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Bulgaria, The Balkans, And Distrust

Yesterday morning I awoke to this story about a bus crash in Bulgaria: Dozens killed in Bulgaria bus fire, including children.

I thought immediately about how unusual it is in New Zealand to hear a story about Bulgaria. In the context that Bulgaria is the country in the world worst hit by Covid19, we should have heard more. (One in 140 Bulgarians have died from Covid19, the vast majority in 2021.) Bulgaria, in the Balkans (southeast Europe, in essence) is the poorest country in the European Union, and was very much behind the 'Iron Curtain' in the years before 1990. (I have only ever known, personally, one Bulgarian; a post-graduate colleague at the University of Auckland. I have never been there. I have enjoyed the company of all my contacts of people from the Balkan region; colleagues and tradesman, all in New Zealand. And, it should be noted, New Zealand – and especially West Auckland – has a significant historical connection to Croatia.)

I sense that there is an unwritten media rule that a significantly fatal single accident must be reported. I've often wondered about the threshold for that rule; I am sure that there are many air crashes involving small aircraft – including 'commuter' planes carrying say 15 people – that don't make it into the international media. And one incident in which say 45 die is always going to be more newsworthy – in the commercial media – than 45 similar incidents in which one person dies.

The news story didn't mention Covid19; indeed the Al Jazeera report on the bus crash did not mention Covid19 either.

I searched 'Bulgaria' on the RNZ website. Between 1 April 2021 and 23 November, the only stories mentioned were sports stories, and none of them included more than an incidental mention of Bulgaria. There were three stories in March about the AstraZeneca vaccine; stories which mentioned Bulgaria in passing. Before that, there was a covid story Spain drives fears of 'second wave' of Covid-19 on 26 July 2020, saying in passing "Italy is isolating arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria for two weeks after a number of imported cases". This story pinpoints Bulgaria's first significant wave of Covid19; Bulgaria, like most of East Europe and also New Zealand, had few covid deaths in the early months of the pandemic.

The bus crash story involved three countries: Bulgaria, Turkey, and – the country of the victims – North Macedonia (formerly FYROM, 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia'). North Macedonia, not in the European Union, but a country that looms as part of the EU project.

What was particularly pertinent abut this incident in Bulgaria is that, in the worst of its unfortunate covid times, Bulgaria is statistically the worst affected country in the world, with 0.7% of its population dead from Covid19, heading for one percent by the end of the winter. North Macedonia is second worst in my estimation to the end of October, though Russia has probably overtaken North Macedonia.

Yet people from North Macedonia apparently were travelling through multiple international borders, for a long weekend tourist trip to Istanbul in Turkey. (It's a ten-hour road trip between Skopje and Istanbul.) (Contrast this with the months-long inability of someone to travel from Brisbane to Christchurch, cities at the complete opposite end of the covid spectrum compared to Skopje and Bulgaria's Sofia. Turkey clearly has a very different approach to border quarantine – 'MIQ' – compared to New Zealand.) Further, covid vaccination rates in Bulgaria and its neighbours are very low, despite an adequate supply of freely available and effective vaccine.

Are the people in the Balkans particularly stupid?

The answer, by the way, is 'no'. The first reason is that it would be a highly racist claim to make; to claim that any person of a given identity is probably stupid on the basis of that identity, is both incendiary and false. The second reason is that there are always explanations for behaviours which are superficially incomprehensible. The third reason is that stupidity – including irrational stubbornness – may be a quality (among many other much better qualities) that is a part of being human; thus non-Balkans are as likely to do or think 'stupid' things as are Balkans. The rule of thumb is to look in the mirror before pointing the finger. Otherwise, it's always easier to see the stupidity in others.

One important rationale for seemingly incomprehensible behaviour is that of stoicism, which is subtly different from religious fatalism. People in the Balkans have suffered very much in the past – from tribalism, invasions, famines, and diseases. Today they suffer from – in addition to Covid19 – population depletion, the fiscal conservatism of the European Union, and by being torn between rival geopolitical blocs. Endurance, and distrust, is a part of Balkan life.

Governments – by the privileged, of the privileged, for the privileged – have not served the region well. EU Central follows a 'better deaths than deficits' approach to public finance. We know this well from its approach to the Greek financial crisis of the early 2010s, from its present hardline approach to people seeking entry as refugees, and from the impunity with which its privileged have been transmitting Covid19 to marginalised populations within and without the European Union. (The tragedy that has befallen the Caribbean is a case in point. In addition to the Caribbean's covid tragedy, I watched yesterday a story on Al Jazeera – Can people in Guadeloupe be persuaded to get the COVID vaccine? – about the prostate cancer epidemic in Guadeloupe and Martinique that has been attributed to the wanton use in those territories of a particular pesticide, chlordecone. Refer Pesticide poisoned French paradise islands in Caribbean, BBC, 25 October 2019.)

Another important case of Covid19 spreading in the European Union relates to a recent political summit in Slovenia (the EU-Western Balkans summit). Now, six weeks after that summit, Slovenia – a bridge country between Austria and the Balkans – has found itself with more Covid19 cases per capita than any other independent country in the world. (See my yesterday's chart analysis: Covid19 Latest Cases and Deaths, plus Slovenia and Bulgaria.)


Yes, it's bizarre that people from undervaccinated and covid-plagued North Macedonia should be travelling by bus through undervaccinated and covid-plagued Bulgaria for a long-weekend in far-away Istanbul.

But those who might point the finger have their own stupidities that would seem equally strange to an interplanetary visitor. While we – the privileged – might see the marginalised people of Europe and elsewhere as 'mad', they in turn see us as 'bad'. That might help to explain covid vaccine resistance. Why would people take 'medicine' from authorities who – from their point of view – are bad; authorities who they believe rule for the benefit only of others. (See my parable – Who's the Thief? – about how the marginalised feel they are regarded under the legal protocols of 'primitive capitalism'.)


Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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