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Shanghai surprise

2010. 14 May

WILL YOU WALK INTO MY PARLOUR? ‘Ugly’ was one of the milder descriptions used by Bulgarian media of the design of Bulgaria’s stand at the World Expo in Shanghai.

( Shorn of the trappings of the Cold War’s ideological warfare, World Expo events have lost some of their lustre in recent decades, but this year’s event in Shanghai stands out as a big opportunity for country-branding and reputation-building in one of the world’s largest

But in Bulgaria’s case, the country’s participation is more likely to be remembered for the controversy and accusations of mismanagement that surfaced on the eve of the Expo’s opening ceremony on May 1.

Bulgaria’s stand, which shares a pavilion with three other countries, was prepared by the Plovdiv International Fair, picked without tender in August 2006 and awarded 4.6 million leva, the amount asked by the Fair, in Budget funding. Given that Plovdiv International Fair has the experience of organising the annual expo of the same name and has previously handled Bulgaria’s participation at similar events abroad, the choice in itself was not a surprising one.

What has become the subject of mutual criticism between the Fair and Bulgaria’s Economy Ministry, however, is how the money was spent and whether it produced the desired effect.

In November 2009, the new Bulgarian Cabinet told the Fair that the funding would be cut in half – 1.3 million leva as a Budget allocation and $650 000 secured from Chinese organisers as aid.

As reported by Kapital weekly, the Fair refused to adjust its budget, saying that it was too late to amend the existing design project. The outside and interior design itself is a controversial topic since the exact costs are unknown and the Fair would not name the authors in retaliation for the "media attacks against Bulgaria’s stand".

The ministry then asked the Fair for a breakdown of how the money was spent, with the reply arriving on April 29, two days before the opening of the Expo. The report contained "a description of the expenses and an explanation of future spending, but no paperwork, such as contracts or receipts," the ministry told Kapital.

At about the same time, Plovdiv International Fair executives published an open letter asking the Government to "defend the national interest" by allocating more funding. If the funding was denied, the stand would be shut down, possibly before June 14, which was scheduled as the Expo’s Bulgarian Day.

The focus of the stand is on Bulgaria’s culture and traditions, highlighting the antiquity and Bulgarian Revival periods. That has been criticised as falling well short of the Expo’s motto "Better City, Better Life", but the same point has been made about other national pavilions, with innovative technologies displayed primarily in corporate-sponsored areas.

Unwilling to commit more funding without proof how it was spent, the Economy Ministry said on May 11 that it would send additional staff to Shanghai. According to Fair officials, the current staff was four people, while the stand required 12. The funding shortfall also prevented the organisers from hiring translators into Chinese for the 326 sq m stand,
Plovdiv International Fair chairperson Georgi Gergov was quoted as saying.

The row is just the latest between the Economy Ministry and Gergov, who is the majority shareholder in the Fair. In September 2009, two months into the new Cabinet’s term, Economy Minister Traicho Traikov described the share issue that saw Gergov acquire the majority stake in 2008 as "one of the strangest deals in recent years", which was interpreted as a direct attack on the Socialist-led ruling coalition at the time. Gergov is widely seen as having close ties with the Socialist party.

The ministry has filed separate court actions to annul the share issue that helped Gergov acquire control of the Fair and to recover 1.4 million leva in dividend that the state claims it was due as a shareholder.