Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
If you were of a certain age and with certain skills, the changes that took place in 1989 in East-Central Europe created an enormous world of opportunity. Those young enough to change with the times could suddenly rise to the heights of politics and business. And if you spoke English – or were willing to learn it very quickly – you could become an intermediary with the West and enter an entirely different world of possibility.
Some people were too old to take advantage of the changes. They couldn’t retool, couldn’t pick up the necessary language and computer skills. As for those who were very young at the time of the changes – and everyone born afterwards — they took the new world as a given. They didn’t realize how lucky there were.
But the Goldilocks generation – the people who were neither too old nor too young – could appreciate what 1989 meant for their own trajectories. Whether or not they participated in the revolutionary changes that led up to that annus mirabilis, they had the chance to participate in shaping the post-revolutionary environment. Some members of this generation – Slovakia’s Robert Fico (25 in 1989), Hungary’s Viktor Orban (26 in 1989), Poland’s Alexander Kwasniewski (35 in 1989) – even came to dominate the public life of their countries.
Ivan Krastev was also in his early twenties when the ground shifted seismically beneath his feet in 1989. He had imagined a life connected to academia. Suddenly, other options were available.
“A totally new public space emerged,” he told me in an interview last April in his office at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna where he is a permanent fellow. “We were also a very lucky generation. When this new space was opened, there were not so many people interested in dancing in it. Being young in this period was a major advantage. For me personally and my generation, this was an incredible opportunity. Overnight, what you were saying was perceived as important, and you had the feeling that you were part of making history.”
Today, Krastev is a political theorist and one of the most prominent and acute commentators on the realities of the post-Soviet space. He is perhaps best known for his TED talkon the relationship between democracy and trust, which has nearly 500,000 views and which he turned into the TED bookIn Mistrust We Trust. He is also the founder of the Center for Liberal Strategies in his home base of Sofia.
We talked about the exhilarating proliferation of opportunity in 1989 but also the disappointments that came in 1990. The downside for the Goldilocks generation was that they were also very conscious of the closing down of opportunities when the early post-revolutionary optimism began to fade.
“At the beginning people were always listening to you,” Krastev explained. “In the first year there was a great empowerment of intellectuals and anyone who could tell a story. After this, it disappeared. The marginalization and alienation of this type of intellectual class is also one of the sources of the bitterness that you hear. There was no one to explain any more. The agents not of change but of explanation were not in an explaining mood. They were in a complaining mood. This created bitter divisions.”
And the new story that emerged from the disappointments of the intellectual class was one of manipulation. In countries like Bulgaria, where the general perception is of a transition that failed, conspiracy theories became rampant. According to such theories, people behind the scenes stage-managed the transition in a way to enrich themselves. “If before people believed that they were weak and powerless because they couldn’t promote themselves or their ideas, they next saw people getting rich and they didn’t understand how that could happen,” Krastev continued. “Economic success became totally criminalized. You can never explain to anybody that you have been lucky. The idea of luck is totally absent, which is typical of conspiratorial societies.”
We also talked about corruption, the rise of radicalism and the backlash against liberalism, and how money has changed the very geography of relationships in post-Communist societies.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Sofia, and I remember seeing this on television. I was with a friend and we talked a lot about this. But Bulgaria was the country in Eastern Europe where the fall of the Berlin Wall was the least commented on, because the next day [Bulgarian Communist Party General Secretary] Todor Zhivkov resigned. In the late 1980s, Communism in Bulgaria was like nature. You could like it or not, approve of it or disapprove of it, but to believe that it was going to disappear overnight was not an option to be entertained. So we were very much obsessed with what was happening in our own country.
That event I remember in more detail — what we were thinking and what we were doing. I was in the National Library reading something, when somebody came by and said that there was some news about Zhivkov resigning. I met up with some people at the end of the day, and we went to the restaurant inside the University of Sofia. There was a group of some dissidents talking and drinking, led by the future president Zheliu Zhelev. We joined them and there was a lot of discussion. The talk was about the new general secretary of the Party, who was the foreign minister. I remember Zhelev saying, “Okay you young people, you are going to see the end of Communism.” This was November 10. Several months later he became president of the country! At that time, we had the feeling that a year was being churned through every week. Also at this dinner at some point, when everyone was quite drunk, one historian started to sing God Bless the King, which was also quite prophetic, because as you know the king eventually came back and became prime minister.
It is difficult to reconstruct what we were thinking at that time because Bulgaria, more than other countries in Eastern Europe, was part of the Soviet debate. For example, at this moment, we were doing at lot of reading of the Soviet press about what was happening in the Soviet Union. In Poland there was much more of a focus on domestic politics, even before 1989. When the change started, especially after March 1990, Bulgaria basically cut itself off from this. As a result of this, we don’t remember correctly what we were thinking back then because we basically believe now that we thought what we should have thought back then.
You were about 24 at the time. Given the fact that Communism was there as an implacable force, what did you imagine your personal trajectory would be leading up to 1989?
I had a very clear idea that my career would be university-related. I was coming from a family that didn’t have any problem with the regime. From this point of view, I didn’t fear that I wouldn’t be allowed to do this or that. I had been publishing in samizdat, but even this was a tolerated dissidence. Basically I imagined being part of the cultural-academic circles that were complaining about what was going on but were still part of this milieu. Of course, a lot of things changed after 1990. A totally new public space emerged. We were also a very lucky generation. When this new space was opened, there were not so many people interested in dancing in it. Being young in this period was a major advantage. For me personally and my generation, this was an incredible opportunity. Overnight, what you were saying was perceived as important, and you had the feeling that you were part of making history. Compared with people who are 24 now, I don’t believe that they have this opportunity open to them. I was really very lucky.
The first election in 1990 was a major shock to everyone associated with the opposition, particularly those living in the big cities like Sofia and Plovdiv. Did you anticipate that the opposition would lose?
No, I didn’t. I was also in Sofia. At some point I realized that the situation was not exactly as we were imagining it. All of us in Sofia were basically the hostages of our own environment. I was never one of those who believed that the opposition was going to get 70 percent of the vote. But I believed that we would win the elections. But then about three weeks before the elections I went to the village where my family is from. The people there had already seen me on television, and they were very interested in talking about politics. There was an old relative of mine who had never been interested in anything political, had never been a Party member. Most probably his family had voted for the Agrarian party in the 1940s. He said, “I can’t understand anything having to do with the opposition. For instance, this Zhelev, did he go to school paid by the Communists? What does he want?” Then you start to understand that it’s not simply that these people are against the opposition. They just didn’t really understand what was going on.
The night of the elections was a shock. I didn’t know how to react. First, were the elections manipulated? Even if this was true, it was not the major explanation. Second, we had a divided nation, so we didn’t have a consensus about the future, a consensus on the past, or a consensus even on the election results. Certain groups in the opposition were problematic for me because I believed that they were simplifying what was going on. It was a difficult year to figure out why certain people were doing what they were doing or saying what they were saying. Personal relations here also were very politicized.
Personally I was always putting a lot of effort into talking to people who had a different position. This became a passion of mine. I simply was intrigued. Even in the United States, when I was there before the recent elections, I could see that, like in Bulgaria in the 1990s, it was not easy to get Republicans and Democrats to watch the debates together.
In 1990, at the invitation of the French government, I went for four months to Paris. I had not travelled to the West before this. And I thought, “Is this real?” Then in 1991, I went to Oxford for a year, on one of the first fellowships. Oxford was already much more serious because I had to try to understand a culture that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t simply the language. I was back in Bulgaria for the presidential elections in 1992. I was coming from Oxford with certain ideas about what was going on and then I was back in reality! It was an extremely interesting period. Everything was possible. A colleague of mine once said that at this point you could say that you were a banker and people would give you money. You could say that you were a political commentator and people would listen to you. But no one asked you, “How do we know you’re a banker or a political commentator?”
That was certainly my experience as well in 1990. That opportunity was mostly available to people of a certain age. If you were over 60, you didn’t have the capacity to reinvent yourself. But nevertheless, when I returned to Bulgaria in 1993 and certainly when I was there in the fall, that was not the sense I got from talking to people. When they talked about 1990, their primary point of reference was the lack of opportunity, except for the brief period of excitement. Instead, the way they framed it was in terms of manipulation. There were no possibilities because the game was rigged beforehand.
This is very typical. Basically Eastern Europe is divided into two. There were the countries in which people believe in the end that the transition was a success — as in Poland where the majority of the people, no matter how critical they are, basically don’t reject the transition. Then there are places like Hungary and Bulgaria where the transition is perceived as a total failure. Because of this total failure, people have started to rewrite everything that happened, including in their own personal life. Their story has become one of naiveté and being manipulated. People surrendered their subjectivity in the process. They came up with a conspiracy theory that everything was rigged and predictable. It was not. Strangely enough, in Bulgaria, it was even less than in other countries. The Communist Party was strong enough and self-confident enough, so that it actually was not planning what to do if it lost. The Party was not about to lose.
Second, any mistake or failure was explained in terms of somebody else’s game. That created a mentality for which we are still paying. If Havel was talking about the power of the powerless, now it was about the frustration of the empowered. And if 1990 was very much about enthusiasm, then 1991 was very much about frustration at the election results. It was a major divide between the generations, between the big cities and the countryside. Also, this frustration ended in a radicalization that made the political center very weak in Bulgaria.
After this, the economy came back. In 1990-91, people were not talking very much about the economy. This is one of the games of transition. Those who perceived themselves as losers first appeared to have gained a lot out of it. The losers on the political stage at that time decided to go into the economy and make money — not because they believed that this was more important, but this was basically where they could go. Compare, for instance, the careers and the life trajectories of the people working in the political police and the military intelligence. The political police was criminalized very early on, and those people were expelled from the system. So they used all their social capital, their contacts and so on, to make money, because this was the only available option for them. Even more, they had their moral story about becoming victims and being rejected by everyone. The military intelligence people, meanwhile, were not attacked. They stayed in their jobs and remained invisible and did nothing. Five or ten years later, when they decided to turn to the market, there was no place for them. This was the same group, the same intelligence community.
When the money came in, then came the second level of criminalization. If before people believed that they were weak and powerless because they couldn’t promote themselves or their ideas, they next saw people getting rich and they didn’t understand how that could happen. Economic success became totally criminalized. You can never explain to anybody that you have been lucky. The idea of luck is totally absent, which is typical of conspiratorial societies.
The second bad news of 1990 was that it prefigured the emigration of people abroad. The normal reaction of people after losing the election was: “Okay, if we cannot change the country, then I don’t want to have anything to do with the country.” This is a problem for a small country like Bulgaria because we are on the periphery of Europe. This is the exit–voicechoice that Albert O. HIrschman wrote about. It’s so difficult to change society and so easy to leave it that Bulgaria never had a critical mass of people who could make this change.
You spoke of divisions in society in terms of generations, between city and country. I’ve also seen it in terms of Western-leaning and nationalist-leaning. I’ve seen it not only in Bulgaria or Romania but also in Poland, which is held up as a success story — in the debates around Smolensk, for instance. Have you seen any examples of political or social efforts that have been successful in bridging those gaps?
In the beginning, and this was probably the noblest part of the transition for some people including the intellectual community, democracy was seen as a cultural way of tolerating difference. It was a very exciting period, especially prior to the first elections when people were very much really enjoying the pleasure of discussing with people, including with people they disagree. This first election and the feeling of the manipulation — real or imagined — pretty much spoiled the atmosphere.
In a certain way, this level of frustration changed many things. People went beyond the political divide. What was the bridge? The bridge was the total rejection of the political elite. There were no political possibilities; everything had already been done. They talked about political conspiracies and so on. This was not a positive bridge. It was a bridge of frustration, not a bridge of hope.
Also, there were many more opportunities open for people like me who spoke foreign languages. This division between English-speaking and non-English-speaking — and it was particularly English — was very difficult. English-speaking people can be part of another debate. You can translate your ideas into another language. You are also forced to compare with others. So you see that the situation in Bulgaria is not so unique.
The more talented you were the more painful it was. At the beginning people were always listening to you. In the first year there was a great empowerment of intellectuals and anyone who could tell a story. After this, it disappeared. The marginalization and alienation of this type of intellectual class is also one of the sources of the bitterness that you hear. There was no one to explain any more. The agents not of change but of explanation were not in an explaining mood. They were in a complaining mood. This created bitter divisions.
In terms of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in the early days what were the early expectations of how to intervene in the transition?
When I was at Oxford, I had an option to stay four more years or to return to Bulgaria. I decided to return. I still believed that Bulgaria was the more interesting place. Ralf Dahrendorf was there, and I had contact with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. When I returned, I was in charge of the Naumann office in Bulgaria. But I didn’t really want to work for any type of foreign organization: I wanted to have an institute of our own. I had a talk with the Naumann Foundation, and they were very generous. The first-year grant to the institute came from them. They of course were also interested in being the majority shareholder and provide more than 50 percent of the funding. For us, even then, we realized that if you want to be part of the policy world you need a source of legitimacy. If your agenda was all your own – even if you were wrong — that was a form of legitimacy. So we did a lot of work to diversify the funding. Which also meant that funding was reduced, and, for a while, the institute was totally underfunded. But this was good news because it allowed us to decide what we wanted to do and didn’t want to do.
Most of us used to know each other well before —DeyanKyuranov, Roumen Avramov, and others. Of the people who were part of it at the beginning, no one ever left. We were very well connected, most of us coming from established families where the younger generation was on the opposition side. Most of us were closer to President Zhelev than anyone else. But none of us wanted to stay in politics. This was good in a certain way because it allowed the Center — and the Center was slightly different from the others in this respect – to be much more political. In other words, it was never a secret about how we were voting. On the other hand, we have been much more open in inviting all parties to be participate. We were legitimate enough to afford to do this. We invited for example the Socialists when no one was inviting them to be part of discussions.
The most important moment for the Center was probably in 1995. I was in Poland for the presidential elections, invited by the Walesa camp, and I saw how Walesa lost. And we knew that President Zhelev was not going to win in Bulgaria without the support of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). We also knew that the UDF was ready to support him. So we pushed the idea that there should be a common candidate for the opposition and that this candidate should be decided in a primary. This led to the first primary in continental Europe. We did it together with the support of the International Republican Institute. It was dramatic because Zhelev lost, and he was our preferred candidate. But part of the deal was that, whoever of the two candidates won, the other side would support him. We remained very loyal to this. We did our best to support President Stoyanov in the 1996 elections. One million people voted in the primaries, even though there were no real rules. It was a quasi-civil society activity. This was also important because it was also a type of bridge experience.
If a generation of writers gets together, who becomes the face of that generation? Those who die first and those who die last. Everyone has a story about the ones who die early. And those who die last tell the last story. The very fact that you are staying on the stage for a while – like our Center — is your advantage as well as your disadvantage because you know quite a lot about how the system works. Of course this also means that an organization like ours, which has its own personal ideology, is perceived as a much more fundamental part of the elite than others. Voters can change a politician. But they can’t change a think tank or the media. At some point, there were several editors-in-chief and our Center that had been there from day one. When people on the street are protesting and are talking about politicians, they also mean us. For them, we are more a symbol of the transition than any of the politicians that came and went.
In 1990, NGOs had a very high status. These days, NGOs are talked about almost in the same terms as politicians – as illegitimate, in on the take, part of the elite.
In a way this is true. When you stay part of the system, you adopt a certain perspective on the world. And most of us were supportive of the transition agenda. CLS was not, for good reasons, accused of getting money from the government. Even people who don’t like us haven’t made that accusation. But basically, people were attacking the agenda. In countries like Bulgaria people understand that they can change governments but not the economic policies. And then the problem is: why do these economic policies persist? You see just three types of actors who have never changed: international institutions, part of the business elite, and the NGO elite. These three, more than rotating politicians, start to symbolize the idea of transition. And this transition is perceived as a failure. Of course people are divided: some like you more, some like you less. But the difference with the 1990s was that people were divided in a totally different way back then. For example, you had Communist and anti-Communist camps. But these camps trusted the elites. In the 1990s, it was bad to be put in prison. But at least half the population would be on your side and against the prison sentence. Now if you are a politician and you are put in prison, the whole population cheers. It’s a totally different divide.
And don’t forget: People are not living well. We can come up with all types of explanations of how they feel and the way they feel. But more than 60 percent of Bulgarians declare that they experience material deprivation. And this is happening 25 years after the change! Twenty-five years after the Communist takeover, socialism was legitimate in the eyes of Bulgarians. A group of people might not have accepted it, but basically Communism had legitimacy. And this was based on the fact of the improvement of living standards. But it was also that these kids from the villages moved to the cities. It was a social promotion. In our case, transition has not offered anything like collective success. And the most successful people are the ones that you’re not going to see — either because they are in their Mercedes or because they live outside the country.
There have also been studies that, especially in Bulgaria, people’s perceptions of their economic status are not entirely consistent with the reality of their economic status.
Absolutely. We made a study comparing the United States and Bulgaria. There was this famous question: how do you live — better than others, like others, or worse than others? Statistically, it should be one third, one third, one third. In the United States, and in Bulgaria, basically one-third of respondents have a wrong perception of where they are. But Americans believe that they are better off than they are, and Bulgarians believe are worse off than they are. Communism was good at creating statuses. It failed on consumption, to be sure. But there was status. Now people lack status.
Let me give you an example. When you ask the question – what is more corrupt, Communism or post-Communism, everywhere and it doesn’t matter how successful the country is — Poland or Bulgaria – people are going to tell you it’s post-Communism. But why? Communism was quite corrupt, and people know this. If you asked them in 1990 about why they didn’t like the system, corruption was going to be of the first answers. But several things have happened that have made people more tolerant of Communist-era corruption compared to post-Communist corruption. First, Communist corruption was not monetary. For most people it was non-monetary exchanges, contacts, connections. Access to goods was not through money but through knowing the people who can help you. This kind of relationship is much easier to be covered by friendship than the exchange of money.
Second, strangely enough, Communist corruption was a redistribution of power from the powerful to the weak. For example, if you were a bookseller in a country with a deficit economy and not enough good books for everybody and if I want to get the books I’m after, I should befriend you. I should be interested in how you the bookseller are doing, how are your kids, and so on. And you the bookseller also know that you can ask me for a favor too. This applied even to well-positioned people, though not Politburo members, those at the top. Now when everything is very much commercialized, corruption works for the powerful.
When I was in Moscow in 1985, the guy who stood outside of the pizzeria had so much power. He was just the doorman, but he controlled access.
Exactly. And this doesn’t exist any more. The Communist type of connections and communities had been vertical. To be successful, you had to know people at all levels. Even if you were a powerful man in the Communist system, you still needed to repair your car and so you needed to befriend a good mechanic. It’s not enough in the deficit economy to simply go to the shop. Not any more.
Now if you have money, you don’t need all this. People began to communicate only with their own income group. When we did the study, the majority of the people who earned less than $10,000 had not talked to anyone in the previous six months who earned three times more than that. This creates this frustration and despair. We were very insensitive to this part of the story. And strangely enough, the Internet only helped to consolidate this kind of relationship. The first thing that happens to you when you, for example, lose your job is that you lose your contacts. There is no one to talk to.
This is why many people, even if materially they’re not doing worse — they’re traveling much more, they have many more freedoms — they cannot honestly say to themselves that the transition was successful for them.
You’ve talked about how people can’t vote in and out economic actors the way they can vote in and out politicians. In your writing on the EU, you’ve talked about the ceding of economic responsibility to Brussels and other international institutions. In a situation in which people feel powerless — on some of the most important decisions to be made in a country — how can we expect that there will be a real feeling of democracy or democratic empowerment?
My writing is very much based on the experiences that I had coming out of the transition period. In the beginning, I was happy that when people whom you feared were going to make major changes didn’t make them when they came to power. But this was a strange consensus. It was a consensus in the absence of the public. Governments were starting to realize how comfortable it was to tell people that they could nothing. If people don’t have a real meaningful choice, democracy becomes ungovernable. Real choice means that people can make mistakes. This choice creates an experience and that experience shapes what they will do next. Now you are not allowing them to do this.
Before, people were afraid of passions, and that’s why they introduced the economic story. They agreed to focus on interests. Now we are taking the economy out of electoral politics. So why are we then surprised that what remains is identity politics? The passions! These new passionate people that go onto the streets, it is very difficult to talk with them. One interesting and important thing about the latest protests in Bulgaria: these were the first protests not initiated by a political party. This time, they didn’t allow politicians to go onto the street. They were not simply against politicians. They were against anyone they saw on television because they knew that anyone who appeared on television could pay their bills. People didn’t believe that anyone could represent their experience. It was not simply about interests. Suddenly, and this was the most depressing thing, because these people were totally mistrustful, they were also totally powerless. They believed that they were going to be cheated anyway. So they never ended up giving any power to anyone.
The Occupy movement, too, existed in a very low-trust environment.
Exactly. This has really preoccupied me recently. All of us, and this is true for all the other organizations that we represent, we rightly believed that mistrust empowers people. Especially when you’re coming from a totalitarian experience, mistrust is critically important. And this is true up to a certain level. But after crossing that level, mistrust disempowers people: because these people are so mistrustful that they don’t think anything can be changed. There is no collective project any more. This is a problem for Europe, but it is best understood in Eastern Europe. When we talk outside out of our countries, we basically explain all the time how successful the transition is. But when we talk inside our countries, this talk is totally unacceptable to people. This is how we decide what is successful and what is failure. Can democracy claim success if the majority of the population disagrees?
If we were having a different conversation — with Volen Siderov or Viktor Orban — we would be talking about a different collective project. They have a very clear collective project.
Yes and no. Both of them share something in common, and I know both of them. Viktor Orban is a radical, but a radical opportunist, not a radical nationalist. He’s a good politician. When he feels the momentum, he will mobilize in that direction. But I don’t believe he has a collective project. He has managed to exploit very well this feeling of dissatisfaction and this dream of revenge. The problem with all these people is that they’re promising nothing except revenge: “make me the instrument of your revenge,” they are saying. But they don’t have an idea of what to do. They don’t have any policies that they can stand for firmly. They’re radicalizing their language because this type of radicalism is the only way to make them distinctive.
The radicalism in our part of the world comes not from the bottom but from the ex-elites. You have a huge rotation of elites in Bulgaria. Volen, he was the editor in chief of the UDF’s Demokratsia. I knew him from before — he was a very talented poet. But there were several important differences. Unlike some of us, he doesn’t speak any foreign languages. He doesn’t have a university education. Nevertheless, he was a very prominent figure when he was at the UDF. Here was a guy who believed that he was part of a certain political class and then he was totally expelled. He felt this as a genuine betrayal and a genuine loss of opportunity. As a result, his resentment is very genuine, and this is what people felt. He hated the elite even more than the ordinary people did because he was part of the elite and the elite kicked him out.
In the case of Orban, many bad things can be said about him. But the truth is, in 2006, the socialist-liberal coalition — also like the Socialists in Bulgaria in 1990 — won elections that they should have lost. They used all their material and media power to win those elections. What Orban learned from this election was: I’m never going to lose any more.
Yes, and that fueled his opportunism. He would make whatever alliances were necessary to win.
Precisely. “Okay,” he said, “if these are the rules of the game, to win at any cost, you’ll see.”
When you look back to what your thinking was in 1990, have you rethought any of your assumptions, any building blocks of your worldview, as a result of your subsequent experiences?
Back then, our views were very abstract. Everything, even our view of Communism, was very abstract. And the worlds we didn’t know well were also abstract. We didn’t really understand the world from which we were coming because we were of a generation that hadn’t really experienced political repression in the classical sense. On the other side, we had no real idea of how the Western world worked.
I never went through this type of resentment period, because probably life was treating me much better than a lot of others. For me it was more of an evolution. But there was one important thing that remained from the 1980s. When we had been socialized in university, this was exactly the moment when we were asking tough questions, challenging assumptions, and dissenting in general, not just in the political sense. So, for example, unlike some other generations, for me I don’t perceive challenging my own assumptions as something unnatural. Even discussing the question of whether democracy is wrong is not something that scares me. I don’t believe that I’m betraying anything by asking this question. But different generations have had very different experiences.
The second thing that was very interesting as part of this development is that I became much more tolerant toward people. As a result of these 25 years, I try much harder to put myself in the shoes of the people I dislike. The fact that I am not in their shoes, I have learned, is also by accident. You can easily end up in a place that you believed you could never end up in. From this point of view, I always have a distinctive dislike of this moral outrage that is so popular everywhere and not just Eastern Europe. We stopped being interested. We don’t ask about the motivations of people any more. We think we know everything about their motivations: either money or intelligence or dependency. What has remained — and I don’t know if this is very Bulgarian – is that we trust much more the informal than the formal. Friendship relations are probably more important for us than for some of the younger generation, which has been socialized differently. As for the Center for Liberal Strategies, at the end of the day it’s a family institution. All of us basically function as a big family organized in one way or another. It’s a place where you work together but you also live together.
This pushback against “open society” or liberalism or however you characterize it in Eastern Europe: would you say that it’s a temporary, cyclical or more endemic trend?
There are different levels of resistance. First, it’s important to note that it’s not simply liberalism. “Open society” in the region stood for a very cosmopolitan-minded liberalism. So, this backlash is also against this cosmopolitanism. This is a kind of self-defense of society and social groups that in the beginning were very much seduced by the opening of borders and of opportunities, but then afterwards perceived this more and more as a threat. Don’t forget that these are aging and shrinking societies. There is a strong demographic fear.
My second view is that what we’re experiencing is cyclical — cycles of experience. The support given by the Open Society Foundation was not based on anything else but the experience of the previous regime. It’s very difficult to have this type of liberal society if the experience of a catastrophic unfreedom is not there. West Germany could not have been built the way it was built now in the absence of Hitler and the support that he got. It was a very special type of liberalism, shaped by a specific experience that has disappeared. There will always be a return to liberalism, but it will be a different liberalism.
Our thinking about liberalism was full of a lot of mistakes and naiveté. First there was this very strong anti-state sentiment, which came from Communism, but this is why Eastern European liberalism quite quickly became like libertarianism. All these NGOs believed that they should control and antagonize the state. But in fact there is nothing better for a human rights organization than a functioning liberal state! That was something that we didn’t learn early in the process. Also, there is now a different socialization process. The liberals of this third generation of “open society” people were a society of readers. Now you have a society of viewers, where the visual dominates much more. All these claims of complexity, which were so typical for all of us, are not much popular any more.
But there was a moment. Maybe there will be another moment when people will be interested and will discuss. In personal and generational terms, we were a very lucky generation, perhaps one of the luckiest in Bulgarian history. We were a generation that was not born out of defeat. There was a skepticism plus opportunity, and this is not a bad combination.
The last questions are quantitative. When you look back from 1989 until today, and you evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Bulgaria, how would you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
When you look into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Bulgaria over the next few years, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Vienna, April 29, 2013