European culture looks east in 2019

Plovdiv is the first city in Bulgaria to be named European Capital of Culture, and authorities are hoping that the global attention will help drive a profound transformation

The Dzhumaya mosque in Plovdiv.
The Dzhumaya mosque in Plovdiv.JENS KALAENE / AFP

Plovdiv has been crowned 2019 European Capital of Culture, making it the first Bulgarian city to be recognized as such.

With a population of 550,000, it is Bulgaria’s second-largest city and a compendium of historical periods, having been used as a throughway by the Thracians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and even some Romantic travellers such as Alphonse de Lamartine. Its cultural heritage is one of Europe’s richest, and if Europe has anything to celebrate in these tumultuous times filled with skepticism and centrifugal tendencies, it has to be its culture.

Visibility is something we can’t achieve without Europe’s help

Deputy Mayor Stefan Stoyanov

Surrounded by cultural powerhouses like Italy, Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, is the poorest member and it was in dire need of a push to make its cultural heritage visible. So the city’s status as the European Capital of Culture is a godsend, though it is not the only Cultural Capital this year – Matera in Italy has also been selected.

Run by the EU, the ECoC (European Capital of Culture) initiative provides cities with exceptional stimulus, which according to Plovdiv’s deputy mayor, Stefan Stoyanov, goes beyond the purely cultural.

“We have a very small budget compared with Matera,” says Stoyanov who is in charge of Plovdiv 2019. “It is between €10 and €15 million, 10 of which comes from the State, as well as an additional €20 million to create or improve infrastructure, but visibility is something we can’t achieve without Europe’s help. Besides the pride we feel for being chosen – eight Bulgarian cities including the capital had competed for the title – this will also help us to empower the region in a country that is very centralized.”

The cultural agenda that is being drawn up will reach the center and the south of the country, but also Varna, Sofia and Veliko, the country’s three runners-up.

EUROMIND, a platform for debate on how to shape Europe

Teresa Giménez Barbat of the Ciudadanos party, – the only Spanish MEP who sits on the European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education – insists that education should be a priority in the shaping of Europe, while social sciences should be used as a tool to combat prejudice with particular regard to the hot topic of immigration.

"In my opinion, the spread of progress and prosperity inevitably involves taking scientific knowledge into account," she says. "In other words, when it comes to legislating and devising policies, evidence and facts should take precedence over ideological prejudice. That is why I am promoting a debate platform called Euromind that tries to coordinate science and politics by equipping politicians with resources to access the facts so they can be better informed when deciding on an issue they are about to vote on.

“The question of European citizenship has been a crucial part of my work in this area, given that what we are aspiring to is a Federal Europe – often interpreted as the United States of Europe,” adds Giménez. “It’s true that such a comparison seems impossible given the inexorable legacy of Europe’s history – a real anthology of fratricidal wars. But it is about constructing a place that we can call a fatherland concurrent with the EU. As far as I’m concerned, any initiative, program or proposal that is related to this goal is shaping Europe. The Culture Committee, of which I am a full member, is particularly involved in this. Is there any better cement for this identity than cultural heritage?”

The program is aggressively modern, but there is also a nod to the recent past which helped to usher Bulgaria into the EU, such as the exhibition of a collection of original fragments from the Berlin Wall, which fell 30 years ago this year.

As far as Stonayov is concerned, being the European Capital of Culture means boosting the city’s future by nurturing its past and uncovering buried treasures such as an enormous Paleochristian basilica with 2,000 square meters of beautiful mosaics, which was restored thanks to funding from a private investor.

A posse of cranes, diggers and yellow helmets buzz around the site, which is hidden by massive dark tarpaulin sheets. The frenetic activity is indicative of the degree of collaboration between state, local and private parties, which in some ways defines the ECoC initiative.

At least 10% of the budget comes from the private sector. The EU, meanwhile, lends the city its recognition and, if it meets the requirements that go with the honor of being chosen, it is awarded the Melina Mercouri Prize, worth €1.5 million.

There is an extensive public and political consensus on the importance of culture for personal development

Momchil Nekov, Bulgaria Socialist Party

By establishing a niche on the cultural map, Plovdiv will inevitably attract more tourism. The city has a lot going for it. Not only does it enjoy 300 days of sun a year, it is also a cyclist’s paradise with 52 km of cycle lanes.

“Just four years ago, at the time we were selected, you could count the number of tourists coming here on one hand,” says Stoyanov. “This year [2018], we have had a million and we hope to double that in 2019. Being the capital of culture is not just about having the biggest cultural offer or new cultural infrastructure, it’s also about fostering the fabric of the local economy. Since 2014, tourist apartments, new hotels and small businesses in gentrified areas such as the Kapana district have multiplied. Kapana was a rundown area whose makeover only cost the city council €1.5 million, providing it with better pavements and street lighting, so the economic return is several times greater in real terms.”

Now, Kapana is like a miniature Soho – it is vibrant, colorful and keen to be noticed by the world.

A look at previous European capitals of culture confirms the economic impact at a local level. Every euro of public money invested in Mons in Belgium in 2015 generated between €5.5 and €6 in the city. In Wroclaw, Poland, which was ECoC in 2016, more than 40% of the cultural creative businesses registered a boost in profits.

But it is not a foregone conclusion that Plovdiv will prosper like their predecessors. For a start, Bulgaria’s economy is far smaller than that of Belgium and Poland, not to mention Italy. “The effort is greater for us than it is for Matera because we need more time to develop the country and show off our culture,” says Stoyanov. “The lack of freedom during the communist era wreaked havoc on our society but also on creativity.”

This is why Plovdiv 2019 is about more than just exhibitions. At a deeper level, it is about radical change, as the ECoC intended – an urban regeneration which will give the city a different spin, not just for the world but for its own residents. Perhaps it is best described as an injection of self-esteem. This is how, over the past 30 years, the ECoC has become a laboratory of strategic investment on both a local and regional level.

Budget maneuvers

In 2021, the ECoC will choose a third capital of culture from a country aspiring to become an EU member or a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). But the biggest EU program on the cards is Creative Europe, which will nurture cinema, the arts and the creative sectors, which account for 7.5% of the workforce in the EU and €509 billion of its GDP.

The fact that the EU budget for culture has grown indicates that its significance is being increasingly acknowledged. Between 2014 and 2020, it was €1.46 billion, 9% more than the previous six-year term.

However, a number of European MPs from Bulgaria believe there is a temptation to cut back on culture during economic downturns. “There is an extensive public and political consensus on the importance of culture for personal development,” says Momchil Nekov, from the Bulgarian Socialist Party. “But, when the European and national budgets are drawn up, it seems that other areas take priority, which is a shame. Unfortunately, Bulgaria is no exception.”

Nekov adds, “It is certainly true that the EU was battered by the economic crisis, but the coffers for culture and cultural legacy should not be raided during emergencies or when other priorities arise. This is why I believe the next financial framework for the 2021-2027 term should provide adequate resources for this key sector whose tremendous economic and social potential is yet to be exploited. I think priority should be given to initiatives and policies that have been seen to add value, such as Creative Europe and the European Capital of Culture which offer visibility to cities such as Plovdiv with its great cultural heritage, history and rich traditions.”

Archeological looting

The 2014/60 EU directive aims to protect national cultural treasures and reconcile this protection with the free circulation of assets. It also sets the EU up as an authority to oversee the return of objects looted from EU countries. This does not apply however to the Greek Parthenon marble objects that now sit in the British Museum, as any looting that took place before the directive was established in 1993 does not fall within its scope.

While Greece, Turkey and Italy have clamped down on archeological looting in a big way, Bulgaria has become a mecca for today’s treasure hunters.

A video in the Archeological Museum of Sofia informs visitors of the looting that is taking place on a daily basis at dozens of the country’s archeological sites on an industrial scale. It is estimated that objects worth thousands of millions of dollars are illegally shipped out of the country each year, according to Boil Banov, the Minister of Culture.

A police operation on October 9 in Simeonovgrad rumbled a network of traffickers who were trying to export a gold crown, jewels and a vast quantity of old coins, valued at €2 million.

According to some academics, Bulgaria is the third richest country in Europe when it comes to archeological treasures. But politicians have turned a blind eye to the looting. In 2016, archeologist Sergey Torbatov, from the Bulgarian Science Academy, believed there to be 500,000 looters in the country. Between 2011 and 2015, Sofia invested in the reconstruction of 120 archeological sites, using money from its own coffers as well as almost €90 million from the EU fund for regional development.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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