Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
Philip Bokov, Bulgarias ambassador to Slovenia
Slovenia and Bulgaria are, respectively, the best-case scenario and the cautionary example of “transition” states. Both have struggled to transform communist-era economic and political structures. Both are now members of the European Union and NATO. But their economic and political realities place them practically on different planets.
Slovenia has a per capita GDP of $29,000 that puts it above all other East-Central European transition states and several West European states as well. Bulgaria’s per capita GDP is less than half, at $13,800, below Belarus, Botswana, and Libya.
In the last UN Human Development Index, Slovenia ranked 21, which put it above the UK, Luxembourg, and the EU average. Bulgaria clocked in at 55, below all other European countries except Serbia and Albania.
In the Catch-Up Index, which grades European countries according to economy, governance, democracy, and quality of life, Slovenia came in at the EU average and Bulgaria was near the bottom of the list, just below Romania. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012, Slovenia ranked 37 while Bulgaria occupied a rather dismal 75th place.
For better or worse, Slovenia has successfully vaulted into Western Europe while Bulgaria has remained behind the informal Iron Curtain that continues to divide the developed from the developing parts of the region.
Philip Bokov is uniquely suited to compare the most successful and the least successful of the reform processes in East-Central Europe. He was involved in the Bulgarian transition first in the Bulgarian foreign ministry, then in parliament as a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and after that part of a breakaway faction of the BSP. Now, he serves as Bulgaria’s ambassador to Slovenia, where he arrived in 2008.
To understand the different trajectories that Bulgaria and Slovenia took after 1989, Bokov identifies historical and cultural factors, such as inclusion in the Austro-Hungarian versus the Ottoman empires. The economic starting points of the two countries were also very different, with Bulgaria heavily dependent on the Soviet market and Slovenia already facing West in the 1980s.
Then there was the geopolitical factor. “The central European countries, and in particular Germany, were very much concerned about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and they didn’t allow Slovenia to fall under,” he told me in an interview in the Bulgarian embassy in Ljubljana last October. “Politically, they adopted it like a child and they nurtured it.”
This geopolitical preference extended to the question of economic reform. “When I came here four years ago I was surprised by how few reforms they had done,” the ambassador observes of the Slovenian reform process. “The majority of the economy here is still in the hands of the government. And they were recognized as a market economy, perhaps as a state market economy with state-ownership. They were adopted by the central European countries, like Germany and Austria, and nobody criticized them for lack of reforms. Bulgaria, meanwhile, was under very heavy pressure.”
In 1990, I interviewed Philip Bokov about the economic and political realities in Bulgaria. In 2012, we revisited these questions with the benefits of hindsight and cross-country comparisons. Our conversation ranged across the pitfalls of privatization, the role of Russia and Turkey, and the future of socialist and social democratic parties in Europe. I’ve appended the 1990 interview below the current conversation.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in New York. I was working for the Bulgarian foreign ministry, and I was at the UN General Assembly. I was sitting in the First Committee [on disarmament and threats to peace] when the East Germans came over and told us that the Wall had fallen. There were news releases from the press agencies hanging in the lobby, so we could read about it straight away.
What did you think when you heard the news?
I thought that major changes were on the way. I didn’t know what the major changes would be, of course. And perhaps nobody expected such type of changes. It was obvious that Europe was changing.
And very soon after that, of course, was the news about the fall of Todor Zhivkov.
Yes, it happened almost during the same time. And I think everybody felt a sense of relief. I think the fall of Zhivkov was expected in Bulgaria. Again, nobody knew what would happen after that, but everybody was united on this.
I want to go back a little bit before 1989. If I remember correctly, you had been involved in the youth department of the Party.
No. I was never a Party worker before 1989. I was in the foreign ministry all the time. For a while I worked as deputy director of Sofia Press Agency, which was a publishing house in foreign languages. So my career development was pretty straightforward from that. Actually I got involved in politics without ever expecting to after the changes started.
It happened in a very interesting way actually. When I came back from New York in 1989, there was no government in Bulgaria. I was appointed spokesperson of the new government, and then within a month I was appointed director of Bulgarian Television. This coincided exactly with when the roundtable started, and there were some disagreements about the way the roundtable was reported on television. The newly emerging opposition forces united in the Union of Democratic Forces wanted to control the way the news was being broadcast. They made an agreement at the roundtable to have a joint working group that would review jointly and agree on the way that the roundtable was reported.
But then, regardless of this decision, the UDF came to me and insisted that only they should have control. And I said I wouldn’t do that. The BSP party organization in television liked this decision—there were party organizations in television—and I was elected a delegate to the 10th congress of the Communist Party. And this is how I happened to run for politics. Before that I had never occupied any elected or non-elected political office.
Before this happened, what career trajectory had you expected?
It was a pretty even and predictable career. A foreign service career can be predicted a long time ahead, and I expected to climb the ladder of this career, ultimately becoming ambassador.
You learned in English in school?
In school, yes. I studied in the Sofia English Language School.
And what motivated your decision to study English?
It was my mother’s decision, actually. When I was about 10, she took me to English language courses. They were extra-curricular English language courses, and I studied English there. Then, when I graduated from the primary school, I had exams for the secondary English school, I was accepted, and that’s how it started.
When we talked 22 years ago, it was not long after the elections. Many people in the opposition were shocked that the BSP won those elections. So we talked about some of the reasons, and I cited the opposition’s charges that there had been manipulation in the countryside. The opposition, of course, had won majorities in major cities but had lost in the countryside. You didn’t think there had been any manipulation, and you said the intellectuals and dissidents were largely in the big cities, and that’s why the opposition had won in the big cities. But at the time you said sociologists and political scientists should study this election very carefully to determine why the BSP won. And I’m curious whether, 22 years later, you’ve thought about why the BSP won. Because that was an important election.
It was. It was a landmark election: perhaps the only election in Eastern Europe where the former communist party did not lose. I don’t remember my explanations at the time, but I think this win can be explained in terms of the development of Bulgarian society. Up to that point Bulgaria had never had very strong dissident movements as in other Eastern European countries. It never had Soviet interventions. Historically the attitude toward the Soviet Union was positive, even among people with a right-wing political orientation. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, even the right-wing parties were pro-Russian, as opposed to the liberal parties that were anti-Russian for ideological reasons. So, generations were brought up here with this attitude toward the Soviet Union.
There is perhaps another explanation: that communism or socialism in the form that it was practiced had not run out its life in Bulgaria. Under communism Bulgaria was industrialized, it was urbanized, and society had changed tremendously. Communism had not reached the point, as in other Eastern European countries, where it had to be replaced. And I think many people still liked it at that time.
Here, as in Poland, there was a similar irony in which the former Communists took over and implemented an economic reform that was in many respects neo-liberal: economic austerity, privatization, the closing of major factories. When we talked, you recognized that it was a somewhat strange situation. I’m curious, 22 years later, whether you think that the BSP had any choice in terms of economic reform. And if it did have any choices, could it have done economic reform any different at that time?
I think that the BSP did not have any choice because of the conventional wisdom that was reigning at that time. But in hindsight now, I don’t think that the conventional wisdom was very wise. The past 20 years have proven that political democracy and market economy are not sufficient to have prosperity. In some countries this has worked; in others it hasn’t.
The typical example is, for example, Slovenia. When I came here four years ago I was surprised by how few reforms they had done. The majority of the economy here is still in the hands of the government. And they were recognized as a market economy, perhaps as a state market economy with state-ownership. They were adopted by the central European countries, like Germany and Austria, and nobody criticized them for lack of reforms. Bulgaria, meanwhile, was under very heavy pressure. Another example is China, which has a developing society without having political freedom. It’s another matter how long this can last, and what would happen if the Communist Party in China departs the scene, for this is the force that is cementing society there.
The conventional wisdom worked in some of the central and eastern European countries—like Poland, for example. And it was thought for a very long time that it had worked in Hungary. But now it turns out that it didn’t. Hungary, 20 years later, has a wobbly economy and lacks a democratic society. So, things in hindsight now look much more complicated than they looked at the time.
And I don’t think that in Bulgaria anybody had a clear idea about exactly what should be done, how it should be done, and where it would lead the country. Because the way the economy has developed, the way privatization has been implemented has brought about tremendous losses to the country with an accompanying drop in living standards.
Why could Slovenia embark on what has been called a “slow transition,” as opposed to a “shock-therapy” transition, and Bulgaria either wasn’t allowed to or couldn’t?
There are two reasons. One is the almost total dependence of Bulgaria on the Soviet market, at that time within Comecon. If I remember the figures correctly, about 60% of Bulgaria’s trade went to the Soviet Union, and 80% to Comecon. Only 20% was with the rest of the world.
Slovenia was a different case. Being part of Yugoslavia at that time, it had a semi-market economy with worker self-management, and it had much closer links with neighboring countries such as Italy, Austria, Germany. This was a question that intrigued me very much when I came here, and I talked to a lot of people about it. One professor in economics told me that because Slovenia was very insistent on leaving Yugoslavia — and this was a general feeling regardless of the political orientation of Slovenians — they were afraid that when they lost the Yugoslav market they would have to compensate this with something. He told me that directors of companies here, which were then “worker-managed,” went in their cars to Austria, to Italy, to neighboring countries to secure orders, to make sure that their companies would continue working. And they were very successful.
The second reason was political. The central European countries, and in particular Germany, were very much concerned about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and they didn’t allow Slovenia to fall under. Politically, they adopted it like a child and they nurtured it. And Slovenia did very well, actually. If you compare the living standards of Slovenia and Bulgaria, they’re worlds apart. The Slovenians have had it very good, the best compared to all the other central and eastern Europeans countries. The Slovak ambassador was complaining to me that the average wage in Slovenia is about 1100 Euro while in Slovakia it’s 600. This is almost twice as much. Of course, now the Slovenians are in for a hard time, because they will have to do some of the reforms—perhaps not all of them—that they missed while the other Eastern Europeans were doing them.
On the question of privatization in Bulgaria, when I talk to people there, it’s one of the greatest complaints. They’re upset about the sales to foreign owners, like the Bulgarian airline, which was basically dismantled. They’re also upset about properties sold to Bulgarians. People feel that it was politically motivated rather than economically motivated. In other countries, privatization was often politicized specifically to ensure the stability of the economic system at a time of great political instability.
This is what the Czechs did. They were more successful in this respect. But see, privatization was not and perhaps still is not such a popular idea, and for very obvious reasons. If you have something which is nobody’s, or so-called government-owned, or socially owned, how do you give it to some member of society?
In Bulgaria, for example, after 20 years of privatization and economic development, people perhaps have come to love capitalism. But they don’t love capitalists. It’s a paradox, and it’s natural. Before, you and your neighbor were living on the same floor of the same block of flats. Your neighbor had almost the same social status as your own, and now he’s driving a Mercedes, his children are studying in London or Berlin, and he goes for holidays in the Maldives. And you’re still in the same situation, or perhaps even worse than 20 years ago. The majority of people feel like this.
I don’t know whether anybody has devised a method to have fair privatization. I don’t think it’s fair. Why should I sell this property to you and not to the person next door? It’s a very devious process that hadn’t been done before. I mean, it had been done in the West, where England for example privatized, nationalized, and privatized the railways several times. But there was not this feeling of injustice.
The situation is similar here in Slovenia. Last year, ambassadors from the European Union had lunch with the then-leader of the opposition, now Prime Minister Janez Jansa. And my British colleague asked him exactly the same question about privatization: “Why isn’t privatization, 20 years after the start of the changes, still not on the platform program of the right-wing political party in Slovenia?” Janza said that in Slovenia, when asked in the opinion polls, 80% of the people are against privatization, and of the other 20% who are in favor, 80% percent of them want the companies to be sold to Slovenians—not foreigners.
So I think in order for the results of privatization to be accepted, several generations would have to pass. It is similar to the initial accumulation of capital, for example, in the United States with the Rockefellers or the Mellons. The emergence of capital has to be forgotten through the generations in order for this to be accepted.
You actually made the same point 22 years ago.
Did I? So, this hasn’t changed, and practice has confirmed this.
You talked about the paradox of people loving capitalism and not loving capitalists. Let’s talk for a moment about that other paradox: people loving democracy and not loving politicians. I could not find very much support for any particular politicians in Bulgaria. And there’s been such a rotation of parties in Bulgaria over the last 20 years. There’s been so little trust in the political system. Why do you think that’s the case?
It’s hard to say that politicians are liked anywhere: they are the usual culprits all the time. But the distrust of politicians in Bulgaria, and in some other countries in eastern and central Europe, has reached unbelievable depths. The reason perhaps is that the politicians have not delivered or, rather, that there had been greater expectations than the politicians could fulfill, and this has inevitably led to disappointment. This has expressed itself in forming new parties, leaving present parties, and so on. This migration from party to party has made the public all the more distrustful of politicians for they think that politicians lack principles and will do anything to get to office.
This process is very intensive in countries like Bulgaria, but it can be observed in Western Europe as well. This has probably been precipitated by the crisis, and the phenomenon is related to economic and social status of people. Look at what’s happening with the Netherlands or other countries with established democracies electing extreme parties. Look at the mistrust within the European Union, which was our guiding star 20 years ago. The EU is in shambles at the moment. There is no leadership. People are getting disappointed.
So, I think it is a general disappointment with politics, which has a more prominent expression in Bulgaria because of the social situation in the country. There was a period in the first decade of the century when the country was growing and people could feel this. Nobody said that the government was good or politicians were marvelous, but they felt in their pockets that things were moving forward. With the crisis all this stopped, of course. Bulgaria for number of reasons maintained its financial and economic stability, but at a much lower level. But the level of distrust and anger among the public increased.
Some people in Bulgaria, and a lot of people outside Bulgaria, have said that the decision to bring both Bulgaria and Romania into the EU was largely a political decision rather than a decision based on the economic status of both countries. And that bringing Bulgaria in early was a missed opportunity because the EU had certain leverage. The EU could have forced whatever Bulgarian government to implement more political or economic reforms. Once Bulgaria was inside the EU, that leverage largely disappeared. What do you think?
Had there not been the prospect of EU membership, reforms would have been much slower. It was a stimulus that exerted pressure on each and every party to make reforms. Maybe the decision to accept Bulgaria was political. But then again if one had waited for Bulgaria to reach the average level of the EU, this wouldn’t have happened in the next probably 20-30 years. So this was unrealistic to expect. I think we were lucky. We squeezed through a window of opportunity that existed until five years ago. Nowadays nobody would accept new members to the Union. The attitude has changed tremendously. Even when Bulgarians and Romanians were negotiating and nearing the end of the process, the lack of support in Western Europe was already evident.
You could also argue that during the Cold War, before the changes of 1989, the West was speaking of uniting the whole continent, but it didn’t have all the countries in mind. They had in mind Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. And then, of course, when 1989 happened the West could not step back and say, “We don’t want Bulgaria, we don’t want Romania.” They had to make a decision about that. So this was lucky for Bulgaria that it could squeeze in. But yes, membership has slowed down the pace of reform.
It’s a two-way process actually. Reforms are not being pursued very intensively in Bulgaria, but at the same time the European Commission is also vilifying Bulgaria. Of course, the level of corruption and crime in Bulgaria is unacceptable — but statistically perhaps it’s not greater than any other country. There was a funny story, perhaps seven or eight years ago in one of the newspapers written by, I think, an African journalist. It was just after George W. Bush was elected. What would one think of a country, he wrote, where the president is elected with fewer votes than his adversary and his brother is the governor of the state that counts the votes that decides the election? And what would one think about a country where the prime minister owns all the television stations—as in Italy—and who adopts laws to exonerate him from court proceedings? These things are passed over sometimes very easily in other countries, but never justified in Bulgaria.
But as a whole I think Bulgaria is moving in the right direction. Not as quickly perhaps as everybody would like, but the country has changed tremendously. We are living in this country all the time, and perhaps we cannot see it from the outside.
When I ask people about positive developments here in Bulgaria, they basically say the same things. They like the new subway system in Sofia and the road projects, like the one between Sofia and Plovdiv. And, of course, as you travel you see all of these signs about EU funding for infrastructure and development.
This actually should have been done much earlier. The Croats borrowed money and built all their infrastructure with borrowed money. This is something the Slovenians did too. One of the first decisions of the transitional government after independence was to connect Slovenia to Italy and Austria, with motor ways, with a tunnel under the Alps. Bulgaria was very slow in this respect. Perhaps because of vested interests.
People were very proud of the fact that Bulgaria paid back its debts and kept a very low debt ratio. It almost reminded me of the Ceausescu period in Romania, because of course Ceausescu basically starved the population in order to pay back debt. Perhaps if Bulgaria had taken on a little bit more debt, it might have been able to stimulate the economy more.
This was a reaction to the banking crisis we had in 1996-97. I think people were burned at that time, and they thought that you shouldn’t borrow money just to be on the safe side. They weren’t prepared at that time for the collapse of the banks, and many people lost their money.
We saw what might have happened in Hungary a couple of years later when they borrowed money and the economy collapsed. This is also a chicken-and-egg question among economists. Is it better to have a slight deficit and encourage consumption, or is it better to suppress consumption in order to be stable?
It depends on where you invest the money and what the return is. And the scale of the borrowing. It’s much better to rely on a medium- or worst-case scenario than on the better scenarios, as many countries have done.
One topic we discussed 22 years ago was the structure of the BSP itself. At the time you said there were two choices: a split in the Party between more conservative and more reform-minded elements or the restructuring of the Party itself. The first would probably lead to the Party’s collapse, you thought, and the second would ensure that the Party would survive. I’m curious what you think happened.
I think the Party survived. But now I think it would have been much better had it split—which I didn’t think at the time. I participated in the meantime in several factions, and I even left the BSP. I was a member of the Euro-Left Party, which was a social democratic party and which lasted for about three or four years. The BSP has moved toward social democracy persistently, but at a very slow pace. This has affected the political life of the Party. In some cases the BSP has acted as a break on social and economic processes, because it was not prepared to move forward and was weighed down by rather conservative elements.
The membership of the BSP perhaps has not changed that much, and it has mainly followed the leadership. The president of the BSP is the head of the Party of European Socialists. Presumably sister parties are recognizing the BSP as a social democratic party at the moment. And the previous governments led by the BSP proved by its policies that it’s a social democratic party. But had it split, this process of becoming a social democratic party would have happened more quickly and easily.
The social democratic side of the political spectrum is rather crowded with a number of parties differentiating themselves in sometimes rather minor ways.
Looking at the political landscape at the moment in Bulgaria, there is only one true party with a program and structures and an ideologically united and motivated membership, and that is the BSP. All the other parties are crypto-parties. We had a party of the former king, for example, in the early 21st century. Now the party in government says that it is a right-wing party, but the majority of its members are former communists and members of the security forces and military men. When not in government, it will probably disintegrate. The so-called traditional right, represented by the former Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) parties, has all but disappeared.
The population is perhaps equally divided between left and right. But while the left can identify with the BSP, there are no political forces on the right with which the voters can identify. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the low voter turnout. Many people simply do not vote because they do not feel that their vote will count.
One other party has survived all this period, and that’s the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
That’s a specific case, I think. It is based on ethnic unity, and it is very difficult to penetrate their electorate. Many parties have tried during this period to have Turks as members of their parties and to elect their representatives in Turkish areas. The leadership has sometimes played with the threat of assimilation and this keeps them together. The voters are not very well educated. They are susceptible to manipulation and propaganda of various types. And this explains the stability of this party. I don’t think, for the foreseeable future, that this will change.
It was announced, just before I left Bulgaria, that a dissident faction has broken off…
There have been many dissident factions actually. What the past 20 years have proven is that any faction is doomed to failure when it splits from the MRF. To a certain extent, the same is true about the BSP. I was a member of a faction that split and we disappeared politically. The BSP simply moved to our point of view, though nobody in the BSP said that we were right. That never happens in politics. All the splinters disappear into thin air, and politics remain stable.
To go back to the Movement of Rights and Freedoms for a moment. Everybody acknowledges that the leadership is authoritarian, that Ahmed Dogan is not particularly democratic in his instincts –
“Particularly” is a weak word, I think.
Yes, and or course his record of collaboration with the secret police came out. But even though everyone acknowledges there are many problems with the MRF, Bulgaria as a country has avoided the kind of ethnic strife that took place elsewhere in the region. And, generally speaking, the relationship between ethnic Turks and ethnic Bulgarians is reasonably good. I’m curious what you think.
I think yes, in the final analysis. Actually I was very much against the MRF, precisely because it is based on ethnic principles. But looking in hindsight now, it has played a positive role in channeling the votes, aspirations, and expectations of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. And it has contributed tremendously to preventing the degeneration of relations between Bulgarians and Turks in events that we have seen around Bulgaria. So from this point of view, yes, the existence of the MRF is positive.
On the other hand, the leadership of the MRF has used this situation to be authoritarian, to be corrupt in many cases, and to exploit their political position because it knew that nobody would pressure them or attack them in order to preserve ethnic peace. So this has been bad. But then, Bulgaria is perhaps one of the newly emerging countries with the biggest national minorities — almost 10% of the population – where the minority has not revolted against the majority. Turkey has also played a positive role in this respect, because it hasn’t encouraged this minority (although many people in Bulgaria would say exactly the opposite).
When I was here 22 years ago, people said that they expected Turkey would play a negative role.
Yes, but this role did not materialize, and I think this was perhaps a sensible choice by the Turks. Also Turkey is surrounded by nations that were not very friendly toward them. Bulgaria is their only outlet to Europe, and I think they wouldn’t want to disrupt this situation. Bulgaria now has very good relations with Turkey. Trade is growing and so are human contacts.
What about the other major neighbor, Russia? I couldn’t help but notice as I was driving around Bulgaria that Lukoil was everywhere. Lukoil gas stations were perhaps the most prominent feature of the landscape. And many people complained about what they perceived as penetration of Russian capital—both legitimate and illegitimate — on the Black Sea.
This is a tremendous problem. I think the Russians still have not given up the idea that Bulgaria is somehow within their domain. They try in every way possible to penetrate Bulgaria. The sale of the Bulgaria refinery to Lukoil was a tremendous mistake. The problem is, how do you control this under capitalism?
I was on holiday last summer along the Black Sea coast, and I was speaking to friends of mine. Some of them deal with real estate and they said, “In the previous ten years there was a huge investment by the British, Irish, and Dutch buying properties in Bulgaria. But with the financial crisis and the collapse of the real estate market, the only ones who buy are the Russians, and how do you stop them?” You can’t. They’re right across the sea. It’s a tremendous problem because ultimately it will have political consequences.
In an ideal world, of course, Bulgaria could serve as a kind of intermediary between Russian and the European Union: an energy hub, a transportation hub.
I know this theory, but why should Russians need an intermediary when they can communicate with the rest of the world without Bulgaria? This is a too ambitious and too Bulgaria-self-centered idea. Of course, it would be good for Bulgaria to be a transit for Russian gas, for example, to have this South Stream pipeline. But at the same time it should also have the Nabucco pipeline, just to maintain its independence. We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket.
Especially if it’s a Russian basket.
The Russian basket is very insecure.
And Bulgaria, unlike Turkey for instance, doesn’t have an economic base with economic leverage.
Turkey is a big economy. During the crisis the Turks have growth of 8.5-9%, but this is because they have a huge internal market. And they have economic relations not only with the European Union, for example, but with the rest of the world. And Bulgaria is a very dependent economy. We’re 90% dependent on fuel imports from Russia.
You’ve been here for almost four years, and you talked a bit about learning from the Slovenian example on the economic side. Are there other lessons from the Slovenian case that you would bring back to Bulgaria and say, “look this is something we can learn from Slovenia”?
We can learn a lot from Slovenia, but the transition has shown in these past years that a lot depends on the national mentality. And you cannot change it. I would have liked, for example, to bring the Slovenian national mentality to Bulgaria, but you can’t just import it. Perhaps it is due to the different empires that the two countries were in. The Slovenians have always been with the Austrians in the Hapsburg Empire. Of course, they were the peasants of the Austrian landlords. But all the time they looked at what the landlords did, and they learned to do the same.
When I came here, for example, I was surprised by the neatness and tidiness of the place. Everything well maintained, well-done. If a Slovenian is building a house and has to finish the pavement in front of the house, he will do it down to the most minute detail and won’t leave it for the next week. The Bulgarian would get tired and say, “I’ll do it next week,” and then it will remain for the next five years.
So, this is a difference of mentality, and it affects everything in the country: political relations, social relations. Of course, this is not always a guarantee of anything. For example, I suppose you know that the present prime minister of Slovenia is being tried. And his counterpart, the leader of the opposition and the current mayor of Ljubljana, was held for investigation two weeks ago. So these things happen everywhere.
Some people say, “When you look at Bulgarians in Europe where they go as temporary workers, they work very hard. But then in Bulgaria they just sit around…”
I think Bulgarians adapt quickly to foreign environments. They’re law-abiding, hard working, industrious. But when they get back home, because there’s no social pressure to make you behave in a specific manner…
The same kind of dynamic was at work in Turkey. Where Turks worked as guest workers, they worked very hard, and then they came back and there was this so-called Ottoman mindset. But then something happened in Turkey in the 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s, and the mindset changed. Turkey suddenly became a very hardworking country—especially in central Anatolia. Some people point to Islam as the critical factor, acting in similar way to the Protestant ethic: postponing gratification, saving money. So I’m curious whether there’s a turning point when the mindset changes.
Perhaps there is. I don’t know when this turning point will come to Bulgaria. Perhaps the work ethnic depends on religion. I don’t know about Islam, whether as a religion it insists on a work ethic. But there are famous works on the work ethic of Protestantism. Orthodox Christianity is not very famous for this. Perhaps part of the reason that Slovenia is as it is is Catholicism. The Catholic Church is very strong here.
When you look back 22 years, are there particular positions you’ve rethought? You’ve talked about the pace of economic reform. You talked about the transformation of the BSP, and how it would have been better if it had actually split. And you’ve mentioned the MRF and the role it played in the Bulgaria. Are there other positions you held 22 years ago that you’ve rethought?
Well, I have rethought my expectations at that time. Nobody, including myself, expected that the transition would take such a long time. Everybody thought that in 5-6 years Bulgaria would get back on its feet, and these sort of reforms would be finished. It turned out to be much more difficult. And unfortunately it is also related to mentality, which takes generations to change. So I am less optimistic now than I used to be 20 years ago.
That leads to the last three questions, which are just very quick quantitative questions. When you look into the future and consider the next couple of years for Bulgaria, how do you assess the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being most pessimistic, 10 being most optimistic?
Bulgaria is very dependent on the overall situation in the world. If this crisis wasn’t going on, I would have rated the chances of Bulgaria at 7. But nobody sees the end of this crisis. This month it is four years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, and there is still no prospect of it being overcome. So, I would rate Bulgaria’s chances at perhaps 4 or 5 — because there is no possibility of Bulgaria developing like it developed in the first decade of the 21st century, when development was based mainly on services, real estate, non-productive sectors. Bulgaria will have to develop specific industries in order to be competitive, in order to grow and develop. It takes time, investment, people who are motivated. But the Bulgarian capitalist class is mainly oriented to the easy buck. There were people in the 1990s who bankrupted their own banks – it’s absurd! They took the money and ran, instead of leaving the banks to their children and grandchildren.
When you look at 1989 and everything that has changed and not changed in Bulgaria until today, how would you evaluate everything on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
I would rate it as 7, perhaps. There are many problems with the country, but the country has changed. Perhaps with the generations that are coming, the pace will become faster.
Finally, the same period of time and same scale but your own personal life, with 1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied?
My problem is that I’m 20 years older! So that’s why I’m dissatisfied. I wouldn’t rate it because there is not much to expect in front of me. Had I been 24, 20 years ago, and then I would have been 44 years, chances would have been 10! Ten out of ten. But not now, not at my age.
Ljubljana, October 17, 2012
The Interview (1990)
Could you distinguish your party from, for instance, the Social Democratic party? I know that at the last Congress, the party struck “democratic centralism” from its platform, but beyond that, I’m a little in the dark about the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s present character.
Well, as you perhaps already realize, the Socialist Party is in a very fluid state and it is a conglomerate of many ideological and political views. Which is only natural since it only began changing last year. And, of course, there are sections of the party, people in the party who are trying to change, others who are trying to keep the previous situation. There are fights and debates between radicals, centrists and conservatives and so on. The 14th Congress held at the end of January was a major step in this change although in the opinion of some people, a step not big enough. There was a compromise at the Congress exactly because of this state of the party and the existence of various factions. Indeed, in the organizational area, the clause on democratic centralism was removed which was a significant break from the past. What was also significant in the platform adopted by the 14th Congress was the revision of some of the basic dogmas of Marxism. For example, the attitude toward socialism. As you realize, in dogmatic Stalinist Marxism, socialism was considered to be a social order that had to built, etc. At the Congress in January, the party rejected this notion and now the platform of the party regards socialism as a process, rather than something set, something specific which has to built.
Now, we are preparing the next Congress, which will be a regular Congress of the party, which will start on the 22nd of September. This week, on Monday, we published a new platform of the party. Since you started with the question what distinguishes the Socialist Party from the Social Democratic party–it is, I suppose, the attitude toward social democracy. There is a group of people in the party who strive for the social democratizing of the party. There is another school of thought which thinks that making the party purely social democratic is not enough in view of the fact that even in the West, parties and social democratic parties included are losing their significance in political terms and there are new social movements coming to the forefront which are influencing society very intensively. So, what this congress of the party will try to do will be to take what is considered to be most acceptable and most useful from Marxism, social democracy and these new social movements that exist. By the way, they came into existence in this country as well: the Greens, various other civic initiatives. So, the idea is to reform the party into a new left-wing party which will be oriented already toward the 21st century, incorporating everything positive and useful from present-day experience of socialists, social democrats and other alternative social movements. This is one of the differences.
There is another difference which is organizational. The constitution adopted by the Socialist Party after the changes in January is trying to become much more democratic than the Social Democratic party’s constitution. For example, we do not have expulsions: we cannot expel our members. The Social Democrats have this provision. This change toward a democratic constitution was made deliberately because we want to encourage the opening of the party toward society. Until last year, the party to a great extent resembled a sect which was self-sufficient because of lack of competition. Now, we want to encourage people to get into contact easily with our party, to become our sympathizers, to take part in various activities of our party, even without becoming full members of the party.
I have the feeling, personally, from watching events in Bulgaria, that the Social Democratic party, although it accepts of course all the major documents of the Socialist International, by its mentality bears too much from the past. This is perhaps due to the fact that the leaders of the party were in prison in the 1940s and they have this imprint. I sometimes characterize it as a “mothball imprint.” Some of them still live in the 1940s and 1950s. We, of course, would like to make a clean break with the past.
You are in charge of ideology for the party?
That is a broad description because ideology is a very unclear thing now. What I’m in charge of actually is public relations. I deal with newspapers, television, etc. And, of course, we are going to encourage ideological debate within the party. I should say that the party now has no set ideology. As I told you, we are prepared to accept for example, many things from Marxism. We don’t reject Marxism altogether. For example, the method of analysis of Marxism: even many people who do not consider themselves Marxists use it. But we want to incorporate the ideas of many different movements. For example, a large number of ideas lying behind the market economy both in the opposition and in our economic program sometimes bears resemblance to neo-conservatism as it was applied in the beginning of the 1980s in the West.
I understand that the ranks of the Party have been thinned in the political department: from 14,000 to something like 2000.
We are cutting very heavily the apparat, the people we employ, for two reasons. One reason is because we want to get rid of the influence of the apparat on the political bodies elected within the party, very characteristic of the proletarian period in this country. The second reason is pragmatic: we simply don’t have the funds to employ these people. After Jan. 1 this year, we wanted to stop subsidizing parties and political organizations in this country. And now we must rely on dues and some economic activity to support the party. We’re cutting about seven-fold. Then we will count on voluntary work.
The Party will have a Congress in September. I’ve heard many rumors of division within the Party. What are your expectations?
It is very difficult to predict. There is this possibility that the party will split. Of course, what will be important will be where the dividing line lies: whether in the middle or somewhere near the flanks. And this of course will determine the validity of the party and its capacity to participate in political life in this country. There are people, some of the radical movements for example, who believe that a split in the party is inevitable and even necessary, that the party should reinvigorate itself. There are other people, and I belong to this section, who think that the party can be reinvigorated avoiding a split by renewing itself and creating a totally new party on a totally new basis. I think this is possible because there is an engrained instinct–which is perhaps a remnant of the past among party members–for unity of the party. This instinct might make people who do not perhaps agree with the present policy of the party to rethink their view and make it possible to join this party.
There are two ways. A split and a restructuring. If the party succeeds on the second road, then this is the only chance for it to remain a viable political force in Bulgaria. Besides, as you have noticed perhaps, there are many dissimilarities between Bulgaria and other East European countries. One of the reasons perhaps for these dissimilarities is that we in the Socialist party in this country were able to watch the processes in the former Communist parties in other East European countries and we drew some lessons from their mistakes. I think a split in the party will be a mistake and will relegate the parties that come up after the split to the outskirts of political scene.
What roughly is the membership of the BSP?
850,000 from about a month ago. We have information that about 120,000 people are not accounted for from figures that we had in the beginning of the year.
Have you applied for membership in the Socialist International?
We haven’t done this formally although we had contacts with them and we wrote two letters to the SI explaining what was happening in our party, the changes, etc. But I think the attitude of the SI is wait-and-see: to see where the party goes and how it develops. Besides, there is the awkward situation that the Social Democratic party is a member.
In the election there was a distinct disparity between town and country. The opposition argued that the BSP made a lot of promises to workers and farmers in the countryside. Come local elections, the promises unkept, the opposition argues, people will overwhelmingly back the opposition. Do you see merit in this argument?
I think that is a superficial argument, actually. It is an argument that the opposition uses for propaganda and public relations. The fact is true that the cities voted for the opposition. But I don’t agree with the reasons they give for this. Some of their more aggressive members claim some things that sound absurd. Because of the lack of sugar in the shops, for example, they say that the BSP gave away sugar to the voters. I think there are some reasons which are sociological and merit a separate investigation. Neither we nor the opposition have gone that deep into studying the results of the elections yet. One of the reasons of the success of the opposition in the cities lies in the state of Bulgarian society and Bulgarian urban society. We are all of peasant origin. All of us, our parents, were peasants until 30 or 40 years ago. Bulgarians living in the cities do not have social roots because of this migration has left them with one leg in the village, the other in the city. They do not have a social identity and they are much more susceptible to influences from one or the other side. This is the second reason.
The first reason is that the intellectuals live in the cities–they are much more radical than other people. They were the people who suffered most under the last regime and are much more prepared to oppose what they see in the Socialist party as a remnant of the former Communist party. We were careful during our campaign not to make promises that could not be fulfilled. This was a policy of the party clearly set forth before the elections started.
I think the reason for this division lies in some mistakes that the opposition made during the campaign. One of the reasons was the very quick anti-Communization of the opposition. The Communist idea, not in its aggressive form, but in its form of social justice, has very deep roots in this country and I think the election results show this. The moving of the opposition towards anti-Communism scared many people that there might be a witch hunt after the election as the opposition tried to settle old scores. One of the major pre-election topics was the repression in Bulgaria immediately after the war and in the 1940s and 1950s. They started digging up old graves, etc. There was this sinister side of the opposition that some of the electorate saw.
Then, one of their mistakes was the demonstration of anti-Sovietism. Bulgaria is quite unlike other countries in Eastern Europe in that anti-Sovietism has very little influence in this country because of historical and traditional reasons. This also made a section of the electorate careful of the opposition.
But the major mistake of the opposition in the countryside was their attitude toward the agrarian issue and reform. The agrarian policy of the opposition was that, when they came to office, they would abolish cooperative and return land to the previous owners of the 1940s and 1950s. Which, if it happened, would have left a lot of people landless. Many of the people in the villages have their prosperity because of the cooperative farms: they were very poor before that. The opposition tried to use some major deficiencies of the previous system in agriculture connected with the concentration of agriculture in large units which did not work. But this only happened in the last 12-16 years. Before that, cooperative farms were doing quite well and people saw that they were doing well and were happy. So this fear that if the opposition came into office, things would return to the 1940s and 1950s was the major factor that influenced the choice of these people. The opposition made this mistake and I could understand it as I watched them. One of their major elements is the Agrarian Union of Nikolai Petrov which was abolished in the 1940s–it was the opposition after the war. This party was using policies from the 1940s that were already outmoded. But the opposition could not do anything because the Agrarian Union was a major component and they had to rely on it.
I read recently in Duma what seemed to be an editorial–it wasn’t identified. Actually, it was quite disturbing. To use the English expression, it played the nationalist card, talking about bringing impure influences into the Motherland. Granted, the opposition has also played the nationalist card, but perhaps you could explain why the Socialist Party used this tactic?
The national issue is very sensitive as you probably realize. It has two aspects. One aspect is the fate of Bulgarians outside present day borders of Bulgaria. Ever since its inception in the last century, Bulgaria’s territory has been shrinking, because of war, etc. The nationalist cause has always been a very important issue in Bulgaria. Nationalism made Bulgaria fight four wars until the Second World War and lost all of them. A lot of Bulgarians remained outside the borders. After WWII, when the Communist Party came into office, because of internationalism, the nationalist idea was forbidden and it did not have any public existence. Because of this, Bulgaria has never shown any concern for Bulgarians living abroad: many people were assimilated into the surrounding countries. You know, perhaps, the Macedonian issue. Yugoslavia has used this issue in order to try to exercise influence on Bulgaria–connected with Bulgarians living in southwestern Bulgaria, the smallest part of Macedonia which remained inside Bulgaria after the Second Balkan War. While Yugoslavia has not allowed any Bulgarian national identity to become public in Yugoslavia and during the last 45 years, Bulgaria has been totally silent on these issues. Now, for the first time, we are talking about these issues and this is interpreted as nationalism, especially on the part of Yugoslavia.
The other aspect of the national issue is of course the ethnic issue in Bulgaria connected to Turks. You are aware of the previous policy of Zhivkov of name-changes, trying to assimilate them, which was perhaps one of his greatest crimes as the leader of this country. It is also sensitive because as a reaction to this policy of Zhivkov, Turkish nationalist organizations have come into existence in this country. Among many politicians, including on the opposition side, there is a suspicion that the organization that elected members of parliament from the Turkish areas, has very clear Turkish nationalist connotations. the coming into existence of these Turkish nationalist organizations. The name of this movement: the movement for Freedom and Human Rights–they claim that they are not a movement based on ethnic origin but rather that they work for the freedom and human rights of all. But if one looks at where they campaign and hears their speeches, it is doubtless that they are a movement based on ethnic origin of its members. So this movement causes another reaction on the Bulgarian side which also starts to organize on an ethnic, nationalistic basis. I think this is one of the most explosive issues because this movement cannot be viewed outside of the context of Bulgarian-Turkish relations, what Turkey does to encourage this movement. There is also the fear that this movement might put up the question of autonomy in this country, which might be encouraged by Turkey. We are very aware of Turkish policies in the last 20-25 years in Cyprus. So, it is a very touchy issue for everybody. And as far as I understand, there is some sort of unanimity between ourselves and the opposition: that this issue should not be exploited for political gain. Although, initially, the opposition in December and January exploited the issue for political ends. But then they realized very soon that this was not bringing them the results they expected.
Obviously I expect a nationalist reaction to a call for Turkish rights. But I wonder about the location of that impulse within the Socialist Party, a party that has been and I assume still is, committed to a form of internationalism.
Well, especially on the ethnic issue in Bulgaria, I think we should go a different way. We shouldn’t go the way of securing human rights for Turks; we should secure human rights for everybody. Everybody has human rights, Turks also have human rights. Even in the European context of the CSCE, this has been one of the trends. This is the only way not to put emphasis on ethnic or national question. If one goes in another direction, inevitably the issue will come to the division of borders which would be very destabilizing.
Let’s turn to economic reform. You mentioned earlier the borrowing from the neo-conservative tradition. I find this odd: you might even call it an unholy marriage.
I mentioned neo-conservatism, but it is this way only if you look at the surface of the development. We are in the position when the state has total control of the economy and we want to reduce and broadly eliminate this government control. This is, of course, the market economy which we are trying to introduce. In this way, it has something to do with neo-conservatism which claimed that it was reducing government control. We need to create a market economy with equal opportunities for all kinds of property ownership, public, cooperative, private. The opposition puts the emphasis on the private. We think that after so many years of totalitarian rule, various types of property ownership should be encouraged to compete between each other: and this kind of competition will show which is most efficient. We needn’t go the same way that the Communist Party did after the war by claiming that only government or public ownership that is good. We have to let economic forces work and see what happens.
We are for the market economy. But, being socialist compels us to think about the social factors and realizing that this transition will be very difficult for the majority perhaps of this country, even for those people who will not lose their jobs but will have to change work under the new conditions. We feel that the government and the state should adopt a policy of securing some social guarantees for these people. We are in a very strange situation. We are neither socialist nor capitalist. There is no capital market, for instance: there is no capital! A period of initial accumulation of capital will take place here and we do not want it to resemble the period of initial accumulation of capital in the West 300 years ago. We have to avoid this wild capitalism before becoming a modern country.
Well, it sounds good. But on specific economic issues, for instance indexation, the BSP took what could be called a hardline austerity position, the previously official trade union called for 100 per cent and Podkrepa came in the middle. It seems to my mind that the party’s conception of reform and the reform of the neo-conservatives goes beyond mere surface comparisons.
Well, I think, this policy of the Socialist government is that we have to work with what we have. Perhaps nobody accuses the Mazowiecki government in Poland that is introducing the austerity program. I am sure that if the opposition had been in office in this country, the situation would be the same. Because we must operate with the resources that we have. All the appeals for 100 per cent indexation I think are just the result of not being aware of the economic situation or perhaps political propaganda. It is of course very difficult to apply what we claiming as a policy because of the economic state of the country. We have to find the dividing line between social measures and letting the country accumulate capital necessary for setting the economy into motion again. One of the reasons for the economic situation we are in–aside from the incompetent economic policies of the previous governments–is the total collapse of the economic system and economic structures that the Bulgarian economy was geared to. We were linked to the Soviet Union and Comecon and now all of this has disappeared. And by the way this linkage was working quite well until 10 years ago because Bulgaria had the two major factors that an economy must have: raw materials and secure markets. Now the collapse of this structure is perhaps the first major reason for the collapse of the Bulgarian economy. So, lack of resources and lack of capital now is the major problem for our economy. Bulgaria has the infrastructure and the enterprises but they are simply not working because they have nothing to work with. If we can generate the capital and resources, the coming out of the crisis won’t be far away.
Recently, the opposition has begun giving away food in the square. I would have thought that the BSP might have initiated such activity.
It is question that is difficult to answer. Perhaps we have lost the tradition of charity and nobody thought about it. I don’t know whether it is the opposition or some private charity. Nobody thought about this. Nobody realized that there were so many poor people who wanted to have some soup.
Some say that the members of the former nomenklatura, for political reasons, should be condemned. Others say, for economic reasons, they should be encouraged to find a place in the new system to ensure stability. Do you have this phenomenon of “red capitalism” in Bulgaria?
There is much talk about this, and perhaps there are cases of this. Though I am very careful about using the term “nomenklatura” because it implies that anybody who has been in any sort of position in the previous regime is “nomenklatura” and he or she must be ostracized. But the system in this country, and in other countries in Eastern Europe, the governing party, because it was the only party and was the only way of securing a career, attracted very competent people. The majority of competent people involved in the economy are still members of the Socialist party. So, eliminating all these people from public and economic life would be bad for the country. There are many examples. Take a restaurant manager, for example. Three years ago, the government started renting these restaurants to people to build a franchise. Many of them starting doing much better than when they were government. The same people were doing the job. Which shows that it is not the personalities: it is a matter of the system, of organization, of incentives. So I wouldn’t support a policy that would be aimed at eliminating people who have done things in the past regime simply on political grounds. I have the feeling that appeals like these come from people who either have been unable to succeed under the previous system because of lack of personal qualities, for example and they think by eliminating these people they will have a better chance. From a national point of view, it is better to let everybody who is capable and enterprising to do whatever they like, regardless of whether they were involved in the previous regime. I wonder why we are not using the experience of countries like Spain, for example, where they signed this pact among all political parties. They tried not to rake over the past, or bring up the past every time they had a dispute. They tried to look into the future and this worked quite well. Here, in Bulgaria, we are much more vindictive and preoccupied with the past. Although we know the future is grim, we are still not thinking about the future.