Bulgaria's Formula 1-gate, Abu Dhabi and Wikipedia. Plus the Bulgarian Diaspora in Action?

Editorial |Author: Ivan Dikov | September 8, 2010, Wednesday // 23:11|  views

The scandal with Bulgaria's botched attempt to find an investor for building a Formula 1 racetrack over the past week has been so overwhelming with its multifaceted absurdity that one does not know where to start.

The key thing to remember, though, is that this whole story demonstrates very well much of what is wrong with Bulgaria's attempts and hopes to attract more high-quality foreign investments and to have a good international image.

For the past couple of years a kind of an initiative committee has been formed spearheaded by former Interior Minister Rumen Petkov (2005-2008), currently a Socialist MP from his native Pleven, and Bogdan Nikolov, head of the Bulgarian Motorcycling Federation, for building a facility for Moto GP and Formula 1 races in Bulgaria; an inspired, yet somewhat controversial idea since critics argue the entire endeavor would be too costly for Bulgaria's standards – from the construction to the grand prix tickets.

The initiative committee backed by the government has been holding talks with FIA reaching a preliminary deal and raising hopes that Bulgaria might host a Formula 1 race as early as 2012 if it has a circuit.

Then last week, out of nowhere, the press office of the Bulgarian Economy Ministry issued an announcement stating that the "Sheikh of Abu Dhabi" Mohammed Abdul Jalil al Blouki and head of the "state-owned" Emirates Associated Business Club (EABG) had met with Prime Minister Borisov and Economy Minister Traikov; and EABG and the Bulgarian government had signed an agreement for a joint venture to build a Formula 1 track at Dobroslavtsi, a former military air field near Sofia, with Bulgaria contributing the land, and the Abu Dhabi consortium pouring the cash.

What first struck me in this message was that the "Sheikh" of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the United Arab Emirates, would be in Bulgaria and the visit would have such a low profile.

Now, I don't know by heart the royal families of the Gulf States – so I did what any even barely computer literate person would do – I "googled" Abu Dhabi and went straight to the article about it in Wikipedia – which immediately told me that the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi is Khalifa bin Zayed; the article made no mention of Mohammed Abdul Jalil al Blouki.

This entire operation took me less than 15 seconds. I subsequently called the phone on the website of EABG, and after taking 2 minutes to explain my question, the nice operator lady told me that Mr. Mohammed Abdul Jalil al Blouki is the chairman of the board of the consortium.

Interestingly, apparently nobody else in Bulgaria bothered to take this EXTREMELY SIMPLE action the day the breaking news Formula 1 announcement was made. Thus, Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) was the only Bulgarian media which immediately reported correctly who was the Abu Dhabi representative in Bulgaria that had signed a deal with the Economy Minister.

Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to say that my colleagues and I did a great job; nope. What we did was extremely simple, and required very little effort. My point is that for two days nobody else in Bulgaria cared enough to even go to Wikipedia and read a simple article to make sure that the released information was right.

Not the press office of the Economy Ministry. And not the Bulgarian media, including all newspapers who published whopping reports the next day of how the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi had come here to dump hundreds of millions into a racetrack so that Bulgaria can boast hosting Formula 1 races.

I really hate to criticize my colleagues from the media and government press offices – especially because I know many of them are people of great integrity. But with all due respect, this kind of lack of simple awareness or care for Bulgaria's international dealings is inexplicable and unfathomable.

Because this is not the only time this happened. A simple example: some time ago the Bulgarian press "promoted" three members of the US House of Representatives (one of whom was a non-voting Congresswoman from Guam), on a visit to Bulgaria to the status of US Senators. Of course, who really cares for stuff like that in Bulgaria – if you make blunders of this sort in the Bulgarian-language media, this usually has negligible consequences. This time, however, the Bulgarian Formula 1-gate blew wide open internationally.

I cannot help but be bewildered as to how we Bulgarians can hope to expect both proper foreign investments and general positive attitudes on part of people from around the world if we, in general, as a society and a nation, demonstrate lack of the slightest care to pay attention to international "details". This concern with respect to the relations with the Arab world in particular was expressed by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov as the scandal grew.

Needless to say, EABG protested against the incorrect reporting in Bulgaria – for it turned out that the chair of the board of the private consortium had only signed a letter of intent with the Bulgarian Minister providing for researching various infrastructure investment opportunities, of which the Formula 1 track was just a project for consideration with remote prospects.

I should also just mention the last working days of last week when utter confusion reigned in Bulgaria about whether the Abu Dhabi consortium was at all interested in the Bulgarian Formula 1 project. This included a public contradiction as some papers published a statement in which the CEO of EABG, Raid Abu Hudra, was quoted as saying the consortium had never before encountered such a "lack of professionalism" (It hadn't?! Really?!) as in the Bulgarian case. The Economy Ministry press office "retaliated" by citing an "informal letter" from EABG – which was in fact an email sent in personal capacity to the Bulgarian Motorcycling Federation, an NGO – as proof that the wealthy Arabs were "still interested."

The Bulgarian Formula 1-gate became even more "interesting" during the weekend as a criminal spin was added to the failure of Bulgarian civil servants to use Wikipedia. A senior EABG executive, Anwar Badwan, who arrived to Bulgaria promptly to clear out the misunderstandings. Badwan did confirm the "interest" but he also broke other news – that he had gotten emails with racket demands (for USD 94 M) to cover up the "scandal" and threats to him and his family, which even made him send his daughter hastily away from Bulgaria.

A day later the Bulgarian Interior Ministry revealed the racketeers were in fact two Bulgarian immigrant jokers – Alexander Tsakov and Vasil Stoev, IT specialists in Chicago. What is even more interesting – or rather, puzzling – is the way Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov – who is otherwise known for being tough on crime – referred to these fun-loving dudes. He called them young, educated fans of Formula 1 who wanted to make a joke and to attract media attention to the Formula 1 project. (?!!?) He also said the Bulgarian Interior had asked the FBI and the Bulgarian liaison officer in DC to meet with Tsakov and Stoev.

Well, first of all, is this the Bulgarian diaspora in action?! There have been constant expectations that Bulgaria will benefit from its immigrants in the West – which for the most part have failed to materialize when the Bulgarian diaspora (in this case in the US) is compared to those of nations, an unfortunate observation with which the Bulgarian Ambassador to the US consented in a recent interview for Novinite.com.

Now in the case of these individuals – as one can understand from the words of the Interior Ministry – their racket demands and threats to the Arab executive were probably part of an elaborate plot to contribute to eventually getting a Bulgarian Formula 1 track up and running.

Am I the only one who thinks that this is deeply disturbing?! Am I the only one baffled to hear the minister say the FBI has been asked to "talk" to them?! These people issued threats! Hellooooo?? Not only did they threaten a person and his family but they also dealt an immense blow to Bulgaria's image as an investment destination. Because what people around the world learned from the whole story is that a large-scale foreign investor wishing to build a Formula 1 track was welcomed with extortion in Bulgaria.

That is why, the Bulgarian government must immediately take all necessary actions to have the two inspired gentlemen from Chicago arrested and sued. I don't think that when he got the emails the EABG executive cared to consider whether the racket demands and threats were real or if two Bulgarian immigrants with a spunky, can-do spirit were just poking a little friendly fun at him.

The reason the Formula 1 scandal deserves to be styled with the "gate" prefix is contained in the words of Anwar Badwan in an interview for a Bulgarian daily – even after the racketeers were found, he remains convinced that somebody is covertly sabotaging the racetrack project.

To wrap things up, the Bulgarian Motorcycling Federation eventually said the incorrect reporting – which started the Formula 1-gate in the first place – was entirely its fault. I don't think this apology matters in a country where civil servants and the media don't care to do a Google search or open Wikipedia.

Somehow the Bulgarian government, society, media managed to turn a simple inquiry by a foreign investor into an international scandal. Spirited representatives of the diaspora, pranksters apparently bored by their nice life in Chicago also joined in to help. How the hell do we do it...

It was during an European history class at my college in the US; I made some kind of comment, which prompted the professor for some reason to mention semi-seriously that wherever there is an international scandal you find Bulgarians involved. (Whether or not they were guilty of it – bad publicity is bad publicity). He mentioned the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933, the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in the 1980s, among others. This made me feel kind-of bad, being that guy from that nation involved in international scandals. I am just thinking the Formula 1 mess did not really help us not to be "that nation", did it?

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Tags: Prime Minister, Sheikhs, Raid ABu Hudra, Boyko Borisov, Rumen Petkov, Bogdan Nikolov, UAE, EABG, Emirates Associated Business Group, United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Abdul Jalil al Blouki, Formula 1, Economy Minister, Traicho Traikov, Economy Ministry, Nikolay Mladenov, Foreign Minister, Anwar Badwan, F1-gate, Formula 1-Gate, Dobroslavtsi, Wikipedia, Google, diaspora, Bulgarian immigrants, Bulgarian Diaspora in Chicago


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