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Bulgaria: lost in transition

Many of the problems in Bulgaria today stem from the corrupt and undemocratic way in which the 1989 transition was carried out. Without recognising this, we cannot hope to change Bulgaria for the better.

Protesters in Sofia, Bulgaria. Flickr/Daniel Dimitrov. Some rights reserved.

180 days of protests and counting

For more than 180 days, Bulgarian citizens have been on the streets demanding transparency, accountability and respect for the rule of law in the country. Analysts and journalists have tried to capture the nature of the protests, labelling them the Bulgarian Spring. They have highlighted the fight against the mafia, and have drawn parallels with the word-wide Occupy movement (the student occupation of universities since October 23 in particular). Within these events, some are seeking the birth of the long-awaited civil society.

A member of the European Union since 2007, Bulgaria is still struggling with corruption and democratic consolidation. Accession to the EU was presented largely as a milestone in enhancing socio-economic development, fostering prosperity and democracy, and overcoming poverty. Some experts even declared the transition to democracy and a market economy complete. However, six years later, the country seems to be failing in providing basic rights and freedoms, and is struggling with unfinished reforms.

Since the beginning of the transition in 1989, Bulgaria has been in a spiral of deep political, social and economic malaise. Demographic crises, brain drain, poverty, lack of basic means for survival, and of opportunities for the youth. The root of the problems lies in the grotesque nature of the facade democracy in Bulgaria. The values, principles and procedures of democracy are alive only on paper, while the political and administrative establishments persistently undermine them and create favourable conditions for state capture and corruption compromising any chance for improvement.

'What is Enlightenment?' revisited

The fall of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern and Central Europe are events, which in many ways reconstituted the central question of modern philosophy: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ in a contemporary historical context. More than two hundred years later, the post-socialist revolutions provide a similar context for philosophical reflection of the progression to ‘enlightenment’ as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity” as Kant said[1]. Accordingly, it can be argued that the revolutions were a ‘threshold’ in the reconstitution of Eastern and Central European countries on the path towards ‘unfinished project of modernity’ (Habermas, 1996).

According to Jürgen Habermas (1990), while countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania experienced very different revolutionary changes, what is visible underneath these various guises, is that these events all followed a general pattern and thus formed a process of a singular revolution: one in which the world is, in a sense, turning backwards, allowing these countries to catch up with time and the developments missed out.

What is distinguishing in these countries, for Habermas, is that the totalitarian regimes were not instituted by a successful and independent revolution, but were the direct consequence of the Second World War and the occupation of the Red Army. As such, “the abolition of the people’s republic has occurred under the sign of a return to old, national symbols, and, where this was possible, has understood itself to be the continuation of the political traditions and party organizations of the interwar years” (Habermas, 1990[2]).

Where this subtle perception of 1989 as a ‘dawning’ of an accomplishment may have seemed considerably illustrative with regards to the types of revolutionary changes occurring in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, the case of the Bulgarian revolution has a reality of its own. In the words of Richard Crampton, “Zhivkov’s fall[3] was the work of the party hierarchy; it was a palace coup rather than a revolution, and ‘people power’ in Bulgaria was to be more the consequence than the cause of the change of leadership’ (Crampton, 2005: 212[4]).

Thus not all of 1989 was rectifying and not all were progressive. Bulgaria’s was initiated by the communist elites, the masses enticed by the secret services. The result? The democracy, freedom are in fact not our own; they were granted by those same individuals who perpetuated the totalitarian regime. The Bulgarian democracy is a facade, infiltrated to the smallest societal capillary by the forces of domination of the past.

So where is Bulgaria’s enlightenment then - when Kant clearly specifies it is only achievable when a multitude emerges from a self imposed tutelage/immaturity? Our concept of freedom is corrupted - i.e. it only translates into political independence. We have no access to the truth - both about our past and about our present.

We are foreigners to each other in our own society. This is clearer today than ever before because the protests, which began as a public outrage against the political elites and a moral quest to ‘cleanse’ politics have now outgrown that phase and have become civilizational. They are once again about pursuing the unfinished path towards modernity and enlightenment, a movement spearheaded recently by the ‘Early Rising Students’.

Democracy and accountability in demand

It is abundantly clear that something is foul in the state of democracy in Bulgaria. Democracy has been captured by questionable and unclear interests. Bulgaria has turned into an arena where corruption replaced the rule of law; patron-client relationships prevail instead of sustainable CSOs-government relations, undercover political deals instead of transparent debates, and apathy and distrust has been the long-term explanation of lack of engagement and participation.

Today, for the first time there is a widespread counter discourse gaining force, challenging the truth about Bulgaria’s past - the truth about the advent of totalitarianism, the role of the USSR, the place 1989 holds in the country’s history, and the current state of politics. Old totalitarian monuments are painted pink so what has been so successfully hidden in plain sight can once again be seen in order to be ridiculed. The National Assembly is barricaded by a meter high metal wall, built some days after the ‘celebration’ of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thousands of policemen ‘guard’ the streets of Sofia.

The protests have unearthed the structures of domination in Bulgarian society and the modern makers of the country’s democracy. They are foreign to us, hidden behind a fictitious history and imposing metal architectures. The blockade of the National Assembly is symbolic of the slow regression of the power of the former communist elites - where there were walls around the entire country twenty-four years ago, today, the only institution which they can protect from us remains the symbol of their contemporary power - the symbol of Bulgaria’s facade democracy.

A lack of lustration – a process where the government sanctions and regulates the participation of former communists and informants of the state secret police – together with the lack of proper public debate on the communist past allowed former members of the communist secret services to hold power in different sectors of economic and social life, including politics (former President Georgi Parvanov[5] (January 2002-January 2012) and other political figures being a case in point). Allegations of corruption, links to organised crime and the former Communist repressive apparatus are inherently connected to the contemporary Bulgarian political elite.

As mentioned above, unlike other post-communist countries, the transition in Bulgaria was managed by the former nomenclature. There was no independent investigation of the possible regime crimes and violations of human rights. This left thousands of questions open: of systematic and widespread human rights violations; forced assimilation and repressions against the ethnic Turkish minority; repressions and murders of opponents of the regime, etc. The strive for accountability and proper debate on the communist past was met with persistent resistance amidst different governments.

Regardless of a number of attempts to enforce lustration laws to prevent former members of the communist state apparatus to hold high level government positions and positions in public institutions. A six-year investigation conducted by the Commission of Inquiry into the dossiers of the former communist state security services (Darzhavna Sigurnost, DS), announced on 26th November 2013 that about 8,000 former DS agents have been in high level positions during the researched period (some of them are still in power).

According to the investigative journalist Hristo Hristov, members of the former communist state security have infiltrated all parliaments since the 1990 and mostly all governments. In the current parliament, there are 13 former agents of the DS.[6]

Where Bulgaria failed most is that policy-making depends on the personal over-centralised will of the government rather than on the rule of law. This leaves the political elite practically untouchable to any measures of accountability and civil control. The boiling kettle of resentment found its valve on the 14th June 2013 when the brazen appointment of Delyan Peevski, a media mogul with controversial links, literally shattered the whole society and allowed the lost questions to re-appear with renewed vigour.

In search of the civil society

The latent indignation and disappointment has been a strong accompaniment of the problematic and difficult transition in the country. Levels of interpersonal trust and trust in the institutions of the representative democracy (11% trust in the current Parliament according to Alpha Research data in October) is among the lowest in Europe. More than 80% of the citizens in the European Values Study (EVS) 2008[7] declare they do not trust others and only 11% in recent Alpha Research poll show trust to the current Parliament. Low levels of participation (81.5% do not take part in any action or initiative, EVS 2008), civic activity and citizens’ engagement have plagued societal relations, leaving society fragmented.

Given the weakness in civil society coupled with challenging conditions for civil dialogue, institutional inconsistencies have left limited room for citizen participation in policy making, leading to frustration, lack of transparency and accountability. This allows for arbitrariness of the public dialogue and small informal groups, civil society organisations and individuals have limited tools for exercising pressure and influence.

The human rights, which have been the dream of the civil organisations on the onset of transition (Kabakchieva, 2011[8]) have proven also elusive. Although Bulgaria is a signatory of main international human rights treaties and conventions, respect for the human rights and democratic freedoms is still far from satisfactory. Recent surge in hate speech rhetoric in the media and the public, even by some high level officials has demonstrated the weakness of state institutions in promoting and defending human rights and protection of vulnerable groups.

The xenophobic party ATAKA (meaning Attack), as well as other nationalistic movements (existing or newly-created) have exploited the nationalist discourse, posing a threat to ethnic peace, fostering xenophobia and violence against minorities, migrants and asylum seekers. The government has failed to contain this spread of xenophobia, but deploys excessive police force against the peaceful protesters.

Methods employed by the political elite remind one of the former communist apparatus. The media freedom has also gradually deteriorated in recent years, Bulgaria to decline from 80th to 87th in 2013 rank of the Reporters without Borders[9].

Pro-Delyan Peevski groups, claimed to be serving the interest of political parties in power, allegedly own a large share of the press. They are also used in a smear campaign against the protesters and for political propaganda, which ultimately leaves the fourth pillar of democracy in the hands of the ruling elite.

The protests: a chance for a re-start?

The recent protests have given hope that change is still possible. Albeit fluctuating in numbers, they present an opportunity to re-start the long-delayed debates of the faltering transition. It is still to be seen whether the protests have the potential to re-invent the social civic fabric and enhance civil dialogue. The issues put on stand-by such as de-communisation, dealing with the communist past, lustration, corruption and the painful reforms in the social policy, health care, education, the energy sector, security, etc. have a chance for a fresh start.

The social movement that burst out in Bulgaria cut across the society and illuminated the fictitious nature of the defining institutions - democracy, justice, freedom, and progress. The protests march path is a chance for a society reconnected, an identity strengthened, for a future reclaimed. What was always clear to some, and is becoming clear to many more is that the voice of the streets can and ought to be heard. The hopes are high as the future is at stake. The protests have given birth to citizens, doers with a dream for a better Bulgaria.


[1] Kant, I. (1991), ‘An answer to the question: “what is enlightenment?” in Reiss, H. (ed) Kant’s Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2]Habermas, J. (1990), 'What does socialism mean today? The rectifying revolution and the need for new thinking on the Left', New Left Review v.183, pp. 3-22; online version available at: http://newleftreview.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/I/183/jurgen-habermas-what-does-socialism-mean-today-the-rectifying-revolution-and-the-need-for-new-thinking-on-the-left

[3] Todor Zhivkov - was a communist politician and leader of the People's Republic of Bulgaria (PRB) from March 4, 1954 until November 10, 1989

[4] Crampton, R. J. (2005) A Concise History of Bulgaria, 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[5] The former communist state security dossier of Georgi Parvanov: http://desebg.com/2011-01-06-11-34-32/199-2011-04-07-18-38-04

[6] Hristo Hristov, Communist state security services [Durzhavna Sigurnost, DS] and their impact on the political elite during the democratic transition, 26/11/2013, http://desebg.com/2011-01-16-11-42-13/1571-2013-11-26-13-22-39

[7] Bulgarian Sociological Association, European Values Study, 2008: http://www.bsa-bg.org/index.php/2012-05-24-08-32-37/16-4-2008

http://info1.gesis.org/dbksearch19/SDESC2.asp?no=4774&search=EVS&search2=&DB=e&tab=0&notabs=&nf=1&af=&ll=10

[8] Kabakchieva, P. (2011) Civil Society In Bulgaria: NGOs versus Spontaneous Civic Activism?, Open Society Institute Sofia

[9] Reporters Without Borders, 2013 World Press Freedom Index: Dashed Hopes After Spring,  http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html

About the authors

Nikolay Nikolov is a producer for AJ+ and the founder of Banitza. He is also a PhD student in Politics at UCL. Twitter: @Nikolay_Nikolov

Dessislava Hristova Kurzydlowski has a BA and MA in EU Studies from Sofia University. Currently she is finishing her PhD in Political Studies of the EU, focusing on civil society development in Bulgaria after the fall of communism. She spent a research year at the University of Oxford and was enrolled in a summer Institute on Philanthropy at Georgetown University.

Sonya Merkova, a human rights activist, holds a BA degree in Sociology from Plovdiv University in Bulgaria and a MA in International Politics and Human Rights Law from the City University London. She currently working at Amnesty International as a Research and Campaign Assistant for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tanya Simeonova holds a BA and MA in Architecture from the University of Westminster.


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