25 March 1998
To continue with last months letter and a discussion of the Peace Corps Small Business Program subscription issue. When I first arrived in Zlatograd the Peace Corps was sending to the office a subscription for Wall Street Journal-Europe, The Economist, Bulgarian Business News and Central European News. Then I started to receive a weekly Bulgarian Language newspaper called Capital in January 1997; which the Center was already receiving because they had subscribed some years before. The Peace Corps did not make any inquiry of the Volunteers about Capital prior to sending it out and because it was in Bulgarian it was virtually useless to us. A few Volunteers can read some of the simpler articles in the daily newspapers because they are written at a lower level of the language as are most of the US dailies. But, Capital is a business newspaper with rather advanced Bulgarian and few if any Volunteers can comprehend its articles. Also, during this period the Peace Corps allowed the Wall Street Journal-Europe subscription to lapse and it took Volunteer complaints and almost 9 months to get it reinstated. So, the former Small Business Development Program Director and Assistant quit in September 1997 and we get a questionnaire concerning subscriptions soon after from their replacements. They then call for Volunteers to serve on a Subsciption Committee around year end and it finally meets to discuss the issues for the first time in February 1998. In the interim, that is from September 1997 until now, the subscription to the Economist, Bulgarian Business News, and Capital have all expired. Furthermore there is a brief notice in the Newsletter pointing out that the Subscription Committee is meeting and for the first time I find out that there is only $1,000 in the subscription budget with Wall Street Journals alone costing $500 per year. I am disgusted enough by this time that I am all for giving the $1,000 to a worthwhile Bulgarian charity and forget that we ever had anything to read that would help us do our jobs (what ever those are to be now?).
The meeting in Plovdiv 25-28 February provided no enlightenment on the subscription issue (it wasn't even mentioned) and very little on Community Economic Development. However, because the Training Officer for the Europe, Central Asia, Mediterranean Region was present; I now see that this direction has come down from Peace Corps - Washington. It is not something that the staff in Bulgaria have decided. Education, what we as Volunteers thought was most important is encompassed within the broad scope of Community Economic Development. But, the message that I got from the Regional Training Officer was that the new thrust of the Program will be to work with NGO's in Bulgaria toward developing the economy. I am not convinced that this will be any more effective than what has been tried here in the past. There are strong cultural problems that only time and education are going to change. Throughout most of Bulgarias' history it was not a good thing to be a businessman. In point of fact, at most times they were looked upon as a lower strata of society if not with actual contempt. During most of their history foreigners made up the business class and my guess is that over time it will come to that again. Then the Bulgarians will once again have a business class that they can resent and profess is stealing the wealth of their country! They seem to prefer that arrangement rather than be involved in business themselves. I know this is an extreme over generalization but it is the impression that I get from the community that I am in. Perhaps it is not the same throughout Bulgaria; in fact, other Volunteers seem to see evidence of local business activity in their areas. Maybe it will happen here also but first - time must pass!!
The Close of Service or what they are now calling Continuation of Service, (COS) meeting was held in Borevets on 12-15 March. There were arrangements made for a bus to take everyone from Sofia to Borevets on the 11th but I knew that my connections would be tight to catch that bus at 1600. As things worked out it was a very close thing; I must have missed it only by minutes. Perhaps it was the 18 cm of snow on the ground that morning, and still falling, that had something to do with it. Or maybe it was the lack of snow plows on the road from Zlatograd to Madan. Or was it the lack of chains for the bus and becoming stuck for some 15 minutes? It was not for want of the bus being prepared; they carry shovels and sand in the baggage compartment for just such an eventuality and nobody was unduly concerned when we became stuck. It was then that I realized that I probably have been here long enough; for I too was not unduly concerned and found the delay a great opportunity to read without trying to overcome the constant shaking that normal travel here entails. I did arrive in Sofia just in time to catch a ride with a Peace Corps driver and van that was taking supplies, copiers, computers, easels, etc to Borevets. The program started the next day and we had a full day; from 0900 to 1700 with an hour and a half lunch and two 30 minute coffee breaks. Then on Friday it was back to the grind at 0900 to 1000 with the remainder of the day off; this allowed many of those that wanted to get in a good day of skiing. That evening at 2000 a banquet was held with speeches by the County Director, the American Ambassador to Bulgaria, 3 representatives from the Bulgarian Ministries that Peace Corps works with, a Mayor representing all the host country organizations that we work for and a Volunteer. Then Certificates of Service were handed out to all the Volunteers, photos were taken, the salads were finished and the appetizer was served (the normal Bulgarian progression of events made it now about 2200). Upon my completing the appetizer I begged to be excused and called it a night; I had been getting sicker and sicker as the day wore on and I just couldn't make it any longer. I missed the Saturday program, which was of the same schedule as Friday excepting the banquet; as I caught a ride back into Sofia where I spent the day in bed at a hotel. Then on Sunday I had a miserable trip back to Zlatograd; sneezing, coughing and nose-blowing all the way. Stayed in bed on Monday also; the first full sick day that I have had while in Bulgaria. Most of the snow had melted by the time I got back to Zlatograd but we had cold winds most of Monday (16th) and then snow flurries again around noon on Tuesday (17th). Blessed with snow flurries on Friday the 20th, an accumulation of maybe 2 cm on Saturday the 21st, more flurries on Sunday and very cold almost all the time. Only three more weekends before starting my TAB, very little training. Sick - and IT'S STILL WINTER!!!
The last thing that I want to write about this month is the situation with Gorubso, the mining company that I have written about in the past. You will remember that about this time last year I was writing about my experience of going down into the mine in Erma Reka and seeing the hot waters. This was at the 300 meter horizon if you will remember. The active mining for lead and zinc is currently taking place at the 500 to 400 meter levels with horizons every 50 meters. These levels are all connected via elevator shafts and ventilation shafts of course. While my counterpart and myself were in Plovdid for the SBD meeting there was an elevator accident that killed two of the miners; one of them being the cousin of my counterparts husband. This necessitated her leaving the conference and returning to Zlatograd for the funeral. I don't remember if I have told you about funerals here in Zlatograd and most of Bulgaria. They generally bury the dead within 24 hours of their death because there is no embalming done here. It is also the responsibility of the family to prepare the body because there is no such person as a "funeral director". The other issue concerning Gorubso that I wanted to touch upon is the economic situation that the company is in and what is happening currently. I think I have told you in the past that I was forecasting that the mines in this area would be closed down within the next 5 years. Whenever I mention this to the Mayor I hear nothing but "no, no - that won't happen". However, Gorubso is one of 27 big State owned companies that are loosing lots of money and the government has promised the IMF that they will be sold, or closed, to cut the State budget deficits. These companies have been assigned to big outside consulting companies to effect the sale within the next 1/-24 months. But, what the local miners did in early February was start a sit down strike for a 200% increase in wages. This brought the Minister of Labor to Zlatograd and Madan to negotiate with the strikers. What was finally decided was they would receive a 30% increase in wages (which is in violation of the IMF agreement) and the 7 regions that have Gorubso mines can break up into separate companies and/or subsidiaries of the overall company. Within the week after this agreement was announced there were some 15 miners in the CDIC office talking to my Director about the problems they were having in dividing up the company. My guess at the moment is that they are fighting over the Assets; just wait until they start to talk about the Debts and who is to get them! The bigger problems that I see coming from all this is that it has made the Gorubso company even less salable (if that was possible), it opens the door for other company employees to use the strike weapon, and it puts future IMF loans in jeopardy.
That is it for this time. My next Long Letter will be in late May or June when I will be writing about Touring Around Bulgaria.