A trip to America can cast light on the absurdities and strengths of your own homeland.by Boyko Vassilev 5 January 2012
A pre-Christmas trip to the United States can teach you not just about shopping, but also about security, freedom, the economic crisis, geopolitics – and, surprisingly, your own country. For someone with the typically Balkan disregard for rules and regulations, some of those lessons can be jarring.
For instance, if you want to conduct an interview in an elegant private building, you may be expected to have “public liability insurance” worth $5 million or $6 million. That has always been true when there are, say, some Leonardos and Michelangelo lying around, but today even a New York law firm might demand to see the troublesome certificate.
And did you know that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank no longer allow their Washington premises to be filmed from the outside? The street should be a public space, but guards will demand that you stop filming, citing, variously, “D.C. law” or “security considerations.” Put it down, perhaps, to some Occupy Wall Street nervousness. Yet it seems odd to a citizen of a country where any journalist can stop the prime minister and ask him a question. Most could even dial his mobile number and he would pick up.
Or how about this: in order to film the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials, you have to fill in a registration form and wait three days for a permit. But even that won’t get you permission to film the Martin Luther King Memorial, due to what its overseers call “authorship rights.”
But what did I learn about my own country, which the rest of the world – if it even stopped to think about Bulgaria – has for a decade associated with a tainted judiciary, George W. Bush’s coalition of the willing, or perhaps even fiscal discipline?
Let me start with justice. In Washington I met federal prosecutor Robert Livermore, who has visited Bulgaria in recent years and knows its judiciary. He explained to me a single, crucial difference between our systems, what the Americans call “prosecutorial discretion.” It means government prosecutors have nearly absolute power to choose whether or not to bring criminal charges, and what charges to bring. Bulgarian prosecutors do not.
“Unlike my Bulgarian colleagues I am free to make my own decisions,” says Livermore.
Bulgarian prosecutors must take every case that comes to them, even the minor and the weird. If a bicycle disappears without a trace, in America the case dies there. In Bulgaria, the prosecutor must launch an investigation. Such small fry take up more than half of his or her time, leaving less for bigger cases. In a particularly idiotic example from the 1990s, an obviously insane TV viewer accused several hosts of putting a curse on him while reading the news. The prosecutor had no choice but to press the case – and the poor anchors were summoned to court to prove their innocence.
Elementary as they may sound, such arguments about the Bulgarian judiciary have seldom been raised among the general public. It took a U.S. expert to take them up, in an interview I conducted for Bulgarian National Television.
In Washington, I also had the chance to interview Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Now 84, Brzezinski has just written a book called Strategic Vision about the future of America and the West. I asked him about Bulgaria.
“It depends on what Bulgaria does. The decisions do not come like manna from heaven, or from the United States,” Brzezinski said.
I reminded him that Iraq and Afghanistan do not matter too much for the current Democratic administration, therefore the role of Bulgaria as a U.S. ally there is almost forgotten.
“So, what do you make of this? What is your conclusion?” he shot back.
“I wonder if my country is still interesting for the U.S.A.”
Gesturing to me and my cameraman, Brzezinski said, “May I ask whether you boys would fall in love with my daughter? … These things happen according to their own logic and depend on the circumstances. But everyone who asks for love does not get it in the end. Can you make yourselves important? This is for Bulgarians to say, not for me.”
Take note, America-lovers and -bashers in Bulgaria: respect in international relations does not derive from obeying or challenging others. It derives from your own merit.
For Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, Bulgaria is a source of pride. On his advice Bulgaria pegged the value of its currency to the euro in 1997, imposing fiscal stability and discipline.
According to Hanke “every Bulgarian government bowed to the currency board,” which polices the exchange rate, thus saving the country from becoming another Hungary or Greece.
But, I complained, macroeconomic success has not brought microeconomic success – Bulgarians are still poor. Hanke peered professorially over his glasses. “This is a common Bulgarian refrain I’ve heard since 1991,” he said. “What do you expect? It’s a poor country. You can’t make something out of nothing.”
Like Brzezinski’s, Hanke’s assessment was sober but refreshing. It strikes a chord I have hit on many times: contemporary Bulgaria can buckle down when need be, but it lacks imagination.
At the turn of the year there was much joking in the Bulgarian press about the projected end of the world in 2012. I alone had to write about the Mayans four times. Hanke even had an answer for that. Together with a physicist, Richard Henry, he has developed a new eternal calendar. It is ultimately rational, tidying up days and dates. If, for example, your birthday is on 9 January, it will fall on Monday in every year to come. The Hanke-Henry calendar abolishes time zones and imposes more order on the days of the month.
Hanke explained how beneficial it would be for stocks, interest payments, and time planning. He has taken his case first to the Bulgarian media. In doing so, he shows what Bulgarians have in abundance – innovative ideas, when they come from abroad.