After thirty years, Bulgarian politics requires the reinvention of checks and balances, the division of powers and judiciary independence. At best, its mechanisms and ability to adapt to external and internal pressures make it a patchy democracy.

Upon landing in Sofia, the first impression tells it all about Bulgaria’s thirty years after transition. The new airport terminal 2 welcomes you with its jet bridges and wide corridors, offering a common standard among the better airports worldwide. The airport is well connected with the city through a new metro line, bus and relatively cheap taxis. The main road to the city centre is smooth and with no lights, as it has been since the 1980s.

On the way to the city centre, the modern glass and steel architecture interweaves with the communist-era apartment housings, which remain the living memory of the last thirty years.

A longer gaze at these communist relic buildings reveals three of the most characteristic aspects of the Bulgarian thirty years. What was once an emanation of material equality, these housings now epitomise post-communist inequality.

The wealthier owners who could afford to renovate their flats were also able to increase their energy efficiency by thermal insulation from outside. The lack of any appropriate regulations left the owners with the free hand to choose the colour, fabric and thickness of the insulation. Although usually in mild colours, these insulation patches contrast with the communist era’s background of dusty and rusty building elevations of the owners, unable to afford the financial cost of external renovation.

The Communist era plattenbau housings, most intensively built in the 1970s and 1980s, were given a 50 year warranty and their current appearance is underlined by a noticeable imprint of time. Unlike Central Europe, where thermal insulation is usually a community task uniting (for good or bad) all inhabitants of the building, in Bulgaria, such an approach was never a matter of serious public concern.

Although thermal insulation does not have to be a public policy, it is also not a communal concern. This radical individualistic approach characterises, on the one hand, the Bulgarian inability to identify and pursue a common good. On the other hand, it exposes the brutal power of wealth to reshape reality, unrestrained by useless regulations safeguarding common space, aesthetics and last, but not least – safety.

European money, Bulgarian roads

The membership is one of the main, if not the biggest, Bulgarian achievements of the last thirty years. Member of the EU since 2007, the country is still subject to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which monitors the country’s performance in the fields of the judiciary, anti-corruption and organised crime. Although officially harmless, this mechanism provides guidelines for the EU member states. These are then being taken into consideration in the context of the potential admission of Bulgaria to the Schengen area or the Eurozone monetary union. Thus, despite its efforts, the country remains outside these tiers of European integration and although formally in, remains a sui generis handicap member of the EU.

Probably, the most tangible aspect of the Bulgarian membership, endlessly exploited by the governments is the improvement of the Bulgarian infrastructure.

Some time ago, when stunned by Boyko Borisov’s reelection phenomenon I asked why people support him. Quite frankly, a person dear to me replied that, at least under his watch, roads are being built. In other words, the EU-Bulgarian relationship has turned into a unique opportunity for national political elites to cumulate credit for performing their duties. The EU perception in Bulgaria is not of a common project, but external drip-bag securing the ability of the state to meet modest public expectations.

Trakia A1 motorway

After 40 years and mostly being built prior to the EU membership, the Trakia motorway was officially opened in 2013 with the same prime minister taking credit equal to a national unifier.

Today, at places the road is so uneven, that for tens of kilometres cars driving slowly and drive in the left lane. Those who are in a hurry speed in the right lane (hopefully) aware of the risks to their cars and health. Apparently, the relevant state agencies ignore the problem, most probably aware of the political consequences.

Once off the motorways, Bulgarian roads also are a reminder of the last thirty years. The endless road patches and their uneven surface are a consequence of piecemeal and badly executed renovations. The state of these roads is the result of constitutive factors within the road construction business. Subcontractors roughly execute jobs which are outsourced by businessmen with connections in the local administration. The quality control is fictitious, and the standards are negotiable. What remains, for the economy, is the high demand for secondhand SUV’s.

The demographic apocalypse

Thirty years ago, Bulgaria was waiting for the birth if its 9th million citizen. According to the National Statistical Institute, the population of Bulgaria in 2018 was 7,000,039 and the number continues to decline. For comparison, in Rwanda in the period 1990-1995, the population declined by 1.3 million from 7.2 to 5.9 million citizens, among others because of a genocide that led to more than 800,000 victims.

Most importantly, unlike many parts of the Balkan Peninsula for the last three decades, Bulgaria was not at war, did not lose population due to territorial loses. Instead, it joined NATO and the EU and increased its wealth six times.

On the other hand, the collapse of country’s demography led the UN to predict that if Bulgaria keeps this demographic trend, by 2050 its population will shrink to 3.5 million people – the size of its population when it gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

The reasons for this trend are manifold. The collapse of the public health system in the 1990ies, the lack of perspectives, the visa-free regime with the Schengen area since 2001 and the free movement of people within the EU, the collapse of the family model and the decreasing fertility rate. Each one of them has its transformational, economic, social or European explanations, but they are not important.

What matters is the fact that each of the Bulgarian governments did nothing to reverse this process. None of the Bulgarian governments acknowledged the acuteness of the problem and all of them are equally responsible for the worst demographic situation in the Balkans and one of the worst in Europe.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

Today, Borisov’s government, disregarding the annual statistics, applies cheap PR and cyclical propaganda campaigns to emphasise the increasing return of Bulgarians from the EU. The personal choices of several hundreds or even thousands will not reverse the tide of a demographic apocalypse, but there is no reason to believe that this will become a matter of concern for any of the political forces preoccupied with the redistribution of power.

The intellectual death of society

It is easy to criticise the existing reality from abroad, but it is much more important is how the locals sense it. Childhood, humbleness and patience, are the three pillars of the last three decades of intellectual perceptions according to Bulgarian actress Silvia Lulcheva (expressed in an interview for the Bulgarian National TV).

To follow her metaphor and to see the Bulgarian transition as childhood, it is a damn long one. A thirty-year-old person is not only deprived of the privileges of puberty but also is fully responsible for his deeds. Hence the mothers’ humbleness remains the only mental condition to assimilate the surrounding reality. However, in the Bulgarian reality, this humbleness turns into submission, because the omnipresent state with its formal and informal ties can crush anyone.

The story of the famous Bulgarian poet Nedyalko Yordanov, who is subject to a ‘steered’ prosecution, due to his sons’ public activities, can scare anyone. On the other hand, the intellectuals, still dependent on the state-controlled funding, prefer the role of pious explanators of the dominant system. Finally, Lulcheva’s patience is not the patience of hope for a better future of a joint effort to improve reality, but a patience of enduring in a system that is not heading anywhere. Thus, the matured political system requires submission and piety instead of free-minds and creativity for the common good.

The last thirty years provided also examples of hope. The 1997 protests clearly showed Bulgaria’s choice towards NATO and the EU. In 2013, again, the public prevented the nomination of Delyan Peevski, the personification of all the evil in the Bulgarian politics, from heading the Bulgarian National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, even in that respect, the system learned its lesson. Paid protests relativised the sole idea of public protests, depriving the society of one of its most important tools of power control. The election of Ivan Geshev’s for the post of Attorney General destroyed another barricade of social resistance against the powerholders.

Between lustration and privatisation

Former President Rosen Plevneliev

Anniversaries require evaluation. Five years ago, in his speech on the 25th anniversary of the end of communism in Bulgaria, published also by Res Publica Nowa, President Plevneliev’s tried to reassess the past. While recognising the need for a better appreciation of the last quarter of a century, he also highlighted some of the essential weaknesses of the Bulgarian transition among which the lack of proper lustration and predatory privatisation played a prominent role.

Over the last three decades, the never seriously approached question of lustration increased the feeling of social injustice and undermined the legitimacy of the post-communist political elites. Piecemeal efforts to cope with the past not only determine the nature of the Bulgarian transition but also highlight the social conviction about the futility of these efforts.

At the junction of lustration and privatisation emerged the post-transition political system that allowed the former, discredited political elites, not only to survive the change but also to reinvent themselves as the godfathers of a new political system and to frame it in accordance with their own needs.

A 2017 survey on the generation of transition aptly captures the hierarchy of social values within the Bulgarian society:

“The combination of low levels of social and institutional trust, coupled with a low appreciation for civic and political activities, as well as the unrealistically high expectations from the state are a ticking time bomb. The low appreciation for democratic institutions and the low levels of democratic political culture make citizens susceptible to anti-democratic forms of governance. This is how financial security, connections and corruption climb up on the values ladder.”

The thirty years later debate

Today, two narratives dominate the debate around the evaluation of the last three decades of Bulgaria’s history. The first focuses on the general political disappointment with the political transition and is openly critical towards the existing political model. This wholly critical approach is counterbalanced by a narrative of allegedly positive economic developments: it argues that Bulgaria experiences endless economic growth and has never been as wealthy as today.

Such a debate is utterly futile. Firstly, because it compares apples with violins and secondly because it refuses to identify the dimensions in which the country should continue to develop.

Thirty years ago the discussion was not about which economic model to adopt in order to obtain the best GDP growth, but how to get rid of a system and create closer ties with the West for the sake of political pluralism, individual freedoms and economic prosperity.

As the Chinese experience shows us, there is no democratic prerequisite for rapid economic growth. The Bulgarian model of transition, in which the Communists dismantled the communist system, paved the way for the patchy political reality in which democratic rituals are supplemented by utterly non-democratic dailiness.

For thirty years this system evolved, matured and stabilised, additionally nurtured by EU membership. Today, there is no longer reason to explore the roots of this system, but its mechanisms and ability to adapt to external and internal pressures make it – at best – a patchy democracy.

After thirty years, Bulgarian politics requires the reinvention of checks and balances, the division of powers and judiciary independence. In evolutionary terms, that can happen only with increased social awareness, public pressure on ruling elites and rejection of the primate model of politics dominating over the last three decades. Rejection of the presence of mutra (mafia thugs) in public life can be a good starting point for cultural, social, political and economic renewal.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Slovak version appeared in SME.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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