On a chilled Friday morning in the middle of December, the presidents of Greece and Bulgaria symbolically buried past conflicts to walk side by side through a brand new tunnel, linking the two countries since the border was sealed after World War Two.
The International Herald Tribune reported that Bulgaria’s president, Georgi Parvanov, and Karolos Papoulias, president of Greece, used the opening ceremony to highlight closer ties between the nations. Parvanov is quoted as saying “In this troubled region we are creating truly European relations.”
The tunnel links a road from Ilinden on the Bulgarian side with Exohi in Greece. The two villages are only about 10 kilometers, or 6 miles, apart, but until now were separated by a four-hour drive because the only border crossings were located at the extreme ends of the 494-kilometer border. During the Cold War, people were shot and killed here trying to escape to the West. But construction of the Ilinden crossing was delayed because of fears in Greece of a threat to the habitat of the European brown bear, a protected species. In the end, construction workers created the 447-meter tunnel, allowing the bears to range freely overhead.
“In Europe,” said Anatoli Ginov, an expert in Bulgaria’s Ministry of Regional Development and Construction, “it’s known as the tunnel of love for bears.”
While Greece and Bulgaria once fought bloody conflicts over territory, spurred by 19th century nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greece is now a member of the European Union and Bulgaria plans to join on Jan. 1, 2007. There is already significant trade between the countries, and Greek factories have relocated to the Bulgarian side of the border to make use of cheaper labour. Bugarians living in Greece make up only 4.6 per cent of the foreign workforce in Greece, a distant second to Albanian workers, at nearly fifty percent.
At Gotse Delchev, a dusty town of 25,000 at the base of the jagged Pirin Mountains, Muslim women from nearby villages do their shopping in colorful head scarves, sequined aprons and baggy shalvari pants. At the Pensioners Club, most of the men drinking coffee are the descendants of Bulgarian refugees who fled northern Greece when Bulgaria lost the Second Balkan War in 1913. They worry about the prices going up when their wealthier southern neighbors start to come shopping here. But they are also hopeful that the young generation will reap benefits, joking that they may get their Aegean Sea properties returned to them.
“Before, they hated us and we hated them,” said Nikola Kodzhabashev, 77, a retired math and physics teacher. “Now we are working together and doing business.”