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Bulgaria: Home Exhibition Exemplifies Gap Between Rich And Poor

Sofia, 6 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The home improvement and building exhibition held in the Bulgarian capital Sofia early this month was an amazing event. Called Stroyko 2000, it ran for almost a week at the National Palace of Culture and presented one of those paradoxes which arise in the transition from central planning to the market economy.

More than 350 local and foreign firms took part, offering the most up-to-date products in the field of home decoration, construction, and architecture. The brightly lit stands were filled with all kinds of terracotta, marble, wrought iron, insulation materials, fireplaces, under-floor heating and venetian blinds.

Myriad services were available to help customers solve problems relating to the design, construction and equipping of the home or office of their choice. Professionals stood ready to help with apartment renovation, or to build houses and villas complete with winter gardens and heated swimming pools featuring artificial wave-makers.

One lady customer, inspecting complete kitchens, said she had come to view the latest equipment and technology from the West. She explained that her husband is planning to build a house outside Sofia, at the foot of the Vitosha mountains.

What is paradoxical about the Stroyko 2000? It is the glaring discrepancy between the income of the average Bulgarian and the cost of what the exhibition had on display. All prices were quoted in dollars, and at the official exchange rate of 1,742 lev for $1, the cost of the goods on show put them in the realm of a midsummer night's dream for the common wage-earner.

Present average salaries for state employees in Bulgaria is less than $100 per month. So price tags for a Finnish sauna, at $2,000, a fitted kitchen at $1,800, or a luxury swimming pool at $12,000, lie in the world of fantasy. Not to mention complete villas, with price tags of hundreds of thousands of dollars. So who can afford to pay these prices?

That question ceases to be rhetorical for someone driving around Sofia, or visiting the country's mountain resorts or Black Sea beach spots. An incredible number of new private homes and villas have been built in the last seven or eight years. It's more than obvious that a stratum of rich people has emerged in Bulgaria, despite the country's general state of impoverishment and economic contraction.

And these new rich apparently have been able to retain their wealth through the country's recent slide into its deepest economic crisis in contemporary history. In fact, the crisis probably made life easier for those who achieve their ends through bribing all manner of officials.

Certainly a lot of the extremely expensive villas which have sprung up in recent years are a result of the "shadow economy", as the uncontrolled sector and black market is called. Finance Minister Muravey Radev said in a recent television interview that the share of shadow structures in the national economic life is still about 50 percent of total activity.

The organizers of the Stroyko 2000 at any rate are well pleased with the results of their exhibition. They said that the number of local and foreign firms wanting to participate has greatly increased, and that because of this they are planning to hold another exhibition in the spring.