TO HAVE OR HAVE NOT A BG ID

by Nikola Lalov, Mediapool

Thousands of foreigners take the shortcut to citizenship and enter the EU with brand-new Bulgarian passports

bulgarian passport.jpg

As the Republic of Bulgaria's national hymn proudly floods a festively decorated hall at the Office of the President, a choked up Macedonian (or Pakistani) stands before a state offi cial and emphatically declares: "I swear in the name of Levski to be a good citizen of the Republic of Bulgaria. I thrice renounce my previous citizenship!" With trembling hands, he grasps his new Bulgarian passport - which, like Ali Baba's magic words, also opens the door to the EU.

That - more or less - is what a special ceremony for foreigners becoming Bulgarian citizens will look like if Justice Minister Miglena Tacheva's suggestions become law. She presented them at a roundtable on "The New State Policy Towards Bulgarians Around the World". The only ones who would be spared this ritual are foreign citizens of Bulgarian descent.

"This is a valid practice in almost all countries," she argued. "In England, new citizens have to swear their loyalty to the Queen. Here in Bulgaria they could take an oath to Hristo Botev or Vasil Levski at the Ministry of Justice or the Presidency."

Currently, you can get Bulgarian - and EU - citizenship by paying a three-leva fee. Tacheva suggests raising the fee and introducing a more expensive fast-track procedure. In her opinion, that would cut down on the number of applicants - and the backlog. Some of the 60,000 hopefuls now waiting for passports submitted their applications as early as 2001.

Many applicants, especially those from the Republic of Macedonia, have long known the secret to quick service - via a middleman with close contacts in the relevant state agencies. If you go this route, for 10,000 euros you can have your new Bulgarian passport within a matter of days.

Tacheva aims to squash this backdoor practice. She notes that most new Bulgarian citizens don't hang around in their adoptive homeland for long. Instead, they use their passports to travel and work elsewhere in the EU.

So what can be done? Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev admits that the country needs a new policy towards Bulgarians abroad, as well as coordination between institutions and new laws. Vice President Angel Marin, whose jurisdiction includes awarding citizenship, is sceptical, however. Four laws are in desperate need of amendment: the laws on Bulgarian citizenship, on foreigners in Bulgaria, on employment and on Bulgarians abroad.

Stanishev claims that 250,000 Bulgarians currently live in the United States and another 80,000 in the UK. Students alone account for 50,000 of these emigrants. Stanishev suggests paying special attention to the latter group by setting up a commission in the Council of Ministers, as well as a parliamentary committee. According to Marin, the problem with emigration could be solved another way: "Business has to attract our fellow citizens and the government has to make it possible for business to do so."

The politicians didn't mention how they would streamline the procedure allowing foreigners from non-EU countries to work in Bulgaria legally. At the moment, hiring a foreign worker costs an employer 1,600 leva and a six month bureaucratic headache. No surprise, then, that the number of non-EU foreigners currently registered to work legally in Bulgaria is a laughable 935.

Bulgarians abroad are not optimistic. For one, their representatives were not even invited to the roundtable.

The Badeshte, or Future, Union of Bulgarians Around the World stated in a declaration that the government was indulging in demagoguery, suggesting pointless and expensive measures that would only benefi t clerks at the ministries and embassies.

When you imagine Tacheva's suggested ceremony at the Presidency, who could accuse them of a lack of patriotism?

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