"Our elites have sucked the country dry like leeches" – Seite 1

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Sofia is a city where the grass grows as it likes. Where the hedges are unkempt and the street signs grungy, where cables hang down the front of buildings and a double bed blocks the sidewalk. "It's chaotic," says Maria Iliycheva, as she steps off the subway train. Or, as she describes the Bulgarian capital, "scattered" – a puzzle of hills, streets and parks with no clear layout. She says it took her awhile to get used to the city again when she moved back in 2016. Prior to that, she had spent much of her life putting together a resume of the kind the European Commission would no doubt find admirable: She studied sociology, nationalism and human rights and spent time living in Bosnia, Montenegro, Italy, Poland and Romania.

Are there too many migrants in Europe? Maria Iliycheva says: "No." © Maria Sturm für ZEIT ONLINE

Scattered in Europe, so to speak.

She says she wouldn't give up her Bulgarian citizenship for anything in the world. Even if a European passport is introduced at some point in the future, she says, "it has to say that I'm Bulgarian." Maria Iliycheva is a 43-year-old with dark-red hair and subtle glitter on her eyelids. She's drinking a soda on the terrace of a café in a "good neighborhood," and she is almost impossible to hear because of the roar of the traffic on the four-lane boulevard that runs past on its way to a shopping mall and two McDonald's restaurants. If you've lived for a long time abroad, Iliycheva says, you know that you are always seen as a newcomer. "In Poland, I'm 'the Bulgarian.' That's just the way it is." Despite the wanderlust that she still feels frequently today, and despite the worrying nostalgia for communism in Bulgaria, she says she wouldn't dream of giving up her Bulgarian passport.

Iliycheva thinks it's "good to know how your adversary thinks," which is why she is taking part in Europe Talks – and because she finds the idea abhorrent that people within a society would stop talking to each other. "What kind of society is that supposed to be?"

Not long ago, she answered seven yes-or-no questions about her political views. Are there too many migrants in Europe? "No." Should Europe maintain tighter ties with Russia? "No."

Now, she's one of 16,200 people who have registered to speak about Europe with a complete stranger from another country. An algorithm developed by ZEIT ONLINE has matched up debate partners with particularly antagonistic views. And so, Iliycheva was contacted by a man from a coastal city in Greece who doesn't believe that the EU improves quality of life for its citizens at all. A man who describes the eurozone as a battlefield.

The man's name is Stamatis Zográphos, and the two have been in regular email contact since he first got in touch with her. Just before the European elections, they will meet up in southern Bulgaria – halfway between the two of them.

And then?

"We'll see." Iliycheva works in her company's personnel department and she believes that she and her Greek debate partner might actually be much more similar than the algorithm thinks. She believes Bulgaria and Greece have similar problems with EU sovereign bonds and the influence of their countries' elites – "mediocre politicians" and an unwillingness to question the past. "The communists of yesterday have become the business leaders of today," she says.

Iliycheva also believes that the emigration of 2 million Bulgarians doesn't just have an economic explanation. She thinks it could also be a reaction to the prohibitions of communism.

And, she says, the left-wing liberal spectrum has huge communication problems. She says it's not all that different from cliques at school: The leftists talk to the leftists, the center-leftists talk to the center-leftists. Anything else is too stressful.

Last week, the pope visited Sofia to kick off his trip through the Balkans. He said what popes always say: "Don't close your hearts." And yet, the message came across loud and clear, particularly in Bulgaria, which has set up a barbed-wire fence on its border with Turkey to keep out the refugees.

It's actually a "global message," says Iliycheva as she heads back to the subway. One that applies to all eras and all crises.

"Our elites have sucked the country dry like leeches"

Stamatis Zográphos, 62, in Platamonas © Maria Sturm für ZEIT ONLINE

It doesn't look much like crisis where Stamatis Zográphos currently lives. The sky is blue, the road is lined with palm trees and there's a lemon tree in the back yard, blooming between orange trees and a large walnut tree. Zográphos is sitting at a metal table in the shade, smoking a cigarillo. He's jobless in paradise.

Platamonas is one of those vacation spots that tourists love for their names. And, of course, because of the fish restaurants in the summer, the lights down at the harbor in the evenings and the Aegean beaches during the day. "I hate it," says Zográphos, a balding 62-year-old man with a gray beard. Still, he says, he'd rather be here in the home of his nephew, a software developer like he was ("he's in Silicon Valley at the moment"), than in his own apartment in Thessaloniki, which he will likely sell soon. Zográphos can't afford to keep it and he can no longer afford to live in the city where he grew up, where he studied mathematics and where he spent decades working.

Most Greeks, says Stamatis Zográphos, are full of animosity toward the Germans. © Maria Sturm für ZEIT ONLINE

He lost his job in 2010, at the beginning of the crisis, and couldn't find a new one. He applied with Bulgarian companies, but at his advanced age, he felt his chances of ever finding anything were slim, particularly in a sector where companies prefer to hire younger candidates. "Plus," he says, "Bulgarians are competitive and cheap." In Greece, you only receive unemployment benefits for 12 months and the pension he can expect, he says in English, is "little money."

Zográphos' English is as clear and structured as his speaking style: He's analytical, never struggles to remember a date and he talks openly about his struggles. First a), then b), then c). And why not? Lots of people suffered worse fates than he did, he says, just look at the suicide rates in the country for the last 10 years.

And, he says, when he refers to himself as "Schäuble's victim" – a reference to the former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who many feel was responsible for turning the austerity screws on Greece – he says he doesn't intend it as a reproach to "Europe's pay master," as Zográphos calls him. He says he still clearly recalls an angry Schäuble speech in which the German minister said the Greek elite had been failing for decades. That, Zográphos, is precisely the problem: The Greek upper class knows no taxes or laws, he says, just ways of getting a leg up. "Our elites have sucked the country dry like leeches."

Zográphos has no problem with being a European, but he does have a problem with being Greek. He is ashamed of his country's politicians, who are to blame for the fact that people have been leaving Greece for years now, especially those with opportunities and hope. "If there is a brain drain, wouldn't that actually be the worst consequence of the euro crisis? Perhaps even worse than the euro crisis itself?" Even worse than the melancholy that already weighs heavily on the country, a place where you often have the highway to yourself outside of the high season and where the homeless people lie on the marble benches in the heart of Thessaloniki.

Most Greeks, Zográphos says, are full of animosity toward the Germans, although he says some of that has to do with the roles played by the German and Greek media. He also says, though, that it was possible to see the country's economic collapse coming and he is surprised that nobody seems particularly interested in figuring out what actually triggered the crisis. There has been a lack of discussion and knowledge about it ever since 2009, he says.

Is that why he decided to register for Europe Talks?

"Oh," Zográphos says, either laughing or sighing – sometimes it's hard to tell the difference with him. He's now standing in the sun on the garden terrace, cigarillo in hand. He says he's looking forward to his meetup with Maria, his European Talks partner from Bulgaria.

But to be honest? He says he registered "just for the sake of it."

Translated by Charles Hawley.