Kick off meeting in Sofia, 21 – 23 May, 2015

Mapping a Generation in Transition: Bulgaria

The starting point

We began our journey amidst the different countries and faces of transition in May 2015 in Sofia, Bulgaria. Twenty-five years after what can be thought of ‘the revolution’, ‘the change’, after ‘becoming free’ or ‘breaking apart’, we discovered that even the simplest terms that describe the period of transition are not easy to define. At the same time, however, the concepts and ideas that are most commonly used to talk about transition in the countries from Eastern and Central Europe already let us infer a lot about the people’s narrative and view on the end of Communism twenty-five years later. Twenty-five years since the beginning of transition? Not all of our participants, coming from Bulgaria, Russia, Romania, Germany, Czech, Croatia and Bosnia, would subscribe to that date either.

“I think no one expected that all the participating countries would have the same approach to transition, but I doubt that anyone anticipated the reality of the divergence. One of the most striking, yet understandable, differences was in the way people perceived ‘the moment when history stopped’ for their particular country”, says Polina, our project participant from Moscow.

In Bulgaria, the period of transition was politically finished in 1999 with the establishment of market economy and liberal-democratic institutions in the country. Nevertheless, the lack of continuity has led to multiple changes in the Bulgarian model, according to Rumyana Kolarova, Secretary for Civil Society Relations of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria. Transition ends when there is disenchantment but Bulgaria has experienced disenchantment various times already, says Kolarova.

Does transition mean ‘heading West’?

The idea that the countries in Eastern and Central Europe after 1989 would or should broadly aim for ‘becoming like the West’ or ‘getting closer to Europe’ is widely present in the states of the former Western Bloc. But there is another perspective to this issue. The idea that Bulgaria should move towards or integrate into the West is rather strange to Bulgarians. We have always perceived ourselves to be Western in the tradition of the French revolution, according to Kolarova. She was puzzled to be told by a British scholar in 1996 that Bulgaria is not in Europe.

What became of the dream of democracy and freedom?

In the beginning of the 90s, it was believed that democracy is just around the corner. We just needed to get rid of the nasty people, according to Martin Ivanov, Secretary for Culture and National Identity of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria and a former Head of the Archives State Agency. He thinks that it was not believed to be a long process back then. Maybe one needs that somewhat naive excitement to bring about change, before one realises the profound difficulty of the process of transition. But once the reality forced the society to sober up, the collective hangover was remarkably strong.

The Bulgarian elites have been leading the country into the EU without knowing what this step entailed, according to Ivanov. The EU was more a symbol, an image. There was little knowledge, but abundant enthusiasm about the EU, he remembers. Now transition is perceived as more of a U-turn. Many Bulgarians long for the Communist era to come back.

Prior to 2014 there was a fear that there would be a clash of histories over what and how to remember the period before 1989 and the subsequent transition. At the end, however, there was no history, no memory, no-one was interested, according to Kolarova. Teachers tend to skip the lessons on communism and democratisation. As a result, the history of this period is learned only within the family, if at all. This phenomenon can also explain the widely propagated nostalgia for the Communist period. She points out that in the early 90s we had voters and parties that were much more committed to the idea of democracy than now.

The generation of transition

During our stay in Sofia we encountered two researchers from the sociological agency Alpha Research, Genoveva Petrova and Lubomir Todorakov, who also had a lot to share about transition. According to them, the generation of transition views the period of transition in black and white. As a result, the two groups supporting different positions cannot conduct a meaningful dialogue or reach a consensus when it comes to this issue.

Nevertheless, while a number of people are divided about the past, they all agree that the present situation is unacceptable. The generation of transition appreciates the freedom, but it also misses the security of the Communist regime. And as the period of transition was about democracy, capitalism and market economy, one of the values that appear to be missing in the post-Communist era is solidarity.

When the discussion turned to the younger generation, composed mainly of people born after 1989, another interesting aspect of the contemporary Bulgarian society came to light. According to the findings of a study about the level of awareness of the population when it comes to the Communist period and transition, conducted by Alpha Research, there are substantial knowledge gaps that appear to be especially noticeable in the younger generation. This is explained not only by the fact that this period is not taught at school but also by young people’s lack of interest in the topic

The transition left Bulgaria as a mafia-captured state, according to Todorakov. Nevertheless, while it is too late to change the system, it is still possible to convince the ruling elites to be reasonable. It is the responsibility of civil society to demand this change and to insist on getting involved in the political decision-making process.

* All opinions mentioned in this article were gathered during the kick-off meeting of the project “Mapping a generation in transition” which took place in May 2015 in Sofia, Bulgaria. The participants in the project include Sofia Platform (Bulgaria), German-Russian Exchange (Germany), Antikomplex (Czech Republic), Sakharov Center (Russia), Institute of Social Science and Foundation „Wissen am Werk“ (Croatia), Congress of Culture Activists (Ukraine), Perspektive3 (Germany), Populari (Bosnia and Herzegovina).