Date: Fri, 19 Nov 1999 11:23:39 -0600 (CST)
From: Greek Helsinki Monitor <>
Subject: [balkanhr] AIM: Bulgaria—Ten Years After
Article: 82358
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Bulgaria—Ten Years After

By Georgi Filipov, AIM Sofia, 12 November 1999

Although 9 November 1989 is the symbol of the fall of the Berlin wall for the entire Eastern Europe, and therefrom of the overthrow of the communist regime, for Bulgaria it is 10 November, 1989. Just a day after the developments in Berlin, an internal party coup took place in the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) and the party and state leader who had been in power for many years, Todor Zhivkov, were overthrown from power. At the session of the Central Committee of BKP, it was decided that Zhivkov who had ruled Bulgaria for more than 30 years, had to resign. His post of secretary general of BPK was taken by Petar Mladenov, and this marked the beginning of a peaceful transition towards democracy.

Nowadays, ten years later, time has come for settling accounts. What has happened, and what should have happened, but did not happen in Bulgaria in this period?

Contrary to majority of Eastern European countries, Bulgaria cannot brag with special success in the economic sphere. Its achievements in the political sphere are not at all to be doubted,though. It is not by mere chance that the Eropean Commission is laying stress on the fact that the decision which recommends that negotiations on Bulgaria's joining the European Union should begin is a purely political one. Nowadays, Bulgaria is still a comparatively poor state, but with a well balanced political system which ensures its internal stability and inspires confidence of the foreign partners. In this period Bulgaria is one of the few countries in the Balkan peninsula which has not allowed conflicts or a war break out on its territory.

The Bulgarians have learnt to vote freely, without fear of secret services or pressure exerted by certain political forces. In the past ten years since the beginning of transition, elections were held eight times, four of which were parliamentary. Two big political parties have won recognition—Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), former communists, and the League of Democratic Forces (SDS). The party of the Turkish minority—Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) has won a place for itself in the society, and at different moments, certain minor formations would turn up and flash in the political sky to act as a weight that establishes the balance in the electrified bipolar space between BSP and SDS.

However, the latest local elections that took place a little less than a month ago, do not offer much hope to Bulgarian politicians. On the whole, the parties have lost more than one million voters who have not turned up at the polling places. These are the people who mostly belong among the so-called active population—young people, businessmen, workers and civil servants. Bulgarians are starting to be apathetic when the elections are concerned, because none of the political forces could resolve the other fundamental qestion of transition—transformation of planned economy which was controlled by the state into successfully operating market economy.

There are still heated arguments about whether it was a mistake or not that during the rule of the first cabinet of SDS in 1992, a “shock therapy” was not performed like the one in Poland or Esthonia. This system is known for the fact that for a certain period of time the population is forced to live in exceptionally difficult conditions, but on the other hand this enables a good start for market economy. There were no conditions in Bulgaria for such a drastic reform, so the road of milder and less painful transition from the social aspect was chosen. And that might have been a big mistake. Demands for a reasonable level of income and guaranteed social minimum, artificial maintenance of low unemployment rate have led to the agony of the economy. None of the previous cabinets, not even the current one, the government of Ivan Kostov which has done the most in the sphere of privatisation, could not resolve the problem by shutting down unprofitable enterprises which in fact produced losses, most of which were state owned. Such a move would cause a great increase of unemployment, but it would on the other hand free the state of the by now untypical for it obligation to manage enterprises and pay salaries to the employees in these enterprises although they are not full-fledged participants in economic life.

Slowing down of privatisation and liquidation of money-losing enterprises proved to be the largest mistake of all politicians since 1989. Instead of having the economy set on sound foundations for a long time already, even the most profitable state enterprises have been degraded by bad management of the state. This question has not been solved to this day, although much has been done in this sense in the past two years.

Gradual reduction of competitiveness of Bulgarian economy on foreign markets, and even on the local one, has logically led to a drastic drop of income which the politicians had feared for so long. Nowadays the average salary is below 200 marks, but the cost of living has gone up several times in relation to 1989.

The same problems were created in agriculture which is now almost completely destroyed. Proceedings of returning the land to its initial owners are dragging on for ten years already. At the time, poor handling or complete negligence of arable land destroyed a great part of perennial crops. Most of agricultural workers nowadays see no sense in their work because their work and invested money in the production by far exceed the true selling price of products. Bulgarian villages are already producing mostly just for their own needs.

Bulgaria has not managed to raise interest for its economy abroad and this is a great failure of its politicians. This country has never had a strong lobby in the large powers because it was always considered to be a sattelite of Moscow, and it has just recently drawn attention with its stability. Bulgaria has already taken its first steps on the road towards guaranted stability in the Balkans. If it now gets support for initiation of negotiations on joining the EU this would be an adequate response of the West to its efforts towards integration.

It is possible that on the one hand this invitation proves to be the necessary stimulus for bringing the initiated economic reforms to an end. On the other hand, it is possible that in this way it will draw the attention of foreign investors to convince them that something positive is finally taking place in Bulgaria. However, operation of market economy greatly depends on politicians who need to prove to Europe that they have great wish and strong will to play by the rules. For the time being it appears that western economies still see some kind of a Berlin wall between themselves and Bulgaria.