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Where Bulgaria Went Wrong

January 18, 2013 ·

Bulgaria naively embarked upon a ready-made Western model of change: neoliberalism.

Bulgaria naively embarked upon a ready-made Western model of change: neoliberalism.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Ognyan MinchevBulgarians can talk at great length about what went wrong in 1989-90 and why the country didn’t immediately become economically successful and politically liberal after the end of the Cold War. Some will tell you that the politicians didn’t embrace the Western model quickly or thoroughly enough. Others will wax conspiratorial about secret Communist Party machinations.

Ognyan Minchev, a political scientist who heads up the independent think tank IRIS in Sofia, views the problem from a slightly different angle. Bulgaria’s uncritical acceptance of an outside model, in his opinion, was the original sin that contaminated the transformation.

“My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for,” Minchev argues. “We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.”

The result was a strange hybrid. On the outside, Bulgarian politicians and economists mouthed all the right phrases. On the inside, the Bulgarian system managed to preserve many elements of the previous order. And, meanwhile, this hybrid beast slouched toward Brussels.

“We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system,” Minchev continues. “We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.”

I met Ognyan Minchev 23 years ago when he participated in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. On this occasion, we discussed Bulgarian nationalism, ethnic minority issues, and the mistakes that were made more than two decades ago when Bulgaria faced several paths of transition.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Of course I do. The Berlin Wall fell in the late evening of November 9 and the Todor Zhivkov regime fell on November 10. So November 10 was a particularly memorable day for me. I went back home at noon, and we were usually listening to the Bulgarian transmission of Deutsche Welle at 12:30 or so. That’s how I heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two hours later, we heard about the fall of Zhivkov, so that’s a particular day that I will never forget, not until the end of my life.

What was your immediate reaction?

Happy emotions. Emotions of great expectations. We were cheerful. We celebrated in the evening, a large company of friends and colleagues. That was our reaction, among the university people I’ve been related to. 

Was there a point when you were growing up or in your early youth when you made a step in the direction of opposition to the government?

I was not happy with the government — in my particular way, at all different stages in my youth development. I was unhappy at school as a teenager when they insisted that we all have haircuts close to the skin. We were unhappy with the limitations on listening to Western rock-and-roll music. Later on, my colleagues and I were unhappy with the more or less visible censorship at the university. At the university this censorship was much milder than elsewhere, but still it was present. It was possible to see this censorship and understand it in the lectures of our professors and in the communications among ourselves.

A turning point in my intellectual and value system development was when I was in Poland in August 1980. I was there for one month on a so-called student brigade. It was an exchange of students in all communist countries. We worked for 3 weeks as workers, and in the last week we had an excursion around Poland. It was the time actually when Solidarity was created. That was my first direct taste of freedom – talking to ordinary people on the train and in the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. On my return, I tried to learn Polish better and read the Polish newspapers available in Sofia, even if they were also communist-censored. So, Poland of 1980 was the turning point of my so-called weltanschauung or picture of the world. From then on, whatever I could think or do or work for, I have not made significant changes in my viewpoints, at least not until the collapse of the regime in 1989.

And how did that change your viewpoint?

Until 1989, I had an explicit understanding of the system I was living in. I didn’t have a detailed understanding of how the Western system worked. I had a more-or-less liberal-positive ideological understanding: a rosy picture of the Western system. It was rosy because it was abstract.

After 1989, I had access to the West for the first time. I could communicate with the West. I had free access to any publication I wanted to read. I traveled. I spent a year at UCLA. So my understanding of the world changed because of the substance and structure of this new life I could live.

How did you get involved in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly?

It was more or less coincidental, as many things were in that period. In September 1990, I went to a Willy Brandt-sponsored social democratic conference in Vienna, because I was kind of an advisor of the newly born Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. In Vienna. I met certain people who invited me later to the founding of the HCA. Later on we established the Bulgarian chapter of the HCA, for which I personally worked for the next 5-6 years.

And what was the focus of HCA here in Bulgaria?

More or less the same as the organization in general. We were mostly preoccupied with the developments in ex-Yugoslavia. We did some work on the then-passionate dispute between newly born Macedonia and Greece. We worked on some other human rights issues as well.

Was there a particular moment after the collapse of the regime when you thought that things were not turning out as well as you thought they would.

All of us who were involved in the process in one way or another were learning by doing, and often by doing wrong. The real controversy of the process made us if not wiser than at least more realistic – or even pessimistic about the complexity of this process of transformation – at least because of the defeats we had to face (eventually we acquired a detailed knowledge of the process and a more realistic or pessimistic assessment of what was possible). The optimistic picture that we had in the very beginning changed very fast during those very first years of the process. My whole career, and my whole life, have been very much dependent on a reframing and reassessing of my views of the process that took place in those decades.

Where would you say your perspective is right now, after 22 years of reevaluation?

My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for. We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.

We all know that the neo-liberal economic view was very powerful at this moment. Also, the perceptions of the Western pundits were not very well developed on how democracy could develop out of a totalitarian infrastructure. So, the advice we got was ideological advice. It was up to us to adapt that advice to our reality, which we knew better than the Western supporters of the process.

To an extent, though, we were ill prepared for that. It took us time before we could recognize the extent to which we were inadequate in dealing with the process of change. We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system. We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.

What can be done at this point in terms of reframing the economy, social relations?

What can be done at this moment and in the future is step-by-step work on changing reality, on mobilizing popular support for different types of political action, which is difficult now, because people are not so ready to embrace new political platforms. It’s difficult to change an economic infrastructure that has already been set. It’s difficult to change the system of very direct influence that the Russian post-communist oligarchy exercises upon post-communist countries, particularly Bulgaria. So, few things can be changed overnight. It can be only step-by-step process.

What role did the ethnic minority issue play back in 1990-1?

I think the minority issue played an excessive role because of the specific environment in Bulgaria. Several years before the change, the communist government tried to forcefully rename Bulgarian Turks and forcefully integrate them into the Bulgarian ethnic mainstream. So, the first thing that was required after the end of the regime was to restore the rights of those people. It was a very sensitive issue. Part of the population was very much dominated by this ethnic scare, created by the ex-regime, that Turks and neighboring Turkey were a potential threat for Bulgaria. So it was very difficult to convince those people that restoring rights to our fellow countrymen is not scary or dreadful.

But step by step, this focus on ethnic rights has become an exaggerated and excessive part of the political process. The new ethnic party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) that was created in order to reintegrate Bulgarian Turks and Muslims into democratic political life, very easily degenerated into an authoritarian ethnic political corporation where a small elite took control of the community of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims and monopolized their votes. Politically, economically, and institutionally Bulgarian Turks and Muslims have remained within the framework of authoritarian control they lived in before the democratic changes. Instead of the Communist Party, the MRF Party took monopoly control over them.

Just recently, a group has announced that is breaking away from MRF.

We don’t know whether this group will be successful in splitting the support for the MRF or whether it is just another splinter group with almost no influence on the hearts and minds of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims. We’ll see how it works. Nevertheless, the MRF leadership continues to be quite successful, because they efficiently use scare tactics, telling people that if they don’t vote for the MRF or support the MRF, that period of the forceful changing of their identity will return. This isn’t a decent approach, but it works.

What do you think is the best way of addressing far-right ethnocentric sentiments in Bulgaria?

Ataka is the first more or less popular hard nationalist party that has emerged 15 years after the process of post-communist change in Bulgaria For 15 years, we didn’t have a sizable hard nationalist political movement in this country. There were only small sects on the periphery of the system.

The rise of Ataka is the product of two basic tendencies. The first one is that Bulgarians from the ethnically mixed regions were radicalized in their viewpoints because of the behavior of the MRF. I can’t say that the MRF behaves in an ethnically radical way even if there was some evidence of that. But the MRF behaved and continues to behave arrogantly in terms of intense corruption and abuses of administrative power. Ataka was successful to a large extent because of the counter-reactions of the ethnic Bulgarians in those intermixed regions.

Second, there was a split within the communist party after 1989. After the resignation of Zhivkov, the more liberal, more reformist wing of the communist leadership took over the party. The harder fraction was in the minority and became a kind of a second periphery of the ex-communist party. Being a minority within their own party, this elite was disappointed with the functioning of the BSP, ideologically and politically. This part of the elite never went away, of course, from the political and economic scene. They were successful, some people say with some help from Moscow, to promote Ataka as a second hand of the same elite. Ataka claimed to be on the nationalist right. But these hard nationalist movements are usually intermixed between left and right.

Those are the two causes of Ataka’s emergence in 2005. What we can see lately is that Ataka was actually a one-season dancer. It is declining very fast, and we’re not certain that it will make it into the next parliament.

But you think that the sentiment behind Ataka still exists in Bulgarian society?

Yes, but this vote is split among different nationalist formations, some bigger and successful, others smaller, but none of them bigger than 2.5 percent.

What about the Roma issue? Have you seen any improvement over the last 22 years?

No, because the Roma is not an ideological issue, not a human rights issue, not a discrimination issue. Of course, there is discrimination. There is a human rights aspect. There is a political ethnic aspect. But the Roma issue involves two basic constituents. The first aspect is the cultural adaptability of part of the Roma community. This is a diverse community, and some are more successful than others in adapting to the new system. Others are culturally much more vulnerable and fragile and incapable of adapting. So, the cultural-anthropological aspect of this process is very important and the diversity among the Roma community is very important.

The second big impediment is that Bulgaria is a weak state. In order to cope with an issue like the Roma issue, you need functioning institutions capable of promoting programs that can make a difference. Of course, analogies are only partially adequate, but I’ll make an analogy to the process of integrating African Americans in the United States, including the problems of the inner cities. It took America about four or five decades, starting with the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, half a century, in order to integrate about 1/3 or 40 percent of African Americans into mainstream U.S. society. What we don’t have here is that kind of efficient institutional arm capable of making a difference.

Do you think the EU has lately become more of an instrument of neoliberalism?

The crisis policies of the EU, dominated by Germany and some other national elites, are neoliberal, and they are neoliberal because for a long period of time there was a process of redistribution of wealth in the EU that proved inefficient. Formulated more dramatically, the EU as a developmental instrument proved inefficient because what we thought about the EU — that while bureaucratic, at least it worked as a developmental instrument with Greece, Portugal, and Spain as the main success stories – turned out to be wrong.

Now what we see in Greece and the other countries of the south means that we have a collapse of the developmental paradigm of the EU. The question is, what’s left? Neoliberalism is more or less the answer to this myth of Europe as an efficient developmental agent.

Of course, the EU has always been an elitist endeavor. It's never been popular or democratic. There’s never been a European demos, as Ivan Krastev wrote a few months ago. If you don’t have a coherent popular attitude capable of making democratic decisions, then you have a corporatist elitist infrastructure where democracy works at a national level and administrative autocracy works at the common European level.

The EU has always been very flexible in coping with its problems. It was flexible because it has always been cautious in terms of change. This time, the “big bang” enlargement lacked caution. That makes it difficult to predict how the EU will be able to adapt to this new reality.

When you look back to 1989 and evaluate everything that has changed since then, what number would you give it on a spectrum from 1 to 10, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed?

I think this is a counterproductive reduction of a very complicated process. Some aspects of the process of change have been very positive. Others have been very negative. Others have been moderate in the middle.

A lot of people would say 5 in such a situation.

I wouldn’t say that.

Well, okay, the second quantitative question is your personal life over the same period and along the same scale.

In terms of financial status, my personal life has improved. Which is connected to my career and not just the change in the political and social system. But of course the change might have contributed to that.

Finally, when you look into the near future and consider the prospects for Bulgaria over the next couple years, how would you evaluate this?

This depends very much on whom we are talking about. This society has passed through a very intense process of reorganization with income polarization and status polarization. Large portions of society went down. Very few went up. About 10-15 percent generally improved their status as the new middle class. In the near future, I don’t presume any dramatic changes in the situation that we’ve developed over the last few decades.

Sofia, October 4, 2012