Country Profile – Bulgaria

Can you mark the beginning and the end of the transition period? What marked it? When was the moment “when history stopped”?

The initial point of the transition period in Bulgaria is fairly easy to pinpoint as it coincides with the fall of the Communist rule in the country – 10 November 1989. At the same time, the question of the end of transition is a complex one as some Bulgarians would question whether transition has even been completed. Having in mind the rich variety of viewpoints that exist on the subject matter, it is still useful to introduce a framework for the transition period that will serve us in further analysing the issue. Dr. Mihail Gruev introduces an interesting periodization of the Bulgarian transition in Sofia Platform’s publication “25 Years of Changes: Boundaries and Periodisation of the Transition, the Institutions and the Democracy Quality in Bulgaria”. According to him, transition in Bulgaria extends from 1989 to 2007 and there are three main stages of this process:

1989 – 1991 – This period was characterized by the demise of the Communist regime in Bulgaria and the planning of the new democratic institutions. The period ended when the new democratic Bulgarian constitution was adopted in July 1991.

1991 – 1997 – During this period society was somewhat disoriented amidst the new realities that come with transition. There was no consensus among the political elites as to the direction in which Bulgaria should develop and especially on whether it should be oriented towards the West or Russia. This bifurcation of the Bulgarian society and the elites came to an end with the major economic crisis in 1996-1997 that served as a benchmark for Bulgaria’s decision to head West.

1997 – 2007 – This period was marked by visa liberatisation and Bulgaria’s accession to the Euro-Atlantic structures, including NATO and the European Union. Bulgaria’s transition was arguably completed when the country became a member of the EU.

Who drove transition? What happened to these people during the time of transition?

Transition in Bulgaria was an elitist project in the sense that it was led mostly by the political elite in the country. Bulgaria did not have a developed and well-organised dissident movement before 1989 as in some other Eastern European countries. As a result, those in power had little resistance and tolerated only the opposition figures that did not pose too much of a threat to the regime. After the change in the political system after 1989, due to the lack of an authentic opposition, many who were affiliated with the former Communist party changed colour and became supporters of right-wing policies. Gradually, however, the free elections started to create, at least to a certain extent, a real competition among the political players. The financial crisis in Bulgaria in 1996 – 1997 marked a turning point in this process as this was the time when an overwhelming majority of the Bulgarian society saw the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the formal Bulgarian Communist Party, as unfit to govern the country any longer. Since then, the right Bulgarian parties started to push strongly for integration with the West. This push was subsequently embraced by the Left as well, leading to a national consensus on Bulgaria’s foreign policy future.

What was the role of civil society in the transition period?

The lack of an active dissident movement in Bulgaria resulted in a slow development of civil society after 1989. A number of organisations emerged but were not very effective in engaging the general public. In addition, the funding for civil society activities has been and continues to be limited. This means that only the civil society organisations backed by large international donors managed to survive. As a result, the civil society had an important but limited role in the Bulgarian transition.

How contested was the path of transition? What options have there been?

Initially, there was a serious contest about the direction in which Bulgaria should follow after 1989. There were two possible paths – East and West – and in was unclear which one will be chosen. The former Communist party was advocating for a closer relationship with Russia while the right-wing movements that emerged after the change promoted integration with the West. The latter path was unanimously embraced by the Bulgarian elites only in 1997, after a major economic crisis shook up the economic and banking system of the country and resulted in hyperinflation and default for many businesses and individuals. The Socialist Party was largely blamed for the crisis and the socialist government, then in power, was forced to resign. In the subsequent interim parliamentary elections, the right-wing political movements had absolute majority and Bulgaria was set on the course of integration with the West. The first step in this direction was the introduction of a currency board which tied the Bulgarian lev to the German mark in 1997. This was undertaken by the provisional government appointed by the Bulgarian President event before the interim elections took place. Since then, the newly established consensus regarding Bulgaria’s political future has rarely been challenged.

What key event were crucial for the transition?

Several points in the Bulgarian transitional experience can be characterized as game-changers. The change of the political system in Bulgaria in November 1989 was certainly crucial as this event initiated the transition. The new democratic Bulgarian constitution, adopted in 1991 cemented the democratic foundation of the country and made it possible for the transition process to go forward. In the aftermath of the Bulgarian economic crisis in 1996-1997 the Bulgarian elites finally agreed on the direction in which Bulgaria should be headed – namely towards integrating in the Euro-Atlantic structures. The 2002 visa liberalization represented a tangible progress in this quest. Bulgaria’s accession to NATO in 2004 demonstrated the firm commitment of the Bulgarian elites when it comes to the chosen course of the country. In 2007 Bulgaria became a member of the European Union – an event that arguably marked the end of the Bulgarian transition process.

Is there something like a common narrative about transition? Is that narrative contested? How and by whom?

In the Bulgarian society there are arguably two opposing narratives of transition. The first one is the narrative of nostalgia. People who hold this view have created in their minds an idealized version of the communist period and regard the shift towards democracy as something that has had a detrimental effect on their lives and society as a whole. Communism is associated with security and stability, lack of unemployment, free education and healthcare, cheap vacations and other social benefits. Within this narrative fits also the pro-Russian geopolitical orientation. The second narrative is about the freedom which resulted from the fall of the Berlin Wall – freedom to speak, think, travel, vote and disagree. In this view Bulgaria has to strive to integrate itself within the Western world to which it belongs. When discussing this issue, it is worth keeping in mind that the black and white picture these two narratives paint is clearly oversimplified and there are many nuances in each of the two positions. Nevertheless, it can serve as a useful tool to map the current situation in Bulgaria. For the moment, it appears that the second narrative prevailed, at least among the political elites – Bulgaria is in the EU and NATO and the ruling coalition is certainly relying on a discourse, related to democracy promotion, civil society engagement and anti-corruption. However, the voices that challenge this predominant point of view have hardly disappeared from the Bulgarian political landscape.

What values shaped the transition period and was there a conflict between the different sets of values and worldviews?

The different sets of values that existed in Bulgaria during the period of transition are very much related to the two narratives, discussed above. For the people who feel nostalgia towards the past, security is the primary value. They prefer to be certain that there is a state safety net that will supply them with a job, healthcare and education. In addition, the idea that everyone is equally deserving of these benefits regardless of their personal or professional qualities has its appeal. For those, who consider the shift towards democracy to be a good thing, freedom and individualism are to a large extent the primary values. The freedom to do, say and think whatever you want and to be able to express yourself with no consequences is one of the most valuable benefits of democracy. However, there is much misconception in both sets of values. On the one hand, the security and equality during the Communist time can be associated with lack of initiative, lack of incentive to improve and penalty for everyone who deviates from what is considered to be “normal”. On the other hand, one might argue that the freedom and individualism after the transition have been taken to an extreme and have resulted in egoism and a remarkable lack of solidarity and empathy in today’s society.

What are the typical representatives of the generation of transition in your country and what are their characteristics?

In Bulgaria the generation of transition can be defined as the people who were not old enough to drive the process but were nevertheless influences strongly by it. In addition, today these people are at an active age and are the leading force in many societal spheres. Arguably, these are the people born around the period 1970 – 1989. It is difficult to define a typical representative of this generation but it can arguably be split into three major groups – those you perceive themselves as winners of the transition, those who think they lost from transition, and those who do not think their lives were affected by transition. The winners of transition are typically those who take advantage of all the freedoms gained after 1989. For them, the change meant gaining the opportunity to think, speak and travel freely, to have their own business or a high paying job, to be an individual. Those who consider themselves losers from transition are the ones who feel nostalgia towards the social security which came with Communism – a secure job, free healthcare, free education. Loosing these social perks invokes a feeling of being abandoned by the state and by society. The group of people that are neither winners nor losers is indifferent towards this debate and in a way detached from the political realities in Bulgaria. They do not feel empowered to change the situation in the country and do not believe that anyone else can. They are inherently passive and not likely to vote or to engage in any civil activity. There three types of typical representatives are clearly overly simplified but they give the reader a rough idea of the generation of transition.

How is the period of transition relevant to the way the generation of transition thinks and acts today? Does it influence how they make decisions or how they attempt to tackle contemporary challenges?

The relevance of the period of transition in Bulgarian society today is undeniable. The competing narratives and value systems certainly influence strongly Bulgaria’s political life. The education the generation of transition received in the two periods – before and after 1989 – has a strong impact on the way they perceive the world and the contemporary challenges that they face. Many examples of this can be found, from the way the generation of transition thinks about this period in mostly black and white and fails to analyse it properly to their relative civil inactiveness and notable egoism towards everyone outside their close family and friends circle. The confusion which resulted from the change from one system to another led to indifference. It is important to note that even though the described above profile encompasses a fair amount of people who belong to the transitional generation, there are also many exceptions. The behaviour of each person is a complex mix of different factors and living through the period of transition is just one of them, albeit important.

Louisa Slavkova & Iva Kopraleva (Sofia Platform)