The Bulgarian Press on the War in Iraq

After a rather drowsy week in the Bulgarian press, the allied conquest of Baghdad and the capture of a Bulgarian TV correspondent by armed Iraqis roused the Bulgarian media from its slumber. The April 10 dailies led with the ordeal and the narrow escape of the only Bulgarian journalist in Baghdad, Elena Yoncheva, on April 9.

Bulgarian National Television (BNT)’s correspondent was traveling in a jeep with a Portuguese crew, filming street skirmishes in Baghdad. “Iraqis were shooting at Iraqis. They had no uniforms; no U.S. servicemen were visible,” she reported, just before she was stopped by Kalashnikov-brandishing marauders. Yoncheva was dragged by the hair and beaten alongside her colleagues.

The Iraqis shouted “Bush, Bush, Bush,” at the journalists as they led Yoncheva and her colleagues to a police station at gunpoint. The story might have ended tragically had a Bulgarian-speaking member of the Baath Party not arrived. After the Iraqi official—who, it turned out, had graduated from a Bulgarian university—intervened, the journalists were set free to drive off in their car. Yoncheva lost her bag, her money, and her passport. Her camera was also taken, but she subsequently recovered it.

“My nose is a bit broken, and my head hurts,” Yoncheva told Sofia’s nationalist Monitor the next day. “But thank God, I have no bruises or scars on my body because I had put on my flack jacket for the first time that day. If I were asked to write a movie script [about this experience], I wouldn’t be able to. It all looks so improbable and over-the-top now,” she added.

The April 10 edition of Monitor criticized the government’s silence on Yoncheva’s detention, singling out Foreign Minister Solomon Passy for special criticism. Passy’s inaction was “an insult to the press,” the paper’s editors wrote, contrasting Passy’s silence in this case to his vigorous actions in support of a 24 Tchasa reporter who had been detained in an Afghan village last year.

On April 14, perhaps in response to the criticism, Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov announced that Yoncheva will be honored with a medal on her return from Iraq. The announcement will silence her critics in the Bulgarian Parliament, who have cast aspersion on her reporting as biased toward the Iraqis and have sought to tar her for her romantic relationship with the leader of the Socialist Party. Not that it will be necessary: Most Bulgarian dailies quickly came to Yoncheva’s defense, and the critics were forced to apologize. By April 11, Yoncheva was able to devote her time to reporting that “Anarchy and Looting Reign Supreme” in Baghdad.

Since the fall of Baghdad, Bulgarian newspapers have been offering theories about the reasons for the U.S.-led troops’ quick success. On April 11, Trud’s headline was “Where Has Baghdad’s Might Gone?” The same day, a 24 Tchasa headline asked “Where Has Saddam Hussein’s Terrible Army Gone?” over an article that concluded, “Iraq probably fell as result of secret negotiations.” Writing in the same edition of 24 Tchasa, Petko Yotov, a retired colonel and the current director of the Bulgarian National Museum of Military History, argued that “Baghdad did not become another Stalingrad because the people there, who had been terrorized for decades by Saddam Hussein’s security forces, realized that the American war machine could not be stopped. Baghdad also fell so quickly because the Yanks dared to enter Baghdad almost on the fly, defying expectations that they would eschew urban warfare. Finally, Baghdad fell because the Americans used their greatest asset: effective intelligence.”

Sofia’s influential Trud has devoted considerable attention to Bulgarian business interests in postwar Iraq. “Five-hundred fifty Bulgarian business entities will be ‘invading’ Iraq,” Trud predicted on April 14. Trud has also devoted a good deal of space to news that a Bulgarian military unit that specializes in providing defenses against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is beginning work in an unnamed country bordering Iraq. The paper had earlier focused on Bulgaria’s role in developing Iraqi infrastructure: Bulgarians, Trud reminded its readers, built Saddam [now Baghdad] International Airport, drilled 61 oil wells, and laid 465 kilometers of power cables. 24 Tchasa, for its part, quoted Labor and Social Policy Minister Lidia Shouleva as suggesting that jobless Bulgarians might find work in postwar Iraq.

Not all newspapers seemed as optimistic about the capacity of Iraqi reconstruction projects to rescue Bulgaria from its economic slump. The April 8 edition of Sofia’s liberal Sega quoted Emil Kyulev, owner and CEO of DZI-Rosseximbank, as warning Bulgarians to brace themselves for the worst-case economic scenario after the war. Kyulev cited the economic recession in Europe, the possibility of continued war in the Middle East, and Bulgaria’s lukewarm relations with Russia as the reasons behind his assessment.