Did we have any idea about Bulgaria before seeing it with our own eyes? To be fair, we didn’t. After leaving Turkey to discover the eastern spreads of Europe, we had to acknowledge that our images and our knowledge of these regions were little differentiated. For those who feel the same, we are happy to present a crash course of Bulgarian state of the art, as seen through the Euroskop. For those who are Balkan specialists already, well, it’s latest news. Crossing the country from east to west and spending some days in Sofia unfolded a poor and sceptic, but also very welcoming country before our eyes. A country which is looking towards western Europe as its primary point of reference and hope.
Over the centuries ruled by either the Roman, the Byzantine and later the Ottoman empire, Bulgaria had only declared itself an independant state in 1908, before it was again succumbed to communist rule from 1944 until 1990. Landscape and mentality are significantly shaped by such a history of external determination, as we learn first from passing by the grey remnants of communist gigants and later from a discussion round with students, interviews on Sofia’s streets, and Vessela Tcherneva, spokeswoman to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“People here never learned to trust their political leaders, and right now, I don`t see a reason why they should start doing so.” says Christo, a law student, who seriously thinks about going abroad. He is probably refering to incumbant prime minister Boyko Borisov, who, before throwing himself into politics, had been a bodyguard to the late communist leader Todor Zhivkov. We deduce that he must have been a very alert observer – unlike Dimiter, a boy on the street, who calls him “the biggest mobster in town”. Apparently, Dimiter’s father nearly faced bankruptcy, because his business competed with one related to the prime minister’s circle. But neither press nor civil society are really interested in these stories. There are too many of them. And even if one cared, legal persecution is unlikely. “In 1990, after the communist regime, we wanted to establish an independant judiciary and thus safeguarded its autonomy by constitution.” says Tcherneva. “Today we would love to be able to reform it.” Many of the former Stasi functioneers went into high positions in the new republic, while the numerous lower class party members were the ones to be blamed in public. But the problem doesn’t lie with the old criminals only. In night clubs, frays Dimiter, you can see local criminals commanding respect with childish nicknames and not-so-childish bodyguards. Bad governance makes it a very feasible option to turn towards a criminal career at a very young age. “Seriously, money can buy you everything here.” says Desima. “My father constantly reminds me: Don’t go for the easy path, stay honest.”
For those who try to make ends meet the hard and legal way, western Europe marks the rainbow’s end. Legal security, individual prosperity, and minimal levels of nepotism form the dream of the Bulgarian righteous. Tcherneva holds that Bulgarians tend to compare their standard of living with that of the Germans and the Swiss, rendering themselves more unhappy within their own situation. That might be a reason why everybody here seems to speak a decent English and why many of the young we approach would love to take the next train bound westward. For them, Western Europe means escaping a nation in apathy. But be it due to a lack of opportunity or their love for a country trapped between the Black Sea and a beautiful mountain scenery, many also decide to stay. They primarily think of EU funds, when we mention Europe, which is why for them, Europe stands for money.
Admitted in 2007, Bulgaria is (with Romania) one of the newest members of the European Union. It is the reason why more developed countries like Portugal and Spain had to forego many of the European infrastructure investments they previously enjoyed. Sofia Airport, where we have to drop our beloved intern Carolin – who we herewith thank for her coming – consists of two terminals. One is fine, but out of use; a second is new, gigantic and EU funded. Bodyguard-president Borisov does his best to keep the money flowing and presents himself inaugurating a new highway project every other week. However, many of these projects wait for completion or are never begun, which is one of the reasons why complaints about the embezzlement of millions of EU-ros over the last 5 years are manifesting. The structural discrepancies in politics, jurisprudence, and society prompt us to ask why the EU allowed the country in in the first place. And now, as a member, is Bulgaria to become the next Greece? “Actually,” says spokeswoman Tcherneva, “since our hyperinflation of 3000% in ’96, Bulgaria has always striven to equalibrize its budget. That is why we didn’t even hesitate before signing the fiscal compact.” Structural problems: yes; economic time bomb: apparently not.
Nevertheless, there are reservations on both sides of the table. The country is struggling with the crisis as growth is falling to a a predicted 1% in 2012. Accordingly, anti-European sentiments are rising with every year that the expected jump in incomes and living standards is long in coming. Furthermore, the small European country does not have the feeling to be on par with the older members, which still consider it a candidate, rather than a fully fledged member. The Netherlands blocked the process of making Bulgaria a part of the Schengen treaty, hoping to pressurise president Borisov to implement the necessary structural changes. “Even if that particular political decision by the Dutch is not all helping, the process of preparing membership and joining have been very beneficial for Bulgaria.”, holds Tcherneva. For her it is clear that many of the past reforms could not have been passed without a reference to the EU accession rules. And now that Bulgaria is a member, mechanisms like the CVM (Mechanism for cooperation and verification for Bulgaria and Romania) still help monitoring the changes and guarantee that one day, Bulgaria will be a democratic and developed country - not only on the paper, but also in reality. In that regard, EU means hope, because it allows those who long for a just society to directly refer to western standards.
In some countries we were bored by instances of unreflected national pride. In Bulgaria, we thought that people could handle some, maybe injected by a drastic and successful shift towards a juster society. Europe can help along the way.