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Long, Hot Summer

But now comes the autumn of Bulgarians’ unanswered questions. by Boyko Vassilev 18 September 2008 SOFIA | “This is a total failure. Bulgarian EU membership went bust,” the opposition says. “We have problems like other new members. And we will solve them,” the government retorts.

It may sound like a normal exchange between those in power and those who vie to replace them, but it isn’t. The uncommonly fierce verbal battle goes beyond the usual political banter; signs of deep mistrust and pessimism mingle with other, more positive, signs – of, say, the country’s fast economic growth on Asiatic proportions for the 10th consecutive year.

Something is happening with Bulgaria, a country that joined the European Union in January 2007, and this July received one of the most critical reports that the European Commission has ever issued. Something strange is happening. But what exactly? And where will it lead?

“The government must go immediately. Early elections should be called in autumn,” the opposition says. “The elections are scheduled for next summer anyway, so why rush them? The ruling coalition must stay to do its homework, prescribed by Brussels,” the government retorts.

Yes, it was a hot summer in Bulgaria. Accusations of corruption and the slow pace of reform had already started to appear in the spring – not only in the Bulgarian press, but also in The Times of London, the Financial Times (twice), and The Economist (thrice). The powerful minister of the interior, Rumen Petkov, was forced to resign; these events shook the strange ruling coalition of the Socialist Party, the centrist NDSV of former King Simeon, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, supported predominantly by Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks.

Enter the report from Brussels: The government and judiciary are not efficient in fighting corruption and organized crime; the administration cannot handle European money properly. Some pre-accession funds were conditionally frozen, others were threatened. The opposition, in hot pursuit, followed with a vote of no confidence in the last week of July. Though the government survived – and soon after almost everyone went to the seaside – the challengers, led by the ambitious and popular Sofia mayor Boyko Borissov and his newly established center-right party GERB, have started a petition campaign to fire the government. Farmers protested by slaughtering calves named after coalition leaders. The radical part of the opposition took to the streets and despite their low numbers in the August heat, raged at the government on Sofia’s central square.
Time to stop loafing and start dreaming.

“The problem is that this government steals,” the opposition says. “The problem is that every government until this one has stolen, predominantly those who are in opposition now,” the government retorts.

However, if you push any of them on those accusations, they will all confess that Bulgaria’s EU membership has some structural problems that would inevitably impinge on any government regardless of ideology:

● An inefficient public administration: poorly paid, badly managed, consistently criticized, and therefore strongly corrupted. If you say that this is a common trait of every new democracy, I would argue that there is no country in the region like Bulgaria, where a career in the state sector brings so little money and prestige.

● Lack of people. In the years of transition almost 1 million among the best and youngest left the country. The population now barely reaches 8 million on a territory the size of South Korea (48 million). My second point may well explain the first.

● Bad coalition culture: not only in respecting one’s coalition partners, but also in promoting cadres for the state apparatus, where people develop according to party allegiance rather than to their own merits. Political habits tolerate cronyism and nepotism; corruption scandals are eternal. “Bulgarians admit they are richer now. The biggest problem is not poverty, but the absence of rules,” Ivan Krastev, a prominent political scientist, said recently.

● Bad project culture. Bulgarians find it extremely difficult to write projects and some of them even think (encouraged obviously by some South European examples) that European money can be easily stolen. The frozen pre-accession funds (such as PHARE, ISPA, and SAPARD) are not the gravest problem. The big money is coming with the post-accession cohesion funds and if Bulgaria won’t be able to absorb them properly, EU membership will be in vain.

● And the mother of all problems: inexplicable pessimism, in combination with a lack of a new vision for the country.

To elaborate: Bulgarians did not enjoy their EU accession fully. Pre-membership angst turned into post-membership fatigue and then into a constant membership gloom, strangely ornamented with improvement in living conditions, an investment boom, more luxury cars, and shopping malls all over the country. Even more strangely, Bulgarians entered the union with huge levels of euro-optimism and greater levels of skepticism for themselves and their country. The paradox was registered by every Eurobarometer study and so far has been explained by past humiliations and the ever-present hope in the EU, “the new miracle, the golden rain, the only authority who can punish our own authorities.”

Bulgarians put more hope in Brussels than in their own government. The bright side in all of this is that Sofia treats the European Commission with respect; it reacts, and sometimes overreacts, to criticism from abroad, and it will not be a union spoiler because of obscure issues, like other new members and candidate countries so often are.

The Bulgarian establishment, however, failed to lead – and by establishment I mean not only government and not even just politicians in general. After entering the EU and NATO, Bulgarian leaders, intellectuals, journalists, and analysts did not answer the most important question: What next? What is the next vision, dream, purpose? How do we imagine the nation tomorrow? What is the priority? Tourism, nature, high tech, low carbon? And please do not answer “Everything”. If you have 10 priorities, it means you have none.

Instead everybody kept on saying: EU money is coming! Prepare to utilize it! But European money is far less important for the recent Bulgarian economic boom, say the young liberal analysts from Industry Watch, a think tank. They trace the growing wealth of Bulgarian families more to property developments and the booming real estate market rather than anything else. Paradoxically, the fixation on European money made it look as if such funds are easy to get and practically already in our hands.

“Prepare!” everybody said, and nobody got prepared. Everyone was focused on tools, and no one on substance. European membership started to look like a technical matter already completed rather than a window of opportunity for a country with greater ambitions.

Is Brussels to blame? “Not at all. The government spoiled our membership,” the opposition says. “Brussels wants Bulgaria to bear the brunt of all the hardships facing the EU and to serve as a strident example for the new candidates, warning them that the Commission means business,” the government retorts.

Well, that could all be true. But neither the incumbents, nor the challengers, nor those who criticize them both, have found a way to take Bulgaria on the way to optimism with a message such as: “Getting personally rich is not enough. Let’s start to talk about our country. Let’s imagine its future.” Bulgarian traditions in education and engineering could be a good start.

Words of vision often matter more than cold statistics. Bulgaria desperately needs a new national dream.
Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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