by Dimitar Nikolov. Originally published on 2014/04/24
Once a major European power competing for regional supremacy against the Byzantine Empire, nowadays Bulgaria struggles to find its place in the European community.
These days, the European media has is content with qualifying Bulgaria solely as the “poorest member state of the EU”. Inevitably, this kind of mostly negative media coverage leads to a misleading conception of the Bulgarian nation and its people. It even plays into the hands of right-wing parties in countries such as Britain and Germany, which try to peg the image of a poor benefit tourist to every single Bulgarian immigrant. However, these misjudgements prove to be not only evidence of an immature populism, but also of the incapacity to understand Bulgaria’s struggle with the European integration process in its broader historical aspects. A short look back into Bulgaria’s history is justified in order to clarify the development of the Bulgarian political system and its integration into the EU.
Bulgaria’s status quo
Bulgaria is the oldest country on the European continent, and has never changed its name since it was founded in 681. The Bulgarian Empire then grew to a major regional power throughout the Middle Ages. After the empire’s rulers had adopted Orthodox Christianity in 864 the Bulgarian Orthodox Church served as an important and independent balancing unit in the struggle for religious supremacy between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Byzantine Orthodox Church. With the support of the Bulgarian Tsars, their missionaries developed the Cyrillic Alphabet and spread it to a great deal of the Slavic world of that time.
However in 1396, the rise of the Ottoman Empire weakened the Bulgarian Empire and brought it finally to a collapse. The former Bulgarian territories were then split and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire as small regional units. Bulgaria stayed under Ottoman occupation for nearly 500 years. As a result of, Bulgaria remained isolated from European modernisation processes such as the French Revolution and the periods of Enlightenment and industrialisation.
In 1878, Bulgaria became an independent and sovereign state in the form of a monarchy. The royal leaderships managed to take crucial steps in reforming the feudal debris from the Ottoman era into a modernized European state of the 20th century. Although the new state had to cope with internal radical groups, the establishment of a stable constitutional monarchy with multiple party systems and democratic elections was performed successfully. The external stability of Bulgaria was backed by a remarkably progressive army. Furthermore, the cultural heritage of the medieval Bulgarian empires was restored.
In 1946, Bulgaria became once again a semi-independent vasal state of a greater empire – the Soviet Union. The constitutional monarchy with its parliamentary system was abandonded and an autocratic one-party-system based on the USSR’s Marxist-Leninism was established. On the one hand, the state economy was able to guarantee economic stability and an equal but prosperous living standard for the people. Unemployment and poverty were unknown economic scenarios. On the other hand, the Marxist-Leninist system was marked by the abscence of liberal rights such as freedom of speech or freedom of demonstration. Opponents and dissidents were forcefully persecuted and put into isolated concentration
camps. In the meantime, a vast majority of the western European states had been experiencing democracy, liberal rights and a market economy after the end of World War II.
After the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc collapsed at the beginning of the 1990′s, the one-party state economy was to be changed into a western liberal-democratic market economy. However, Bulgaria since then has been stuck in a lengthy post-communist transformation process. Herein lie the main reasons for the ongoing apathy in the Bulgarian political system:
- As a result of its Marxist-Leninist and autocratic past, the Bulgarian society had yet to establish a new democratic civil society. However, the transformation process was sooner or later taken over by former communist elites and by post-communist oligarchs.
- At the time of the collapse of the former system, the Bulgarian public administration proved to be weak and inefficient, unable to cope with the sudden and holistic process of transformation. Hence, several oligarchs took control over a bigger part of the state property.
- As a result of their entrepreneurial mismanagement, former state enterprises went to ruin and had to be sold to foreign investors at cheap rates. The economic development of the new market economy came to stagnation. In the long term, gradual and stable economic growth has been systematically inhibited.
- Before long, the new post-communist elites established a tight network of politicians, business enterprises, insurance companies, criminal organisations and media groups. Therefore, public administration was infiltrated by corruption and nepotism.
Generally speaking, Bulgaria modelled itself on western European democracies such as France or
Germany, but got stuck in its transition process due to an inefficient public administration that has not
been able to set frame conditions for proper economic growth, rule of law, security, social justice
and civic participation.
Bulgaria and the EU
Bulgaria’s integration into the European Union has widely raised the people’s hopes for an increase in
average living standards and in social security. However, the effects of Bulgaria full membership status
since 2007 have turned out particularly modest. In 2013, the average per-capita purchasing power of a Bulgarian was €2,919 per person. That is only 12% of the average per-capita purchasing power in Europe (€12,890 per person) and only 7% of the average per-capita purchasing power of a German (€20,621)
Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007 was accepted on the condition that the country would face a strong monitoring of its progress in the areas of reforms in the judicial system, the elimination of corruption and the struggle against organised crime. Especially the implementation of the EU regulatory policy on conflicts of interest was a crucial step towards a functional and righteous public administration.
Although the European Union provided economic subsidies in order to boost internal investments in sectors such as agriculture and infrastructure, these subsidies have often not been distributed properly due to inefficient administration. Moreover, small businesses in the sectors of trade and construction have been displaced from the national domestic market as they have been unable to cope with the influx of more competitive foreign companies after Bulgaria entered the EU domestic market.
Public services in the fields of education and health care have also decreased over the same
period. Bulgarian students and healthcare workers rather use the opportunity of free movement
within the EU domestic market in order to make a living abroad. This leads to a continuous
‘brain drain’ of a highly qualified workforce from the Bulgarian labour market, instead contributing to the already more developed social and healthcare systems of other EU member states. However, the opportunity of free movement within the EU domestic market makes the EU particularly attractive to younger Bulgarian generations who wish to study and work abroad. A vast majority of the youth is driven by individual self-achievement and seek the economic opportunities that the EU offers them.
Bulgaria and the 2014 Parliamentary elections
Since the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist system, a large part of the Bulgarian people suffer from political apathy. Their hopes have continuously been fed with empty promises by political elites. In 2013, their anger at political and economic stagnation exploded once again in mass protests that were triggered by a massive increase in energy prizes. The protests led to the resignation of the conservative government under former Prime Minister Boyko Borisow (GERB – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) which was backed by the Eurosceptic and nationalist party ATAKA (Attack). The current socialist government under Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski (BSP – Bulgarian Socialist Party) forms a coalition with the party of the Turkish minority (DPS – Movement for Rights and Freedom). ATAKA again backs the government. However, the new leadership has also been target of recent mass protests due to allegations of corruption and nepotism.
The EP elections in May will rather be used by the Bulgarian people to express their degree of aversion towards the current political elites in Bulgaria instead of expressing their favour for the European Union. This favour is evident in other ways, such as the constant emigration to EU member states where Bulgarians seek for better opportunities to use their skills and their knowledge. In most cases, these emigrants are highly qualified workers. They simply do not see any prospect of self-achievement under the current political system in Bulgaria.
Nevertheless, there is also an opposite trend to be stated: many Bulgarians living in other EU member states tend to return back to Bulgaria once they have finished their education and gathered some working experience abroad. These former expatriates could serve as a crucial factor to build an efficient public administration that guarantees the rule of law, economic innovation and social justice. Bulgaria can only take its right place in the European community through the establishment of these frame conditions and the evolution of a strong and democratic civil society.