SOFIA, Bulgaria, June 30—What the heck, I may as well get my Rebecca West on and file an old-fashioned “foreign correspondent” story from the the Balkans, where I’m visiting for several days that have included a seminar for graduate students and young professionals at New Bulgarian University, and yesterday a “strategic briefing” for business and political leaders, about which more in a moment.
One of my favorite ledes from Whittaker Chambers during his years at National Review ran something like (I am doing this from memory), “Over in the capitals of the East—Vienna, Prague, Budapest, New York. . .” Heh. And just so. More recently my all time favorite provocation from Donald Rumsfeld was his implicitly anti-French and anti-German distinction between “Old Europe and New Europe,” and the explicit sequel that the U.S. found more political support for its foreign policy from the former satellite nations of eastern Europe. Older people here remember vividly, and younger people are taught, how Ronald Reagan revived the practice, abandoned during the flabby days of détente, of issuing formal statement on “Captive Nations Day” every August.
Bulgaria definitely has Rumfeld’s “New Europe” spirit. Bulgaria’s economy is growing smartly, and the signs of progress since my last visit here five years ago are evident. The country is enjoying a lot of foreign investment, and has a thriving entrepreneurial sector. Although a member of the European Union, it is not part of the Schengen zone that essentially means open borders (so it has taken in very few “refugees”), and it has not joined the Euro currency, so it is not vulnerable to the kind of currency-related economic asymmetries that plagued Greece. There is a lot of animosity toward Angela Merkel, whose recklessness in opening Europe to a flood of “refugees” is plainly recognized here, even if not in Germany. Merkel is widely expected to win her upcoming election campaign in a landslide, which may well entrench her intransigent cultural death wish. (News item: native-born Germans are now a minority in the Frankfurt metropolitan area.) As a general matter there is no political correctness here when it comes to recognizing—and discussing—the problem of radical Islam.
There is a lot of apprehension about Brexit, because Britain is regarded as an important counterweight to Germany’s growing dominance of the EU. But more significant is the apprehension this pro-American country has about Trump. I received a lot of questions about Trump’s Brussels speech to NATO in which he conspicuously declined to embrace NATO’s Article V on mutual defense obligations, along with his general disposition of the last two years about his nationalist or “America First” outlook. People here wonder if this all means the United States is withdrawing from its traditional leadership role, which they think would be a bad thing. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord adds one more piece of evidence behind this anxiety. Trump may allay some of this anxiety with his upcoming visit to Poland after the next G-20 meeting, which has a lot of people upset because—gasp!—Poland is conservative these days. (It has refused to take in “refugees,” and perhaps not coincidentally, has experienced no Islamist terror attacks.)
There is also a lot of credence given to the current controversy over Russian influence either directly with Trump, or at least in affecting the election, partly because Bulgarians have a lot of first hand experience with Russian subversion of Bulgarian politics, which has been both sophisticated and relentless. For example, right now Bulgaria has imposed a ban on fracking, so it is not able to exploit its potentially large shale gas deposits. This decision followed a massive Russian-backed propaganda campaign featuring the usual demagoguery about the subject that fools so many Hollywood celebrities in the U.S. (I wrote about Russia’s attempt to monopolize the natural gas market in Eastern Europe in the Weekly Standard four years ago. It’s only gotten worse since then, and the Germans are undermining the position of Eastern Europe in outrageous ways that would require a separate post to explain adequately.)
Yesterday’s “strategic briefing” for business and public officials was an interesting thing. I was paired with Daniel Pipes, who spoke pessimistically about the profound decay of Turkey under its dictator Recep Erdogan, while I spoke in defense of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. (See photo nearby.) Normally you’d expect that my dissent from climate orthodoxy would draw the most controversy, but in this case the fireworks were overwhelmingly directed at Dan Pipes, because Turkey’s ambassador to Bulgaria turned up, and expressed his supreme displeasure with Pipes’s analysis of Turkey’s decline and duplicity.
The ambassador’s counterattack was largely ad hominem, consisting of generalized personal attacks on Pipes and a series of non-denial denials about some of the facts Dan listed in his presentation. It was an astonishing performance from someone in a formal diplomatic post. Dan replied with grace and aplomb, but the interesting part was his twice asking directly whether he would be arrested if he traveled to Turkey. The ambassador conspicuously avoided answering the question. And once the moderator of the panel drew an end to the exchange, the ambassador promptly departed. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the ambassador is an Islamist in a business suit.
After that, my analysis and presentation of climate change issues was a breeze. Meanwhile, Friday and Saturday’s agenda here involves sampling Bulgarian wines, and if I find some that are mispriced, I may look into getting an export license.
Also, not to worry: Week in Pictures is already in the can and scheduled for its usual appearance first thing Saturday morning, and it is epic.
JOHN adds: I’ve been drinking a good Bulgarian cabernet lately, very reasonably priced. And how can you resist a wine that comes from the Thracian Valley?