Air Date: May 6, 1997 Program 9718


Various residents of Bulgaria and Thailand

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)


JEFF MARTIN, Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. In this edition of Common Ground, the people of Bulgaria have just elected a new government, hoping that it will turn that country around.

VOICE: I hope that with the new elections and the new government, so we'll see a light at the end of the tunnel.

MARTIN: The impetus for governmental change in Bulgaria comes from the economy which is in dire straits.

VOICE: We need to have policy, to establish new jobs...

MARTIN: And then later in this program we'll look at the disturbing story of AIDS in Thailand. The disease has reached epidemic proportions there spurred in large part by the booming sex industry.

VOICE: Thai men have really been spoiled by this society... by the culture for a long, long time. Many hundred years. And Thai women were kept to accept that idea. That why so many women just tell their husbands or boyfriends, "Okay if you want to have sex, I am not ready for that, you go to use of bad women."

MARTIN: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Jeff Martin.

(Sound of Bulgarian choral music)

MARTIN: Bulgaria is a remote and sometimes forgotten Balkan country, yet it straddles a vital area between Europe and the Middle East. Since late last year, Bulgaria has been suffering its worst economic crisis in more than 50 years. On April 19, Bulgarians voted to elect the United Democratic Forces to Parliament. A stunning defeat for the Socialist Party that had ruled the country for two years. The conservative, pro-free market UDF government will now help determine if Bulgaria recovers from the crisis or goes the way of Albania. Freelance reporter, Reese Erlich, begins the story in the Capital of Sofia.

REESE ERLICH: As workers load boxes of food at this soup kitchen, pensioner Visilka Veyandankova stands patiently waiting for her portion. She is one of the millions of people reduced to poverty by Bulgaria's current economic crisis.

VEYANDANKOVA: (Crying) [Interpreter] I eat one loaf of bread every three days. I ask neighbors for bread or soup after my husband died... I can't even put a piece of bread on his grave. I can't live like this any more.

ERLICH: At a farm outside Sofia, 77-year-old Stefana Champova feeds her chickens and talks nostalgically about the better life she led before 1989, before capitalism returned to Bulgaria.

CHAMPOVA: We lived better after the Communist Party came to power in 1944. We kept our houses, we could work our family land, we got benefits like medical care and pensions. But since 1989 with the collapse of socialism the situation became worse again. Today we have no tractors, no farm machines of any kind, we plow with horses. It's like we farmed 200 years ago.

ERLICH: Scientist Alexander Strezov walks through the main department store in Sofia, admiring the consumer goods although he can't afford to buy any. He also suffers from the economic crisis, but has different solutions in mind.

STREZOV: How can you buy such cosmetics or jewelry? Before you could not speak out loud what you think and there was no such thing like a free press. And maybe this is the high price we have to pay as a nation to speak out loud.

ERLICH: Late last year these three people, like the vast majority of Bulgaria's 8 million inhabitants suddenly found themselves impoverished. Inflation hit 350% in January. The three people's reactions to the crisis mirror those of other Bulgarians—despair, nostalgia for communism, or a grim determination to continue with the free market. On April 19, Bulgarians gave 52% of the parliamentary vote to conservative, pro-free market United Democratic Forces. But the real test for the UDF will be what they do in the coming months to solve the country's economic crisis.

(Sound of Bulgarian choral music)

STREZOV: (growling) This is the sound of our dog.

ERLICH: Alexander Strezov, his wife, 2 children and an enormous Labrador live on the western outskirts of Sofia. Although he is a nuclear scientist and his wife is a professor, they live in a tiny two-room apartment, a holdover from the days of communist scarcity.

STREZOV: We enter here, is the room where we spend most of the time, where we have the TV set, and where we sit and discuss, and here my son has his computer. We have a very small kitchen which is 1 meter and a half to 1 meter and a half, a very small kitchen where is my wife's kingdom where she cooks, I think you have tasted, very good meals for our family. And we have a small bedroom where the children and my wife sleep. I sleep here with the dog. Yes I sleeping in the living room.

ERLICH: The kitchen isn't even big enough for a stove. To cook dinner, they must go out onto the freezing cold porch, where the stove is precariously perched. That doesn't stop Alexander and his wife Peshka from cooking a special meal for me. They won't talk about it, but it costs a lot. The family earns the equivalent of 60 dollars a month. These days almost their entire salaries go to buy food. But Alexander Strezov unlike some Bulgarians doesn't despair. He voted for the United Democratic Forces, which promises to end the economic crisis.

STREZOV: I hope that with the new elections and the new government we'll start so we'll see a light at the end of the tunnel. So what we're now seeing is only darkness. People are very much losing their hopes for the future. But I think that our country will very soon find the proper way to develop.

ERLICH: But other Bulgarians don't see it that way. They are fed up with politicians, or even nostalgic for the years of stability and relative prosperity under communist rule. Gancho Champarova, a 49-year-old farmer tends a small plot of land here in Debene, a village one hundred miles southeast of Sofia. Every year he makes 400 liters of home-made wine and 100 liters of Rixia. The family of four don't have any left over for sale. They drink every bottle. The winters get awfully cold in the country side. Champarova eagerly shows me how to make Rixia.

CHAMPAROVA: You bring the grape stems and leaves to a boil in this metal drum. The alcohol goes up this pipe and drips back down through this copper tubing.

ERLICH: Champarova only wishes choosing a political were as easy as making Rixia. He is disgusted with politicians in general, but that doesn't stop him from holding the party in power responsible for the current crisis, so he reluctantly voted for against the Socialists and for the opposition, UDF.

CHAMPAROVA: I don't support any of the parties... everyone talks about the people, the future, but I don't believe them. I am going to vote for democracy, for the UDF. We have to take new steps. We don't need the current Bulgarian democracy and I don't want socialism. So we want something new.

ERLICH: But his mother, 77-year-old Stephana Champarova feels quite differently. When the pro-free market UDF came to power in the early 1990's it sold off all the farm equipment in the Debene village. She says the tractors were sold to politically connected supporters of the UDF.

STEPHANA CHAMPOVA: Everything is destroyed. Some of the people could afford to buy tractors and machinery, now those people rent them out for a lot of money. They weren't rich to begin with but they are now. The government set up a land commission to divide up the co-op land. But the land commission discovered that it was very difficult to return the land to how it was 50 years ago. Farmers can't get the same pieces of land their fathers owned. They can't agree on how the land is to be divided up. People don't have plots next to other plots. So it's hard to farm.

ERLICH: The experience of Debene village was repeated throughout the country. Most Bulgarians agree that land reform hasn't worked. Mrs. Champarova blames the UDF.

MRS. CHAMPAROVA: I always vote for the Socialist Party. Almost all of the people in the village think like me. Only the people who make money now, the middle man, they think another way.

(Sound of Bulgarian choral music)

ERLICH: The Bulgarian election campaign was rather strange. Unlike past contests, there were few posters or campaign rallies. Most people had already concluded that the UDF would win. At one of the few rallies in Sofia, freezing cold UDF supporters, chanted support for their coalition. Angelica Markova stands in the crowd. She supports the United Democratic Forces because she says, the Socialist Party government allowed the growth of organized crime, generically referred to here as the Mafia. She expects the new UDF government to crack down.

ANGELICA MARKOVA: It can try using force to stop the Mafroso taking control of the economics. Because precisely what happened was, in the past two years, was that... sorry for the strong words... but this bunch of young criminals and thugs that were calling themselves government, gave free way to the Mafia.

(sound of police siren)

ERLICH: Organized crime is one of the few growth industries in Bulgaria. Gangs regularly steal cars and then ransom them back to owners. Organized crime got its start when Bulgaria's famous wrestlers and body builders suddenly found the state no longer paid their salaries. They used their bulging biceps to demand protection money from businesses, so today the racketeers are known as "wrestlers". Organized gangs really went big-time after the UN-imposed economic sanctions on Serbia. Ivan Krastev an analyst with the Center for Liberal Studies in Sofia explains:

IVAN KRASTEV: The UN embargo in Serbia created an environment and conditions under which part of the Bulgarian private business was criminalized. And this is a very simple explanation, because of the embargo, there was a possibility for huge profits out of breaking the embargo. And for example, exporting petroleum and some other goods to Serbia.

ERLICH: Some criminals have bought into legitimate businesses, others have continued to expand in to car theft and prostitution. The UDF promises to crack down on crime. In March, the interim UDF Interior Minister, ordered the stopping of thousands of luxury automobiles, to check for stolen cars and unpaid taxes. Hundreds of "wrestlers" were detained. It remains to be seen however, if this was the beginning of a real crackdown, or just a pre-election show.

The new government faces some tough times ahead. The International Monetary Fund, as a condition for giving loans, requires a very sharp drop in the government's budget deficit. That will mean cut backs in social services and layoffs at state owned enterprises. The interim UDF government argued that such pain is necessary to develop a truly free-market country. Peter Andonov is Chief Coordinator for the President's Council for Economic Development.

PETER ANDONOV: We need to open a transparent process of privatization. Widely advertised and well communicated to the people... I mean domestic and foreign investors, as well, and we'll receive a special loan from the World Bank for these people who will be dismissed as a result of this close down of money-losing enterprise.

ERLICH: But those people will receive only a fraction of their wages and only for 6 months. Other political parties argue that workers deserve more protection. Alexander Tomov heads the Euro-left party, a moderate split-off from the Socialists.

ALEXANDER TOMOV: We need to have a policy to establish new jobs and this is the most important task for this year, because without this program, and we have this program, I think government will be very seriously pressed by population, by people.

ERLICH: Even if the UDF wins an absolute majority, analyst Ivan Krastev warns that it can't be over confident given the need to implement austerity measures.

KRASTEV: UDF is going to lose their momentum and if they are going to delay their policies, or if there is going to be corruption around, and I do believe that the major challenge in front of the new UDF government is going to be corruption, it means that after four or five months the new crisis is going to appear. And this new crisis is not going to be crisis similar to the crisis that the Socialists party suffered in January and February... its not going to be so much politically organized demonstrations in the street. It is going to be the process of social disintegration. It's going to be much more an Albania scenario.

ERLICH: Geographically, Bulgaria stands at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. The country stands at a political crossroads as well. In the months ahead Bulgarians will find if their leaders are capable of resolving the economic crisis and returning the country to normalcy. For Common Ground I'm Reese Erlich in Sofia, Bulgaria.

MARTIN: When Common Ground continues we'll look at efforts to counter the devastating effect that AIDS is having on Thailand.


VOICE: We are very concerned with the youngster. We were invited to many many schools. Hundred of hundreds schools and I do believe that it is very important to inform them.

MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit non-partisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

The Pope has called for a world wide end to child prostitution and the growing sex tourism industry. Thailand is among the Asian countries, where both problems pose excessive risk to HIV. Indeed, while HIV infection rates are dropping in Europe and the United States, health experts warn that the HIV virus is escalating in Asia. Karen Louise Booth reports on an AIDS education effort underway in Thailand that concentrates on using entertainment.

KAREN LOUISE BOOTH: In Thailand it's estimated that between 800,000 and 1,000,000 out of the country's 6 million people are HIV positive. Contributing to the problem are prostitution and a growing sex tourism industry. It's not uncommon to see men, often foreign businessmen and tourists, opening courting business with female and male prostitutes on the streets of Bangkok and Chinmai sex strips streets are lined with tailor shops, electronic stores and bars and restaurants bustling at all hours. They are ancillary businesses benefiting from the larger sex industry. Exact numbers on how many men and women work in the sex industry and the amount of money it generates are hard to pin down since it remains an underground economy. Even so, estimates are that Thailand has 2 million prostitutes. Then there are the uncounted pimps and the network of government officials, police and military personnel who insure the status quo.

On a Friday night in Chinmai, an audience has gathered in a town square to shop, eat and watch the evening's scheduled free public performance. On this evening, the performers are from a traveling dance troupe in Bangkok.

NATTI: My name is Natti Tera Arachanapong I'm the Director and the Founder of the Fraternity for AIDS Cessation in Thailand, one of the non-governmental organizations in Thailand.

BOOTH: Natti's dancers teach AIDS awareness through performance.

NATTI: We did, since the year... eleven years ago we start forming a group. Because we believe that most of the people in this country or maybe all over the world, they... you know people want to see something, hear something, not too serious. They like something lightly and very, very good to see and feel very good, comfortable. And then they can remember for long long time. That's why we start using our dance ability to create the awareness of AIDS and giving the information to the people to feel comfortable to live with HIV.

BOOTH: Natti begins by telling the audience how AIDS can be contracted.

NATTI: First is sexual behavior, second is the using and sharing blood. That means using and syringe and needles that can transfer AIDS from one to another, and third is from mother to child.

BOOTH: Natti then mingles monologue with music using a very popular song on the radio as a venue. The songs lyrics are written to empower Thai women to put parameters around their philandering husbands. After all non-governmental organizations report that AIDS is rising faster among women than men in Thailand.

NATTI: (Song)

My lover, listen to me. I want you to listen carefully. My love, that I give to you, I will do everything for you... all of my heart, never give to any other lady. I will be honest to you. I hope that you will not make me upset. If I go away, then I want you to listen to this and behave like I want you to. Don't let anybody touch or hold your shoulder. Don't let anybody hold your hands. Your forehead... don't let anybody kiss.... Oh, kiss your forehead. Let your cheek, you know... don't let anybody touch it...

BOOTH: Natti says the song helps ease the discomfort of talking openly about the risks of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. He says sexual attitudes and misconceptions often inhibit women from talking about sex and asserting their preference for the use of condoms. Many female prostitutes working in red light districts of the major cities often have more control over demanding the use of condoms, than do married women.

NATTI: We have many, many group, women group who are forming strongly trying to convince women in this country to be more independent and say what they want to say, and can say no... what they don't want to be or don't want to do.

BOOTH: Natti says many people in Thailand see AIDS as a problem facing prostitutes, gay men, and foreigners. He points out that while his dance troupe got it's start performing in gay bars eight years ago, the problem is endemic to the whole culture. He says as many as 80% of Thai men regularly seek the servicing of prostitutes. If they become infected with HIV in the process, they risk exposing their wives.

NATTI: Thai men have really have spoiled, by the society, by the culture, for a long—long time, many hundred years. And Thai women were kept, to accept that idea—that why so many women, you know, just tell their husband or boyfriends, "Okay, if you want to have sex, you know, I am not ready for that, you go to use of bad women." That means, you know, prostitutes. Then this kind of culture has to be changed. I never think that Western, bring a lot of problem in the AIDS point of view, but I do believe that this our own culture problem.

BOOTH: Natti says the other group in need of education is youth.

NATTI: We are very, very concerned with the youngster. We were invited to many, many schools, hundred of hundred schools, and I do believe that it is very important to inform them. Because they, not just only themselves, protect themselves, but all these youngster, they are more educated, we can use them as a peer group to help the people who are older and never think about their lives seriously. Then every time we perform for the kids, for the students, we always ask them to be our help, our friends, to pass through information to another group of people who they know... yeah.

BOOTH: Education is needed in rural areas and villages too. Many villagers leave their rural homes for the major cities where growing business and industry provide jobs. It's good news for the country's economy, but bad news for the spread of AIDS. Factory workers who are away from home are at high risk for contracting the disease and bringing it back to their villages.

In a mountain village about 40 miles outside of the northern city of Chinmai, the village chief has nailed an AIDS education poster to the wall of a meeting room in his hut. The poster depicts a young man lying in bed. Members of his family surround him and offer him food. A guide and interrupter named Do, explains that the poster emphasizes the need for families to care for people with AIDS so the ill can live longer lives, two or three more years he says.

DO: Because if there someone they have HIV, they want to kill themselves... they don't want to be alive anymore.

BOOTH: So the village must take care of them.

DO: Yeah, and look after them, help them right here... they must talk with him. ??

BOOTH: Do says no one in this village is sick with AIDS, but he knows of at least two people in a nearby village who suffer from the disease. One of them is a young child. He says food, shelter and love are often all that families can offer due to the lack of money for drugs and other medical treatments. And often when there is money, he says medical treatments are inaccessible to rural residents who often don't have the means for transportation to the larger cities. Care workers have found that normally self-sufficient rural families are being devastated by AIDS. Farmers can't farm because they're ill or because they're caring for family members with the disease. To provide for their families, they sell their seeds, tools and eventually their land. Women are also being affected. They're seeing their social roles change dramatically. No longer are they able to earn income, provide the family's food and water and fulfill their normally productive tasks because now they focus on caring for the sick. Care officials say that while education and prevention efforts are helping ease infection rates, they warn that the problem is going to get much worse in Thailand before it gets better. In the meantime, what can countries like the U.S. do to help? One Thai activist says organizations can work to stem the tide of sex tourism by working to decrease the demand and flow of sex tourists. He says many Americans travel in Thailand on itineraries planned by companies based in New York, Las Vegas and Miami Beach. Business Week reports that some 25 companies operate in the U.S. alone. Also the U.S. is being asked by advocates to sign on to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says every child is entitled to full protection from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. The U.S. is one of only four nations that have refused to sign. Opponents say it's an invasion of privacy and the rights of the family. This is Karen Louise Booth reporting.

(sound of Thai chant)

MARTIN: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. Transcripts are free of charge and the cassettes cost $5.00. To order or to share your comments, write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Our e-mail address is While ordering transcripts or cassettes ask for program number 9718. To order by credit card call us at 319-264-1500. Again tapes are $5.00 and transcripts are free. Be sure to ask for program No. 9718. And the phone number again is 319-264-&1500.

B.J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Jeff Martin.


Copyright © 1997, The Stanley Foundation