US, travelled to Bulgaria for the first time to take part in the seminar on “Investment opportunities in Bulgaria”, held at the Grand Hotel Sofia. The event featured a special guest lecturer from the Invest Bulgaria Agency, and was attended by representatives from the world’s top law firms and the Center of American and International Law, Dallas.
The Spiral of Hype
The EU was the inspiration for a monumental piece of art in Plovdiv. The endless spiral, made of a chromenickel alloy by the Plovdiv-based artist Zhorzh Trac is simply called “Europe”. It has proroked various reactions among Plovdiv residents. Some thought it looked more like an overgrown necklace than anything truly grand or abstract, while more technically-minded onlookers made a link between the 12 corkscrew-like components of the spiral and the 12 stars on the EU flag. However, there are at least two things that can be said unequivocally: Plovdiv’s “Europe” weighs 4.5 tons and is currently on show in the city square. Oh, and the EU never ends, does it.
Symbol of Perfection?
Anyone know how many stars there are on the EU flag? Well, it’s not 15 or 22, just 12. According to the EU, “the circle of gold stars represents solidarity and harmony between the peoples of Europe”. “The number of stars has nothing to do with the number of member states,” the EU tells us on its web page. There are 12 stars because the number 12 is traditionally the symbol of perfection, completeness and unity. The flag therefore remains unchanged regardless of EU enlargements.
Beach-loving Bulgarians showed what they were made of, baring tanned flesh in the unusually warm days of early October. In the South, citizens of Burgas, the largest sea harbour in the country, lazily basked in the sun and indulged in lastminute bathes in the waters of the Black Sea.
Meanwhile, the North had its own share of seaside attractions. In Varna, a city thriving on sea trade and tourism, a new exhibition featured the wax likeness of the amply endowed actress Lolo Ferrari. The waxwork drew incredulous smirks from visitors to the Festival and Congress Centre, displayed as it was in an odd combination with the figures of J. K. Rowling’s teenage wizard Harry Potter and revered 19th Century Bulgarian revolutionaries Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev.
Don’t Slack Now
A day after the the European Commission’s monitoring report gave Bulgaria cause for celebration with the news that it would be joining the EU on 1 January 2007, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev (right) met met Europian Commision President José Manuel Duräo Barroso, who warned that reforms needed to continue – and accelerate. Some of the problem areas that Bulgaria is lagging behind in are the implementation of the new Penal Code, institutional controls on food production, and agriculture. Will things get worse before they start getting better? Polls indicate the majority of Bulgarians are unaware of key issues that EU membership will entail, but the government is doing its best to instruct them by spending lots of euro on telling them about it through a Communications Strategy.
For the Love of Stones
Whether you are a chess champion or a mere neophyte, wouldn’t you fancy your figurines carved out of onyx and jasper? You might have just found your dream set in the Earth and Man National Museum. Each October it hosts the capital’s Mineral Exchange, attracting scores of amateur geologists and admirers. There is a glimmering selection of malachite, amethyst, rock crystal, garnet, onyx, agate, carnelian and many other minerals and as semi-precious stones on display and for sale, with pieces from all over the world, including Brazil, Russia and the Czech Republic.
Bidding for Kegs
Oak is the preffered material for kegs and casks. This is the rule of thumb for this season’s buyers at the Montana market. The demand for all sorts of wooden barrels skyrockets in the autumn, when Bulgarians traditionally start preserving food for the winter. Quality oak kegs are especially sought after for storing young homemade wine, while acacia and mulberry casks serve to hold Bulgarian winter staples like pickled cabbage. You might call it Sauerkraut, but note it is made to a different recipe than in Germany.
A tragic end, united employees of the Bulgarian National Radio and members of the Bulgarian Media Coalition in mourning. At the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian church in Sofia, they held a mass for recently assassinated Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known as a fierce critic of the Putin Administration and the war in Chechnya.
Well-known public figures including Georgi Lozanov, a leading media analyst, former member of the Council for Electronic Media and professor of journalism at Sofia University (centre), came to light a candle for the reporter, who wrote for the Moscow Novaya Gazeta.
Clashing Swords and Scimitars
On the plateau near Shumen, in northeastern Bulgaria, the knights of the young Polish-Hungarian king Ladislaus (Ulaszlo) Jagelo fought the Ottoman troops of Sultan Murad II, in 1444. And then they did it again – in October 2006. The show was the highlight of a popular three-day “fertility carnival” that Shumen, as a member of the European Federation of Carnival Cities, has organised annually since 2002. In a display of true heroism, 165 superbly equipped “warriors”, trained by historical societies in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, fought it out in a four-hour battle in which the Ottomans succumbed to the Christian knights. Historically, after brief and futile negotiations, the fortress of Shumen was captured by Ladislaus’s forces.
Latter-Day Morality Play
All “soldiers” on the Ottoman side were supposed to be “killed” during the onslaught, but many of them were reluctant to play dead, prompting spectators to shout at the Polish knights, “There! This one’s still moving! Finish him off!” At one point, members of the public were seriously alarmed by the large and rather realistic bloodstain one of the Ottomans had on his helmet. They were soon reassured it was only red paint, especially prepared to enhance the verisimilitude of the battle.
Balkan on Sale
Yet another relic of times past, the “Balkan”, the yacht once owned by Communist leader Todor Zhivkov, was put up for auction, this was the second time, actually, as last year she failed to attract a buyer, possibly because the initial price tag was set at 500,000 euros. An updated price for the notorious boat, which is presently dry-docked at Atiya, the navy base north of Sozopol, will be set to take into account the yacht’s oldfashioned technology and lack of equipment. The 27-metre, or 88.6-foot, custom-built vessel was manufactured in Italy, in 1981. She might still do well on the market as she is made entirely of teak and oak wood. Wooden yachts have a certain prestige these days, experts say, as the vast majority of modern yachts are made of plastic.
A precious gain for the disabled in Sofia last month was a newly-built wheelchair ramp to the entrance to the Central Post Office. It was inaugurated by the chairman of the State Agency for Information Technology and Communications, Plamen Vachkov (right) and the chief executive of the Agency for People with Disabilities, Mincho Koralski (centre). Hopefully, other buildings will follow suit, as getting around on Sofia’s pavements can be testing even for professional sportsmen.
Stomping in Salonika
Braving rain and slippery pavements, 300 Bulgarians came together in Thessalonike, Greece’s second largest city, joining hands in a traditional horo. The merrymaking was part of a travelling initiative, called “Bulgaria Greets the EU Member States with the Longest Horo”, organised by professional folkdance ensembles and supported by the Ministry of Culture. Despite the enthusiasm of the soaked Thessalonike dancers, their horo couldn’t rival the stomp that rocked the Greek capital in May. Then, 2,170 members of the Bulgarian community in Athens responded to the dance call.
Since the start of the initiative, Bulgarian rhythms have already echoed through town squares in Budapest, Bratislava, Brno and Prague in a bid to give the European Union just a taste of what Bulgaria will bring onboard in terms of cultural diversity. On every occasion, hundreds of people with Bulgarian backgrounds flooded the site of the horo, eager to join the bouncing frenzy and feel at home again. A total of 15 European cities are charted in the itinerary of the demanding initiative. And when we say demanding, we mean it – so far the average duration of an EU-greeting horo is two hours! Tough show-offs, aren’t we?
We’re Here for Our Heads’ Sake
A rush of creativity accompanied the start of the new academic year at the St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia. Education Minister Daniel Valchev (centre) attended the opening ceremony and later joined the traditional procession through the halls of the main building, which this year was given a modern twist. The procession was turned into a performance piece by the studentled university theatre Alma Alter, known for its penchant for the unusual. High-ranking faculty members, led by the rector, Professor Boyan Biolchev (right), were escorted by two rows of students dressed in white shirts entwined with black straps. Each performer balanced a thick volume of Alma Alter scripts on their head, in a new take on the classic booksmart image of the university community.
Castle of Grain
Further up the coast, the castle-silo in Kavarna was filled with grain once more after standing empty for 10 years. Due to a lack of storage space, the Melinvest Holding company deposited 5,000 tons of newlyharvested wheat in the silo, which has been turned into a work of art by Vihroniy Popnedelev. The artist decorated the concrete structure with special lighting, Medieval-style towers, and battlements, but kept the mechanical components intact.
Cause for Exhibition
While a castle was being filled with grain, a schoolteacher fulfilled his dream. Axel Sommer, a German language instructor in the Foreign Languages High School in Lovech, northern Bulgaria, spent months planning a joint photo exhibition with his students. Photographs by his class were brought together with his own at the Philharmonics Gallery in Ruse. The exhibition entitled “Durchblicke” (Insights) was timed to mark the 16th anniversary of Germany’s unification. The German Ambassador Michael Geier (centre) arrived in the Danube city as a guest of honour, and spoke at the opening of the exhibition, adding to the excitement for the talented Lovech students. “Durchblicke” was inspired by a seemingly mundane event – the replacement of old windows in the school building. The discarded wooden frames served as a focal point in the wistful landscapes Sommer photographed. Sommer’s students were more than happy to snap portraits of each other and to enhance them using mixed media.
A Greasy Stain
The Danube saw not only artistic inspiration along Bulgarian shores. In early October the river carried an oil spill, which allegedly came from Serbian waters, into Bulgarian territory just past the village of Gomotartsi. The village mayor said the spill probably originated in the 18-kilometre, or 11.2-mile zone between the Portile de fier, or Iron Gate gorge, and the estuary of the river Timok, where similar incidents had been reported in the past. Bulgaria has a patchy history in dealing with river pollution as the authorities lack proper cleaning equipment, noted Ivan Sungarski, head of Ekoglasnost, a leading environmental organisation. Moreover, Serbia is reputedly slow in taking responsibility for spills in its waters. According to estimates, annually, 48 percent of all oil derivatives that pollute the Black Sea enter it via the Danube.