Branding Bulgaria

29/03/2012 by Christopher Buxton

I recently attended a Conference chaired by Professor Holden at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute at the Embassy.  The issue under discussion was Bulgaria’s image. Many interesting points were raised in front of a mixed audience of Bulgarian emigrants and UK Bulgarophils.

Representation in UK  media and popular culture range from Graham Norton’s Olympic Tsunami joke featuring a giant hairy fatso on the high diving board labelled as Bulgaria’s diving champion; and then the Sun’s recent headline about a captured murderer: Bulgarian Butcher Bagged in Bermondsey; to the slightly more positive but fairly arrogant Viktor Krum in JK Rowling’s Hogwarts saga. Let’s not forget the enduring Bulgarian umbrella and Mo’s “Bulgarian” champagne that gave all of Albert Square headaches.

What emerges is an image of virile arrogant physicality combined with a certain criminal danger. It may be coincidence but Bulgaria’s current prime minister, Boyko Borisov exudes virile physicality in spades along with a no nonsense approach to issues that some see as arrogant.

Studies of the experience of migrant children in UK schools point up the importance of positive representation of their homeland. Good news might boost playground cred. Bad news and you keep a low profile.

Our son was at Primary School the morning after Stoichkov and Lechkov scored the goals that put Germany out of the world cup. He walked on air.

For boys the importance of football in providing positive role models cannot be over-emphasised. Our son had Stoichkov. Present day Bulgarian boys have Berbatov. What a contrast between public personas! Loud swaggering and outspoken Stoichkov; skilful patient sensitive and long suffering Berbatov; Stoichkov European footballer of the year and, a star in Barcelona’s Hall of Fame and Berbatov joint Premier League top scorer in 2011, left to sit on the substitute bench in 2012.

Hristo Stoichkov spoke out recently in defence of Bulgaria’s long serving Communist Dictator, Todor Zhivkov. A frequent guest of Bai Toshko’s palaces, Stoichkov points out that Zhivkov was not to be blamed for the situation he found himself in, rather to be admired that he survived so long and made sure that along with all the inescapable Communist misery there was wine, dancing and singing in the Concrete complexes.

It should be no surprise that Stoichkov is a big admirer of Bai Tosho’s former body guard, Boyko Borisov. Borisov and Zhivkov share his blunt common touch. Bulgarian intellectuals – as sensitive as Berbatov – have a label for all three: Prosti selyani, which translates as stupid peasants. This fastidious view goes all the way back to Aleko Konstantinov’s prototype the ignorant cunning Bai Ganyo.

Stoichkov does have a point though. When he compares Boyko Borisov with his political predecessors, Sergei Stanishev, the Tsar, Ivan Kostov et al all appear distant colourless figures, singularly unable to cope with the tides of corruption about them. At least when there’s a blizzard, populist Boyko is out in the streets with a spade- in front of cameras of course. And when the latest criminal corruption scandal hits his government he is able to come up with some salty down-to-earth news-bite.

Back in the UK Bulgarians would have been excited to learn that one of the contestants on the popular Reality TV show The Apprentice was to be a successful young compatriot. British young men were writing tweets saying that Bilyanna was the babe of the group, clearly impressed by her physical beauty. The Media noted her rise from grey Bulgarian housing complex to a top job in London finance.

In the first round of The Apprentice, it is always dangerous to put your head too far above the parapet, especially if you are on the losing team. The task was to design, print and sell. The product was great. But the team leader woefully mismanaged the costing and fatally delayed Bilyanna’s sales group. Bilyanna showed herself a capable sales-person but then committed the fatal error of claiming to know the area and leading her group on a wild goose tour down leafy shopless roads. She was not though the reason the group failed.

During the board room sequence, Bulgarians would have watched in horror as Risk Assessor Bilyanna talked herself out of the competition. Just as Alan Sugar’s finger was levelled at her co-competitor, a woman who had contributed nothing to the entire exercise, Bilyanna interrupted him and her final passionate plea led to her being fired. She exemplified a fiery unapologetic spirit. Stoichkov would have approved. But what a shame!

Back at the conference, Julian Popov enlarged on the near-untranslatable Bulgarian word otsramvam se. It means to clean oneself from shame.  It’s a word used often in the context of hospitality.  Entertain your guests to a lavish spread and you clean yourself from shame. The use of the word would seem to indicate an enduring cultural legacy.  Bulgarians feel ashamed in some obscure way. Popov held writers Vazov and Konstantinov most to blame for this.

The room was full of successful folk who wished to distance themselves from this concept. Scientists, poets, musicians, novelists, business folk – they all reflected a positive self confidence.