Bulgaria seems to thrive as East bloc's oasis of tranquillity

Until I arrived, my thoughts about Bulgaria could be summed up in a few sinister images: drug and arms smuggling, violent suppression of its Turkish minority, and a ruthless secret police. It was the Bulgarians, after all, who were implicated in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II and the notorious 1978 London ``umbrella assassination'' of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian exile who had broadcast embarrassing news of his homeland over the BBC. Markov was dispatched by a tiny poison pellet fired into his leg from a specially designed umbrella.

Given these preconceptions, Sofia surprises me. Some fine baroque buildings grace downtown. Spacious parks create an airy feeling, and spectacular, snowcapped Mount Vitosha stands visible on the horizon. In less than 30 minutes, city dwellers can be out on the ski slopes.

Bustling Lenin Square is striking. As I expected, it boasts a gargantuan statue of its namesake, looking more fatherly than revolutionary. But a much more impressive structure stands across the square: the Sheraton Sofia.

Those sinister Bulgarians, as it turns out, are unusually flexible in molding their communist ideology to earn American dollars. The Sheraton is a joint venture with the American company, managed by a Dane named Flemming Jenson, who says he manages to maintain Western standards by ``importing everything from the toilet paper you see in the bathroom to the black bread you eat at breakfast.''

The Sheraton, transformed out of the decaying shell of the Hotel Balkan, is a splash of New York-style luxury. In the informal Melnik Grill, you can order a good hamburger. In the elegant Restaurant Preslav, you can eat dishes that Bulgarians have never seen before in their life: snail soup, caviar omelettes, kiwi salad.

``What's a kiwi?,'' asks Vassela, a Bulgarian journalist, with whom I shared dinner. When the waiter places a dish full of the ripe green fruit, she takes a long look before tasting. ``Delicious,'' she exclaims. Vassela judges everything ``delicious'' - until the bill comes. Then she lets out a shriek of ``Impossible!'' For four people, the total comes to 254 lev, about $160 - more than the average monthly Bulgarian salary of 230 lev.

At those prices, most Bulgarians avoid the Sheraton. Vassela, my guest, was the only Bulgarian eating that night in the restaurant. Locals must make do with grimy grills serving a single dish - ``mixed grill'' - and supermarkets offering little more than frozen chickens and canned sardines. Fruit that must be imported in wintertime is not available outside of the Sheraton.

No matter the inequalities, no matter the hardships, Bulgarians don't complain. Their expectations are low. Before communism, they were a poor backward country. Under communism, they are at least much better off than their hungry Romanian neighbors.

Opposition is nonexistent. The United States Embassy finds it difficult to drum up enough dissidents for its cocktail parties - certainly not a problem in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia.

Unlike these other Soviet satellites, where anti-Russian invective is common, Bulgarians are fond of their Russian Big Brother. The two countries share the Cyrillic alphabet and the Orthodox Church.

Russian troops liberated their fellow Slavs from Turkish rule in 1878; a huge Czar Alexander II, the Liberator,'' sits high in horseback in downtown Sofia. Anywhere else in East Europe, a statue of a Russian Czar would be spat upon.

Bulgaria was beginning to look like an oasis of tranquillity in a crisis-stricken communist world - until I left Sofia for the weekend and traveled two hours east to Plovdiv. The city was founded by the Thracians, destroyed by the Macedonians, recreated by the Romans, and occupied by the Turks for 500 years. It illustrates a central theme of Bulgarian history - a propensity for being conquered and occupied.

Bulgarian bitterness and insecurity surfaces here. Comrade Vlasev - he likes to use the title comrade - greets me. His job is to escort me around town. Although he presents himself as a journalist, he looks more like a retired secret policeman. During my stay in Plovdiv, he keeps me under surveillance.

Two crumbling, deserted mosques are boarded up downtown. When I ask the Comrade about them, he sounds insulted. Although almost 1 million Turks still live in Bulgaria, he says Bulgarians have nothing to do with the Middle East - they are Slavic Europeans.

We visit the Sadovo Agricultural Cooperative. It is a model farm. The director rattles off a series of propaganda-like statistics and introduces us to a model family, which lives in a spacious ranch home, filled with modern Scandinavian-style furniture. Although the hosts obviously have received foreign visitors before, Comrade Vlasek interrupts them to make sure that the ``correct'' answers are given to difficult questions.

The next day, we visit the Maritza textile factory. Textiles may be encountering difficulties throughout Eastern Europe, but not here. Comrade Vlasek again interrupts the factory director to tell me that Maritza exports to West Germany.

After three hours, the tour ends, and I manage to say goodbye to my comrade-guide. But I am not left alone. When I drive around town, a yellow Soviet-made Lada 1800, license plate PC4284, follows me. Two burly mustachioed men sit inside.

Am I imagining it? I stop my car to visit a church. The yellow Lada stops. One of the men gets out and walks a safe distance behind me. I am not imagining it.

Two suspicious-looking Ladas trail me on my trip back to Sofia. When I stop, they stop. When I speed up, they speed up. I have been followed on other trips to Eastern Europe, but never this openly, this persistently.

Only on the train to Belgrade do I begin to feel unfettered. I breath a sigh of relief, relax, and reflect. Perhaps my preconception of Bulgaria wasn't wrong.

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