Twenty-five years after the fall of Communism, Bulgaria’s relationship with Russia is ambiguous. There is disagreement – both in the National Assembly and on the streets – about the political direction the country should be taking. Whereas younger Bulgarians often support EU membership, many in the older generation would rather see stronger ties with the East.
So, how has Bulgaria’s transition to democracy compared with other former socialist countries? Certainly, Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the EU, as well as the most corrupt. In fact, this year the European Commission announced that, despite seven years of EU support and monitoring, little progress has been made fighting corruption and organized crime in the country.
One of our commenters, Costi, blames the current problems on the transition between Communism and democracy. He argues that the process “took so long that it became a political system itself”.
To get a reaction, we put this comment to Andrey Kovatchev, an MEP with the ruling centre-right, pro-European “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” (GERB) party. How would he respond to Costi?
In Bulgaria, the transition [from Communism to democracy] was handled poorly. In Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, there was strong popular resistance. In Bulgaria this was not the case. The Communist leadership tried to keep everything under control and started the democratization process under its leadership, keeping the Communist instruments – including the secret security service – and merely changing its name from the “Communist Party” to the “Socialist Party”. For instance, whereas after 1989 Germany did not accept any judges from the DDR days, in Bulgaria all Communist judges continued to be judges after the transition, bringing to the new generation of young judges the same corrupt tendencies that were common in the past.
In short, the legacy of old regimes has corrupted many segments of Bulgarian and Romanian society, including the economy, the media, and the judicial system, and it will take us more time to restore it. There is a saying: the further East you go from Berlin, the more difficult is the legacy of the past.
To get another perspective, we also approached Louisa Slavkova, Executive Director of the Sofia Platform, an organisation established to help countries in their transition to democracy. How would she react?
What I think Costi is arguing is that the institutions have failed to fulfil the expectations of the people. Looking at periods of democratic transition in any country, there is a lot of expectation and energy in the first stages. But this energy diminishes quite quickly when people realize expectations are too high to be met.
However, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have done a lot. Bulgaria is fortunately not what it used to be 25 years ago. There is still a lot of unfinished business, for instance on the side of education. One of the most dangerous things I think is lack of historical memory and knowledge of Communism and I think this is the biggest issue, rather than saying that the transition has become a ‘political system’ in its own right.
Since the start of the millennium, civil society has been growing. Young people look for education in European universities outside of Bulgaria and no longer accept the ideas of the past. The total number of Bulgarian students studying abroad is estimated at 80,000 a year.
Next, we received a comment from Ivan, arguing that liberal European values would struggle to find a foothold in Bulgaria because it was a deeply conservative society with strong Eurosceptic tenancies. How would Louisa Slavkova respond to this?
[I don’t agree with] the assumption that many in Bulgaria are Eurosceptic. There is a lot of research that has been done in this country, and it shows exactly the opposite. For example, let me refer to a poll done recently which reveals that while Bulgarians are bonded to Russia in a cultural sense, they do not see Russia as the country model they should be following. I’m not sure if your visitors are familiar with this, but part of the ideology of the Bulgarian Communist party was to create the idea of being part of this pan-Slavic culture. History books were devised and re-written to make Bulgarians believe they are part of [a united] Slavic ethnic group. So, this argument that the majority of Bulgarians are Eurosceptic and we are part of the Eurasian space is simply not true.
The poll mentioned was commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations and conducted earlier this year. The main finding of the poll was that, although culturally speaking Bulgarians feel strongly attached to Russia, they do not believe that Russia provides the best model for security and prosperity.
Finally, we put Ivan’s comment to Andrey Kovatchev. What would he say about Euroscepticism in his country?
This message of Euroscepticism […] is spread by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is telling people that we need to defend thing like traditional family values, that we do not belong in a Catholic Europe, that we should go back to join our Slavic brothers. They try to portray the EU as something perverse, saying we need to defend our children from them. A lot of this propaganda is not free-of-charge – most of the people spreading this message are paid by the regime of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.
However, that message is far from the reality. Bulgaria is the most pro-EU country in Europe. We have more trust in the EU institutions – the Council, the Parliament, and the Commission – than in our national Parliament and Court. Statistics on Bulgarian migrants show this: they left Bulgaria to live in other EU countries or in the US. There is no mention of Russia. And even the people saying that Bulgaria should join the Eurasian Union are included in these statistics. Far more than 50-to-60% of children of Russian oligarchs and ministers are living and enjoy education in the West
Is the transition from a communist system to a democracy working in Bulgaria? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!