Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
Bulgarians are proud to be pessimistic. Many of the people that I recently interviewed in the country spoke with pride of the various polls that bore out this depressing conclusion. So, for instance, in a 2009 Gallup poll, Bulgaria ranked at the very bottom of the world in their view of what life would be like for them five years hence. Incredibly, Bulgarian pessimism outperformed that of Iraqis and Afghans. Given the huge rate of emigration from Bulgaria, it’s also possible that all the optimists simply up and left.
If you look at more recent polls, it would seem that Bulgaria has been robbed of its dubious distinction. A quick Google search reveals that Greece has become the world’s most pessimistic country. But looked at more carefully, the most recent Gallup poll reveals that, thanks to the sovereign debt crisis, Europeans have all become a little bit Bulgarian. The pessimism index shows that Denmark and Poland now rank at the same level as Bulgaria. And even lower down the list are France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece. Pessimism is becoming a European disease.
What distinguishes Bulgarian pessimism from the garden-variety strain, however, is that Bulgarians are gloomy regardless of the economic situation in their country. This paradox prompted a group of distinguished researchers to conduct an anthropological investigation back in 2003.
Their report, Optimistic Theory about the Pessimism of the Transition, points out that Bulgarians, even young people, measure their sense of relative wellbeing from 1989, rather than the economic crisis of 1997. Large portions of the population – pensioners, the unemployed, the poorly educated, public sector employees – believe that they have not profited from the transition out of communism. The reinforcement of negative attitudes in the media also contributes to the prevailing pessimism, particularly in creating the impression that “the few” have prospered because of their “connections” while “other people” are not doing well at all – regardless of how the respondent feels about his or her own life. Moreover, this research bears out the conclusion that Bulgarians generally don’t appreciate the virtues of democracy while forgetting the vices of communism.
But perhaps the most compelling source of pessimism is neighbor envy: “An enduring sense of frustration arises from the considerable difference between economic conditions in Bulgaria and the developed countries. As a result, society focuses its attention on the country’s lagging behind ‘the developed countries’ rather than on the relative improvement from earlier, more unfavorable economic periods. Contrasted with those countries, the Bulgarian nation views itself as a systematic loser.”
Maya Mircheva works at the Open Society office in Sofia, helping with exchanges between people living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. She was still in kindergarten in 1989, yet she has all the pessimism of her elders. She has said goodbye to many of her friends who have left the country. She has watched the emptying out of the countryside. She has witnessed the entrenched corruption and apathy.
“For my generation and the generation that has come after us, I’d say that it’s a lost generation,” she told me in Sofia back in October. “We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say ‘transition,’ but I don’t see the end of it coming. It’s been 20 years. It’s the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don’t feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world.”
As the interview progresses, however, she indulges in a bit of cautious optimism. “Of course, I’m not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I’m Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign.”
So, I understand that the level of pessimism in Bulgaria is very high?
It’s among the worst in the world, which is really surprising. This study was done back in the early 2000s, and they looked at your economic circumstances and how happy you are with your life. It turned out that they’re not really that interrelated. Bulgaria has improved its economic conditions compared to the 1990s. But actually people’s satisfaction has gone down, which is an interesting thing to explore. Also, when they asked people, “What do you think about the situation in Bulgaria in general,” people are more optimistic. When they asked people about their own personal situation, it was much worse. It doesn’t make much sense if you think that society as a whole is on the right track but your own life is getting worse!
Okay, time to apply the test to you. If you look at the situation for Bulgaria since 1989 until today, how would you evaluate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
And then your own person situation since 1989, when you were six years old?
Then, if you look at the next couple of years, how optimistic are you?
3. I’m a stereotypical Bulgarian!
Let me ask you first about 1989. You were telling me two stories, one about scarves and another about cartoons.
In 1989, I was still in kindergarten. I went to first grade at 6 years old, which was somewhat unusual back then. Children usually go rather late to first grade, at age seven. But since I was somewhat sickly, I didn’t stay very long in kindergarten, so my mother sent me to first grade. In 1989, the children from first to third grade wore blue scarves, and the Pioneers were the ones who wore the red ones. My brother got to wear both because he went to school before 1990. I was really looking forward to this as well when I got to first grade. But it was exactly 1990, and we didn’t get any of these.
Actually, when I was five or six, I was a bit of a poet. I wrote little poems. When I look at them now, there were 2-3 dedicated to that time, including one about my being very excited about this scarf. The other one was my expressing frustration with all the demonstrations going on every day. Apparently I was very much influenced by what I was seeing on TV. There were a lot of people on the streets. In the first days and weeks and months, people were so excited about the changes, so they were demonstrating, not against something, just letting themselves be seen, letting their new views be known. They were going on the streets for these freedom parades. For me apparently, as I said, it was a bit of a nuisance, because it disrupted my normal life up to then. These are my earliest memories.
And you mentioned that these parliamentary discussions interrupted your cartoons.
They canceled the cartoons! I was very disappointed.
Do you remember at what point you came to understand what took place in 1989-1990?
Maybe it was not until I was in seventh grade. It coincided with the period of the end of the 1990s, with the big economic crisis, around 1996-7. This was when I was a little bit older and it started to dawn on me a bit that things were not exactly as they should be. Until then, and actually after then, I really didn’t care much about politics.
When I look back at that time, the things I miss are the things from everyday life, like certain kinds of food that we had back then that we don’t have any more. For example, we had these pastry bars, these confectioners, called sladkarnitsa. They sold this sort of pastry made of dough and lots of sugary syrup called tolumbichki. You couldn’t get Coke, but you could get boza. You know boza? It’s a very typical drink. It’s still very popular. I don’t really like it that much now, because I’m not used to drinking it any more. But I liked it back then. It’s made from some fermented grain. It’s sweet and thick. Things like this were the peak of people’s gourmandise at the time. Now you have Burger King and McDonalds.
Another thing I miss from that time is the way my grandmother’s village once was. My grandmother lives in a small village that since the 1990s has really deteriorated in terms of all the businesses that have closed down. There was a local cinema, a library, and now everything is closed down. In the village, it’s 89 percent old people, more than 90 percent Turkish. All the young people, like my mother, migrated to the cities. When I was younger, when I went to my grandmother’s village, I could go to the library and borrow some books. I can no longer do any of that when I go there now. It’s just a dead place. That’s one of the bad things about the transition for me. For some reason, everything that’s outside the capital, the provinces, has been very negatively affected.
When you were in high school, as you were getting ready to go to university, what was the average conversation you had with your friends about life in Bulgaria? You said that the whole country was pretty pessimistic. Were you enthusiastic about going to school? Or were people just making plans to go abroad?
In the case of my high school, everyone was making plans to go abroad. I went to a high school with a very intensive teaching of foreign languages. I went to a German-speaking high school where we learned German very intensively and also languages like English. While in high school, we had this option to undergo an even more intensive training at the end of which we could receive a language certificate that gave you the right to study in Germany without passing an aptitude test. Even I passed this. Most of my class did this, and two-thirds went to study in Germany, and very few came back.
I was one of the few who decided not to go, mostly for personal reasons because I didn’t feel ready. For me at the time it was a big step. I’d only been abroad just once. That generation of young people had been all over Europe. But for me, the first time I went abroad was in 2000, when I was in the eighth grade. We went to Austria. Bulgaria wasn’t an EU member back then, so we had to apply for a visa. It was a totally different experience for me, this first time abroad. Maybe that’s why, when I graduated, and I had to decide whether to go abroad and study that I decided to stay here.
We Bulgarians, and this is something very different from America, have very strong family ties, especially parents with their children. Even today, my mother feels that she has to take care of me even though I’m almost 30! But this is normal in our social circumstances. So, I didn’t go abroad because I thought I wasn’t ready and I would be homesick and miss my family.
But most of my friends went abroad. In the conversations we had during high school, they talked about their intention to go abroad. It wasn’t something they decided to do on a whim. Even back then, the situation was like that.
When they talked about going abroad, did they intend to stay or eventually come back?
I mean, who goes abroad with the intention of coming back? Very few of my friends came back. The people who came back were the ones who failed, who didn’t finish their studies. In Germany the tuition fees are very low, but still they have to work to support themselves. The studies are very hard, not like here in Bulgaria, so you have to study hard. And it’s difficult to work and study at the same time. So most ended up dropping out of school and just working. In the end, either they lost their jobs or decided to come back. Most graduated and stayed there. Some got really nice jobs. Of course, I wouldn’t blame them if they don’t come back. That’s how it is.
Do you regret staying here?
I can’t say that I’m here forever. Who knows, maybe I too will go abroad if the opportunity arises. I didn’t do my BA abroad, but I did two masters overseas, plus an exchange year abroad, so I did get around quite a bit. I already see myself as not tied to this country.
There are some Bulgarians who are, well, maybe not patriotic, but they claim to miss Bulgaria when they are abroad. They emigrate, but all the time they are abroad they miss Bulgaria. They don’t come back because they know they’re better off over there.
I’m not one of these. It’s true that I’ve not been abroad for more than a year at a time, but I never actually felt homesick. And I always managed to integrate really well. I actually enjoy being in a multicultural environment, something that I miss here in Bulgaria because we’re such a homogenous society. I don’t get to communicate much with foreigners in my daily life, which is something that I really enjoyed when I was a student. So I don’t think it would be a problem for me. I don’t feel like I missed out on it completely. Someday, I will go somewhere, though I don’t know whether it will be permanent or not.
Where did you do your master’s degrees?
I did one in the Netherlands in Maastricht, a small city near the border with Belgium and Germany. The second one I did in Belgium, in Bruges.
You’re working at Open Society, and you do a lot of work with the East-East project.
That’s my major job at the moment.
The program encourages exchanges within the region but also Bulgaria and other parts of the world.
Not the whole world. Basically only southeast Europe and Central Asia. It has certain ambitions to go global. But the global work of East-East is still very much in a pilot stage. There was some research linking continents, like South America and Europe. But I don’t think any organizations from Bulgaria participated in that.
Does that satisfy at least a little your desire to be in touch with other countries?
That’s one part of my job that I really enjoy doing. And I’m grateful for this opportunity. I have a background in European studies. I studied a lot about Europe, the EU. But I didn’t really know very much about the neighboring regions, the Caucasus, Central Asia. Or even other Eastern European countries, because European Studies is still very much focused on the West. You look to the West and the core of the EU like some kind of example. Even though you’re in the region here, you’re oblivious to the other countries around you. That’s a shame.
I felt very much ashamed when I began working here. I realized that I didn’t really know much about the region. I felt very happy to participate in these annual meetings of coordinators in the East-East network, where we convene each year in a different city in the network. We don’t see each other much in person. We just communicate by email. During these meetings, I don’t just have a chance to meet these people but we have conversations and exchange ideas about situations in our countries. For me, this is what I enjoy most about this work. It really broadens your horizons.
What’s your attitude about Bulgaria’s entrance into the EU? It was such a dream for many people in this country for so long. But how do you feel, having your entire life framed by the desire to be part of Europe and then ultimately becoming part of Europe? And then of course your studies…
Although we are part of the EU, it doesn’t mean that we feel ourselves part of the EU. Or that we have the ability to really subscribe to EU values. Here’s an example that’s very funny. Maybe you haven’t used any public transport here?
I’ve taken the tram.
Then you know what I’m talking about. On many trams there is a sticker on the window with a Bulgarian flag and an EU flag and a caption that basically urges people not to litter. It says, “Please be Europeans. Don’t litter and don’t destroy the vehicle.” This really tells you something about Europe and us not being part of Europe. Europeans are civilized, the ones who behave. And we are still barbarians. This is how Bulgarians think of Europe.
I don’t really think we’ve internalized being EU members. Europe is not seen as a package of rules and obligations that you have to adhere to. It’s just a donor and you have to figure out ways to get money from Europe one way or another.
You know about this cooperation and verification mechanism, the monitoring of our judicial system. This is an example of once we’re in the EU, the EU loses its teeth, loses its ability to influence internal reforms. During the process of applying to EU, the conditionality was much stronger — if you don’t comply, you’re not in. But once you’re in, they don’t have as much influence. It’s not just a problem with Bulgaria but with all other EU member states. Look at the situation in Spain and Italy, and I’m not just talking about the financial crisis. I heard on the news yesterday that because Bulgaria has failed to comply with regulations concerning the use of renewable energy — not surprisingly — we are threatened by the European commission with an infringement procedure. It’s not just Bulgaria. Almost all EU countries have been subject to the same infringement procedure.
Once you’re in the EU, when you’re part of the club, suddenly you no longer feel under pressure to comply like you did when you were trying to get in. It’s a matter of developing your own political and administrative culture and developing the political responsibility to become a well-governed country. The EU or some other organization can’t force you to do this if you’re not willing to do it yourself.
That’s an interesting tension between the need for a country to do it on its own and an external set of pressures. Right now, I guess that Bulgaria is in the middle of that.
Do you feel as if there is a missing generation here in Bulgaria? So many people of your age have left Bulgaria. Do you feel that as a palpable lack? When you get together with people of your own age, is there any sense of pride about being here in Bulgaria instead of somewhere else.
I definitely feel that there is a big lack, that all these people are no longer here. This is one of my major concerns. This brain drain is one of our biggest problems. People of all sorts emigrate, of course, but especially the most educated ones are mostly likely not to come back. I’ve read that there’s a trend of more and more people coming back, especially people from the first emigration wave of the early 1990s when the borders opened. Opportunities for doing business here are relatively better now than before.
But for my generation and the generation that has come after us, I’d say that it’s a lost generation. We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say “transition,” but I don’t see the end of it coming. It’s been 20 years. It’s the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don’t feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world. There are very few idealists who have the potential to become leaders and do something. Most young people have this passive attitude toward life. They live life from day to day. They believe that there is no future for them, without realizing that they are the ones who make their own future.
Of course you cannot just generalize. There are also many people who stay here on a matter of principle and may feel proud of this. But I don’t think that the majority of young people feel very optimistic about the future here. Maybe it’s because, as I said, at the time when they grew up there was also this value shift that came with the changes. The old values are no longer there. But also the new values are still very unsettled. The beginning of the 1990s was a time for these shady millionaires. For a long time, even today, many young people believe that the reason for living is to get rich very quickly. This is all they care about.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this phenomenon of chalga. If you want to study Bulgaria, this is something you need to look into. I call it a social cultural phenomenon. It’s a kind of music. But it’s more than just music for me. This music became very popular during those years. On the face of it, it’s pop music. It’s a mixture of Balkan styles: Serbian and Greek melodies with a pop feeling. I find this music horrible and tasteless. That’s just my personal opinion and the opinion of many other people, with taste. But there are a lot of people who love this music.
They don’t just love the tunes. They subscribe to the whole culture, the whole concept that this music is transmitting. When you look at the videos of these songs — the style of the singers, the lyrics — then it gets pretty obvious. Because they sing about money, about sex. It’s kind of subtle. Actually it’s not so subtle! It’s a social phenomenon as well. A lot of young people listen to it. They don’t just listen to it. They behave like it. Girls like to dress like these singers. They’re role models.
The dress is folk style dresses?
No, how to put it, they dress in a sexually provocative way.
It has some relationship to Serbian turbo folk?
Yes, it’s very similar. It’s a phenomenon of these years. It was unheard of before, of course. It’s interesting to ask why it suddenly became so popular.
When you talk to people who are basically my age and older, 50 and above, do you ever feel like they just don’t understand, based on their own experience, and you just want to shake them and say, “Look, Bulgaria is not the same any more!” Do you ever get that frustrated feeling?
The generation gap is a big issue. Also, in our case. some people still say that Bulgaria will never get out of its transition until the generation who lived at that time dies out. It’s partly true. There’s still a nomenklatura who is part of both politics and business. These people still follow the old ways. And all the problems that we’ve had with corruption — really, the whole mentality that is not European or modern — many of these people have lived this for so many years, they’re not going to change, even after 20 years. If they lived in the old system for most of their lives, and they managed to achieve a certain position under the old regime, they’re going to continue to live this way and work this way. I don’t know what can be done to change this.
Working in an institution like this, I still have some faith that things are changing, even though very slowly. It’s just a matter of constant work in making society understand that things can be done differently. On the personal level, on an individual level, it’s a very tough thing to do. I don’t know if it’s at all possible to do.
Is there anything you’ve seen recently that makes you optimistic? It could be small. Near my hotel, for instance, I saw bike paths. I’ve never seen those before here in Sofia. And also the metro…
Ah, the metro is amazing. It’s brand-new. That’s why it looks so nice.
I was impressed with the displays of the stuff that was found in the archaeological digs.
Yes, in Serdica station. I was also impressed.
Of course, I’m not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I’m Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign.
Also, some people do return from abroad. There’s this organization that I admire: the Teach for All network. They have an organization here in Bulgaria. The director, the founder of it here, is a very young woman, in her early thirties, a Harvard graduate who worked at McKinsey, but who still decided to come back and work on this very idealistic goal of making schools better. And they do have some amazing results, as far as I know.
So, people like this exist. I really hope that after a few years they’re still in Bulgaria!