by Dimana Trankova

The newly resurrected Banner of Peace Assembly smacks of a thinly veiled PR stunt

If it hadn't been raining in Kazanlak - and the rest of Bulgaria - everything would have gone according to plan. A thousand children would have drawn on the city centre pavements with coloured chalk. Afterwards, they would have watched a children's concert on the open-air stage. Somewhere in the very front rows of the crowd, the event organiser Evgeniya Zhivkova and Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev would have stood proudly, watching the fun.

But it rained. So the kids drew on cardboard, the concert moved inside and the prime minister was a no-show. Zhivkova was satisfied nonetheless. The Banner of Peace Assembly got coverage in the press, which otherwise would have only discussed whether the EU would throw Bulgaria out as the country drowned in another ordinary rainstorm - which thanks to the terrible infrastructure again turned into a disaster.

What is the assembly? It's living proof that you shouldn't accuse Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt too harshly of wanting to adopt children from the Third World to drum up publicity for themselves. Years before Brangelina came up with the idea (if they ever even had such motives), the Zhivkov family already had extensive experience of exploiting children for PR purposes.

In 1978 Lyudmila – daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and head of the Committee for Culture – decided to "continue the work" of her favourite philosopher, Nicholas Roerich. At his urging in 1935 several countries signed the Banner of Peace Pact at the White House to preserve valuable cultural artefacts during wartime.

During the 1970s Bulgaria was not at war, so Zhivkova "continued his work" by other means. She decided to gather children from around the world to join together in Bulgaria. Over the course of several days they would have fun and create things collectively, overcoming linguistic, political and cultural barriers. The unifying slogan of the International Children's Banner of Peace Assembly was fittingly pompous: "Unity, Creativity, Beauty".

What Lyudmila wanted, Lyudmila got. In 1979 conductor Herbert von Karajan, writer Gianni Rodari and children from 79 countries arrived in Sofia. The kids met with prominent public figures. They watched concerts. They sang. They released white doves. They drew "messages of peace" – in fact, variations on two trite themes – on the tarmac with coloured chalk: African, European or Asian children holding hands, or two peace doves hatching. On the eastern outskirts of Sofia – where all the fancy new residential complexes are now being built – a looming concrete construction appeared. It contained bells donated by the participating countries.

For most Bulgarian children the assembly remained something that they could only experience via television or state-run children's magazines and newspapers. However, the organisers considered the event a success and decided to repeat it every three years. Lyudmila's death in 1981 didn't change anything. Propaganda transformed her into the assembly's spiritual protector and her icons began appearing in Bulgarian schoolrooms. In these portraits, an international group of children surround Lyudmila, dressed in white and smiling sweetly, and gaze at her in adoration.

At the 1988 assembly in Sofia, children arrived from a record number of countries – 135. The following year brought about the democratic transition and the project was discontinued. Shortly thereafter some of the bells were stolen and sold for scrap metal.

Only 10 years on, the assembly became the next Communist memory to be tinged with the rosy glow of nostalgia. In 1999 Lyudmila Zhivkova's daughter Evgeniya, now a fashion designer and Socialist MP, revived the assembly. Since this time it wasn't financed with government money, the scale was far more modest. The "event" was open to all children whose parents were willing to bring them to Zhivkova to draw on the pavement and receive a free balloon. The assembly no longer takes place only at the bells, but has also been held once in Vratsa and twice back in Kazanlak. Foreign participation is limited to the children of diplomats in Bulgaria.

A rather humble reincarnation – especially when compared to past extravagances. However, the empty rhetoric sounds like it was pulled directly from one of Lyudmila's speeches in the 1970s. "I'm delighted that children again have the opportunity to sing, dance and draw as part of the Banner of Peace project," said her daughter in 2008 in Kazanlak. "Art is the dynamic thread that will unite the planet. Art is the hand with which we reach out to other civilisations and here in Kazanlak we will weave a wreath of children's talents from around the country." One thing certainly has changed – the theme of the drawings, songs and dances. This year the slogan was "Let's build Europe – with and for children".

But don't we all prefer Brangelina? Although they do get their fair share of free PR, at least they really take care of Maddox, Zahara and Pax Thien.


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