Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!

× Learn more
No, thanks Photo: Abbas Atilay
back  |  printBookmark and Share

Bulgaria’s Culture Wars

Now we have some of the West’s problems, but there is a silver lining.

by Boyko Vassilev 1 March 2019

Just a decade ago, the idea of culture wars in Bulgaria seemed just about as likely as an alien invasion, and we can safely say that many people would sooner have believed in extraterrestrials than consider abortion to be a question to be debated. Politicians and pundits had far more pressing topics to discuss: communism, Russia, poverty, and corruption. They even used to laugh at Americans’ preoccupation with pro-choice versus pro-life positions. “Wish we had your problems,” Bulgarians would sigh.


That innocent wish has been granted, and the whirlwind is here.


For Bulgaria, it started in 2018, with the debate on the Istanbul Convention (a Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence), which placed “gender” at the heart of politics.


As I have written earlier, a set of standards supposed to defend women from violence was unexpectedly portrayed as an evil plot to introduce a “third sex” to Bulgaria. The misunderstanding may have arisen from a problem with language – the Bulgarian version of the convention translated “gender” as “social sex,” creating the impression that there were two kinds of sex – biological and social. Hence, the idea that the convention opened the door for a “third sex.”


Following an explicit Constitutional Court ruling, Bulgaria did not ratify the convention, setting an important precedent.


The war did not end with that battle. In January and February 2019, a draft proposal for a new “National Strategy on the Child” for Bulgaria became the focus. (This is a policy document that defines the priority areas and activities for improving the welfare of children in the country.) The proposal would have criminalized parents for any form of physical punishment. A statement appeared on the website of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, defending spanking but condemning abortion.


The liberal parts of Bulgarian society erupted, and the Synod promptly declared that the statement was just a draft, wrongly published on its website by a metropolitan, without approval.


Barely days later, the next issue emerged. This time, it was a digital literacy tool called SELFIE, developed by the European Commission. In Bulgarian, SELFIE included a question about a child’s sex, with the proposed answers: “boy”, “girl”, “other,” and “I prefer not to tell.” However, as with the furor over the Istanbul Convention, “sex” and “gender” were both translated into Bulgarian as the word пол [pronounced “pol”].


The offer of an “other” option provoked outrage – from the opposition, the press, conservative intellectuals, and pundits – and resurrected all of the arguments from the convention frenzy. The Ministry of Education reacted defensively, stressing that it had never supported a “third sex,” that Bulgaria had not participated in the creation of SELFIE, and that the country would call for the troubling question to be edited out.


Why has this become important?


There are several theories. Some think this is a deliberate distraction – just politicians looking for issues on which to attack one another – because it is much easier to debate “gender” than to discuss corruption and reform.


Other observers draw parallels with Russian hybrid warfare, which is known to concentrate on inflaming sensitive, anti-Western issues. Or could it be the fault of a sinister coalition of “Europeans, liberals, and George Soros,” aiming to destroy proud Bulgarian traditions?


Still others theorize about the clash between traditional and postmodern society, arguing that one or the other should be preserved – or promoted – at all costs. No doubt the author David Goodhart would happily see his schism between the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres” here.


Yet there are also some typical Bulgarian – or, rather, East European – factors at work here.


Despite offering great opportunities, the European common market has also swept the bulk of the talented workforce away from the EU’s smallest and poorest member-states. The issue of the brain drain resonates with declining populations, thus spreading a sense of integration fatigue, anxiety, and doom. The refugee crisis and Viktor Orban’s anti-Brussels, anti-liberal rebellion also contribute to the confusion.


In other words, the previously admired West has come to represent a troubling mixture of attraction and fear.


And there are proofs that this trend is widespread. Bulgaria’s culture wars have coincided with the announcement in Serbia that Prime Minister Ana Brnabic has had a baby with her same-sex partner. Reactions in Serbia were similarly ferocious as in Bulgaria – with liberals, conservatives, political opportunists, and simple bigots contributing their comments.


However, let me finish on an optimistic note – as un-Bulgarian as this may be! Culture wars require a middle class to wage them, which means that Bulgaria has a middle class, and that it is growing. In their accumulation of wealth and self-confidence, these people are starting to forget some of their old problems – and to adopt new ones, sometimes even issues from U.S. cultural conservatives.


We wished we could have their problems. Now we have them. Sometimes, unfortunately, wishes come true.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
back  |  printBookmark and Share


We would like to invite you to meet Kathryn Thier, a recognized expert and instructor of Solutions Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.


Join us to learn more about the connections between investigative reporting and Solutions Journalism and discover the impact that bringing the “whole” story has on communities. Kathryn’s keynote speech will be followed by a panel discussion on bringing the solutions perspective into reporting practices with Nikita Poljakov, deputy editor in chief of the business daily Hospodářské noviny. Nikita is also head of the project “Nejsi sám” (You are not alone), which uses the solutions approach to tackle the issue of male suicide. The main program will be followed by an informal wine reception. 


The event will take place on Monday, 25 March at 5 p.m. in the Hollar building of the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences (Smetanovo nábřeží 6, Praha 1). The event will be in English. 


Attendance is free upon registration - please, fill in the registration form.


Feel free to check out and share the event on Facebook.





Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


© Transitions Online 2019. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
Published by Transitions o.s., Baranova 33, 130 00 Prague 3, Czech Republic.