Balkans' favourite granny sees it all

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Consulting with oracles on the part of military and political leaders has a long and honourable history. In fact it is only in recent centuries that the practice has fallen from fashion. No doubt the modern obsession with scientific method has something to do with the change, but science has brought not one jot of foresight and predictability into the political sphere. Leaders are constantly and universally surprised by the twists and turns of history. Chamberlain was taken by surprise, Hitler was taken by surprise. Churchill was taken by surprise. More recently the various already forgotten Communist leaders in Eastern Europe were taken by surprise. And more recently still Margaret Thatcher, George Bush ... from their positions of maximum access to all available information, they got it wrong and paid the price. Bill Clinton is a certain winner in November, of course - which suddenly makes Bob Dole look rather a good bet.

All the more reason then to take Granny Vanga seriously. Granny lives in a remote mountain village in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece.

She is 85 years old and blind. But she can see clearly, into the future. And she is the most revered Bulgarian alive.

Compared with her, Hristo Stoichkov, sadly unable to show off his own magic at Wembley on Wednesday, is a nobody.

Her pronouncements are always faithfully reported by Bulgaria's media and provide a much-needed source of comfort as the country makes its painful transition from Communism to democracy and a market-based economy.

Top politicians regularly travel from all over the Balkans and from Russia to seek her advice.

Her fellow octogenarian and former dictator Todor Zhivkov still keeps in touch and sent her gifts on her recent name-day, also the Orthodox Christian feast of the Annunciation.

And what was the substance of her pronouncement on this occasion? "Things will be difficult until May but thereafter they will improve," she foretold. There are familiar resonances here. Difficult to place at first, then quite unmistakable. This is our very own Kenneth Clarke.

The Chancellor has not been in southern Bulgaria recently, so far as I recall. But then, Granny Vanga does have a telephone.

I am told by people who have been there that not much happens in Bulgaria, which no doubt makes prophesying a little easier than it might otherwise be. You can get away with the broader view and not get tripped up by the detail. This may also explain why Switzerland can seem an exciting place to live and ... yes ... fall in love. In 1991 President Zhelyu Zhelev appointed one Elena Kircheva as Sofia's ambassador to Berne. Unfortunately she seems to have met with bad company and, as those from the more genteel backgrounds may in such circumstances, succumbed. The company she succumbed to in the country where the cows might have a touch of the folie Anglaise but the people are as sane as cowbells, is Petar Hadzhidimitrov. Petar is obviously a touch schizophrenic. He is an admirer of Adolf Hitler but at the same time denies that the culmination of his hero's life's work, the Holocaust, ever took place. He has only lived in Switzerland since 1974, so perhaps a cure is in the offing. But his homeland - Bulgaria, again, - is not doing much to help. Unlike many East European countries, Bulgaria prides itself on lacking an anti-Semitic tradition. During the Second World War it refused to hand over its Jews to the Nazis, despite being a German ally.

So it is deeply embarrassed by the marriage of its ambassador. President Zhelev has set in motion the procedure for removing Mrs Hadzhidimitrov from her post.

We suggested last week that Lech Walesa might be carrying a grudge against the Queen for not recognising him as a brother monarch. The substance of their private conversation this week has not been revealed, but he has now turned his ire against his own country's treatment of him. Polish law provides an ex-president with a bodyguard, a car and health care at a government clinic - but no pension. So the former pounds 100-a- month electrician has now sent a fax to the management of his old shipyard in Gdansk asking for his old job back.