Bulgaria Still Stuck in Trauma of Transition

Bulgaria Still Stuck in Trauma of Transition

Published: November 10, 2009

SOFIA — The silence on the streets of the Bulgarian capital this week speaks volumes about this nation’s deep ambivalence about democracy.

Although Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the removal of Bulgaria’s Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, and the start of democratic changes here, the day went uncelebrated, even as Germany cleaned up from celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To explain the amnesia of Bulgarians about their Communist past, and apathy about their democratic present, Bulgarian commentators are using a biblical metaphor: Like the Israelites, the Bulgarians will have to wander the desert for 40 years to be cleansed of the sins of Communism.

“Twenty years have passed and we are in still the middle of the desert,” said Edvin Sugarev, 56, a poet and former anti-Communist opposition leader. “And we’ll be waiting for another 20 years.”

Bulgaria is the only former Warsaw Pact member state without an institute for national memory to hash out the historical details of a Communist past, during which, historians say, thousands of people were imprisoned and killed. Mr. Sugarev is one of the few public figures in Bulgaria who talks about the need for a moral assessment of Communism.

“Everything in Bulgaria looks fine formally: the free market, human rights, free speech, the multiparty political system, membership in E.U. and NATO,” Mr. Sugarev said. “But that’s only a facade. Behind it there is nothing.”

“People got their freedom, but they don’t know what to do with it,” he added, “because it’s more comfortable when someone tells them what to do, where to go and what is right and wrong.”

Bulgaria earned its reputation as the most obedient of Soviet allies. Mr. Zhivkov said in 1973 that Bulgaria and the Soviet Union would “act as a single body, breathing with the same lungs and nourished by the same bloodstream.”

Despite its political and military achievements, Bulgaria is still the poorest country in the European Union, with monthly wages averaging €300, or $450. The country also suffers from a huge image problem in Europe and years of criticism by the European Commission for failing to fight corruption and organized crime.

The country became to the first in the bloc to see its E.U. funds stopped, in October 2008, because of corruption and poor administration. According to Transparency International, an organization that fights corruption, Bulgaria shares the bottom spot for most corrupt E.U. member state along with Romania.

By most measures, Bulgaria appears the most dissatisfied with democracy and nostalgic for Communism of all the former Warsaw Pact members, with Hungary a close second, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which recently surveyed East Europeans by returning to questions it asked in 1991.

When asked about democracy, 76 percent of Bulgarians said they were dissatisfied. Questioned whether free markets made people better off, only 37 percent of Bulgarians agreed. And when asked about the move away from the state-controlled economy, 54 percent of Bulgarians approved, compared with 46 percent of Hungarians.

Russia’s influence on Bulgaria was viewed as good by 45 percent of Bulgarians, about the same as Ukraine. Only 11 percent of Bulgarians agreed that ordinary people had benefited from the changes in 1989. And asked whether the state was run for the benefit of all people, 16 percent of Bulgarians agreed, down from 55 percent in 1991.

“We have created democratic institutions, but we are missing the democratic-political culture to make them effective,” said Petar-Emil Mitev, a sociologist at the Ivan Hadjiyski Institute for Social Values and Structures in Sofia.

Mr. Mitev added that the collapse of the old political and economic system did not mean the end of the old collectivist values.

“Now we are entering a new system of individual-based values and human rights, etc.” he said. “This new value system can’t be created all at once.”

The boundaries of the new market-based values are still not well defined, Mr. Mitev said, referring to the example of vote selling, which was widely reported in recent elections.

Evgeni Dainov, a political science professor at the New Bulgarian University, said, “It has taken us 20 years to get away from the idea that people are helpless and the state should do everything.”

The hope for Bulgarian democracy is in the generation born since 1989, Mr. Dainov said.

“They are totally different,” he said, even from those born in 1985. For them, he said, 1989 is long ago, “like dinosaurs walking the earth.”

“They are the first achieving generation I have seen,” Mr. Dainov said. “The first who don’t hide behind myths of helplessness. This generation that is now 20 is almost exactly like their peers in the West, which was the whole point in the first place.”

“I don’t know where they got it from,” he added. “Maybe from American movies, certainly not from their parents, who are helpless. From somewhere they got the idea that achieving things is good.”

This young generation is the most critical of Communism and the most positive about the transition, said Mr. Mitev, the sociologist.

But parents of children born in this generation say they have grown up with “slobodia, not svoboda” in Bulgarian, or “licentiousness, not freedom.”

One of the new concepts to emerge from the transition is the Bulgarian word “dalavera,” which means easy money through dishonest means. While older people see dalavera as negative, since money should be earned through work, it is viewed as positive by young people, who are completely comfortable with the free market.

“Enrichment by dishonest means has become a part of the Bulgarian transition and that has been absorbed by the young generation,” Mr. Mitev said. “This is an important part of trauma of the transition.”

At a debate at Sofia University on the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, three students in the crowd who were born in November 1989 were chosen to represent Bulgaria in the European Parliament on Wednesday for a meeting of 89 other Europeans born in the same month.

“I haven’t heard anything good about that time,” said Silvia Vasileva, 20, a law student who was born on Nov. 10. “Even if you had money, there was nothing to buy. Oranges were only for Christmas. If you wore jeans, you were an absolute attraction.”

Vyara Pancheva, also 20 and an English student at Sofia University, said she was not really sure whether Communism was good or bad.

Bulgarians still have extreme and opposing views on Communism, she said, so a mass celebration of Nov. 10 was not possible because the subject was too sensitive.

“As an idea, I think Communism is good,” Ms. Pancheva said.

“But in practice it’s totally unworkable. I personally think democracy is better.”

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