A Romanian student made an interview on the Bulgarian transition with the editor of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” for his B.A. thesis
Vladimir Mitev (b. 1983) is a Bulgarian journalist and Romanian language speaker. He was born in the city of Rousse. He has degrees in Iranian Studies and International Relations from the University of Sofia. He has worked as an international desk journalist in the weekly magazine “Tema”. In September 2015 he founded the blog “The Bridge of Friendship”, which he develops in Romanian, Bulgarian and other languages on issues from the political, economic and cultural life in Romania, Bulgaria and the world. Starting from 2017 he is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian section of the site “The Barricade”, which is an international progressive platform that unites voices from Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe. At this moment he is doing a Ph.D. research in Persian literature at the University of Sofia.
This interview is part of the B.A. research “Transition from communism towards democracy in Romania and Bulgaria. Successes, failures, expectations”, which was defended in July 2020 at the Western University in Timişoara by Devid-Raul Ciobanu.
What are the factors, which influenced the change of regime in 1989 in Bulgaria?
I think that the factors are mostly external. The economy of the socialist countries, including the Bulgarian one, just as the economy of the Western countries had problems, related to indebtedness. But the wind of change came from the outside, from the Soviet Union and Gorbachev. Todor Zhivkov had differences with Gorbachev in various aspects – e.g. about the necessary economic reforms. Also, Gorbachev wanted to liberate the USSR from the burden of the disadvantaged trade with the Eastern bloc, which led to an attempt for Bulgarian economic reorientation towards Germany and Japan… Those who came to power after the palace coup were pro-Moscow and pro-Gorbachev people.
Why were the change of the regime and the transitions peaceful in Bulgaria unlike the case of Romania, where there was a bloody revolution?
In Bulgaria just like in all the countries of Central and Southeastern Europe (without Romania) transition was negotiated between the elites. They didn’t feel in any moment deficit of power. So a big part of them were not forced to apply violence, because of such a non-existing deficit. But it must be noted that at a later moment there was violence upon the people in Bulgaria, exercised by the so-called “mutri” (racketeers). The explanation behind that is that some part of the old security lobbies were disbanded and these people, having awakened themselves outside the state, used their networks of dependent sportsmen and criminals to transform the power of their connections in economic power.
What is your opinion when you hear the phrase “The city of Rousse and its ecological protests have influenced the change of the regime in Bulgaria”?
The ecological protests of the 80s against the aerial pollution coming from Giurgiu led to the establishment of the first dissident organisations in Bulgaria – Eko Glasnost (which dealt with ecology) and the Committee for Glasnost and Restructuring. They represented a sign that among the Bulgarian political elites a certain division appeared. But the change of the regime took place inside the Bulgarian elites (as an answer to the changes in the world). It was an internal affair of the tops. The role of those organisations should not be exaggerated.
How much have the political elites and the civil society contributed to the fall of communism in Bulgaria?
I have already answered this question above.
How did the policies of Todor Zhivkov in the period 1985-1989 be felt on a national level?
This policies were related to nationalism (which was demonstrated in the campaign for change of names of ethnic Turks, which is called “The Big Excursion” – and made approximately 300 000 ethnic Turks flee in Turkey in 1989), in efforts for economic reforms towards individual entrepreneurial initiative, and even certain “democratisation” in the sense of giving voice to the younger generations through the Komsomol (the youth organisation of the Bulgarian communist party).
What did the Bulgarian post-communist economy look like? What processes took place in it?
In the beginning Bulgarians had money and there were a lot of small enterprises. A liberalisation of many economic and social domains took place. Over time the negative tendencies strengthened. Corruption, deindustrialisation, unemployment and inflation plagued the second half of the 90s. After the financial crisis of 1996-1997 Bulgaria opened for the international capital. The privatisation of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s destroyed a great part of the industrial heritage from the times of socialism. At the same time a process of reindustrialisation through the development of the export economy unfolded. It strengthened with the foreign investments, after Bulgarian entered the EU. Another important process is the growth of the importance of the euro in the Bulgarian economy, which followed the introduction of a currency board in 1997 and the pegging of the lev to the German mark, later the euro.
What are the main domains, in which there was an immediate transition after the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria?
Bulgaria hurried to change its constitution. The monopoly of the Bulgarian Communist Party upon politics was eliminated. Civil rights were reconstitutions – right to free movement, to association, etc. The economic transition was more difficult. It took place through various shocks for the population.
What was the behaviour of the people and their attitude towards the new challenges of democracy? How did the way of life of Bulgarians was changed?
In the beginning of the 90s there was liberalisation of life and there was a feeling of vital power among citizens. On the other hand, society entered in a kind of political division between two types of old communists – those who rebranded themselves as socialists and those who rebranded themselves as anti-communists. These lines of divisions have destroyed a lot of families. At the same time the new conditions have chances for the young and initiative people to study in the West and make connections with the outer world. A competition at many levels started. A lot of people, who have been integrated into the old economy, could adapt to the new life. The usage of narcotics grew. Many people comitted suicide . The skills, which were necessary in the socialist society, were no longer necessary in the new society. So the new times were a test for most of the people.
To what extent did the main political leaders and parties of the Bulgarian post-communism (the period 1990-2000) answer the real problems of the Bulgarian society and the real needs of the people?
I think that the political leaders of those times were mostly occupied with the transformation of their political power in an economic power. They didn’t know how to be visionaries. They limited their activity to promises. The reforms of those times had many problems.
After the fall of socialism, the social costs for the transition were high and in 1997 there was an acute economic crisis in Bulgaria. How was this crisis felt among the citizens? How did it affect society?
The society was heavily hit by hyperinflation. I remember that I was a student and at that moment I ate only bread and butter. The salaries of many people were only a few dollars. This crisis meant the opening of Bulgaria for neoliberalism and the end of the autochthonous solutions. Sofia had already applied for accession to the EU in 1995. After this crisis the neoliberal consensus of transition was formed around the currency board.
How efficient was the way in which the changes in the economic, social, political domain were introduced?
To a large extent I have already answered what changes took place in those domains. I think that in the 90s the governments were very inefficient. I mean – they didn’t realise progress, but mostly destruction. But on the other hand, Bulgaria is today a very capitalist and neoliberal country. So the effectiveness existed in this sense – that capital was strengthened. There is a need for another type of “effectivity”, which counterbalances capital with labour.
How and in what way did you feel the opening of Bulgaria towards the EU?
I was born in the city of Rousse and I have always wanted to travel to Romania. Before accession to the EU, in 2007, I had to bring with me a large sum of money, in order to be allowed to travel for one day to Bucharest. After the accession to the EU I could travel without barriers.
Bulgaria’s opening to the EU was felt before everything in economic sense through the presence of the European multinational companies, through the increased possibilities for studies and professional development, etc.
Social mobility could be a way to feel the opening towards the EU. But it is accessible only to the younger and better educated Bulgarians.
What were the main promoted policies in Bulgaria in the pre-accession period. What were the advantages which worked to the benefit of Bulgaria’s entering in the EU? What were its weaknesses, which delayed the accession?
Bulgaria has a strategic geographical position and added value in the Western Balkans and in the region of the Black Sea. It doesn’t feel supported in the West, in the way it is believed that France supports Romania. Of course, Bulgaria is a country, which has attachment to Germany for various reasons. But I think this less attractive profile of my country is a problem.
How much were the results of political and administrative corruption felt in the period before the accession to the EU?
Bulgaria didn’t have a fight against corruption, as Romania did until 2018. I think that one explanation for this is the weakness of the state. Another reason could be the geopolitical imperatives, which put an umbrella upon many political factors. In the pre-accession period and after it, there was a lot of talk about corrupt privatisation, about lobbyist legislative modification. In any case, the resistance against those tendencies was never sufficiently strong to stop them.
When you take into account the answers to the above questions, why did the process of transition from communism to democracy take place slowly and finish only in 2007 together with the accession to the EU? What is our position regarding the transition from communism to democracy in Bulgaria?
Things happened slowly, because Bulgaria is in the EU’s periphery. Also, in the beginning the Bulgarian elites didn’t know what market economy meant. We were adapting alone and often chaotically to the standards of modernity. I am a man who is probably a winner from the transition – because I speak at a different level 4-5 foreign languages and have education from the best university of Bulgaria – the University of Sofia. But on the other hand, I am active in journalism, which is a very precarious domain. What I realise in the last 5 years as a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist wouldn’t have been possible without the democratisation and Europeanisation of our countries. I believe that the transition has taken a lot of victims. Enormous price was paid. A feeling of injustice strengthened in society. Transition also had its successes. But its wounds have to be cured.
What marked you in the whole process of transition from communism to democracy, taking into consideration the fall of communism, the whole process of transition and the accession to NATO and the EU?
I think that transition meant a series of traumas for those who didn’t have a clear idea where they were heading to. But what marked me were not the big measures. My parents provided me with sufficient economic security in order to be able to graduate from a university. Something, which marked me at an early age was the inequality and the concomitant aggressiveness of people from the same generations, whose families had greater economic might. Bulgaria was an egalitarian society until 1989. The new social standard of the rich people was imposed through a certain degree of violence, which dehumanised both “the successful” people and their victims. The dehumanisation of transition is something, which must be corrected and here I see a role to be played by the progressive social movements.
Photo: Sofia gathers poverty and abundance at one place (source: Pixabay, CC0)
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