Bulgaria’s younger generation carries the past more lightly.
Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.My current project focuses on re-interviewing the people I talked to in East-Central Europe in 1990. But if I restricted my interviews to this group of people, I’d get a rather skewed picture of the region today. After all, I’d miss out on an entire generation of people that was too young to participate in the changes or was born afterwards.
To ensure that I have a more balanced picture, I thought it would be interesting to interview the children of the original interviewees. Nevena Milosheva-Krushe, the daughter of Mariana Milosheva-Krushe, is the first of these interviews.
Like many people of her generation, Nevena has no direct experience of the communist era. She was only two years old in 1989. She remembers the stories that her elders told her. But 1989 is as far away in time for her as the 1960s were for my generation (it took me a long time, for instance, to realize that Woodstock was something other than a character in the Peanuts comic strip).
Nevena works in one of the multinational companies with an office in Sofia. She is rather optimistic by temperament, a trait she shares with her activist mother but which is sometimes a sentiment in short supply in Bulgaria. And because of her contact with other ethnic groups and her own time spent abroad, she highly values multiculturalism.
“Since I was little, I had contacts with different groups through my mother,” she told me. “And then in the university we had people from different ethnic groups and also different countries, mostly from the Balkans. And in Amsterdam, we had people from very different places. I really don’t like generalizations that all people from this group are such and such. I experienced the same thing in Amsterdam: ‘You’re a Bulgarian and this means that you are not hard-working and so on.’”
It is perhaps this awareness of the outer world – and how the outer world perceives Bulgaria – that distinguishes the younger generation from those who lived during the communist period. From an early age the post-communist generation has travelled outside of Bulgaria and/or has had access to all sorts of global media. They carry the past more lightly and are often bemused by the intense arguments that still rage over what took place before they were born.
Of course, young people in Bulgaria are all over the map, literally as well as ideologically. There are young neo-fascists and young farmers and young populists and young drug addicts and young rock musicians and many many young people who are living outside of Bulgaria. Many of these young people share little in common except for the generation gap that separates them from their dinosaur parents. But that gap doesn’t seem very large in the case of Nevena and her mother.
When did you first realize that you were living in a country that was completely different before you were born?
There were many things that were different compared to other countries. For instance, I remember the stories of when we had only one kind of chocolate or standing on line for bread. One of my first memories, when I was younger than 8 years old, is my grandmother telling me about the fall of the Berlin Wall. When I was 8, I traveled for the first time abroad and the difference was huge. We went to Switzerland.
Ah, well the difference between Switzerland and most countries is huge! Your mom said that you got a business degree. Where did you get that?
In Amsterdam. It was my master’s degree. My bachelor’s was at the American University in Bulgaria.
How was that experience at the American University?
Very interesting. Our educational system is much worse than the Western European and American education. But I wanted to be in Bulgaria, so that was my choice.
Were all the classes in English?
Was your English pretty good when you graduated high school?
I studied some subjects in English in high school. But I needed to study quite a lot more: to learn business terms and so on.
You were interested in business early on in life?
No, actually, I wanted to study politics. I started with politics at the university. But then I wanted to stay in Bulgaria and honestly I didn’t feel like going into politics in Bulgaria. I took a business course and it was very interesting. But I also studied journalism as a second degree.
You said you wanted to stay in Bulgaria. Why?
Because I am more optimistic than most people. Many things have improved a lot here, even though people are quite negative about everything around here most of the time. Many things continue to improve regardless of what specific party is ruling.
A lot of your classmates didn’t stay in Bulgaria. Did you have arguments trying to persuade them to stay or did they try to persuade you to go?
Yes, we had arguments. But to be honest, then I went to Amsterdam for a year for my masters. What was most different there was that it was more organized. It can be quite tempting to stay somewhere else. But again, I have my family and friends here.
You weren’t tempted to stay in Amsterdam?
A little bit. But finding a regular-level job there was much more difficult than finding one here.
It was easy to find a job here when you got back from Amsterdam?
Yes. I got a job at a company called Shevana. We deal with service departments for employees traveling around the world.
What are your responsibilities?
I’m in marketing and sales. We do different campaigns, communicating with different kinds of customers.
Customers just in Bulgaria?
That’s why you have to speak English.
You’ve seen Amsterdam. You’ve studied business. How would you evaluate the business climate here in Bulgaria? Is the workplace here basically the international standard? Or are there some things that are really frustrating?
I think it’s getting better and better. Many international companies have offices here by now. Most of the bigger ones and some smaller ones. Of course we’re a good destination. The salaries can be lower but at the same time the work standard is good. In Amsterdam, the salaries would be quite higher.
Can you give an example of something that was frustrating that is no longer frustrating?
At the beginning many companies were not paying maximum health benefits. For the past five years, this has been much better.
You said at one point that you decided not to do politics. Do you think the political situation has improved?
I think there’s some improvement. For example, it might sound strange, but now we have a subway line. Of course we also have more traffic. On social issues, I think it’s getting a bit better. There’s more tolerance of differences than some years ago. Of course, there’s still some problems, many problems, but I think it’s improving a bit. More foreigners are visiting the country than before.
In your free time you mentioned that you do volunteer work?
I haven’t had a lot of time for it, but I’ve helped my mother on some of her projects. But I’d like to help children, orphans, in my free time.
She mentioned that your friends and colleagues are also interested in volunteering.
For example, I have one friend working in a bank for seven years who also feels like doing something in his free time, because business gets a little tiring. You need to not just sell products but help people, without any salary. Most people are not doing a lot. But there is a desire to do more. But then we also have to stay at work quite late.
Have you gotten involved in any of the big environmental actions?
I’ve heard about them. But I’m more interested in topics connected to children or discrimination. I have a friend who works for this type of organization. I’m thinking of helping her.
On the issue of tolerance, you’ve said that the situation on the street is a little better and there are more visiting foreigners. But there’s also the anti-Roma sentiment. How do you explain these two things?
In other countries also, there’s been these tendencies after the collapse of the communist regimes: prejudice but also some improvement in tolerance. Before, we had the same Ataka type of thing, but it was not public. These people had the same views.
They just didn’t open their mouths in public?
Yes. And they didn’t have such a political party.
How much contact did you have with other Bulgarians of different ethnicities when you were at school or growing up?
Since I was little, I had contacts with different groups through my mother. And then in the university we had people from different ethnic groups and also different countries, mostly from the Balkans. And in Amsterdam, we had people from very different places. I really don’t like generalizations that all people from this group are such and such. I experienced the same thing in Amsterdam: “You’re a Bulgarian and this means that you are not hard-working and so on.”
In the business community here, is it mostly ethnic Bulgarians?
Mostly. But there are different people. The companies are international and for them it’s only important whether you do your job.
On the Roma issue, I’ve talked with people about three different policy directions: good jobs, good education, and political power. Which do you think is most important?
Education. But at the same time, in order to to start with education and get to political power we need to be more tolerant. In schools, for instance. Most Bulgarians are not very nice to other ethnicities.
Can you give some examples?
I remember in my first to fourth grade school, we had two Roma kids and they were mostly not treated in a nice fashion. That was not okay with me. We should start by understanding each other’s cultures.
Was there any Roma information in your textbooks or your classes when you were growing up?
Ethnic Turkish culture?
Only from the history textbooks about when we were enslaved by the Ottomans. But that was a long time ago. We should now just look at people as people.
What about at the American University? Were there classes about Roma or ethnic Turkish culture?
In the United States, the civil rights movement went hand in hand with a change in textbooks. It’s hard to have a change in people’s attitudes without that change in education. You were lucky to have your mother.
You’re right about education. We need to learn more about their culture. That would help people understand each other better. We can start with that.
You were more pessimistic about the future than you were in your assessment of the past.
Yes, but my view of the future was more optimistic than most people’s.
Yes, but why didn’t you say 8 about the future?
I think we are going to develop further but at a slower pace than other countries.
What do you think about the overall economy in Bulgaria? A lot of people tell me that they go abroad or don’t come back because of the lack of jobs. Is that something you hear among your friends?
Very often. But actually, I think things are getting a bit better than before. It’s as hard as in other countries. Before you go and live somewhere for a year, you can’t know what it’s like. Many people think that Western Europe is great, all well organized and arranged. But you’re still a foreigner over there. And it’s as hard to find a job as here. The salaries are low here. But our living standard is lower too. The minimum wage is quite low. And the pensions are really a big problem. I don’t think any grandparents can live by themselves without anyone helping them. That’s a problem.
When you hear the word NGO, what do you think?
People who help society but not related to profit.
So you have a positive association. I’ve heard that people here have negative associations with NGOs.
Yes. They feel like NGOs are not doing enough. But I think it’s because they are doing things for the long term. You have to be patient for the change they’re working for to come. Of course, I communicate with business people. They are thinking in terms of short-term profit. So, that’s a different mindset.
What do you think will happen in the next Bulgarian elections in the fall? Let’s say there are two scenarios: the one you want to happen and the one you don’t want to happen.
All the times that I could vote, I wasn’t voting for a scenario I wanted to happen but for the least-worst scenario.
Because your scenario wasn’t available.
Yes. I don’t think there’s any party that’s perfect, that I want to vote for now and forever. But of course, everyone has pitfalls. And everyone is trying to do something. Even the current government.
When you say that they’re trying to do something, did you have anything in mind? Other than the new subway.
The financial situation is not so bad in the context of the global economic situation. It could be quite worse.
Why haven’t young people come together to form a political party?
I think there’s quite a lot of fear. And people are not that active in civil society, including young people. They are trying some stuff like, as you said, on the forest issue. But still we need more activity. People focus on their job, their business, and that’s it.
What do you think of when you think of Europe?
Does the continent include Bulgaria?
Yes, the whole continent includes Bulgaria. The EU also includes us. But we’re a new member, so there are certain restrictions.
Do you think the overall experience of joining the EU is a good one
Any negative aspects?
I don’t think so. We are a very small country, and we need to somehow to join the others. Of course the situation of the EU right now is not the best. We don’t have the Euro, and for the first time it’s a good thing that we are a little backward.
Yes, hooray for the leva!
Do you see yourself living in Bulgaria for the rest of your life? When you talk to your friends, what do they think in terms of the future?
More people are staying here and wishing to stay here. Maybe five years ago, I knew many more people who wanted to leave. And now, many people want to stay.
When you look back to 1989, when you were two years old, and all that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
When you look into the next couple years, what do you expect for Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10, with one being more pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
Sofia, October 2, 2012