Eastern Europe

Bulgaria: Land of Disenchantment

Bulgarian pensioner begs for money
An old woman begs on a street corner in Sofia, Bulgaria, April 18, 2000. Pensioners have been among the hardest-hit by the transition to a market economy (Photo: AFP).

On June 17, 2001, the hastily conceived National Movement Simeon II (NMSII), named after Bulgaria’s King Simeon II, swept the Bulgarian polls with promises of raising Bulgarians’ standard of living within 800 days, introducing a new morality to politics, cracking down on crime and corruption, and ushering the country into NATO and the European Union (EU). Some 450 days later Bulgarians, who ignored warnings that the ex-king’s program smacked too much of populism, must swallow the bitter pill of reality.

“We Are the Poorest and Hungriest in all of Europe,” trumpeted headlines of local newspapers on Sept. 24, the day after EUROSTAT and combined economic statistics from Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) signatories for 2001 were made public. Living standards have plummeted following tax hikes that brought Bulgaria’s tax burden to 41.5 percent, the highest in Eastern Europe. Energy, telephone, mail, and water prices have all risen. While food prices are approximately half of those in the EU, the average monthly wage still stands at US$114—far behind all other EU aspirants, including even Romania, which “boasts” an average monthly income of US$170. Bulgaria has the highest mortality rate in the former Eastern Bloc. Unemployment has soared to 17 percent (30 percent according to the labor unions), despite the toddling zero-interest credit program designed to help people set up small businesses.

Dirty squabbles among factions within the NMSII do little to give the impression of a higher moral standard in Bulgaria. Nor did rampant gun battles between drug dealers in downtown Sofia throughout August 2002. To make matters worse, the privatization of the government-owned tobacco company, Bulgartabak, is being contested in court by unsuccessful bidders (controversial Russian businessman Michael Chorny among them) who accuse Economy Minister Nickolay Vassilev of predetermining the winner: a Deutsche Bank-backed consortium with no experience in the tobacco business. Meanwhile, ambitious government initiatives such as contracting the British firm “Crown Agent” to reform Bulgarian customs and controversial, sweeping amendments to the Penal Code providing for stiffer measures in the battle against terrorism, organized crime, child pornography and computer crimes, have yet to bear fruit.

Turning the tide has never been more difficult. Over the past 13 years Bulgarians have been getting progressively poorer, showed a broad survey conducted by the Alpha Research polling agency and published in the Sept. 27 edition of privately-owned Standart News. Just 12 percent of the respondents are reported that they felt their lives had improved since 1989. The urban elderly are reportedly surviving on meager monthly pensions of US$50, while the young are contemplating emigration, spending less on education, and eschewing new clothes, the survey revealed.

Between 40 percent and 70 percent of Bulgarians believe that the ex-Communist society was more fair, more humane, and wealthier, social scientist Kolyo Kolev observed in the Sept. 12 edition of top-circulation Trud.

“NMSII failed to keep two of its most important promises that brought it to power: justice for all, punishment of the culprits, and quick and tangible increase in incomes,” Emil Koshlukov, NMSII MP and a standard-bearer of the anti-Communist student movement that swept Bulgaria between 1989 and 1991, admitted in the same daily (Sept. 2). Members of the business elite have compiled a longer list of broken promises. “The corrupt have never felt so much at home… Agriculture and tourism are in a deplorable state, not to mention the continuing decline of the economy. Ours is an absurd country, where facts are just stated and no one does anything,” complained Plamen Bobokov, co-owner of Prista Oil refinery, which is partially owned by the American oil company Texaco, in a Sept. 27 interview for Standart News.

“There is social tension in the country. Confidence in [government] institutions is dwindling because of obstinacy, arrogance, and scandals,” Socialist President Georgi Purvanov said in a landmark Sept. 2 speech. While most commentators agreed he was telling the truth, some saw signs of his party’s rekindled hunger for power. The Socialists are preparing for early parliamentary elections, judging by the recent statements of senior Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) officials, sociologist Zhivko Georgiev wrote in Trud two days later. If the polls are correct, their preparations seem to be working. Recent polls give the BSP-led coalition a 10-percent edge over NMSII, which garnered the support of only 10 percent of respondents. The right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) did little better, winning only 11 percent of respondents’ votes. Nevertheless, the Alpha Research survey showed that 49 percent of the electorate is disgusted with politics and would not bother to vote in the event of premature elections.

It would be unfair to say that the mounting criticism against the government’s performance is falling on deaf ears. NMSII and its junior coalition partner—the ethnic Turks’ Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) have decided to seek the endorsement of the International Monetary Fund to unblock a part of the country’s US$4 billion foreign reserves for investment. The Cabinet also announced plans to waive corporate taxes on companies that invest in unemployment-stricken areas as of 2003. This may be good news to local authorities and the business community, but ordinary people are tired of waiting. Braving the rain, hundreds of pensioners rallied in Sofia on Oct. 1 against “unbearable misery,” demanding free healthcare and the abolition of ceilings on pensions.

According to a Sept. 24 analysis in Sofia’s independent 24 tchasa, the Cabinet has no choice but to pay extra Christmas wages and pensions, since “without this buffer the government train may well break loose from the royal engine.”

Not so fast, warned the editors of the conservative business weekly Kapital on Sept. 14. If the incumbents attempt to curry favor through populist measures, they risk “toppling themselves from power,” sparking first a political, and then an economic, crisis. Yury Aslanov, writing for the Sept. 24 Trud, agreed. The ruling majority in Parliament is shaky, he observed, but a Socialist-sponsored vote of no-confidence, while it might succeed, wouldn’t leave any party in a position to take the helm.

In a Sept. 12 editorial, Sofia’s left-leaning Sega was more sanguine about the NMSII’s future. Considering that Bulgaria expects to be invited to join NATO at the upcoming Nov. 21-22 summit in Prague, and considering that the member states will take two years to ratify the membership agreement, the opposition has little choice but to support the government. To do otherwise, Sega argued, would be to risk jeopardizing Bulgaria’s membership in the alliance by plunging the country into political instability.

Ognyan Minchev, director of Bulgaria’s Institute for Regional and International Studies, is not so sure. “NMSII is doomed to disintegration because its members are bound by no common economic or ideological principles. Their single bond is the charismatic personality of King Simeon II,” he argues. Worse, “each personal defeat of Simeon mars the political potential of his movement.” Minchev claims that NMSII is a strategic project launched by BSP supporters and former members of the dreaded Communist State Security (CSS) to scupper the Bulgarian right. In 2000, the Bulgarian Parliament established two independent committees to sift through CSS and military intelligence archives to make sure that former CSS operatives no longer occupied prominent governmental positions. Soon after NMSII came to power, it withdrew support for the committees.

In the shadowy world of Bulgarian politics it’s certainly possible that Minchev’s allegations are true. Conspiracy theories aside, Minchev worries about the durability of a movement predicated on “personal charisma” rather than “commonality of vision or interest.” But, he warns, “Personal charisma is notoriously prone to volatility and is most often short-term in nature.”