December 25, 2013

British Wine Benefits as the Climate Changes

I wrote this piece for The New York Times

DORKING, England — For more than a decade, Matthieu Elzinga ran his own vineyard in the western Loire Valley of France. But this year, just as he was gaining an international reputation for his dry and crisp Muscadets, Mr. Elzinga sold the vineyard and moved to an emerging wine region: the south of England.
A successful French winemaker’s leap to Britain may sound contrarian — traitorous even. But it may be no more striking than the fact that English sparkling wines have recently been beating Champagnes at international competitions. Or that the British wine industry has been growing at double-digit rates for a decade and doubling in size over the last 30 years.
More obvious, though, may be the meteorological motive that is at least partly behind Mr. Elzinga’s move. By the middle of this century, Britain could become one of the world’s big wine producers, as global warming moves the limits of viticulture ever farther north.
“The wine industry in Europe will certainly change to follow the climate changes,” said Mr. Elzinga, who is now chief winemaker at Denbies Wine Estate, one of Britain’s largest vineyards. “You can’t beat the climate, so you have to follow it.”
Any climate change that benefits the British wine industry is still highly speculative and would not compensate for the broader environmental hazards that many scientists say would accompany continued global warming. And more parochially, the country’s vintners still have many obstacles to overcome, including a cumbersome taxation system and the lingering stereotype that in the land of ales and stouts, English wine simply cannot be taken seriously.
But there is no question that in recent years, British winemaking has benefited from warmer, if more erratic, weather. Britain’s climate is warming faster than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group. In Sussex, in southeast England, the average temperature in 2013 is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than it was for most of the second part of the last century.
According to scientific projections, Britain can expect wetter winters, drier summers and less snow and frost. In this way Britain is joining a list of prospective new wine countries that include China, Russia and even the Scandinavian states.
“Global warming is definitely benefiting the U.K. wine industry,” said Chris Foss, who oversees the wine department at Plumpton College. “My family is from Bordeaux, but I’ve been living in England for 45 years now. The change over time is just amazing. The industry has potential to expand at least five times, if not 10.”
On the other hand, climate change could have a negative impact on traditional wine regions in France, Italy and the United States. According to forecasts this year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by the middle of the century, if the warming trend continues, wine production in the Bordeaux region of France and the Tuscany region of Italy could decrease as much as 85 percent, while that in California and Australia would decline 70 percent.
Such projections fuel the imagination of people like Richard C. Selley, professor emeritus of geology at Imperial College London, who has studied the potential effect on winemaking.
“I can imagine that there will be vineyards on the shore of the Loch Ness in Scotland — it has the same geology as parts of South Africa,” Mr. Selley said. Convinced that viticulture in Britain is moving farther north because of climate change, he pointed to a map in his book “The Winelands of Britain: Past, Present and Prospective” that shows the projected suitability for various types of grapes in Britain by 2080.
“The scary thing is that the newest predictions indicate that by 2080, in some of the southern areas of the U.K., it will be too hot for winemaking,” Mr. Selley said. “The London- and Hampshire-based vineyards will be great for raisins.”
Whether Mr. Selley’s forecast will be borne out is anyone’s educated guess. But other consequences of climate change, including erratic and unpredictable weather patterns, rapid hailstorms and sudden cold snaps, might yet have adverse effects on the British wine industry.
Last year for instance, chilly and damp conditions forced some vineyards to scrap entire grape harvests. The overall annual production fell to just over a million bottles, from about three million the previous year.
“Though we can see the trend going up with global warming, it isn’t always good news,” said Christopher White, general manager of the Denbies vineyard. “You can’t really plan for the short term.”
That is why Mr. White is taking the long view. Denbies continues to develop the vineyard, planting 30,000 vines this year alone, raising the total to more than 300,000. Mr. White is also planning to expand international distribution to include Abu Dhabi, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
And with the weather warming, Denbies is also trying new grape varieties in England that might have seemed far-fetched only a couple of decades ago. “Twenty years ago we were told not to really worry too much about pinot noir,” Mr. White, the vineyard manager, said. “But we did plant a lot of it, and now it’s our best grape.”
The pinot noir grape is mainly associated with the Burgundy region in central France, where it is typically sunny, dry and warm but not hot. Now, though, pinot noir is the second-most-planted grape variety in Britain, after chardonnay. And Denbies is about to release Britain’s first sauvignon blanc, made from grapes the vineyard added in 2010.
All this must be kept in perspective. While the growth of British wine production has been phenomenal, it has risen from a relatively low level. About 450 commercial vineyards in Britain produce more than 1,400 tons of wine a year — double the amount three decades ago, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. But that remains minuscule compared with France, Italy or Spain, which all measure their production in millions rather than thousands of tons.
And even in Britain, domestic wines have less than 1 percent of the market, according to the English Wine Producers, an industry organization. One reason is that local wines, because of their relative scarcity, often cost consumers more than imported ones, which are typically produced in much higher volumes.
Even as balmier Britain is able to accommodate more varieties of grape, its production is still heavily skewed to fruity, aromatic whites and sparkling wines. “We are never going to produce the sweetest wines or the full-bodied reds you get around the world,” Mr. White said. “In the U.K., rather than trying to produce wine for everybody — that is just not possible — we should focus on the things we do well here.”
When his father, Adrian White, bought the Denbies estate in 1984, it was a hog and cattle farm. His decision to give the land over to grapevines met considerable skepticism. More than once did someone cite the quote attributed to the British actor and humorist Peter Ustinov: “I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humor and English wine.”
But attitudes, like the weather, are subject to change.

November 28, 2013

A nightmare for all

I wrote this story for the print edition of The Economist

“THIS is a nightmare, I want to go back to Syria,” says Youssef (not his real name), who has fled from his war-torn country and is now in a squalid refugee camp in south-eastern Bulgaria. He is shocked by the lack of urgently needed medical help, the scarcity of food—and the sight of crumbling old buildings where up to ten desperate families share a single room, and ten such rooms have the use of only one leaky toilet.
Youssef is one of thousands of Syrian refugees in Bulgaria, the poorest European Union country. Dozens more are crossing the border with Turkey every day. Around 10,000 migrants (two-thirds of them from Syria) have arrived so far this year, a sevenfold increase from last. Authorities have basic facilities ready for only half of them.

The influx caught the government unprepared. It is now rushing to build new shelters and improve the miserable conditions at the existing ones. It has asked the EU, the Red Cross and other international organisations for financial assistance.
The government is also building a controversial 33km (21-mile), 3-metre tall fence in the mountainous region of Elhovo, near the border with Turkey, where about 85% of the illegal immigrants are crossing. According to officials, the idea behind the “temporary engineering installation”, which has a price tag of €3m ($4m), is to redirect refugees to official border checkpoints. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, thinks it is counterproductive. “Introducing barriers, like fences or other deterrents, may lead people to undertake more dangerous crossings and further place the refugees at the mercy of smugglers,” says Adrian Edwards of the UNHCR.
Other European countries have erected similar barriers to deter immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. In October Turkey started building a 2-metre-high wall along part of its Syrian border. Last year Greece built a 10.5km barbed-wire fence at its border with Turkey. Because of the Greek wall, smugglers have increasingly concentrated on moving people into Bulgaria. “It seems that there will be a competition between the walls in Bulgaria and Greece,” says Tihomir Bezlov at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, in Sofia. “The main problem, as the experience with other borders shows, is that a wall cannot stop people who are ready to do anything.”The wire fence is just one of a series of measures taken by the government in recent weeks that signal a tougher stance on illegal immigration. The interior ministry has sent a couple of thousand police officers to patrol the Turkish border and is planning to build “accommodation centres of the closed type”—a euphemism for prisons—for immigrants. In recent weeks Bulgaria has sent back hundreds of illegal immigrants from Syria, a move strongly criticised by the UNHCR.
The surge in refugees is igniting xenophobia in a traditionally tolerant society. On November 9th skinhead extremists beat up a Bulgarian Muslim, apparently mistaking him for a Syrian. Earlier in the month the stabbing of a 20-year-old shop clerk in the centre of Sofia led to the arrest of an illegal Algerian migrant a couple of days later and protests by nationalists.
Far-right parties are on the rise. According to a poll by Alpha Research, 83% of Bulgarians see the influx of refugees as a risk to national security. Support for Ataka, an ultranationalist party, which has 23 seats in parliament, has doubled in the past two months. And on November 9th a new nationalist party was founded, promising to “clean up the country of this scum, these immigrants”.

Students on the barricades

I wrote this article for The Economist

FOR several hours on October 30th, Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court, the highest judiciary body in the country, was being auctioned on eBay. Before the site took it down, the unusual item was described as “not functioning as intended and not fully operational”.  According to the ad, the item would be most useful for mafia members, kingpins or corrupted members of parliament.
The eBay stunt happened a week after students occupied the main building of the University of Sofia demanding the resignation of the Socialist-dominated government and an end to perceived corruption in politics. The open-ended sit-ins have since engulfed colleges across the Balkan country, from the Burgas University on the Black Sea coast to the university in Ruse on the border of the Danube river with Romania.
The wave of student protest began in Sofia on October 23rd with the occupation of a hall where the chairman of the constitutional court, Dimitar Tokushev, was giving a lecture. The court is seen as too close to the government. Its decision in early October to allow Delyan Peevski, a controversial media mogul, to keep his seat in parliament has fuelled the anger of many Bulgarians who have staged daily protests since Mr Peevski was appointed as head of the powerful state agency for national security in mid-June.
Though the appointment of Mr Peevski was quickly reversed by parliament under pressure from protesters, the anti-government demonstrators continued to rally against the alleged close links between politicians and business figures as well as the impunity and corruption among those in power.
After more than 140 days of demonstrations protesters seem to have lost some of their initial energy. Yet the students' actions may yet give them fresh impetus to continue, observers say. “All students—and all citizens, I would say—want more government transparency and total exposure of what is happening behind the scenes,” says Nikolay Antov, a multimedia and computer-graphics student at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. He has been protesting since the very beginning of the occupation and says that “we will continue until the resignation of the mafia and oligarchy”.
Politicians in the governing coalition were quick to denounce the occupation and to accuse the students of being politically motivated. “This has nothing to do with democracy,” said Yanaki Stoilov, a high-ranking Socialist member of parliament. Since the beginning of the sit-ins, students have denied links to political parties.
For Daniel Smilov, a political analyst and professor of political theory at the University of Sofia, the students' protest is neither left- nor right-leaning. “Everything revolves around the moral issues arising from the appointment of the Delyan Peevski and the elucidation of the close ties between government and corporate groups,” Mr Smilov said. "This is the essence of the protest and qualifying it as left or right is a secondary issue. Students are very well aware of the deep moral problem whose solution is one: resignation and new elections."
Beyond verbal accusations from politicians, however, students were also faced with a possible confrontation with pro-government demonstrators, who unsuccessfully tried on Sunday to storm the gates of the university building occupied by the students.
While the university administration backed the motives of the students as a reaction to the “lack of morality in the political life”, it has urged them to lift the blockade. Still, over 400 professors from several Bulgarian universities have signed a declaration supporting the students.
One of them, Nelly Ognyanova, media-law professor at Sofia University, says that the students are protesting to protect basic democratic values.  “We're together in the effort to bring back the meaning of our political community here and now,” Ms Ognyanova says. “We do not know whether the students will succeed in this, but we know that it is worthwhile to stand behind them and to express our solidarity with the cause of democracy.”

October 30, 2013

Authorities Worry 3-D Printers May Undermine Europe’s Gun Laws

I wrote this piece for The New York Times

The gun fired four shots into a gelatin block. Each nine-millimeter bullet punched deep into the substance, which was meant to mimic the density of a human body.
For the experts at the Austrian Interior Ministry performing the test, it was a clear sign: This was a deadly weapon.
But it was no ordinary gun. The officials had downloaded the gun’s digital blueprints from the Internet and “printed” the weapon on a type of 3-D printer that any person could buy online for about $1,360. It took the Austrian authorities 30 hours, and maybe $68 worth of plastic polymer, built up layer by layer according to the software instructions, to make the gun.
“Our interest was to see if the manufacturing of a working gun using this technology is possible,” said Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry, which performed the test in May. “The answer was a very clear ‘Yes.’ ”

Law enforcement agencies across Europe are on alert over the proliferation of gun-making software that is easily found on the Internet and can be used to make a weapon on a consumer-grade 3-D printer. So far, there are no reported episodes of violence committed with such weapons, but police officials worry it is just a matter of time.
In May, after a 25-year-old law student from Texas named Cody Wilson posted designs for a 3-D-printed handgun online, the files were downloaded more than 100,000 times in just two days before the State Department demanded they be removed. Spain led the ranking of downloads at the time, followed by the United States, Brazil, Germany and Britain. A full version of the gun, called the Liberator, went on display last month in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
No wonder that in the European Union, which has much stricter gun-control laws than the United States, officials worry that it is becoming much easier to covertly obtain and carry potentially lethal weapons.
“In Germany and in most European countries, the possession of an unregistered weapon, even if it is manufactured at home, is illegal and punishable by law,” said Michael Brzoska, a security expert and director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg. “But the temptation to try, if it’s technically possible, is a great one.”
Despite the State Department’s attempt to block them, the printing instructions for Mr. Cody’s Liberator have continued to spread and are available for free download on sites like the Pirate Bay, a popular file-sharing portal.
Stoking the anxiety have been well-publicized examples in recent months of people evading airport-style security scanners with 3-D-printed plastic weapons, whose only metal components are firing pins no bigger than a short common nail. Two reporters for the British newspaper The Mail in May smuggled such a gun onto a packed Eurostar train from London to Paris. And last summer, a reporter from Channel 10 television station in Israel successfully toted a 3-D-made handgun into the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was giving an address.
“The development of 3-D-printed weapons is still in its infancy,” said Troels Oerting Joergensen, head of the European Cybercrime Centre at Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency. “But such guns can fire a bullet and they can probably kill. It is a very unwelcome development.”
The gun designs are evidently getting better by the month. Although early versions of the Liberator could be fired only a few times before the barrel needed replacing, a YouTube video emerged in August that apparently shows a 3-D-printed rifle called the Grizzly 2.0 successfully firing 10 shots.
The manufacture of weapons using 3-D printers is already banned by a European Union directive to member nations. Enforcing that rule, however, may prove a challenge.
Following the example of their Austrian colleagues, German police officials are testing the technology themselves. Europol has recently purchased a 3-D printer to manufacture its own weapon. Authorities in Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain said they, too, were monitoring the developments of the 3-D printing technology.
“It is very difficult to do anything about it,” said Mr. Joergensen of Europol. “Of course you can say that it is illegal, but as with everything else on the Internet, you can always get it from somewhere.”
Many active users of the printing technology are skeptical about the extent of the real threat posed by 3-D firearms. A sampling of discussion forums of 3-D enthusiasts finds widespread cynicism about the capabilities of such weapons.
“Three-D printing a gun or a knife is akin to building a car out of cheese — it’s just not going to work,” wrote someone posting as “thejollygrimreaper” on the RepRap forum, one of the biggest 3-D-printing online communities.
Another member of the same forum, who identified himself as Markus Hitter, 48, an engineering consultant from Germany, said he did not consider 3-D-printed guns to be a public threat. Still, he acknowledged in an e-mail exchange that “certainly some gun nuts will try — using the quite modest material properties of 3-D printing.”
Although the technology, also called additive manufacturing, has been around as an industrial process since the 1980s, it has only recently gained broader currency with the arrival of affordable consumer-level printers. But the actual number in use is still relatively tiny. According to Wohlers Associates, a 3-D printing research firm in Fort Collins, Colo., a total of 35,508 personal printers were sold worldwide last year, although that was up nearly 50 percent from 2011. Most of these machines were sold to hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, engineering students and educational institutions, according to Terry Wohlers, the firm’s president.
A RepRap forum member identifying himself as a 21-year-old Finnish student from Tampere said he succeeded in printing a working gun and in testing it. Since he considers his own actions to be illegal under the strict gun laws in Finland, he declined to reveal his name in a message exchange.
It was “for educational purposes and out of curiosity” that the student said he downloaded the original Liberator model in early May, shortly before the American government ordered the files taken down. He said he made the weapon on a friend’s 3-D printer and fired it. “The gun’s receiver got a crack after just one shot,” he said, referring to the firing chamber. “No sane person would fire the gun again.”
They may not need to. “Even if these guns can only fire a couple of shots, they can still have a lethal effect,” said Mr. Brzoska, the security expert in Hamburg. “And you can easily build several of them.”
The Austrian authorities, for instance, had to change the barrel after each shot. But “after the four shots, the gun itself was still working,” said Mr. Grundböck, the Interior Ministry spokesman.
A couple of deadly shots — and the ability to easily build more guns — might be enough to make this an attractive proposition for a “variety of lunatics, lone-wolf terrorists and people who want to draw attention to themselves,” said Michael Ashkenazi, a small arms analyst at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany.
While the choice of 3-D gun models is currently limited, improved designs are certainly in the works, experts said. “At the moment, both the Liberator and the Grizzly are little more than technology demonstrators,” Mr. Ashkenazi said. “But better design could make the guns extremely dangerous.”
Tightening airport security might be one possible response, according to Rüdiger Holecek, spokesman of the German Police Union. “It is quite conceivable that this technical development will make full-body scanners at airports mandatory.”
A Danish company, Create it REAL, which makes 3-D printers, says it might have another possible solution. It has developed software that looks for the characteristics of weapon designs and, when detected, blocks the printer from making a firearm. “If certain features align, the software will not allow the user to view and print the model,” Create it REAL says on its Web site.
“Our software works like a computer antivirus,” said Jeremie Pierre Gay, the company’s founder. The software can be preinstalled on a 3-D printer by its manufacturer. Still, he acknowledged, “it is always possible to hack a software.”
Mr. Pierre Gay would rather, of course, emphasize the virtues of the 3-D printing technology, rather than its darker possibilities. “It is a great opportunity to boost people’s creativity and to change the world with beautiful inventions,” he said. “But, yes, it will also allow people to create dangerous things such as firearms. Threats and opportunities are often coming hand in hand.”

A Children’s Museum Comes to Bulgaria

I wrote this piece for The New York Times

The recent U.S. government shutdown forced many of the most-visited American sights, from the Statue of Liberty to the Smithsonian museums, to temporarily close their doors. For children and their parents, though, there was a long list of alternatives: There are more than 400 children’s museums scattered across the country, most of them private.
Traditionally an American invention, children’s museums are now also becoming an American export. The America for Bulgaria Foundation, a charity in Sofia backed by the U.S. government, is financing one of the first children’s museums in Eastern Europe. A New York firm, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, has been commissioned to design the $15 million project, which will be called Muzeiko and is set to be completed in 2015 in the Bulgarian capital.
“We see our museum as a revolution in Bulgaria,” Bistra Kirova, the museum’s director, said in an interview here.
It is a revolution badly needed in country where “there is no real policy aimed at children,” Mrs. Kirova said.
The uneasy transition from communism to democracy in East European countries like Bulgaria strongly influenced their public education and arts systems.
Before 1989, when Bulgaria became a democracy, state-funded schools were largely focused on technical training rather than on the liberal arts. In this system, museums were largely disconnected from youth and were seen as places to house relics, rather than as interactive educational environments. Tough financial conditions in the 1990s also led to years of unsuccessful reforms. Only recently has Bulgaria shifted its approach to a more Western style of education and arts appreciation.
“In Bulgaria the element of interactive education is completely missing — something very common in the U.S. where many children visit museums and take classes there,” Mrs. Kirova said. Her team was inspired by the Western hands-on approach of children’s museums, where “kids can touch, try and understand how everything works.
“If children in Bulgaria enter museums at all, they are often sent away so that they do not touch or break anything,” she added. 
Muzeiko aims to break away from that model by transforming a former laboratory in the university precinct of Studentski Grad into a 3,250-square-meter, or 35,000-square-foot, interactive learning space. Its centerpiece will be a tree made of glass, plastic and steel that rises through all three levels of the building’s interior.
“The whole museum is organized around the idea of moving through time and space,” said Lee Skolnick, the founder of the architectural firm, which also created the DiMenna Children’s History Museum in New York, among several other cultural venues for children.
The lowest level, where the tree has roots, will house “the past” with exhibitions in archaeology, geology and paleontology. Children will be able to put on a safety helmet and dig out samples of rocks and minerals like stalactites and stalagmites that they can then analyze in a lab with experts.
On the ground floor visitors will find “the present,” represented by displays about the natural environment, architecture and cities. The top floor will be dedicated to “the future” with interactive exhibitions about space travel and cutting-edge technologies.
Another defining feature of the museum will be the building itself, which will be made predominantly out of glass.
“We wanted it to represent something very new and inviting for families,” Mr. Skolnick said. But he also has a more ambitious vision for his building: “Many of the buildings in Bulgaria are very closed, and we want to leave an impression of openness and of being transparent of what we are doing, both physically and also metaphorically.”
The museum’s architectural theme is called “Little Mountains,” an allusion to the mountainous topography of the surrounding city of Sofia. The structure’s glass box will be broken up by three sculptural forms, or “mountains,” with each one representing a reference, through its color scheme and texture, to indigenous cultural traditions in the country.
One of the mountainous forms is inspired by textile patterns and embroidery, another one by engraved ceramics and the third one is influenced by traditional wood carving.
“The juxtaposition of the glass box on the one hand and the sculptural forms on the other, will give a nice balance between recognizing that we are in Bulgaria but also that we are in the modern world, in modern Bulgaria,” Mr. Skolnick said.
The idea for the museum stemmed from a smaller-scale America for Bulgaria project that sought to develop “children’s corners” in existing museums. Since 2010, such areas were created in museums across the country, attracting visitors and a high level of interest, said Mrs. Kirova, Muzeiko’s director. “So we decided to start something bigger — a children’s museum following the American model.”
Besides Mr. Skolnick’s team, the foundation is working with about 30 local experts and scientists to shape the design of the exhibits. The main target group is 5- to 11 -year-olds, but the museum will also have a toddler’s area.
The America for Bulgaria Foundation was founded in Sofia in 2008 as a successor to the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund, an investment group created in the early 1990s through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The foundation projects about 100,000 visitors a year, a significant portion of whom will be tourists.
But it is the locals in Bulgaria who seem most excited about the prospect of a children’s museum in their country.
“Raising a child in Bulgaria is not easy, partly because there are so few kids-friendly things to do here,” said Rositsa Mitova, 32, as she pushed her baby son in a stroller with her 11-year-old daughter at her side. Ms. Mitova said that by the time the museum opens, her daughter will probably be too old for it. But looking inside the stroller, she said, “it will be ready for my son’s childhood.”

August 30, 2013

A president in the trenches

I wrote this piece for The Economist

The two buildings are practically neighbours. The cabinet is housed on No. 1 Dondukov Boulevard and the presidency occupies No. 2 across the street in the centre of Sofia. But the institutions inside them couldn’t be further apart.
As anti-government protests in Bulgaria continue for more than ten weeks, the president, Rosen Plevneliev, and the Socialist-led government are entrenched in a cold war. The political crisis in European Union’s poorest member shows no sign of abating.
The row also marks a shift in the presidency’s role. Mr Plevneliev, a former technocratic minister of public works in the government of Boyko Borisov, has transformed it from a largely ceremonial institution to an active, and often controversial, participant in Bulgaria’s political life.
The latest skirmish occurred around the revised budget, which would allow the government to raise €500m ($660m) in new debt in the hope of stimulating the struggling economy. Mr Plevneliev vetoed the budget bill in early August saying that while he supports increased social expenditures, he does not want to do so at the cost of raising the national debt (two thrifty decades and a tough currency-board regime have left Bulgaria with one of the lowest debt-to-GDP ratios in Europe, at only 18.5% in 2012). But the move was a rare exercise of presidential power: only the second such budget veto since 1990.
The government mustered enough support in parliament to overturn the president's veto, and counter-attacked. Plamen Oresharski, the prime minister, accused him of a “grossly interfering with the executive branch with a series of unbalanced and biased actions" Kristian Vigenin, the foreign minister, said that “the state became hostage to the personal ambition and ego of one politician.”
Mr Plevneliev's presidency started quietly in 2011. The 49-year-old former construction manager took centre stage only reluctantly, in February, when anti-poverty protests pressured Mr Borisov to resign. The president nominated a interim government which served for just two months. It managed to diffuse some of the social tensions, but public opinion boiled over again after snap elections in May which brought Mr Oresharski's Bulgarian Socialist Party to power. Protests initially focussed on the appointment of a controversial media mogul to head the powerful national security agency. They soon widened into general discontent with a government which critics say is too dependent on shadowy corporate interests.
“People will no longer close their eyes so it is high time for politicians to open theirs,” the president said in an address in early July. He sided with protesters by openly, and unusually harshly, criticising the government and demanding new elections.
The president's position is "dictated by elementary common sense and political morality,” said Daniel Smilov, a political analyst at the Sofia-based think-tank, the Centre for Liberal Strategies. “Before February, most Bulgarians thought Plevneliev was a boutique president, a man from the business, modest and ready to compromise,” said Victor Bachev, a TV producer and fervent protester. “Now the presidency is the only democratically functioning institution in Bulgaria,” he said, largely capturing the mood of the demonstrators.
Such sentiments are not shared by all Bulgarians, however. The political tumult has left the country deeply divided. About 40% say they want the government to resign against 38% who still support it, according to a recent Gallup poll. This division has also put a dent in Mr Plevneliev’s personal rating. Yet he remains the third most-trusted politician in the country.
Having cast his lot, the president can do little to bridge these divisions, nor end the stalemate between the protesters and the government. Daily protests have continued throughout the summer in Sofia and other big cities, numbers have fallen to a few hundred from the tens of thousands who turned out in June and July.
“The president is not the main actor: there has to be an agreement in parliament for early elections,” Mr Smilov said.
Might Mr Plevneliev one day want to take the short walk between the presidency and the cabinet building? He is not saying. But his role in the current crisis may bode well for his future career.

Expos: More than monuments

I wrote this piece for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune

When visitors to Disneyland embark on the 15-minute intercontinental expedition around the Seven Seaways canal, few, if any, are likely to have a world exposition on their minds. But it was for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, as the expo was known, that Walt Disney designed the ‘‘It’s a Small World’’ boat ride.
The Eiffel Tower and the Atomium in Brussels are other lasting legacies of the world expos that have showcased the latest in technology, architecture and culture every five years since London’s inaugural Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851.
Today, though, hosting an expo means much more than building things. Would-be bidders count on an economic boost and a higher international profile as benefits from staging the event.
But on the negative side, they are also faced with a series of challenges, like ballooning costs and an uncertain future for some of the large scale construction that such events leave behind.
Still, the race for the 2020 World Expo, the next to be awarded, has attracted a diverse group of cities, all situated in emerging regions: Dubai; Izmir, Turkey; São Paulo; and Yekaterinburg, Russia.
‘‘An expo marks a certain ‘coming of age’ for a city,’’ Urso Chappell, an expo historian, said. ‘‘It can aid a city’s physical redevelopment as well as the nation’s image abroad.’’
For the 2020 bidders, then, the event means more than hosting more than 200 nations and their pavilions for six months.
Much like the Olympics or the soccer World Cup, an expo brings a host of economic opportunities for a city: Jobs are created as large construction projects get under way, and international and local tourism grows, giving a boost to restaurants, hotels, car rental agencies and other businesses. The Dubai bid, for instance, anticipates more than 25 million visitors and 270,000 new jobs because of the expo.
At the same time, though, much as with any other global mega-event, expo organizers have to walk a tightrope, balancing cost and legacy.
The Shanghai World Expo 2010, for example, cost the equivalent of $4.2 billion, according to government figures. But the Chinese news media have reported that the actual cost of staging the event was north of $50 billion — more than was spent on the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The Shanghai Expo has also left a number of ‘‘white elephants,’’ venues and construction that proved useless after the event and were abandoned. Some, like Germany’s pavilion at the expo, were razed.
The hosts of the next world expo, which will be held in Milan in 2015, hope to avoid the same fate by ‘‘organizing a totally sustainable event and building the country pavilions with eco-friendly materials which, if necessary, can be easily dismantled at the end of the six-month event,’’ said Giuseppe Sala, chief executive of the Expo 2015 Co.
One of the few things that will remain after the Milan Expo will be a large park. The organizers say plans call for 56 percent of the site to remain ‘‘green’’ after the event. At $1.7 billion, the projected investment by the Milan Expo would also be much smaller than Shanghai’s.
With a reasonable budget and a sound legacy plan, a world’s fair can become a transformative opportunity for a city, and even for a country, expo officials say.
‘‘For the hosts, expos are a key part of a strategic plan for urban development and act as catalysts for accelerating infrastructural transformations,’’ said Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, secretary general of the Paris-based Bureau of International Expositions, which chooses the host cities and supervises the events. ‘‘At the same time, the expo has more intangible but equally powerful impacts on the branding of the city and of the country, and on their international image.’’
It is exactly that ‘‘unique P.R. opportunity,’’ as Mr. Gonzalez Loscertales calls the expo, that the 2020 bidders are looking to exploit.
Dubai, which would become the first host of a world’s fair in the Middle East, has emerged as the front-runner, boasting the biggest financial and governmental support. On the other hand, political tensions in Russia, most recently over what is viewed as an anti-gay law, and in Turkey could hurt the chances of Yekaterinburg and Izmir. São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere, is seen as least likely to succeed when the 100 or so delegates of the exposition bureau’s General Assembly vote in November, people familiar with the bidding process said.
The fact that all of the 2020 bidders come from emerging markets is indicative of the changing landscape of international relations. More and more nations use such global events to elbow their way onto the world stage.
‘‘Shanghai 2010 is a perfect example of an expo held to show that a country is an important international player,’’ Mr. Chappell, the expo historian, said. It sent a ‘‘statement to both other countries and its own citizens that China had arrived on the global stage.’’
Held on the heels of Beijing’s grandiose 2008 Summer Olympics, the expo was the most heavily attended in history, with a record 246 participating countries and organizations as well as 73 million visitors.
‘‘An expo allows a city to display its organizational capacity, hospitality and culture to a large number of foreign visitors and media,’’ said Tjaco Walvis, a branding expert who researched the impact of previous expos. ‘‘It helps to put the organizing city on the mental world map.’’
Sometimes, though, the mark it leaves can turn into a stain. One expo was forced to declare bankruptcy during its run. The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans suffered from low attendance and funding problems. It managed to stay open until its closing day only after the U.S. government provided financial support.
And while expo officials point to urban development as a major benefit of hosting, it comes at a cost. In the preparations for the Shanghai World Expo, the Chinese authorities demolished tens of thousands of homes and displaced a total of 18,000 families, according to Amnesty International, a human rights group.
Some also argue that the megabillions paid to host an expo could be better spent and create more direct benefits for the city.
‘‘Hosting an expo on its own will do little long term,’’ said Andrew Scott, deputy dean of the London Business School, adding that only as part of a larger economic program could hosting be successful.
Still, if an expo proves a success, the organizers can count on media coverage and international tourism as a boost to the host’s image at home and abroad. But it is not just the host city that benefits from the exposure.
‘‘Participating countries can use the event to strengthen their national ‘brands’ by developing impactful and memorable pavilions,’’ Mr. Walvis said. The Dutch pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, generated about €350 million, or $468 million, in indirect long-term economic benefits for the Netherlands, more than 10 times the investment, Mr. Walvis’s research shows.
It is understandable, then, why more and more international cities find the prospect of hosting or participating in an expo appealing. But for visitors, too, an expo can be an exciting event.
‘‘World expositions play to the fascination of the unknown and the charm of other cultures and countries,’’ Mr. Walvis said. ‘‘They allow people to travel around the world in just a day.’’