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In Bulgaria, They Only Laugh When It Hurts

By Maxim Behar

Sofia, May 29 (RFE/RL) - How funny can empty store shelves and kilometer-long bread lines be? If you're a modern Bulgarian, you take your comedy where you can find it.

Bulgaria, because of fuel shortages, may be the only country in Europe with empty bread stores and closed gasoline stations. When Simeon the Second, the Bulgarian king exiled from the country 50 years ago, arrived Saturday for a visit to his homeland, a banner carrying the following message met him at the airport: "Your Majesty, have you brought some bread with you?"

Some Bulgarians regard as comical, if unintentionally so, these comments by Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Dontcho Konakchiev, published by the party daily, DUMA, recently: "There is no grain crisis. There is no lack of bread. The reason is simple. In Sofia there are only 58 state-owned bread stores and about 265 private. How can we push the private stores to sell bread?"

The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission, Anne McGuirk, made an official statement this week. It was reported in all seriousness by an announcer on the National TV channel. She said that the IMF will provide new credit, equivalent to 465-million U.S. dollars, only if the nation cuts annual inflation to two percent. That's a big "if." The value of Bulgaria's currency has fallen to less than half its value of only a month ago, and the government has spoken of raising the value-added tax by four percentage points to 22 percent, and raising the price of fuels.

In the meantime, several Bulgarian banks have recently declared bankruptcy. In addition to standing in line for bread and gasoline, people are surrounding remaining banks in Sofia, asking for their money. Three of the biggest banks decided this week to form a joint company, and two more banks declared a willingness to join them. Most specialists express doubts that such consolidation can help the banking system. During the last five years, the state-owned National Bank has given large sums of credit to a number of newly established banks. These banks built luxurious offices, acquired hundreds of executive BMWs, and placed high-ranking employees on salaries up to 20 times higher than the average for the country.

The representative of a large international firm said in Sofia today: "Bulgaria is a phenomenon. It's the only country in the world where the banks are unprofitable, but still exist, and I can say exist quite successfully." The speaker did not define "successfully."