- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

COFFEE CLASH

When the Bulgarian government tried to crush his coffee business, Plamen Youroukov fought back, organizing protests and taking to the streets to defend a free market that was still a foreign concept after the fall of communism.

“This left a big impression on me that a strange political decision could affect a business of 10 years,” he told Embassy Row on a Washington visit Thursday.

The government’s attempt to drive his boutique coffee shops out of business in favor of a multinational company led Mr. Youroukov into politics. Today he is the leader of the United Democratic Forces, a political movement born in opposition to communism in 1989.

By 1996, the UDF won a mandate for political and capitalist economic reforms that were so sweeping that the European Union invited Bulgaria to begin membership talks three years later. However, those reforms created a public backlash because the measures had a social impact, such as an increase in unemployment. Voters rejected the UDF in 2001, and the party stumbled into decline. It claimed only 8.4 percent of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Youroukov, UDF leader since July 2007, took over a party sorely divided against competing factions.

“I calmed the party,” he said. “We had different groups fighting each other. We had many scandals.”

He acknowledged he has a major rebuilding task to prepare the UDF for elections next year. His best hope, he said, is to topple the ruling socialists as part of a center-right coalition. The socialists have so mismanaged the government that “people’s dissatisfaction is enormous,” he said.

Bulgaria’s “image in Europe” is defined by rampant corruption, drug smuggling, organized crime and prostitution, he said.

“Bulgaria is not a good brand in the EU,” Mr. Youroukov added, sounding like the coffee salesman who built what he called a successful, midsized business.

Mr. Youroukov, 44, said the dilemma facing his generation is whether to stay in Bulgaria, with its majestic mountains and Black Sea beaches, and work to improve the country or relocate with families to prosperous European nations with educational and economic opportunities.

“We want to improve the country, or many will leave. We are European citizens. We can go anywhere,” he said, referring to Bulgaria’s admission into the EU last year.

“I would like to make Bulgaria a nice, safe and secure country,” he said, adding, “We have to have radical reform. You have to do it very fast.”

FYROM FUSS

A senior Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee reassured the Greek ambassador of his support for an issue sometimes dismissed in the press as a fuss over initials.

Rep. Edward Royce of California met Ambassador Alexandros P. Mallias on Wednesday to discuss the continued use of the name “Macedonia” by Greece’s northern neighbor, which Greece refers to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The United Nations admitted Macedonia under the FYROM label, but the United States recognizes the country as the Republic of Macedonia.

Mr. Royce is the co-sponsor of House Resolution 356, which calls on Macedonia to stop using that name and to work with Greece and the United Nations to find something else to call itself. The northern part of Greece is known as Macedonia, and Greek leaders accuse Macedonia of trying to expropriate its culture.

“The name Macedonia properly belongs to Greeks and Greek culture,” Mr. Royce, a member of the congressional Greek caucus, told Mr. Mallias.

He also criticized Macedonia for attempting to “portray Greek Macedonia as an occupied territory.” That characterization “raises great concerns about FYROM’s intentions,” Mr. Royce added.

*Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison @washingtontimes.com.

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