Last night, Berlin marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall in the company of special guests Hillary Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jon Bon Jovi. It was a moment to talk about universal human freedoms and recall those moving historical images of sledgehammers destroying a hated symbol of a divided Europe.
But among the inhabitants of the continent’s exhausted southeastern corner, the events of 20 years ago are regarded with ambivalence. Bulgaria did not have a people power revolution – the Bulgarian Communist Party just rode the winds of change. The transition from communism to a free-market, multi-party political system is seen here as either deeply flawed or a complete failure, depending on who you ask. Many Bulgarians are still poor and dissatisfied. To put it succinctly, Bulgarians can’t be bothered to commemorate or even reflect on the most fundamental change in their political and economic lives since the end of the Second World War.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project recently revisited a 1991 survey of public opinion in Eastern Europe and entitled its findings: End of Communism Cheered But Now With More Reservations. The results question the assumption that the transition in Eastern Europe is going more or less in the right direction. Only 52 per cent of Bulgarians now approve of the conversion to democracy – down from 76 per cent in 1991. Regarding the economic situation, 62 per cent of the population say things are worse now than under communism – compared with only 13 per cent who think things have improved.
“You can’t call the transition a failure,” says Petar-Emil Mitev, a sociology professor at the Ivan Hadjiyski Institute for Social Values and Structures in Sofia. “Rather the optimal transition has failed. We have made the transition from totalitarian socialism to democratic capitalism, but at the expense of stealing and destruction, which could have been avoided.”
Another cause of ambivalence about the past is that Bulgarian society has still not decided whether communism was legitimate. “Bulgarians refuse to have this debate because they all feel implicated to a certain extent,” says Evgeni Dainov, a professor of political science at the New Bulgarian University and long time anti-communist political thinker. He says that Bulgarians don’t like taking responsibility for their actions, and that “it’s easier to say ‘we don’t know if Communism was good or bad’.”
At the age of 20, democracy in Eastern Europe is still struggling. The emergence of a free-market economy and a multi-party political system has not created happy citizens. The West took it for granted that the benefits of democracy would be obvious, despite the fact that many eastern Europeans had no experience of democratic values or civil society. Many still don’t. In the push for privatisation, law and order was neglected. As a result, nostalgia for communism and public dissatisfaction is high while organised crime and corruption are widespread.
As the Obama administration rethinks the tone with which democracy is exported to places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we must hope that the hard lessons learned by Eastern Europe will be heeded.