‘Why have you come to Bulgaria? Don’t you have enough interesting people in Europe? ’
Enter doctor Georgi, provocateur par excellence, but most of all a doctor. A cardiologist. ‘A really good one,’ he says. And he is also an entrepreneur who owns a private hospital and several clinics in the heart of Sofia.
As he stands up to offer me water, Georgi is sipping a whisky from a lemonade glass. Jameson. The translator, a young Bulgarian student who helps me with the interview, shoots me a bemused look. There are some language difficulties, but Georgi explains that before he became a doctor, the poor economic conditions in Bulgaria forced him to move to Germany and become part of the French foreign legion, a military wing of the French army known for its military power and intervention in various armed conflicts around the globe.
When are they going to make a movie out of your life?
As switching to French for a few minutes proved fairly unsuccessful, the translator takes the lead again. ‘I don`t really know,’ Georgi laughs. ‘I was a paratrooper in Corsica, I joined because of money. Back then my salary in Bulgaria was 5 euros. ‘
I don’t have too much trouble imaging him in that environment; the world of the ruthless mercenary. ’In communist times it was easier to find young men who were willing to do anything for money. Back then prices in Bulgaria were very low. The average salary was around 1 or 2 euros per month. One bread, for example, cost only one euro cent.’
But the low prices did not make it easier for a young trainee doctor to support a family of five on only 5 euros a month. After Corsica, Georgi joined the legion again in 1989, this time serving in Traiskirchen in Austria, which has a large immigrant population due to the political changes that took place in Bulgaria.
Then in 2010 he opened his own hospital ‘Cristal’, which works with the national health system.
Do prefer being a doctor or a manager?
‘If I was in Holland, I would like to be only a doctor, but here I am forced to be both. To be straightforward, it’s the money. If I lived in Holland, I could earn 30,000 euros.’
Is healthcare in Bulgaria paid for by the government?
‘You pay a small amount of money every month, according to your salary. The system is very poor, that is why it does not work. The biggest problem is that the relationship between doctors and patients is not good. Doctors do not have enough money and they torture their patients. They think only about money.’
When asked how he manages to control corruption, Georgi proudly states:
‘The way we survive is to attract more patients, provide them with a better service than public hospitals; we do not take bribes and that is why people believe us. The more patients we get the more money we earn. I am trying to achieve a 40% profit from the overall business every month.’
But the situation in Bulgaria is far from favourable. Georgi admits that only a small number of doctors become practitioners because of their dedication to medicine.
‘Bulgarian doctors are poor; they earn only 1,000 euros when you take into account the cost of food. Expenses here are almost the same as in Holland. When youngsters enter medical school, they may be idealistic, but after that they start thinking about the money.’
What is the difference between doctors in Bulgaria and the western part of Europe?
‘Doctors in Western Europe are working in a calmer environment; they work less than we do, and are much better paid. In terms of professional qualities, there is not much difference. They also have a bit better equipment as well.’
Talking about entrepreneurship, Georgi says the Bulgarian government does not help at all and it is very hard to sustain a successful business.
Everyone here in Bulgaria says that the government has been bad for 25 years.
‘What I am trying to explain to you is that 10 November 1989 [the fall of Communist regime in Bulgaria] was one big lie. All of the communists became capitalists.’
Isn’t it frustrating? You are a soldier.
‘What can I do? Take a gun and shoot them all.’
I am serious about this. You are a smart man, you are a fighter. Isn’t there something you can do about it?’’
‘I can do something for myself, but not for society. It is impossible.’
In a country like Bulgaria is it a question of the survival of the fittest?
‘Being smart is the key. It is very hard to earn a lot of money just by working.’
According to Georgi, the accession of Bulgaria in the EU did not change much apart from introducing rules which may eventually change Bulgaria in 50 years time. In his opinion, the EU should become like the US: United States of Europe in which each country has its own a government.
You think a federation is a very good idea. We don’t have that now. What should be done to achieve this?
‘We need more centralisation in order to introduce and enforce laws in Bulgaria. Brussels needs to put more pressure on Bulgaria. There was recently a case in which 2 billion euros were legally stolen here, right in the middle of Europe.’
What do you think Europe thinks of Bulgaria?
‘The image is very bad. They think of us as criminals. Western countries are asleep, because their economies are working, whereas eastern Europeans are alive, they are hungry for money and success.’