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Bulgarians envy Captive Bears

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Residents Envy 'Bear Necessities'

July 23, 2002 07:53 AM ET Email this article Printer friendly version

By Anna Mudeva

BELITSA, Bulgaria (Reuters) - The residents of this tiny Bulgarian mountain town are convinced it is better to be a dancing bear than a person.

Each of the six bears, sheltered in a park near Belitsa built by French actress Brigitte Bardot's animal rights foundation, eats $200 worth of food a month. Average incomes in the Balkan country hover between $50 and $130 a month.

A year after former King Simeon II became Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg, pledging a better life for all in 800 days, the bears are envied and disappointment prevails. The cabinet took office on July 24, 2001.

"I'd rather be a bear in Bulgaria," said Belitsa's 47-year-old mayor Hasan Ilan.

"Bears eat only high quality bananas, pears, grapes and also honey and meat. We can only dream of such food," said Ilan.

The Vienna-based Four Paws foundation backed by Bardot spent some $250,000 on the one-hectare park for the six bears.

They paid $5,000 per bear to the owners, who had taught the animals to dance by forcing them to walk on hot coals.

Ilan said the foundation would build a second six-hectare park by November, giving a temporary job to some 50 people and housing another 16 bears.

Locals are happy the park will attract tourists, but wonder why the West is keener to help the bears than the people and question the costs of pleasing foreigners.

"They tell us they are raising prices and closing nuclear reactors because the EU wants us to do it. But do we need the union at such a high price," asked Alexandra, a young woman.

Bulgaria and neighboring Romania are at the back of the queue in EU entry talks. Diplomats and EU officials say they are unlikely to join before 2007. Ten mostly ex-communist countries aim to wrap up negotiations by the end of 2002 and become full members in 2004.

"People are terribly desperate and poor. We had enormous hope in the king but we have not felt any change for the better," said Ivan Topalov, 56, who runs a shabby pub where locals buy their drinks on credit.

Topalov lost his job several years ago when the government closed down a loss-making plastic goods plant in the southwest of one of Europe's poorest countries.

"DID NOT EXPECT A MIRACLE"

Now 65 percent of residents are unemployed and eat mainly what they grow -- beans, potatoes, some vegetables and fruit.

"We did not expect a miracle from Simeon as we were aware that the country is too ruined to be fixed so soon. But we expected him to begin putting in some order," said Topalov.

Bulgarians made Saxe-Coburg the only ex-monarch to regain power in post-communist eastern Europe, seeing in him the best hope of finally achieving the better life they had been expecting since communism collapsed in 1989.

Saxe-Coburg, 65, came to the throne at the age of six after his father's sudden death in 1943. Communists banished him from the country in 1946 after a rigged referendum abolished the monarchy and he spent 50 years in exile.

Now Saxe-Coburg, who spent most of his life in Madrid working as a businessman and speaks several European languages fluently, looks exhausted. He speaks Bulgarian poorly.

His cabinet of young Western-educated reformers has won respect abroad for efforts to accelerate European Union entry talks, curb corruption and bring Bulgaria into NATO.

But that has done little to boost incomes or reduce unemployment. Faith in the government is fading with pollsters saying public support more than halved over the past year.

Almost one in five has no job in the country of eight million, while hikes in power and heating prices urged by West have pushed energy costs beyond what a state pension can buy.

"Its not Simeon's fault. He lived abroad most of his life and had no clue about the real situation here. He was taught to be a king not a prime minister," said Maria Georgieva, a 35-year-old teacher.

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that is deep!

sorry i dont have much to partake in what u have to say, and u have spent so much time in thinking this and reading this and all i have to say good luck and keep fighting.

"look up and the stars above will shine upon thee"

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