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Monastery, McDonald’s show post-communist era

Sofia, Oct. 24: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was keen to learn about Bulgaria’s post-communist transformation when he landed here two days ago. The eastern European country, which was once the former Soviet Union’s closest ally, is now eyeing an entry into the European Union in 2007.

On the last day of his week-long, three-nation tour, the President learned about Bulgaria’s transition at a venue few heads of state could have visited during the communist era — a monastery.

Kalam made his way this morning to the Rila monastery, 117 km from Sofia, near the Greece border. Sandwiched between the steep Rila mountain ranges, the ninth-century monastery belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was never closed during the 40-odd years of communism that ended in 1989.

But even though the monastery is closely identified with Bulgarian nationalism, the country’s communist rulers never let it function normally.

The visit to the monastery symbolised to Kalam an important dimension of Bulgaria’s post-communist transformation. Received by Bishop John, the President spent an hour at the monastery, asking him about its history, religious and cultural heritage and its contribution to spiritual life in Bulgaria. Kalam said he hoped all religions could come together to spread goodness, mercy and charity.

The President reckoned that the 14 years since the fall of communism were sufficient to bring about a revival of religion and spiritualism in the country. He must also have noticed that the streets of Sofia were swamped by multinational products, ranging from Japan’s Toyota and Germany’s BMW to South Korea’s LG and American fast-food chains McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But Soviet-era symbols are still visible as are Russian Lada cars like a relic from a bygone era.

Kalam came upon another aspect of the post-communist democratic transition in Bulgaria when he met the Prime Minister for talks yesterday. Once banished from the political scene, Bulgaria’s monarchy has returned to the country, albeit through the democratic route. Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg belongs to the dynasty that had to flee the country after the communist takeover. Political observers here call him “the first-born king to become an elected king”.

Kalam was scientific adviser and head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and as such, is familiar with Bulgaria’s proven strengths in mathematics, physics, computer hardware and precision-manufacturing. Indo-Bulgarian cooperation in many of these fields is continuing from Soviet-era days.

The President also met his Bulgarian counterpart, Georgi Parvanov, yesterday. Kalam proposed cooperation in computer software and hardware.

He said India could offer its expertise in software while Bulgaria could help it develop hardware production infrastructure.

Information technology minister Arun Shourie and government and business experts will visit Bulgaria early next year to initiate steps for cooperation. With Bulgaria hoping to join the EU in 2007, the bilateral economic cooperation could help India register a strong presence in the Union.

India expressed the fear that Bulgaria’s post-communist transformation might have diluted the strong political ties between the two countries.

But Parvanov responded by saying one must look at the “social causes” that led to terrorism while battling the scourge.

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