Bulgaria's Ex-King Brings Investment Bankers to an Unlikely Reign Intrnl_Herld_Tribune - 2001/7/28
The former king has won most of the attention, but a few facts have not escaped note about the two American-educated investment bankers who are now among the most powerful people in the new order of Bulgaria.
First is their age: The new finance minister is 35. The deputy prime minister in charge of the economy is only 31.
Second, in a country where the average monthly wage is just over $100, are the salaries they just left behind: "Two ministers quit $715,000 jobs," a front-page headline in the leading daily newspaper said Monday. The paper did not neglect to say that, as ministers, they will now earn only $450 a month.
"I really can't comment," the new finance minister, Milen Velchev, a former vice president with Merrill Lynch in London, said with some embarrassment Tuesday when asked about his old salary.
King Simeon II, the deposed child monarch officially approved by Parliament as prime minister on Tuesday, and now to be known as Simeon Coburgotski, preferred not to reveal many specifics during the campaign that ended last month in victory for his new party. And so the people of Bulgaria, a poor nation that is nonetheless a haven of stability in the troubled Balkans, are looking for fresh clues about his intentions in the faces of the 16 people who form his new cabinet.
At first glance, some observers say, his choice of a cabinet appears to show him keeping his promise to appoint professionals, untainted by the corruption and cronyism that has angered Bulgarians.
Most are untainted by government at all: Like the ex-king - Mr. Coburgotski - few in the new cabinet have any political experience. None has ever been a minister.
"Rather than looking for jobs to reward his people, he is actually trying to find the best people to fill the particular jobs," Mr. Velchev said. "That's why most of them are experts in their fields, not politicians."
But some observers express at least mild concern about having so many unknown faces running the government, particularly given the now famous unwillingness of Mr. Coburgotski to reveal too much.
"This is the first time in the last 12 years or so to have prominent politicians you know nothing about," said Boyan Belev, of the Center for the Study of Democracy, a research institute in Sofia. "It doesn't have to be bad. I think it's not."
Ivan Stancioff, a Bulgarian businessman who is a former ambassador to Britain, praised Mr. Coburgotski's courage in taking on the job of prime minister. This is a much grittier job than the largely ceremonial post of president that he was thought to prefer when he first entered the political fray in his native land more than five decades after being forced by the Communists to flee.
However, Mr. Stancioff said, Tuesday marked a new phase in the ex-king's new political career.
"He's proved that he can be successful in getting votes," he said. "He is successful because he has said very little. He has said nothing. Obviously that is over. He has to produce."
On Tuesday, in a speech to Parliament, Mr. Coburgotski outlined in broad strokes what he has called his 800-day drive for reform in Bulgaria. He promised improvement in living standards, a fight against corruption, an increase in foreign investment and lowering of personal and corporate taxes.
He also repeated his promise to push Bulgaria toward membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. He had reportedly been undecided about joining NATO, but in the end he named as his foreign minister a mathematician, Solomon Passi, who has campaigned for more than a decade for Bulgaria to join the alliance.
The former king, 64, fled Bulgaria in 1946 and has lived mostly in Spain. His party, the National Movement for Simeon II, won exactly half of the 240 parliamentary seats last month, and this month joined in a governing coalition with the Turk Movement for Rights and Freedom to ensure a working majority in the legislature.
The previous government, the Union of Democratic Forces, was credited with many reforms that moved Bulgaria forward economically, and the country has grown for the last three years. But voters were angry because living standards are still low, unemployment is high and the economy remains the most pressing issue for Bulgarians.
And so Mr. Coburgotski's economic team has perhaps attracted the most interest.
Mr. Velchev began his career in the Foreign Ministry, then studied on a Fulbright Fellowship in the United States, first at the University of Rochester in New York State and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The deputy prime minister, Nikolai Vassilov, studied at the State University of New York in Oswego and at Brandeis University. An investment banker most recently with Lazard Capital Markets in London, he became well known in Bulgaria over the last two years through a program in which Bulgarians working abroad commented on government reforms.
They have given themselves 800 days to produce tangible change. But Tuesday was given over both to celebration and the mundane.
"Nice office," Mr. Velchev said, in his new, and bare, space in the grand Finance Ministry building in the city center. "Still trying to find out if the phones work."
New Loan Agreements Sought
Mr. Velchev said Wednesday that he would pursue new loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and he pledged tax cuts to encourage foreign investment, The Associated Press reported from Sofia.
Mr. Velchev is to meet with representatives of the IMF and World Bank on Thursday.
The agreements, which expire in September, have brought loans worth nearly $1.2 billion to the country.