Bulgaria’s foreign and domestic policies are a mystery to many Bulgarians themselves. This paper develops a hypothesis and an “optimistic theory” for empowering the common man in the country to become the engine of modernisation in the country and the region. This is done through a method called the ‘bridge of friendship’. It sounds ridiculous. And strange. But it works.
In the English-language world, the story from Panchatantra about the elephant and the blind wise men is popular. Each of them touched a certain part of his body and proclaimed that part to be the whole being.
The political events after Boyko Borissov’s fall from power are supposedly unfolding before the eyes of all Bulgarians. Yet, in my opinion, the media does not provide a deep and true understanding of the elephant of Bulgarian reality. The TV channels comment on various topics: the change of leadership at Bulgargas (the gas distribution company), the Bulgarian state doing something in and with North Macedonia, bickering over the judiciary, oligarchs fighting over politics and justice, etc. Yet the feeling is that at best the voices we hear are articulating their perspective on the elephant in question. We have to create the whole picture ourselves and update it constantly as we go along the course of events – if we have the time and willpower to read the media of the various political, business and government institutions while we work out our paycheck, take care of our loved ones and recover from the stress that the corona crisis contributes to.
This text will probably also, at best, cover one part of the elephant in the room. Still, I think it may be useful as an attempt to make sense of Bulgarian reality in the post-Borisov era, of Bulgarian state and political power in the face of the ongoing redefinition of the West, perhaps even of Bulgarian identity, which is often mysterious to our close or more distant interlocutors and partners from other countries. And to ourselves.
In my opinion, there is a need for attempts to make sense of these phenomena, even if the attempts prove unsuccessful or partially successful, because our nation is undeservedly struggling, experiencing severe social problems, and the disconnect between elites and people is preventing it from modernizing and becoming part of the world.
A look at ‘big politics’ in Sofia through the response in Romanian online media
Bulgarian politics at the moment is staggering. Seen from the outside, it seems that at the moment in Sofia everyone is in power and everyone is in opposition at the same time. In the autumn of 2021, the head of the National Revenue Agency, Rumen Spetsov, a personality that the finance minister Assen Vassilev holds very dear, was in Bucharest and as it became clear from his interview with the newspaper Libertatea, he had sought assistance from the Romanian tax service in investigations of a “Russian energy company,” which Euractiv and other media said could only be Lukoil. As of December 2021 Kornelia Ninova is deputy prime minister and minister of the economy, with her husband being the representative of the Bulgarian state in Lukoil during Borissov’s era.
In the Romanian press several positive articles have appeared about the rise of Kiril Petkov in Bulgarian politics. His Harvard education and anti-corruption rhetoric proved enough to awaken interest in Romanian society towards Bulgaria. Even leading Romanian liberal political analysts — like Sorin Ionita, a kind of equivalent of Ivan Krastev, commented that in Sofia and in Chisinau Harvard people will fight corruption and push their societies forward, while in Bucharest the so-called old parties have entrenched themselves in power in the government formed in November 2021 and so, against the backdrop of the modern faces of its neighbours, Romania relies on old governing models.
In Romania, there seemed to be less awareness, at least at first, that a government of four political entities had come to power in Sofia, some of them made up of smaller parties or having coalition partners from other parties as MPs. Of course, the role of President Rumen Radev, an air force general, in Bulgarian politics has grown considerably since the fall of Borissov and Radev’s re-election in the November 2021 elections. The defence minister and foreign minister are now people who were part of his expert team in the presidency.
But if we take even just the four political entities that have made up the government, it is enough to see that they are quite different from each other in terms of political understanding and constituencies. Two of the parties (Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria) have an anti-corruption orientation and seek support among the urban middle class. If we were in Romania in the time of Laura Kövesi the other two parties (BSP and There is such a nation) would probably have been targeted for anti-corruption actions — insofar as they are linked to powerful national business interests and have populist tendencies. The coming together of four different entities — including the right-wing anti-communists of Democratic Bulgaria with the successor political force of the Bulgarian Communist Party (but in turn currently having important former cadres of the SDS, the anti-communist formation of the 1990s, in leadership positions) seems to suggest that if any transformation of Bulgarian society at all begins under this government, it will not be Jacobinist, but negotiated between new and old elites.
Bulgaria is considered a captive state by its own elites
This observation is important to understand the contradictory nature of the Bulgarian political system, state and perhaps even national identity. This is a country in which, at roughly the same time, an activist of Democratic Bulgaria, an urban middle class party with an anti-corruption agenda, the so-called new elites, and a foreign policy analyst and former ambassador to Romania from the so-called old elites can claim that Bulgaria is a captured, mastered country, sharing from two different perspectives the view that corruption and oligarchy control political power in Bulgaria.
Here is what Maria Spirova says in an interview with Foreign Policy Romania published online in March 2017:
Corruption is ubiquitous in Bulgaria. I am not referring only to the culture of deceit, but to that of a complete loss of faith that citizens should have in institutions so that their daily lives can run smoothly. In practice, Bulgarians believe that it is counterproductive to respect the rule of law day after day. Whether Bulgaria is a captive state is a matter for debate, but my personal opinion is that it is, indeed a good modern example of state capture. The best public indicator of this is the behaviour of our parliament, which is organised exclusively around action groups that pass laws allowing the absorption of state funds by businesses and interest groups. These groups clearly seek to block judicial, economic and educational reforms. When the legislature of a state is controlled by people whose interests take precedence over the community, the state is clearly no longer sovereign.
And these are the words of former diplomat Valentin Radomirski in a January 2017 interview with the website Epicenter:
Bulgaria today can be considered a controlled country. This is a term that has been used for 15 years now for countries where oligarchic circles are in charge, not politicians. These oligarchic circles are outside the state and are usually linked economically and financially to other circles.
I do not envy our politicians because each of them understands that Bulgaria is a controlled country.
In domestic politics, the Bulgarian elites, new and old, have been declaring for years that they seek to free the country from its being dominated, but what exactly this means, whether it is possible and how it will happen remains to be seen.
Where could political elites come from that are not ‘mastered’ — that do not serve this or that business circle, given that politics, media and even culture are by definition superstructures over the economic base of society? Could it be that on each side of the barricade in Bulgaria there are both oligarchs and honest citizens who associate corruption mostly with the opposite camp? With what mechanisms could the judiciary purge itself of ‘dependencies’ and who can decide in an objective and impartial manner when the state and its institutions are no longer in control? Will there forever be dissenters from the reforms (which have not even begun yet) – people who will rely on the relevant economic, political and geopolitical support to defend their sense of justice and public interest?
Bulgaria in international relations
These rhetorical questions would probably not carry much weight in a country where it is relatively clear which elites and which geopolitical centre are dominant. Today, however, the West itself is undergoing a redefinition, and in recent months relations between the West and Russia have been undergoing a steady evolution in the course of what the Biden administration and NATO have called ‘openness to negotiation’ and ‘diplomatic solution.’
In this context, Bulgaria traditionally has a variety of opinions on key foreign policy issues. For example, there are constant accusations among various experts and activists on Macedonia about who is betraying national interests. Some seek the protection of Bulgarian interests along the Euro-Atlantic line, others by interacting with Viktor Orban’s tendency, or they are Turkophiles. Either way, it is a mystery to those not initiated into the kitchen of Bulgarian foreign policy what exactly is Bulgaria’s strategy in North Macedonia, what and how will be achieved, who is the internal and external ‘enemy,’ who are the allies, etc.
It is noteworthy, however, that there is a dearth in the public space of websites that play the role of a bridge of friendship between Bulgarians and Macedonians. Along some of the more significant realignments of the Bulgarian approach in Macedonia, we understand that even the Macedonian Bulgarians are heterogeneous — i.e. they have different opinions, they probably have a different social position in their homeland, they are from different generations, etc. And in fact, even they do not seem to be written about with understanding in the Bulgarian media. Their statements are given in our media, but they are not accompanied by insightful analysis or are rarely placed in their contexts — for example that of Macedonian society, of the community of Macedonian Bulgarians, of Bulgarian-Macedonian relations or of international relations around North Macedonia.
Today’s Bulgarians can talk a lot about their Macedonian roots or about the Macedonian part of their national history, but getting to know contemporary Macedonians, their society, culture, values does not seem to be done in a way accessible to the mainstream Bulgarian in Bulgarian language. Of course, we understand Macedonian… but presumably, there must be some people who can process, organise, explain the situation in Macedonia to those who don’t have time to research it constantly on their own.
Bulgarian elites seem to invite their people to get to know Macedonia exclusively as a hegemon gets to know its territory. Whatever the reasons and justifications for this, hegemonic relations as a rule provoke resistance and rejection, and lead to the coalition of axes of resistance.
On the other hand, if someone really wants to modernize Bulgaria, to free it from oligarchic dependencies, to give it back to its citizens, or even to make it a subject of international relations, he will probably have to strike at some point at certain domestic and foreign political interests that prevent him from achieving this goal. Such action, however, is likely to provoke resistance from the interests in question. And if they are influential, the whole attempt may fail – the losers of the reforms may organize, protests may break out against the anti-corruption being conducted in a corrupt manner, the given political status quo may fall and another may come to power…
Our elite’s preferred or ideal option for the modernization of the society would probably be for it to happen by itself, by its own logic, on the basis of the authentic contradictions between the ‘subjects’ in Bulgarian society or the international players that would allow a peaceful evolution of the system.
This is one possible among other equally possible explanations why the current Bulgarian government, despite having support from the West, does not take a hard line towards Russia. The Romanian elites have long resented being alone in the region in their desire to confront Russia, while Bulgaria has typically relied on de-escalation in the Black Sea region. Bulgaria, in turn, sees its interest as generally in reducing tensions in the same region — given that tourism is a leading sector of the economy, and there are believed to be Russian interests in Bulgarian energy sector.
There are different opinions in Bulgaria about each major foreign policy partner. But with regard to Russia, it should probably be said that our country industrialised in the second half of the twentieth century thanks to close political and economic ties with the USSR. According to one legend, which a leading Bulgarian historian claims to be true, Todor Zhivkov told American politicians in the 1980s that the USSR was the largest colony of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, which received raw materials from there and exported industrial goods.
The way in which the transition in Bulgaria was carried out, involving the destruction of the industry built up during socialism, also led to a decline in economic ties with Russia and a reorientation of the Bulgarian economy towards the European market. But the Bulgarian transition led to the depopulation of entire regions, to the death of the Bulgarian countryside, because under capitalism there is development only where there is capital — and in Bulgaria this is mainly Sofia and a few other large cities. In these conditions, Bulgaria needs to bring dynamism to its territory, to find interested subjects to develop its economy or to develop it with its own resources and to bring life back to its declining regions, which are becoming more and more numerous.
Reflecting on the dilemmas facing political power in Sofia
There are realignments going on in the region at the moment: the US-Russian dialogue and military manoeuvres, the London-Warsaw-Kiev anti-Russian axis and the actions of European diplomacy (of which the Minsk Protocols talks between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are a part). In this context, the Bulgarian state in all its contradictory, captivated, indeterminate and ambiguous political identity is probably looking for ways to solve the inherited problems of the transition times.
Of course, the idea that it is looking for solutions is an optimistic view of the situation. If we listen to the evening news on television, if we watch the commentary programs, no one formulates such abstract ideas and hopes. There we have criminal news, news about the corona virus, news about the danger of hostilities and Bulgarian-Macedonian diplomacy. We have some reality shows. TV talk shows, etc.
Parallel to the news, various analysts interpret what is happening so that supporters of one or another of the major trends in Bulgarian society and political system have an understanding through the right prism and especially motivation of what are the right choices, who is right and who is wrong in national and international politics.
One consequence of this process is that at a grassroots level in Ruse there is politicization among the people. When they meet each other, they feel the need to defend certain political positions that they consider to be true. For example — “the corona virus is a hoax, in hospitals they infect people and make up statistics”. Or rhetoric against minorities – especially the political representatives of the Turks, but also against Biden and his pawns in government. Of course, in Bulgaria there is also rhetoric in support of NATO and against Russia — but the people who have it are more likely to live in Sofia and spread it through mass means of communication such as social networks, not in private conversation over coffee in Ruse. Middle class and NATO-vism are more abundant in the capital.
Thinking about these things seems to lead to a few conclusions. One is that many people in Bulgaria are invited by their political elites and put themselves in the role of proxies and agitators. ‘Civic participation’ in foreign policy is reduced to delivering Bulgarian books to Macedonia, Moldova or Ukraine. And in domestic politics it is simply being part of a mass of people who are dominated by other masses of people. The latter looks a lot like a socially acceptable way for frustrated people to express their hatred by directing it in a direction that is ‘safe’ for the elites.
The optimistic theory for Bulgarians that is offered to them is to be part of the middle class — in terms of education, income, contacts/social life and thinking. But this is a privilege that is mostly characteristic of Sofia and to a lesser extent found in the country. Moreover, important parts of the Bulgarian middle class are actually insecure in their status and this makes them look with fear and perhaps even contempt at attempts by the lower classes to organise politically or to defend their social positions. It also means that the middle class, generally a hub of life-affirming people, can easily play a rather conservative and ‘reactionary’ role in public life, rather than being an entity that exclusively develops society and modernises it. In some cases, otherwise positive middle-class representatives might look with fear or indifference at the attempts of the social periphery to develop subjectivity and to come out of their status as an exploited category of people, instead of finding the strength and motivation to see in them a person like themselves.
The divergence between elites and people in contemporary Bulgaria is of course a complex phenomenon. It is as if Bulgarian elites do not sufficiently cultivate capability, independence, and empowerment in their people — that periphery which, for various reasons, cannot develop the complex accumulations of different kinds of capital found in the middle class. The people seem to have been constructed ‘not to be able’, to be discontented and to be turned against convenient culprits because they have not had the chance to develop to the status of bourgeois, or because somewhere along the way of their growth they have succumbed to or been led astray by the temptations of power. The picture described seems somewhat Eastern. It is the heritage of transition.
Hypothesis: In Bulgaria there may be an undefined public attempt at social transformation
During the transition, the political system simply managed discontent while maintaining a timelessness for the elite-created or self-reproducing middle class. It was a system incapable of qualitative evolution. It did not transform itself because at its core it rested on static identities. In it, socialization at an early stage of a person’s life — for example, school or youth years — gave out the roles that he would play throughout his life. If he won the big battle to graduate from a prestigious high school in a big city, a bright future almost always awaited him. If he was born in Sofia, graduated from a language high school and university there, the mass of relationships he had accumulated in his youth made it very difficult for him to fall out of the stream of accomplished Bulgarians.
One of my hypotheses with this text is that with the fall of Borissov and the formation of a new political majority and perhaps even a new regime in Bulgaria, a transition to a dynamic citizen identity may be taking place. It is a matter of redefining the static identity of the transition in a way that allows its association with a dynamic element, which in turn is comprised of a contradiction between variables. This of course sounds very abstract and probably does not say much. So more explanation needs to be given.
I believe we are not even aware how complex is the world that we live in, while our political leaders and analysts offer very simplistic interpretation of what happens around. My hypothesis is that in the times to come public discourse on political issues will become more complex. We will think about our political consciousness and our political identity in a more complex way. There will no longer be a ‘Western’ identity and an ‘Eastern’/’Russian’ identity i.e. static identities and their struggle for hegemony will become something obsolete. We will discover with surprise the otherwise known fact that the West and the East are pluralistic — i.e. there are many ways of being Western and Eastern. Furthermore, there will be mixing and exchange between them. It will turn out that Russia, Iran, and China have pro-Western lobbies, which is indeed the case and has been for centuries. We will find ‘Eastern’ tendencies in Western countries — there should hardly be any surprises here either. And in fact there will be different combinations of all these identities and sub-identities, so that there will be a constant exchange between them as equals, rather than a struggle for hegemony of one aspect over the other.
Here’s the example: the policies of the government, and especially Change Continues, to recalculate pensions and raise them, and to raise the minimum wage, are an obvious attempt to attract voters from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, pensioners and the working poor. This is necessary because Change Continues needs a social base to survive in the competitive political system after the fall of Borissov. The rhetoric for change and against Borissov helped to take power, but to keep that power people need to be given things and a sense of development for the people. Otherwise the forces that were made to play the role of opposition, will reinstall Borisov back in power or put on a new face.
And here is a possible example of dynamic identity — epitomised by the election of Rumen Radev as president by both right and left: businessmen with Harvard degrees and MPs linked to the America for Bulgaria Foundation may be trying to build a bridge of friendship with marginalised voters (in early 2022, 1 million out of 2 million pensioners receive a minimum pension of €185, which is below the poverty line of €205 a month). Paradoxically or not, as Biden and Putin negotiate, the prospect of such a bridge may have reason to be considered realistic. It is no coincidence that various media have been talking about the generous social spending budget shaped by Finance Minister Assen Vassilev. His remark to employers that if they cannot pay a minimum wage of 355 euros they are incompetent is a rhetorical gesture to workers, positively assessed by trade union expert Vanya Grigorova.
There were similar border-crossing and friendship bridge policies in Romania under the ‘Romanian Orban’ Liviu Dragnea — only in the opposite direction. His innovative tax policy allowed him to attract part of the Romanian middle class — mostly its non-corporate elements — to the side of the Social Democratic Party. And he did it for the same reasons — in the face of political competition with the technocratic element in Romanian politics, if he did not take concrete actions that would benefit the voters, he would have no chance to survive. Simply, the Romanian ‘technocrats’ are stronger than the Bulgarian ones and for something to happen to their detriment, awareness and mobilisation is needed. In Bulgaria the situation is similar, only that oligarchy seems to be the element that marks politics. It has resources. Probably a possible ally against it for the new government are the pensioners and the working poor.
The importance of dynamic identities for Bulgarian foreign policy and economic development
So far, I have used the term ‘bridge of friendship’ several times as a metaphor for the method by which two different and perhaps even seemingly opposing and mutually exclusive identities come into contact and exchange with each other on the basis of solidarity, each element making the other or others stronger. This is the name of my Bulgarian-Romanian blog, and of the bridge between Bulgaria and Romania at Ruse-Giurgiu. I am a participant, a doer and a ‘sufferer’ of the power of this method of building a bond between people and nations.
In my opinion, the era of dynamic identity in Bulgarian foreign policy will mean, on the one hand, the end of hegemony in our attitude towards the world. Even if we thought before that our neighbours in the Balkans are all ‘hidden Bulgarians,’ we will connect with them now, not to turn the whole world into different kinds of Bulgarians, but to inject dynamism into our stagnant existences.
Between 2011 and 2021, the vast majority of counties in Northern Bulgaria have lost over 20% of their population — due to emigration and a higher death rate than birth rate. Locally, there may be economic elites who enjoy prosperity because they own a small business. They may have an interest in not having competition from new elites in order to remain locally influential. But the interest of the majority and of the state is not to keep out the world, especially the world in the EU – the interest is to have an opening outwards so that dynamism can be brought inwards and people can live meaningfully in the currently declining North — about half the country’s territory. There are many such declining regions in central and south-eastern Europe.
If we learn to relate to our neighbours as equals with equals, not through denial, manipulation, mistrust, we will be able to build a dynamic identity with them and move forward together — beyond the postulates of our national elites who, because of their privileged position in their mother countries, are unlikely to be among the first to leave a hegemonic attitude to the world.
Dynamic identity also means modernisation. Static identities are characteristic of hierarchical organizations in which the lower-placed elements are contained within the higher-placed ones, but in this hierarchy all are difficult to evolve for obvious reasons. If one starts to evolve faster than the others, it will become a threat to order rather than a chance for modernization for all and is likely to be sanctioned by the conservative elements.
An identity that cannot find anyone to subjugate is in turn hardly subject to hegemonic treatment — it is not static/fixed. Moreover, static identities are precisely a valuable resource for its development — insofar as, in communicating with them, it realizes its dynamism in full.
Translated into international relations, all this means that it is not so much Bulgaria itself as the Bulgarians who have the chance, because of their complexity and ambivalence, because of their openness in different directions, to become a bridge of friendship that can create dynamics for the modernisation of Southeast Europe and even beyond. And this is not about an initiative of one or another party that is ‘dynamic.’ Despite the fact that at the moment certain political entities are making the ‘change’ and others are in opposition, the real change will affect everyone. And we can safely expect GERB or DPS to develop their dynamic identities in the region.
This essay began with Panchatantra, India’s blind sages and the elephant. Although what has been written above, especially in the second part of the text may sound absurd at some points, the idea of dynamic identities, bridges of friendship and change are concepts that have their validity in explaining politics in Southeastern Europe.
The elephant can look like the state, like the political system, like power. But the real elephant is national trauma, which is another word for socialisation in our region. We become Bulgarians, Serbs, Macedonians, Romanians, etc. the moment we possess a shared national trauma built in us through socialization.
The power of a dynamic identity is that it allows an exchange between nations and people through which we can find resources beyond our world to bring dynamism into it, to evolve and overcome our traumas. The old political system, based on the transition, did not care about its citizens and their traumas. It was enough for it to breed a loyal elite to dominate the rest of the citizens — and for them to be at best proxies or agitprop. This system is simply incapable of offering Bulgaria progress. It offers a perpetual management of discontent created by static identities and the mutual domination between them.
It does not matter whether one or another oligarch or politician is elevated to a cult or overthrown, whatever the figures and parties, until identity and its contradictions change, our society will remain the same. The challenge for the Bulgarian political system is to finally start creating the conditions for its ordinary citizens to become subjects of domestic and foreign policy. To generate dynamism and change — not just for a limited circle/mafia, but universally.
For better or for worse, willing it or not, our society could be trying to build a new political system that will allow it to unleash its potential to a greater extent. This is not articulated by anyone and perhaps not even realized by most of us. We are still mired in our static identity perception of realities which are already becoming dynamic. And we still think that some of us are traitors because they are fighting Russia and others because they are fighting the West.
A dynamic identity would allow us to ‘fight’ non-violently only one thing — stagnation. The dynamic that travels from the outside in would have a twin brother — a dynamic that comes from within and goes out. The moment the battle is won, we will become part of the world. And democracy and modernity will expand their boundaries in our society and penetrate deeper into the social fabric.
So the battle in Bulgaria right now can also be seen like this — how exactly will we fit into the world, how much of our hegemonism will we be able to preserve, and to what extent will we be able to expand our consciousness so that we evolve not as a proxy or an agitprop in world politics, but as a subject.
And here is another interesting point of dynamic identity — we are subjects together with the other, who may even be our opposite and negate us. But together with him/her we can. I call the process by which this can-ness is realized the ‘bridge of friendship.’
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Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name. He focuses on international politics. He has worked for the Bulgarian weekly “Tema” until its closure in 2015. He founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. His articles and interviews have appeared in the Romanian magazines Decât o Revista, 22 and Q Magazine, in the Romanian cultural magazines of Vatra and Poesis, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac. At present, he makes a Ph.D. research on new Iranian literature before the Islamic Revolution at the University of Sofia. Starting from June 2020 he develops in English, Romanian, Bulgarian and other languages the blog “The Persian bridge of Friendship”, which deals with the Persian-speaking world.