Two weeks ago in the teacher’s lounge between classes, all of us had our eyes locked on the TV news, which streamed video footage of violent protests and announcements of the prime minister’s recent resignation. There was no great outcry over this, or even a sense of great concern. It felt like people were almost as equally bothered that all the coat hangers had been removed from the lounge over the weekend during renovations. To be clear, no once was jumping up and down for joy that the parliament was, well, not really there any more; but neither was anyone packing up their families to flee to Switzerland. It felt like any other day. And then the teacher on my left said this:
“The bad thing would be if a Communist party gets elected now.”
Luckily I didn’t have a mouthful of banitsa when I heard this comment, because I would have choked on it. “What?” I said to him. “That could happen?”
“Yes, and then Bulgaria would lose all its EU funding, because the European Union has a policy not to give funding to Communist governments, because all the money gets taken by the politicians. If they give a country 100 euros, 100 euros disappear. But if the government is not Communist, maybe the politicians take only 10 from every 100.” Ah. Well, that’s logical.
Since then, I have heard opinions both supporting and denying this possibility. It seems that no one really has a clear idea of what is going to happen. The fact that some people think it is realistic, though, is illustrative of one of the most surprising things I have observed in my time in Bulgaria: Most Bulgarians don’t hate communism.
As an American, I grew up with an image of communism as a cold shadow devouring happiness and hope, knocking down every hard worker in its path and tossing a gnawed-on crust of bread over its shoulder as compensation. But more often than not, it is remembered as just one in a progression of imperfect political systems. Some people even talk about nostalgically:
Sure, you weren’t allowed to travel or listen to the music you wanted to, but at least you had a job and a place to live. But the past 20 years since the changes happened have been more terrible that we ever expected. When things changed, we thought, we were OK before, and now we will be a little better, but we lost all of the good things that communism had brought and fell into crisis. It is 20 years later and we still haven’t recovered. Now people pick food out of the trash bins — you never saw this before.
Of course some people remember those years in a more sinister way. I’ve heard impassioned diatribes about communism having stolen the youth of those who were entering their 20s as it fell. But for today’s young people who have grown up walking streets full of potholes and beggars, it’s hard to imagine that the current system could be better than what their parents remember as a system of lifetime security, even if they weren’t as free as they would have liked.
Since the government’s resignation, protests run by angry young people have continued and rallied against the corruption in the political parties, specifically the mafia presence in government and business. This is a generally accepted reality in Bulgaria, felt even by those who have never held any job. Last Thursday, one of my particularly cynical students responded to a question about what success looked like by saying that he wanted to be a boss. “Of a company, or like a mob boss?” I joked.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. They’re the same.”
My students didn’t have any ideas on how to change this situation, or even a whole lot of optimism that it is possible to change it. So far the solution of many young Bulgarians has been not to flee to Switzerland, to but to emigrate to Germany or the U.S. Hope is not a predominant value.
As far as I can understand it, this is the frustration that has been fueling the protests. The feeling that people are being pushed down, honest attempts at success squashed by corruption in government and business. Of course, other students scoffed at this attitude and said it is born of a habit of attributing personal failure to outside forces. Whatever the problems, there is consensus that the current system isn’t working and is possibly worse than the past — even if the past is only something you have grown up hearing about through vague dinner conversation.
New elections are scheduled for May, which caused a burst of excitement because it means we will have an extra day off of school. For the most part, the swell of expectant joy stops there, though. The protestors have yet to offer a concrete plan for improvement; what they agree on now is anger.
[I realize this is a complex issue with more sides than I can understand, having been here for such a short time. Therefore every opinion expressed here has been taken from a real conversation or compilation of conversations I have had, and I acknowledge that none of them fully captures what is going on or a perfectly generalized view. This is merely a representation of my impressions from my unscientific method of questioning friends, colleagues, and students to try to make sense of things.]