For a country that has historically shied from the global spotlight, Bulgaria has been in the news lately. Mainly stemming from an attack last July in the city of Burgas that killed five Israelis and a tour bus driver, the diplomatic community has kept its eye on the country to see if its government would recommend to the European Union that Hezbollah, the organization deemed responsible for the attack, be designated a terrorist entity.
Thus far, the nation of about 7.5 million people has refrained from doing so. Its ambassador to the U.S., Elena Poptodorova, explained why.
“It should be discussed together by the European countries,” explained Poptodorova, who visited Seattle on March 17–19 as a guest of the local office of the American Jewish Committee. “Bulgaria would not initiate a process of nominating.”
Poptodorova said that her government was still making assessments, and even had plans to create a simulation of the attack.
“[They] want to answer questions about the type of explosive, how the whole movement of individuals was, the suicide bomber, how he was situated,” she said. “In other words, the investigation is still going on, and this is why the preference obviously is to have some more definitive conclusions and indices before Bulgaria can initiate [the terrorist nomination].”
There is a political angle as well: Economic issues forced the fall of the government in February, and elections will be held in May. Poptodorova said it’s likely interim prime minister Marin Raikov is waiting for a new elected prime minister to take on the initiative. According to the JTA news service, on March 29 Raikov said he had further evidence to provide to EU countries to persuade those still unsure of the source of the attack.
“It’s not for Bulgaria to initiate the technical procedure for the listing,” he said. “I think that our partners will be able to do this once they reach a certain level of consensus on this issue.”
Bulgaria is still relatively new at representative democracy. Declared a free state upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, Bulgaria’s entered into NATO in 2004 and the E.U. in 2007.
“With regard to the European membership, the positive reaction and the positive development of the relations with the U.S. was part of…the proof that Bulgaria had moved forward from the status of a former satellite of the Soviet Union into a new geopolitical role and status,” Poptodorova said.
Bulgaria has also had a reasonably good relationship with its Jewish population, Poptodorova said both to JTNews and at a seder attended by area diplomats during her visit. Part of that stems from the country’s own history of having been occupied or enslaved for the better part of two millennia. Bulgaria did align itself with the Nazis when they came to power, which Poptodorova called “Europe’s biggest tragedy in history,” but part of that was self serving, she said — the government had hoped to retrieve territory it had lost in regional skirmishes.
But this is where the country diverged from the rest of the continent: March 19, the day she addressed a group of Jews and Bulgarian expatriates at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island, was the 70th anniversary of the day Bulgaria’s parliament rescinded its deportation order, thereby saving the country’s 50,000 Jews from the Nazis. Jews from neighboring Greece, however, have noted the effort came at the expense of 4,000 of its own Jews who died in the Holocaust.
“We had a very sizeable — compared to Bulgaria’s size of course — a very sizeable Jewish population, but most of them left for Israel when the State of Israel was founded,” Poptodorova said.
Today, the country has an active Jewish population of between 6,000 and 7,000 Jews, most of whom live in the capital, Sofia. While most Bulgarians are supportive of its Jewish population, there has been some increase in nationalist parties and groups, mostly due to the dire economic situation, Poptodorova said. Aside from an incident in the fall where swastikas were painted on buildings in Sofia, most nationalistic behavior has been rhetoric to this point.
“We don’t like it, we’re not happy with it, there have been reactions against them,” she said. “This is not to be underestimated, and I know that this is serious, but they don’t have any big effect on the general climate of the country.”