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Bulgaria won't be celebrating 1989

Bulgarians never reconciled with their communist past, and they worry about the present.

A commission to declassify Bulgaria’s state security services’ archives began its work in earnest only two years ago, much later than other Eastern Bloc countries. While the commission has triggered minor scandals by exposing politicians as former collaborators, including sitting President Georgi Parvanov, bureaucratic roadblocks hinder complete access to the files.

Recent leaders have given Bulgaria little to cheer about, too. Successive governments have failed to tackle important reforms, such as improving the judicial system and curbing corruption.

Last year, the EU suspended around 430 million euros ($600 million) in aid to Bulgaria because no one could account for how the money was spent. The suspension occurred after years of warnings from Brussels about Bulgaria’s failure to nab high-profile, alleged mafia bosses, who presumably stole the cash.

Many of those alleged mafia bosses are former communist apparatchiks, further stoking cynicism about 1989, said Vessela Tcherneva, an analyst at the Center for Liberal Strategies, another Sofia think tank. Referred to as “mutri,” or mugs, they have grown rich by exploiting their prior government connections to abscond with public cash and property.

“There is still a very strong notion the 10th of November was a coup engineered by the communist elite for the sake of holding on to their privileges,” Tcherneva said. “The Bulgarian transition has been perceived as something relatively unfair. And rightly so. People don’t really see 1989 as something they have ownership over.”

Paradoxically, the lingering power of ex-communists has generated nostalgia for the certainties of the Soviet era, especially among the so-called “red grandmothers,” or seniors who still view Moscow as Bulgaria’s Slavic cousin and protector.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that 45 percent of Bulgarians viewed Russia’s influence as positive. Bulgaria came second only to Ukraine, which hosts a large Russian population. The same poll found that 62 percent of Bulgarian respondents said life was better under communism.

Of course, some Bulgarians were positive about the gains of the last 20 years. Zhelyu Zhelev, a dissident who served as Bulgaria’s first democratically elected president from 1990 to 1997, said the absence of commemorations at least shows the real will of the people.

“Bulgarians have a little allergy to big manifestations,” Zhelev said. “During socialist times, it was obligatory to go out on the street and demonstrate. Now they don’t.”