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Donald Tusk, King of the Bulgarians

How the EU Council president won over Bulgarian hearts and minds during his stay in Sofia, at least for an evening. 

by Boyko Vassilev 19 January 2018

If you are convinced that EU leaders are not sexy enough, you better think twice, because many Bulgarians would make you eat your words. The feeling is particularly strong these days, with the emergence of an unexpected cheerleader for the country’s aspirations: the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk.


The former Polish prime minister did not impress Bulgarians with his fit appearance or some bold decision. In the evening of 11 January, Tusk spoke at the opening ceremony of the six-month Bulgarian EU presidency, held in the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in central Sofia. And by the time the four minutes and 21 seconds of his speech had passed, he had become the uncrowned king of this nation.


First of all, Tusk chose to read out his talk entirely in Bulgarian. Secondly, he recited a patriotic poem by Vazov, a 19th century national poet, whose name the theatre bears. After that, the Council president spoke about several Bulgarian personalities – soccer player Hristo Stoichkov, actor Zachary Baharov – who starred as the wildling chieftain Loboda in the popular “Game of Thrones” series – and the ancient Thracian warrior-rebel Spartacus. If we believe that Tusk composed his speech himself, it was indeed very personal, demonstrating both his background as a historian and his passion for soccer.


Yet it was also very Polish. The Council head drummed up a patriotic crescendo by calling Bulgarians “descendants of Spartacus,” and especially by mentioning that no Bulgarian flag has ever been captured in battle. The theatre roared in applause. In the days that followed, more than 1 million people watched the video of his speech.


The political message was clear: only Bulgarians, thanks to their proud past, can handle a task as difficult as giving a new lease on life to the European aspirations of the Western Balkans. Tusk also compared the region’s convoluted history to a “Game of Thrones without the dragons.” In an even more localized reference, Tusk referred to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as a man “who could scare not just one Thracian warrior.” That referred to Borisov’s karate skills – and, if we are to speculate a little – to the role Bulgaria plays at the gates of the European Union, corresponding, by chance, to the role that Thracians, the inhabitants of southeastern Bulgaria (as well as parts of neighboring Greece and Turkey), once played in antiquity.


One could, on the other hand, find a hidden, more profound message. European opinion polls show that Bulgarians are among the least proud of their own achievements – and, in a strange but understandable twist – also among the most optimistic about the EU and its institutions. The misfortunes of the post-communist transition have taught them that the EU bureaucracy is the only authority capable of punishing their – rightly or wrongly – much-despised politicians.


For Bulgarians, their 2007 EU accession came as a rare achievement and lonely victory. Nevertheless, they are inclined to think that Europe neither cherishes their historical pride, nor understands their pains. Social anthropologist Haralan Alexandrov sees an explanation in a quest for a positive identity in the face of a globalized world. I could sum up his views as indicating that Bulgarians have suffered so much that they simply want to be seen, mentioned, and liked.


And, suddenly, this is what seemed to happen during this bigshot’s visit. A foreigner, who is a top European politician, told them: “You can do it! You can set the tone in the Balkans!” As Alexandrov said, “Tusk told us exactly what we wanted to hear.”


Bulgarian pessimism took over the following day. Some social media users dug up Tusk’s speech when Estonia took over the rotating EU presidency, six months before Bulgaria. Only part of it was in Estonian: for Tusk, the native speaker of a Slavic language, Bulgarian must have been much easier. But the difference could be found elsewhere. In Estonia the historian and the soccer fan kept silent; Tusk the Solidarnosc activist entered the stage. During that speech he praised the Estonian defiance against communism – a trait Bulgarians did not display as vividly as their Baltic counterparts. “It is not important what Tusk said,” the skeptics in the Facebook crowd said, “It is much more important what he omitted.”


I can find two morals to this story. The first has to do with Tusk himself: such a smart and multi-faced leader is an ideal fit for one of the top positions in Europe (if we leave aside his issues with the government in his native Poland, of course).


The second lesson is for Bulgarians. Politicians, intellectuals, and Facebook pundits  agreed that a foreigner could phrase the grievances of their own country better than they can. But the real rub is that Bulgarians would applaud such words only coming from the mouth of a foreigner.


Alas, Tusk was here just for the party, while Bulgarians should discover a way to trust themselves – along with find the appropriate words and the people to voice them – to make this happen.

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

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