The taboo of socialism in Bulgaria

Bulgaria must choose its future in the upcoming elections, while there is a certain nostalgia for the communist era
Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo

 -   Soviet soldiers' cemetery, Ruse

With elections less than a week away, Bulgaria must decide who will take the helm of its parliament on 4 April. However, this Eastern European country seems not to have recovered from its recent history; while older people yearn for the return of a socialist regime, younger people do not even study the last years of this era. This political and ideological divide, coupled with the various scandals involving Bulgarian Prime Minister Boris Boikov, means that the EU's poorest country must decide which path to choose for the next four years.

"My mother lived happily during the communist regime. There was no one without a job and there was no poverty", says Nataliya, a young Bulgarian woman, in a restaurant in the centre of Sofia when asked about the regime that ruled the country well into the 1990s. Her companions at the table agree with her, but when asked for their opinion, they all define themselves as liberals and pro-Europeans, who would flee the country rather than let a socialist party return to power, "they believed that, and we understand that, but they didn't realise that they didn't have freedom".

Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo
Panoramic view of Veliko Tarnovo

Today Bulgaria is not much different from any other European country, governed by the 'Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria' (GERB) party with Boris Boikov at the head of state. Bulgaria is more supportive of the EU than Brussels itself, although this sentiment is more for economic than EU reasons. However, the reality in Bulgaria barely thirty years ago was quite different.

Forgetting its history

The Balkan country was ruled by a communist regime until the early 1990s. After a referendum in 1946, the people decided by 93% of the vote to end the monarchy and establish a people's republic governed by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), which outlawed all other parties. With the fall of the country's last communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, in 1989, a series of reforms began, including the emergence of new political formations and the transformation of the Communist Party into a social democratic one, which led to the country's first democratic elections in the summer of 1990, won by the moderate wing of the Communist Party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo
Nazi symbol graffiti in Ruse bus station

"The socialist party is the oldest party in the history of Bulgaria, so it is part of the history and politics of the country. We know that we have a responsibility to the democratic process, being a guardian of democratic and left-wing values," explains Aleksander Dimitrov, a researcher at the Bulgarian University of National and World Economy and a member of the Socialist Party. Despite this reality of the country's recent history, a survey conducted by the Alpha Research agency showed that 94% of those born after that regime know nothing about its socialist era, and 79% of young people know nothing at all about the second half of the 20th century.
Teodora and Petya, two 19-year-olds from Ruse, in the north of the country, prove this. "When people talk about communism, it sounds very distant to me, because it ended in 1990 and I was born in 2002, so there is a big gap between me and those events. Most of what I know about this period is because of my father," Petya justifies, echoed by her sister Teodora, "I don't think any of us [young people of that age] can describe what life was like during communism, and if we say anything it will be a representation of what our relatives have told us."

Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo
Mother and daughter playing in the snow in Ruse

This lack of knowledge has undermined the image of the socialist party itself in the country, especially for those between 25 and 40 years old, who "fell for this [anti-socialist] propaganda created in the 90s. Now, there is a global attitude of seeing socialism as one, obviating its national variants, due to the construction of a socialist imaginary, a consequence of Western propaganda during the Cold War. And somehow our young generation continues to believe in this propaganda without evaluating its veracity and having a proper opinion of this period," explains the socialist theorist.

Three visions of socialism

The Bulgarian population is arguably divided into two perspectives when talking about this recent history, explains Presiyan Costadinov, a history teacher at a high school in Ruse. "One is the normal one: people working, having their jobs, their salaries and being well off. They lived under communism. The second is a little bit different, it is the perspective of people who were forced to live with the consequences of having different opinions". For his part, the socialist scholar explains that "after the fall of Zhivkov, a large part of society wanted a change while another part still had hope in the system, and the first democratic elections were won by the socialist party".

Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo
Entrance to the Socialist Museum of Bulgaria, Sofia

However, when you ask about it, you realise that Bulgarian society is really divided into three groups when talking about socialism: those like Petya and Teodora's parents who would return to the socialist regime without hesitation, as would Nataliya's mother Maria, who explains that "there was work for everyone then, and we lived calmly and safely". Those who prioritise freedom and individual choice over economic security, such as Nataliya or Presiyan, who is sure that "in ten or fifteen years from now this first perspective that takes the communist regime as the norm will be over". And finally, the younger generations with "no perspective whatsoever on communism. Neither positive nor negative", as Petya explains, since "[parents or teachers] act as if it didn't happen, so we don't have the knowledge and proper references to be able to relate then and now". Both she and her sister say that at school "that period is covered by one or two classes because it is a very controversial topic, and everyone prefers to keep their opinions to themselves".

Bulgaria and its people need more and more normality, i.e. normal political parties and figures who are not linked to the communist regime in one way or another". communist regime in one way or another". The country's current prime minister, despite heading a centre-right party, as they define themselves, was the bodyguard of former communist leader Todor Zhivkov and whose name, along with 86 other candidates for parliament, has appeared on a list published by the Dossiers Commission as a member of the former regime's secret service. Aleksander, for his part, believes that "this is an artificial problem, which is used for merely superficial political purposes, and does not express any deep political feelings about the past".

Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo
Soviet soldiers' cemetery, Ruse

The past year has seen growing friction between the country's political and economic elites, a political power struggle between Borisov and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, and a series of leaks about extortion or corruption tactics by the prime minister and his government. These scandals culminated in anti-government protests in the summer of 2020, calling for early elections and the prime minister's resignation.

This political landscape, while exposing Borisov's government, has further divided the opposition. With just under a week to go before the parliamentary elections, and despite numerous corruption scandals, stagnating economic development and the current government's ineffective response to the pandemic, the polls once again show GERB winning, leaving the Socialist Party in second place. However, both formations have lost support compared to the 2017 results, due precisely to this division of the left in the country, which has helped to boost formations such as 'There is Such a People', a party that is making its debut in these elections, or the 'Movement for Rights and Freedoms', which focuses its area of action on helping the situation of the Turkish minority in the country.

Atalayar_Bulgaria Socialismo
Children's playground in a park in Ruse

This great division of the opposition makes clear the same ideological divide that is at the heart of the Bulgarian talks since, as the professor explains from Ruse, "there is a lot of hope in the people and youth of Bulgaria, they want to change their own future and that is why the future will be brighter than it is now". Teodora and Petya are the protagonists of that future, and they are clear that they are not going to leave, that they want to be part of the "dramatic change that the country needs. Bulgaria needs to step up now. It needs more young people with new and fresh ideas to make a difference. They are sure that "we are the change".