Bulgaria: Hopes amid Crises

By Morpurgo, Horatio | Contemporary Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Bulgaria: Hopes amid Crises


Morpurgo, Horatio, Contemporary Review


Editor's note: Bulgaria is arguably the least known country in Europe. We begin this month a two-part session on Bulgaria. The first by Horatio Morpurgo reports on the hopes of Bulgaria at the time of their election in April; the second article by Thomas Land will look at the effect of news pipelines on the Bulgarian economy.

The flat I borrowed for Bulgaria's election week was on one of Sofia's vast Soviet-built housing projects. Its kitchen looked out over a windswept 'play area' on which stray dogs hung about when children weren't playing riotous games of feral football back and forth across it. More tower blocks beyond, then a motorway-flyover, then more tower blocks. A large advertisement for Philips Electronics had recently taken up a commanding position nearby. It was intended no doubt to catch the eye of visitors being driven in from the airport on the motorway, but it also addresses the wintry concrete landscape around it. 'Let's Make Things Better' it reads, and with triumph for the Union of Democratic Forces at the April 19 elections, the country does finally seem to have broken with its post-communist hesitations. I spent the week before polling day talking to various figures, prominent and not so prominent, about their work in the present crisis and what sort of place a more normal Bulgaria might be.

At his clinic I met Dr Ilya Vatev, an Associate Professor of Medicine and the first doctor here, in 1988, to successfully carry out an In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). Currently heading the IVF and Embryo Transfer Unit, he listens attentively, is courteous and animated in his response. We begin with his practice. 'The doctors on this programme are doing their work here free of charge at the moment,' he explains. 'The state has no money and the income from our patients has to be spent on insuring the machines. You can't run an infertility clinic on boxes of chocolates and the gratitude of your patients of course,' he smiles, 'but that is what we're doing here. No choice.'

His clinic's success-rate is comparable with those in Western Europe, its price-list with those in Indonesia. Such are the times. Vater unlocks the cast iron outer door protecting his laboratory - 'Too many things have gone missing', he mutters - iron doors like this one have been fitted all over the medical faculty since 1989 as organised crime began to menace every aspect of life here.

His laboratory consists of two small rooms into which an impressive array of machines has been crammed: an Apple Mac, the embryo incubator, the ultra-sound machine, a machine for manipulating the micro-instruments . . . each one is explained in turn. Via his 'Open Society Fund' George Szorosz has contributed generously, but the rest Vatev has paid for himself; winning a Swiss prize for his work, participating in European Commission research projects and publishing in foreign journals, medical and, surprisingly, ornithological - in such spare time as he has, Vatev is a wildlife photographer.

A doctor's salary here works out at around $45 per month - relatively high of course, but as we spoke the phone rang and strong language was soon being exchanged. The state telephone company was demanding the equivalent of half his salary to pay last month's fax and telephone bills.

'This is not a normal country', he comments dryly, regaining his poise. Regular contact with colleagues abroad is essential to his work. Via people like Dr. Vatev Bulgaria is still, just, in creative contact with a wider world. The controversy about human cloning, for example, carries on here as elsewhere. Since it would involve technology similar to that used in certain types of IVF, Vatev's experience has been called upon:

'I told them that man is not only a biological being and the influences which go to make up his identity, you can't count them and you certainly can't replicate them.' The idea is not only misguided, he argues, but dangerous too. …

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