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With EU help, Bulgarians return to roots

Failure to curb corruption means less assistance for some.

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 2008

Potato grower: Atanas Birnikov used European Union development aid to buy new machinery.

Michael J. Jordan

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VELINGRAD, Bulgaria

When Atanas Birnikov was a child, his parents' rolling farmland at the base of the Rodopi Mountains was seized by the communist regime.

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Fifty years later, after Mr. Birnikov lost his job in the turbulence of the post-communist transition, he was able to reclaim these ancestral lands.

Now, Birnikov finds himself a rookie potato farmer. Reviving the farming tradition, he says, couldn't have happened without funds from the European Union, which enabled him to repay huge bank loans for seeds and farm machinery.

"When you're left out on the street, you have to figure out how to survive," Birnikov said during the recent harvest, as several dozen seasonal workers he's hired gathered spuds nearby. "Because we have such young farms, we need help to get on our feet."

Birnikov is one of many Bulgarians benefiting from EU taxpayer assistance – the very funding that the EU has withdrawn because of Bulgaria's failure to curb corruption.

Bulgaria boasts a mineral-rich soil and millennia-old farming tradition. Many here are motivated to repair the country's agricultural heritage – damaged as it was under four decades of communist rule – but others scheme to pocket EU largesse, says Svetlana Papukchieva, whose Sofia-based consultancy, Dicon, helps clients apply to Brussels for funds.

"Some applicants have a project and need money. But others want the money, then will look for a project," Ms. Papukchieva says.

Into the first category falls a project to produce organic grapes near Bulgaria's borders with Greece and Turkey.

Seeding has begun on the $21 million venture, which will someday export grapes across Europe. The grapes produced here won't be the age-old varieties – they'll be seedless, says project manager George Atanasov, "because that's how Westerners like them."

If the owners meet criteria in repaying their loans, the EU will reimburse half the cost.

Bulgaria and Brussels have "overlapping interests," says Atanasov, over honey-drenched baklava. "While we expect Europe to help us modernize, Europe itself wants to be more competitive."

Corruption and crime continue to plague the economy here, including agriculture, which makes some European distributors fearful of doing business here. The perception initially made it difficult for hops farmer Assen Ivanov.

"Their first reaction was like they may be dirtying their hands: 'Are we sure we can trust this guy?' " says Mr. Ivanov. "But after that, it's the quality that counts – just like everywhere else."

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