A bus full of Israeli tourists was blown up yesterday at the airport of Burgas, a Bulgarian town on the Black Sea coast. From what we know, the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber carrying a backpack laden with explosives. The shock here is profound – the news from Burgas overshadowed the European Commission’s regular report monitoring judicial reforms and anti-corruption released a few hours earlier. There have been eight fatalities so far, with tens of injured taken to hospitals. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, was quick to blame it on Iran and Hezbollah. He warned that Israel’s reaction would be “powerful”. It is too early to speculate whether such claims are substantiated or the tragedy at Burgas only ratchets up the hawkish talk in Israel. But there are two points worth noting, from the viewpoint of Bulgaria.
Firstly, one of the casualties is in fact the 36-year-old bus driver. As it happens he is actually Bulgarian-speaking Muslim (or Pomak). The fact that a Muslims (up to 12% of Bulgaria’s population, the highest share in an EU member ) and Jews were victims should make all of us think. On the other hand, the suspected perpetrator, as captured on security cameras, hardly matches the stereotype of a darker-skinned Middle Easterner. He had a US driver’s license on him (Bulgarian authorities said it had been forged).
Secondly, there is an important international dimension. Bulgaria’s relations with Israel have been developing rapidly for years. The influx of Israeli tourists, especially after the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis with Turkey, has been remarkable too. The figure for 2012 is 260,000, with 30,000 arriving in Burgas alone in July – bound for large resorts such as Sunny Beach. Whether Israelis are a soft target or not is now hotly disputed. Whoever takes up the blame for failing to avert the attack, it is clear that the Bulgarian security services will have to deepen cooperation with their Israeli counterparts as well as with the US (President Obama, not usually known as a keen follower of Bulgarian affairs, produced a condemning statement almost right off!). Intensified international contacts are bound to expose deficits, reform blind spots and all kinds of dirty laundry. Let’s hope the end result will be a push to make security agencies here more efficient and transparent: a sore spot in Bulgaria’s politics since 1989.
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