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Bulgaria, Italian Style

Emigration, corruption, ‘colorful’ politics: is Bulgaria the EU’s ‘second Italy’?

by Boyko Vassilev 7 August 2014

There is a lot of fun in parallels.


And believe it or not, they can sometimes explain the inexplicable – and even shed light on the mysterious world of Bulgarian politics. This is what I thought during my visit to Celle di Bulgheria, a town of 1,900 on the slopes of Monte Bulgheria, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Salerno in the Cilento region of southern Italy.


Celle di Bulgheria, Monte Bulgheria … strange it may seem, but but variations on the name of Bulgaria are quite common in southern Italy, and in northern Italy, too: Bulgarograsso, Bolgare, Bulgarello di Cadorago, Bulgaria di Cesena, Santa Maria dei Bulgari (the former chapel of Bologna University). The most famous is Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast, nicely praised by the first Italian Nobel Prize winner in literature, Giosue Carducci, for its cypress alley.


Some family names add color to the picture. In addition to the trademark Bulgari, there are Bulgarini and Bulgarelli. And the church of San Procolo in Bologna keeps the remains of a 12th-century judge: il famosissimo Dottore ed eccellente Messer Bulgaro de' Bulgari.


Historians provide few explanations for this. Medieval chroniclers (such as Paul the Deacon in the eighth century) speak of incursions of proto-Bulgarians on the Apennine peninsula under the ruler Alcek. Bulgarian cavalry could have served as an ally of the Longobards, enemies of the Goths, or as an auxiliary force defending the coast against the Byzantines. In Cilento, according to locals, these Bulgars established the heroic tradition of brigantaggio, banditry. A friendly but fanciful book about Bulgarian influences in Italy written by Vincenzo D’Amico in the early 1940s – the two countries were allies on the wrong side of history – claims Italian pigs squeal in ancient Bulgarian.


Yet the contemporary image of Bulgaria in Italy is far from complimentary. You hear about the pista bulgara, or “Bulgarian trace” – the unproven case for Bulgarian participation in the attempt to kill Pope John Paul II. Or you read the Wikipedia article about a “Bulgarian majority” – an election victory of 99.9 percent. The term was coined by former Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, who used to win his party battles with a maggioranza bulgara.


Now, Bulgaria is sending a huge wave of emigrants to Italy. Eighty percent are so-called badante – maids or baby sitters who take care of kids or the elderly and ill. Italian writer Margaret Mazzantini told me that sometimes badante are teachers or engineers by education. After finishing the hard work, they could sit with you over tea and talk about Tesla or Dostoyevsky.


Where history has nothing to prove and the present day nothing exciting to offer, imagination steps in. Back in Celle di Bulgheria you can discover how close these non-neighboring southern European countries can be. “We are an emigrant nation, like Bulgarians,” says Pasquale Carelli, a medic and a local history enthusiast. Indeed, since the 19th century local youth have migrated to more prosperous places, as Bulgarians migrate to Italy now.


Celle has just had a highly disputed election: the city council split in two and could not elect a mayor, so it had to appoint a caretaker one. Bulgaria is also divided, facing early elections and a caretaker government.


“Italy is in catastrophe these days,” Carelli says. “In the south, Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily are ruled by the mafia. Forty percent of the Italian economy is controlled by organized crime.” I can’t prove the figures, but I can testify that Bulgarians see themselves exactly the same way. And both may have a point. After a scandal involving a major bank and the recent news of a 1 billion leva budget gap, Bulgarians’ distrust of the establishment has reached Himalayan heights. You could liken it to the way Greeks – and indeed, Italians – feel about those chosen to lead them.


Consider also political volatility and instability, the trademark of postwar Italian politics. Here, Bulgaria takes a back seat to no one. Last year, the country had three governments in three months. This year the sequence will repeat itself.


As for taste in politicians, both electorates enjoy the boyish charm of leaders like Matteo Renzi, Silvio Berlusconi, and Boyko Borissov, who wield similar weapons: plain speaking, a penchant for popular jokes, a survival instinct, the common touch, and the “I” mode of political expression – I do, I provide, I deliver.


I have always given this advice to Italians in Bulgaria: if you don’t understand something here, think about home. The cuisine is similar, as are male-female relations. Like Italians, Bulgarian men often stay in their mothers’ homes well into their 30s. Notably, both nations produce great singers. It is no coincidence that many Bulgarian opera singers made careers in Italy. This year we mark the centenary of one of the greatest: the late bass Boris Hristov.


Bulgarians learn Italian quickly. They can pronounce every sound: no consonant or vowel is alien to them. And in a way, Sofia is still a Roman city, according to architect Hristo Genchev. Downtown, streets, main crossroads: everything remains where the Romans built it. In effect, Bulgarians are the second Italians inside the European Union. There is no other country they resemble more.


Going back to politics: there is an Italian metaphor Bulgarian politicians have quoted since the early 1990s: “mani pulite,” clean hands. Except that Bulgaria lacks its own Antonio Di Pietro, the magistrate who dared to clean up Italian politics.


So the trip to Celle di Bulgheria leads to an unexpected conclusion: if we are so close to the Italians, we have to heal in the Italian way. We need a Bulgarian Di Pietro. Only such a person could rebuild the system starting with its Achilles’ heel: the judiciary, which might just be the mother of all Bulgarian problems.


“If there is a Garibaldi statue in Sofia, why shouldn’t we consider a statue of Alcek here, in Celle?” says Roberto Amantea, the caretaker mayor of Celle di Bulgheria. Maybe Bulgarians could ask for a brave, honest – and, of course, still living – magistrate in return. 

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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