Can Europe Make It?

Dancing, alert and electrified: Bulgaria through the looking glass

We are on the right path as we see the formation of a new national identity that is fundamentally European; and we know that we all have a part to play, whether at home or abroad.

Nikolay Nikolov Borislav Gizdavkov
4 December 2013

We are two among many who are looking for flights back home this winter. We are also two among many returning home this winter to join the protests and increase our on-going support and solidarity by physically being there. #ДАНСwithme and the subsequent student occupation of Sofia University (#occupySU) are essential in the revival of a very specific kind of Bulgarian self-identity, culture, and to some extent, a very new kind of cultural enlightenment.

We met at the University of Birmingham almost five years ago now, having left Bulgaria in search of a decent education in the social sciences. We both knew that we were attending those lectures not only for ourselves but in order perhaps to one day be able to use the acquired knowledge and expertise to contribute to Bulgarian society. So far, we are still in London. What follows is a short genealogy of how we view our present and what we expect from our future.


Photo supplied by author

Borislav Gizdavkov, A Bulgaria Within Europe

I can clearly recall January 1, 2007. It was a warmer-than-usual New Year’s Eve and while completely ordinary to most other Europeans, this was a symbolic and important date for all Bulgarians. As the nation was preparing to embrace the European Union with feverish haste, a sense of achievement and recognition for Bulgaria’s progress since 1989 was in the air above the hundreds of public squares where people gathered to see the advent of a new era for their country.

I was part of that ecstatic night; standing amid the chanting and cheering crowds, the future seemed to me very bright, even surreal. I imagined that straight from day one in the ‘democratic club’, Bulgaria would be different, necessarily better. For a person of my generation - born during the temporal rift between two defining epochs in Bulgaria’s modern history – joining the EU was a life-changing opportunity. After January 1, 2007, I was no longer a Bulgarian stuck in transition; I acquired a whole new European identity that opened many doors before me.

Feeling as a European is indeed a new source of identification for most Bulgarians – while the country has always belonged to Europe geographically, our culture and way of doing things have traditionally been somewhat different and in some cases, estranged from (western) European values. That is why Bulgaria’s self-perception as a truly European state is only now beginning to take shape. In that sense, the accession to the EU invested a certain dose of optimism in people and a desire to reform Bulgaria by offering a new start. 

Yet, after all the celebrations faded away, it became clear that progress and the real integration with Europe would not come easy for Bulgaria. The deep abyss between the initial high expectations and the sore realities on the ground sucked many of my compatriots into a state of desperation and posed a myriad of hard questions that required us to change our old ways. 

I chose to find my answers to those questions abroad, embarking on an undergraduate course in the UK. Nevertheless, the decision to leave Bulgaria, which I then perceived as a country reborn, was not easy. I have always loved my country and my sense of belonging to the Bulgarian nation has always been strong. What pushed me to leave Bulgaria at the time was the widespread belief that thanks to decades of inept government and a political system rife with corruption, Bulgaria was not the best place to receive an education. 

Armed with the firm belief that the EU will change Bulgaria profoundly by establishing a new model for ‘doing politics’, I left in 2008 with the determination to get the best of ‘old Europe’ and return to live and work in a new, European Bulgaria.

From today’s vantage point, however, I feel that it is not just the UK’s education that attracted me. Having lived in Britain for more than five years, I believe that the real impetus behind my departure for the UK is aptly described by the metaphor of the ‘mirror image’.

After the fall of communism in Bulgaria and the ensuing economic and social hardships, our nation’s goal to become a part of Europe has been utterly betrayed by our politicians. While there have been some modest advances towards strengthening democracy, the unchallenged reign of corruption and the vile political guardianship of criminal ‘business’ elites have stifled Bulgaria’s transition. Even today, in December 2013, Bulgaria ranks 77th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In the EU, Bulgaria is topped only by Greece as the most corrupt state.

In that respect, along with many others, Bulgaria has been the diametric opposite of what Europe stands for. That is why we have always looked at the European Union and indeed Britain as the ‘mirror image’ of what we want Bulgaria to become in the future. 

In my own understanding, the UK provided the model for the establishment of the rule of law and democracy that my own country should follow; living in the UK also required me to get up close to understanding the cultural tensions still existing between old Europe and Bulgaria. Coming to the UK was both my preparation for my future back home and a way to find that missing link between ourselves and Europe. 

During my time in the UK I understood that when looking at Europe, we as Bulgarians should keep in mind that in order to see ourselves in the mirror, we need a source of light. If the image that we see is not to be distorted and impaired by poor visibility, that source should be enlightenment in a cultural and political sense. 

Contrary to my initial hopes and beliefs that somehow Europe will instantly change Bulgaria by virtue of accepting it as a family member and providing us with a path towards progress, it turned out that Bulgaria needs to take a look at itself and start an inner metamorphosis. Until it is complete, looking in the mirror will be in vain.

Photo supplied by author

Nikolay Nikolov, A self-embattled Bulgaria 

It is undisputable that January 1 2007 was the most important date in the past twenty-four years in Bulgaria. It was the date that we were no longer just geographically fixed within Europe – that January, we were made a part of Europe’s common goal and identity. We were no longer ‘Eastern Europe’ in Milan Kundera’s sense of cultural differentiation from the ‘Centre’. We belonged and were accepted.

But that enlightenment for which Borislav and I both hoped for immediately after the EU accession never came. It seemed it was not enough to just be offered the blueprint to democracy, progress, and western modernity. And rightly so – that enlightenment is not something than can be bestowed upon a nation. As Kant wrote in 1784, that process means an emergence from a self-imposed political immaturity. It is a public form of freedom that only we can attain for ourselves; otherwise, it remains nothing more than a kind of formal juridical independence. 

And we think that this process has already begun in Bulgaria. 

I have been getting completely sucked in by the eruption of spontaneous democratic hunger in Bulgaria that has been going on for almost six months. During the summer, I attended the protests daily, joining thousands and chanting ‘Resign’. The summer ended, the protest movement fluctuated, and the government clung desperately to the last remnants of the official power structures. From abroad our support strengthened as a diaspora community started consolidating in support of the citizens taking to the streets every evening. #ДАНСwithme was globalized as the protest movement spread to more than thirty cities around the world, mobilizing hundreds of Bulgarians to show their support.

After the student occupation of the Sofia University and their humble call for enlightenment, Bulgarians studying abroad reacted notably – thousands of students in dozens of cities from around the world immediately showed their support.  This is extremely important for a country plagued by social atomization and cultural isolation, both home and abroad. The sense of national identity has significantly faded and, at least until recently, it was only food, drink, and social occasions, which have connected Bulgarians abroad. At least that’s what we have seen when we were students. The protest movement is a significant catalyst gathering many Bulgarians, making them visible, empowering their voice. I have been fortunate to meet many like-minded people, friends, whom I would otherwise never have encountered. 

#ДАНСwithme and #occupySU have forced through a new kind of ‘imagined community’, especially for the Bulgarian diaspora, where thousands of people are aware of each others’ support, share a common outlook for Bulgaria’s future, speak the same language of freedom and democracy. This is very important. The protest movement is slowly carving out a new popular discourse, a new social identifier, a force contending to destabilize, make facile, and ridicule the access to truth about both our past and our present. 

Our support is becoming more active as we grow in numbers and we are preparing a large protest once a large portion of us return home for Christmas. Where the student occupation revived the social movement in Bulgaria and began a new phase of civic engagement, I think that the growing role of the diaspora can be of equal importance.

Currently, the strength of protest is faltering as fatigue is starting to set in once again. It is ample time for some of the many hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians living abroad to play our part; to defend our own rights and responsibilities as Bulgarian citizens and participate in the fight to reshape our society. 

For the last twenty-four years, with only a single break between 1997-2001, Bulgarian politics has been the playing field of a small set comprised of the former communist elite. Those individuals faked our transition, shaped our post-communist reality, and defined the very specific context of democracy and freedom. They kept the past alive and well, holding our potential for progress, European integration, and democratic consolidation in ransom – what the protests have showed most clearly is the crumbling of our façade democracy; they show that as the National Assembly is barricaded by a tall metal wall and Sofia is patrolled by thousands of police officers, it is only within the few fictitiously representative institutions that the last bastions of the past continue to attempt to dominate.

A prognosis

We both left with the idea of returning. Five years of living abroad had absolutely resulted in a personal change in our world-view. The distance between us and Bulgaria has also significantly fluctuated during these years – today we feel closer than ever, as so many more of our contemporaries actively share the same normative outlook as us. 

Our prognosis is that we have reached the point of no return and it is a matter of time before the entire system is toppled. We are all dancing, alert and electrified and we are too many to be ignored now. We now know that, given the particular political legacy in Bulgaria, change does not come easy. As with Ukraine, we are in a deep struggle to overcome our political inheritance and necessitate new rules of the game from the bottom up.

We are on the right path as we see the formation of a new national identity that is fundamentally European; and we know that we all have a part to play, whether at home or abroad. So let’s finish what we have started.


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