The Lost World of Bulgarian Communism


Very little. I think there are some stalwarts in the party, but for the most part, as with so many European socialist parties, it has become a kind of centrist party. It has been in and out of power. It has imposed on Bulgaria the same neoliberal policies that all parties in Eastern Europe have been forced to impose on their countries in the last thirty years.

I’ve written many books and articles about what I call “red nostalgia” for the communist period in places like Bulgaria. It’s common throughout the former socialist world: you have “Yugo-nostalgia” in Yugoslavia, or “ostalgie” in the former East Germany.

Obviously, there were many good things that came after the end of communism in Bulgaria. People could travel; they could buy jeans and cigarettes and five hundred different kinds of shampoo — the consumer bonanza that capitalism brings, and that they really wanted. It’s important to highlight that it sucks to live in an economy of constant shortage. Many people were very angry about that.

But the problem is that the various governments that have ruled Bulgaria for the last thirty years have all been corrupt to a greater or lesser degree. All of the state-owned enterprises — the properties that were supposedly the collective wealth of the Bulgarian people — were privatized in a horrendously unfair and corrupt way during the 1990s and early 2000s. This process created the mafia and a few extremely rich oligarchs.

Some people fled the country with resources that should have been collectively distributed to the citizenry but weren’t. I can give you multiple examples of this. My first book, The Red Riviera, talks about this process of privatization and the tourism industry. My second book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe, talks about the process in the zinc-mining complex in a town called Madan.

But the biggest negative, which is continuing to this day, is the demographic catastrophe that has struck Bulgaria. It is the fastest-shrinking country in the world. Projections for 2050 are that it will lose an additional 20 to 30 percent of its population. It has suffered from massive amounts of out-migration and a total collapse in fertility rates.

For a country that has existed for the better part of 1,300 years (if you go with Bulgarian historiography) it is tragic to me seeing how difficult life has become in Bulgaria for many people. It is not at all surprising that they leave and that they refuse to have children — or if they do have children, they have them abroad. Demographers call what’s happening in Bulgaria today, thirty years after the collapse of communism, a “demographic death spiral.”

It is very difficult to reverse a situation like the one that Bulgaria finds itself in today. Ivan Krastev, a wonderful Bulgarian intellectual, wrote a book called The Light that Failed with his colleague Stephen Holmes. He was really talking about the failed promises of democracy in Eastern Europe. Krastev admits that the demographic collapse is one of the biggest failures of the transition from socialism to capitalism in the last thirty years.

I was in Bulgaria very early on in this process. I was in Eastern Europe the summer after the Berlin Wall fell. I remember the euphoria — the feeling that communism was over, and people were going to have freedom. There was the possibility of a peace dividend, living in a more just world, without the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear war that we all lived under during the 1980s. It’s sad to see that all of the goodwill and the spirit of those early years has been squandered.

My colleague Mitchell Orenstein and I have published a book called Taking Stock of Shock: Social Consequences of the 1989 Revolutions that looks at economic, demographic, public opinion, and ethnographic data for twenty-seven countries over the last thirty years. We tried to take a bird’s-eye view and see whether or not this transition process had been a success or a failure. We found, not only in Bulgaria but throughout the region, that the transition has been wildly successful for some people — probably about a third of the population. For the other two-thirds, it’s actually been a huge catastrophe.

There are many people living in the region today who do not have the standard of living that they enjoyed when communism ended in 1989 or 1991. That’s after thirty years of freedom, democracy, capitalism, free markets, and all the promises that those things were supposed to bring. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.


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