Communism, Democracy, and Globalisation in Millennial Bulgaria

“We are one of the countries with the oldest population, one of the poorest countries, one of the countries with the lowest standard of life in Europe, and my hope lies in the youngsters, the young generation. They will take over the country.” – Valchan Petrov.

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Bulgaria’s older generations have known a political system in flux. The transition from communism to democracy was convoluted, deceptive, and corrupt; the post-revolution political structure neither fully left nor fully established itself on either political plain. Communism did not die in 1989 as the Socialist political party retained the same members and principles as the Communist party, and the judiciary did not even bother with even a tokenistic make-over. Such facades of moving on, without any genuine change gives rise to the opportunity for the older generations to remember fondly their relationship with the ever-present iron curtain, as they have not truly experienced the benefits of a new ground of democracy. Still, the millennial generation are at least allowed the privilege of being aware of this, being exposed to a global perspective of politics via the newly emerging travel and education opportunities via the EU. And thus we see a generational divide of political consensus.

The total number of Bulgarians studying abroad is estimated at 80,000 per year; this new wave of globalisation has inadvertently has revolutionised a global grass root agenda tackling the ever-widening chasm between the people and their representative institutions. Concerns regarding political corruption of the judiciary has prevented Bulgaria from joining the EU’s 26-nation Schengen zone of passport-free travel, only serving to further brew revolutionary fervour and allow resentment to fester. Occupy Wall Street set a new precedent of political engagement that accumulated in 2013 in a collective tidal movement across Bulgaria’s universities calling for the resignation of Plamen Oresharski’s government after appointing a media oligarch as head of Bulgaria’s security agency. Ultimately, since entering into the EU, the young people of Bulgaria have become host to a wider zeitgeist of evolved social values that has manifested in a stronger culture of political protest. With Oresharski’s subsequent resignation, the relationship of power has been redefined between the citizen and the state; and redefining necessary responsiveness from the government in conjunction.

But globalisation has not necessarily brought about a pan-Bulgarian consensus regarding the future of the country. Bulgaria has not necessarily achieved partnership in some economic or social panacea that the EU had once presented itself as; there we find the lowest GDP per capita of any state within the EU, a near-constant 10% unemployment rate, and 2015 was measured by a Sofia-based think tank to have the highest rate of corruption and organised crime in the past fifteen years. While a millennial generation has turned towards democracy as a hope for freedom and prosperity, a great portion of the population harken towards the model of the past, viewing their diminishing relationship with Russia with fond nostalgia. Nationalist party ATAKA openly resents the migration brought by the EU, exploiting border fears brought by the free movement of workers and the refugee crisis at the expense of ethnic peace and minority safety, blaming such for Bulgaria’s problems. While ATAKA seems to be experiencing a decline as a party, having won no seats in the last election, its ideology has appeared to have infiltrated public policy. In February 2016 the Bulgarian parliament voted unanimously to deploy soldiers to guard the Turkish borders from refugees. This poses perhaps the greatest division amongst the people of Bulgaria: EU membership notwithstanding, is there such a thing as a global citizen?

Such a question has catalysed political debate in an age of global economic collaboration and downturn, and each country has dealt with the inevitable social divisions in different ways; the UK has embraced a crisis of sovereignty, Italy has turned to technocracy, the US risks authoritarianism; but Bulgaria has set itself apart via a generational split; the future of Bulgaria is thus set to be controlled by whichever answer prevails and thus shapes the zeitgeist of the nation. Valchan Petrov said the young people will take over the country, and indeed it seems any compassionate political direction in the future depends on it; because the Bulgarian governments relationships with offshore bank accounts and mafia intervention is not by any measure new, in a political world defined by global disenchantment; but Bulgaria’s opportunity for change certainly may be.

But when so much corruption has been experienced, and public lethargy has been so greatly engrained in society, breaking such a mould so radically is difficult; despite democratic power being so explicitly exercised over Oresharski’s government, his successors have proven to be equally as corrupt. The crux of the problem herein being that young people may protest in exceptional circumstances, but they do not vote. Democracy is, fundamentally, an instrument that must be consciously and regularly exercised in order to be present in a society, but still the last election in 2014 produced a 51% turnout. The Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and Policy Solutions led a joint study finding that two thirds of Bulgarian millennials identify a lack of trust in politicians as a reason for political inactivity. We thus expose a paradox wherein the government act arbitrarily, the public do not vote those actors out of power, but still resent the government acting arbitrarily; and thus the cycle of political anger and exploitation goes round and round, again. But Bulgaria finds itself at a turning point. In April 2016 the Parliament approved a law to make voting compulsory in the next election; this stands either to legitimise a corrupt government and isolate Bulgaria further from central Europe, or revolutionise the country’s zeitgeist into one of democracy and social progression by inspiring a new market of parties able to access the youth vote. In all, the country stands at a precipice.

Bulgaria’s past has complicated its present, but its future is, as yet, unwritten.

Lucy Healer