Playing Catch Up

Many people I’ve interviewed in East-Central Europe have talked about their initial expectations in 1989-90 that their countries would soon leap the development gap and join Europe proper. Within a few years, they thought they’d be living in the equivalent of Austria or Italy. When several years went by, and then several more, and they were still not living in these Austria-like countries, quite a few people simply got on a train or a plane and left for the West. If Western Europe doesn’t come to you, even after accession to the European Union, then you might just as well go directly to Western Europe yourself.

You can sense this persistent gap whenever you take the train from Vienna the short distance to Bratislava or the ferry from Finland to Poland. As you move east and south, people in general have less money, the infrastructure looks more run-down, there is more talk of corruption, and citizens have considerably less trust in their political institutions. Of course there are pockets of wealth in the East and pockets of poverty in the West. But these impressions of a continued disparity nearly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall are borne out by the statistics. The GDP per capita of Austria and Finland is approximately $47,000 compared to the Slovak figure of $16,899 and the Polish figure of about $12,000.

But gut impressions and GDP figures are just rough estimates. If you want a more precise evaluation of Europe’s development gap, check out the Catch Up Index. A project of the Open Society Foundation in Bulgaria, the index looks at four different kinds of indicators: economy, democracy, governance, and quality of life. Each of these categories aggregates a basket of measurements that includes everything from GDP per capita (for economy) and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (for governance) to the Gini coefficient measuring inequality (for quality of life) and the Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders (for democracy).

The latest Catch Up Index, published this January, has no overall surprises. Scandinavia remains on top, and the Balkans are still on the bottom. But some of the details are important. The economic crisis, for instance, is bringing about a minor convergence between rising Eastern European countries (Poland, Czech Republic) and falling Western European countries (Ireland, Spain, Italy).

Marin Lessenski has been working on the Index out of Sofia. Bulgaria has not fared particularly well in the charts. It currently ranks 29th out of 35 countries. To add insult to injury, it fell a spot in the latest edition.

“What we saw in the previous edition was that Bulgaria changed places with Romania,” Lessenski told me in an interview in Sofia back in September. “Previously Bulgaria was one notch above Romania. Romanians were very unhappy, I was told. The Romanian foreign minister was talking about this index. I told them, it’s not a big thing. It’s just a notch. It’s not statistically significant. Now this year, Bulgarian is one notch below Romania.”

We talked about the growing divide between the Balkans and the rest of Europe, the expectations that EU accession have produced, and what it means that Bulgarians like Turkish soap operas so much.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall and what your reaction was?

 

I don’t have any memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But I remember vividly the moment when Ceausescu fell. I was in the army as a regular conscript soldier. But for some reason, they decided to broadcast everything happening in Romania and Bulgaria. I’m not sure to this day whether it was staged or not, but it was happening in front of our eyes. It was almost a civil war.

The officers went somewhere for three days and were nowhere to be seen. It was only a brief period that the officers were not sure whether they would survive after the fall of Ceausescu. They worried that there would be a revolution and we would take up arms against them. Then it appeared that it wouldn’t happen and everything calmed down.

 

How long had you been in the army at that point?

 

For two years. It was the full term that we were required to do. I entered the army in 1988. When I was discharged in 1990, it was a completely new world. Some of my classmates had moved on: some had already gone to the States or elsewhere. We’d never been to Western countries. It was a completely new life. I remember being very hopeful. I thought that in five years — don’t laugh! – I thought that by 1995 Bulgaria would be something like Greece. Now the Europeans are hoping that Greece will become something like Bulgaria!

 

You left the army and Bulgaria was a different country.

 

It was a transition country. It was also a time of amazing personal change for me. Of course we lived during the so-called perestroika time. Bulgaria didn’t experience much of this. But when I was in high school, we were reading the Russian publications Ogonyek and Komsolmolskaya Pravda to show how liberal we were. I remember somewhat naively talking about things, like capitalism and this and that. But it seemed very distant. And then all of the sudden the change happened.

My personal plan was turned upside down. We lived during communism and I had one kind of personal project. I was already accepted to university. You had to apply to university beforehand, you see. Then you served in the military and then you went to university. And you knew for 30 years what you were going to do. But in 1990, everything changed and I was suddenly in doubt about what I was doing.

 

Were there any changes that took place in the army itself while you there?

 

I don’t think so. It was only a brief period. I was in the construction unit, like engineering. That’s where they sent minorities and unreliable elements, like me probably. There were a lot of Jews, Armenians: it was colorful in the army. All the people from art school and the musicians were there – so it was fun. But what was happening at the time — the changing of the names of Turks and the exodus — somehow we didn’t feel it. Of course it was different for the people who suddenly had different names, who maybe didn’t speak Bulgarian very well.

I remember the first free elections. I was still in the army. The officers were exerting pressure on us — we were punished because we brought in newspapers and some posters of the opposition. Basically nothing changed. The former Communist Party won the elections, so that was that. For the next several years, nothing happened. Only in 1996/97 did some change happen.

 

You went to university once you came out of the army.

 

I studied history. That was my first wish.

 

Even before you entered army.

 

Yes. Again, it was strange because in the university, we talked about intellectual things, big stuff, broad frameworks. At the same time there was a big struggle in politics and in everyday life — because it was the economic crisis. There was scarcity of food. It was terrible. We had power outages all the time. That’s when the first wave of emigration from the country occurred. My high school friends started to emigrate. They said, “Nothing will change in this country.” This was after the first elections. For me, the turning point was my first visit to a Western country in 1992. I went on a brief exchange visit to the Netherlands. It was a culture shock.

 

I’ll come back to this, but first tell me something about the work you do here at Open Society.

 

I work on this big project, the European Policy Initiative. It’s focused on different aspects of European policies, such as the integration of Bulgaria and other post-communist countries into the European Union. We started with the decision-making process to see whether these countries are actively developing their positions in the EU. For the last few years, we’ve been working on the Catch Up Index. We created an index that includes four dimensions, not only the economy which is the usual thing, but also quality of life issues such as education, health care, democracy, and governance – for the countries trying to catch up with EU leaders.

 

How long have you been here?

 

4.5 years. But I’ve been working with OSI as an external expert on European integration issues for something like 10 years.

 

You said that your first trip to the Netherlands in 1992 was a shock. Was that when you decided to work on these European issues? Before that you were studying Bulgarian history?

 

Actually I was working on archaeological and ancient history since I was in high school under the supervision of people from museums. I wanted to study this when I entered the university. Intellectually it was magnificent. Of course I was interested in Balkan history. But there was a saying among my colleagues: if you study the last 200-300 years, it’s just journalism. When I was in the Netherlands in 1992 and 1993 as an exchange student in history, it provided me with a different perspective. I developed an interest in inter-ethnic relations.

My personal experience from the army and also from my childhood years was of mixing with people of different ethnicities…

 

Where did you grow up?

 

Plovdiv. In Plovdiv, I studied English in a community center called Shalom. My classmates had Armenian names, Jewish names. In Plovdiv, there was a vibrant Armenian and Jewish community. I was very surprised when I went for the first time to Armenia in 2000, and they didn’t understand Bulgarian! I expected this from my childhood experience.

That’s how I developed this interest in identity politics and the Balkans. That’s why I went to study Southeast European studies in Budapest at the Central European University. It was not only academic interest but also personal interest. There were people there from different backgrounds — Macedonians, Croats, Cypriots. For the first two months, we were just quarreling among ourselves, talking about our national histories. We didn’t learn new facts. We learned old facts with new interpretations.

 

Was there a point in your personal life when you decided that you would no longer focus on ancient history and you would focus on the present?

 

It was a long process. I started with ancient history and archaeology because it was a great background for everything else. But then I followed a more personal history and came into this whole topic. I spent almost ten years in an institute dealing with the Balkans and the Black Sea. This is where the background of ancient history helped me. It’s why I don’t buy historical explanations about Balkan politics. I know when history is manipulated and instrumentally used. That’s why I’m focused on current politics and policies.

 

Let’s talk now about EU and EU relations. Has the concept of Europe in your opinion changed in the perceptions of average Bulgarians compared to the pre-accession, pre-membership period when Europe was a goal? Now Europe is a reality.

 

When people here say, “I’m going to Europe,” it means that they don’t think they’re from Europe. This belief that Europe is somewhere different is in Maria Todorova’s book, Imagining the Balkans. I’ll give you an example. I was in Varna, near the seaside. They have a booming economy. And I was listening to the news there. They started with the local news, about the municipal council, the mayor, local business. Then they said, “Now the news from Sofia and Brussels.” That was it. It was as if the national and international news was something happening outside their world.

The first thing that changed for us, even before the moment of entering the EU, was that moment of visa-tree travel. That’s when personal contacts started. People became freer. The concept of Europe began to change. If you ask the average Bulgarian — Joe the Bulgarian or me — to answer the question if we are Europeans, the first answer would be “no.” This is not about cultural identity. It has much more to do with incomes and material things. If you ask a Bulgarian, “What is Europe?” they’ll say it’s richer, it’s cleaner, it’s civilization. There is a divide in this society between those who are mobile, who travel to the EU, and who know languages, and those who are outside this process, who cannot afford to travel, who don’t have the contacts or the languages. These people feel isolated.

I remember this moment just before entering the EU, in 2006, when there were a lot of people — the middle class, people with small businesses, people who could pay their bills – who we assumed to be the motor of European integration. But these people were more afraid of accession because they were afraid of competition from the EU, from big companies. So there was this backlash at that moment. It has changed a bit over time. These people have come to see that Europe is not such a dangerous place.

Bulgaria is still one of the most enthusiastic countries in the EU, one of the countries that believes in the EU. But I think that even in Bulgaria there’s a healthy dose of realism. Bulgarian politicians told the public that January 1, 2007 would be the end of history, that we would be entering something that would be constantly progressing and that it would be an irreversible process. Then, all of a sudden, the crisis started, and now people are not so sure where they are. Compared to the old system, they’re still enthusiastic but…

 

It’s often said that Bulgarians have the highest level of enthusiasm for Balkan identity as well.

 

Bulgarians don’t have problems with Balkan identity in comparison to the other Balkan countries. There’s no inferiority complex.

 

Does that have any implications in terms of Bulgaria’s relationship to the EU? Does Bulgaria feel it has a certain commitment to other Balkan countries to help in their accession, to create a Balkan bloc in the EU?

 

That’s only on the official level. The Balkans is our natural environment. But people here are not interested in their neighbors. They are interested in where they can have stake. They’re interested in where they go on holiday, where they can make business.

There is interest in Greece and in Turkey, for instance. In Turkey, it started with these Turkish soap operas. They’re a big thing in Bulgaria. It’s been going on for several years. I was talking with a colleague from Syria, and I asked him about this. He said, “Yes, these Turkish soap operas are very popular in the Arab world.” I asked why. “Because,” he said, “they show modern values and modern lifestyles.” In Bulgaria, they are popular because they show traditional values, the family values, that we have lost. They are popular in the Arab world for completely different reasons.

This interest will probably wane. They were showing at least six of these shows. People are still watching them. The newest one just started, The Magnificent Century, which is about Suleiman the Magnificent, the conqueror of the Balkans. I thought there would be a backlash. The others are about love stories, timid things. But this one is also very popular.

 

Is there Ottoman nostalgia going on here?

 

No, no. People can be nationalists and still like these Turkish soap operas. I’ve talked to a psychologist about this, and she told me, “These soap operas allow Bulgarians to get in touch with their Oriental self.” It’s very simple. The Bulgarian identity was forged in opposition to the Turks, not so much because they’re Muslim but because they’re “backward,” or at least that was the myth of the 19th century when Ottoman power was waning. Even today, Bulgarian identity is forged in opposition to the Turks and other Oriental peoples who are “backward.”

We’ve been measuring social distances. It turns out that Bulgarians are three times more tolerant toward Turks and other minorities than they were three years ago. Even the Roma. Bulgarians are not very tolerant, of course, but still this is three times more

 

Is this the soap opera effect? In America, we have the Will & Grace effect. Tolerance towards gays and lesbians has increased because people not only see and like gays and lesbians on this TV show and others, but they actually think that the people they see on TV are their friends. The most important thing for changing attitudes is to have a relationship with someone in a different category. Even a virtual relationship. Is there a similar Will & Grace effect here because of Turkish soap operas?

 

Yes, partially. But, it’s not only that. I don’t have an explanation

 

In high school, we had military training. Retired colonels told us about civil protection, what to do when the nukes come. It was the 1980s, no one cared about this: it was a joke. This colonel said, “Get ready for when the Greeks and Turks invade us!” And now, Greece and Turkey are the favorite holiday destinations for Bulgarians.

 

Tell me some more about the Catch Up Index.

 

Usually when they measure countries trying to catch up with the EU, they talk about incomes. When we designed the Catch Up Index, we thought that the EU is much more than just income. We put in economic indicators, indicators of quality of life, quality of public services. Then we had a category of democracy. And we also had a separate category for governance. Our definition of EU is that it’s economically developed with high standards of living, and it’s also democratic and well governed. Obviously, there are some countries that are rich, but not democratic, democratic but not well governed.

 

As you say, there’s a range within the EU on all four of those indicators. Where does Bulgaria fall? Is it below the lowest EU member at this point?

 

We decided to go with a cluster analysis. We found out that there are six groups in the EU. The computer combined countries with the most similarities across the four categories. In cluster one were the most developed countries, the richest, the most democratic, the ones with the best governance (Scandinavia, Netherlands, Luxembourg). In cluster two was the core of Europe (Great Britain, France and Germany). The third cluster was also doing well but not so well (Spain, Ireland). The fourth cluster was a mixed picture of some countries going down and some other countries, the champions, going up (Greece and Italy but also Poland and the Baltics). Bulgaria was in the fifth cluster. And the last cluster was the worst (Albania, Bosnia).

Here’s the most interesting part. When you put the clusters on the map like a coloring book, the Balkans are separate from everywhere else. It’s like we have own version of Europe: there’s European Europe and then there’s Balkan Europe. We have a new edition now of the Catch Up Index with data from 2010 after the crisis. It’s even more telling. Greece has now slid into the Balkans. And we were once using Greece — and Portugal and Ireland — as role models! The countries that are trying to catch up have been hit worst by the crisis. But some countries — Slovenia, the Czech Republic – are doing very well. The favorite example is Estonia.

 

There was a New York Times op-ed recently about the Estonia example.

 

It’s amazing how such a small country can attract so much attention!

 

Have there been any statistical improvements for Bulgaria on this index?

 

We’ve only been doing this for a couple years. What we saw in the previous edition was that Bulgaria changed places with Romania. Previously Bulgaria was one notch above Romania. Romanians were very unhappy, I was told. The Romanian foreign minister was talking about this index. I told them, it’s not a big thing. It’s just a notch. It’s not statistically significant. Now this year, Bulgarian is one notch below Romania.

 

And now maybe the Bulgarian foreign minister is having big conversations about this!

 

Bulgarians are a pessimistic people. They expect to be at the bottom of any index. So, it was not a big surprise. The shocker was that in some of the indicators, like health care systems, Bulgaria was much worse than, say, Serbia or even Albania.

 

The golden age of adjustment in the EU seems to have been in the past. When Portugal entered the EU, there seemed to be more resources available to bring Portugal up to the level of the rest. What’s your estimate of the resources available to Bulgaria through the adjustment funds?

 

It’s really about the capacity to absorb money. Even Bulgaria has had at its disposal a lot of money. It just didn’t manage to use it. The so-called “absorption rate” in those first years was 1 percent. Now, it’s just 10 percent. Bulgaria could go to about 40-50 percent. I mean, even if they give us more money, we don’t have the capacity to manage this money properly. The EU is not a charity. It’s project based.

The lesson learned is that the transition from a totalitarian system is much more difficult than the transition from an authoritarian one. Spain and Portugal were never so separate from the rest of Europe. You can’t compare them. That’s why the United States cannot compare the political change in the Balkans with what is going on in the Arab World. You can derive some lessons, but it’s quite different situations. Maybe there can be lessons for North Korea and China from our countries. We are very close to each other: this Homo Sovieticus phenomenon. Of course I’ve never been there, but when I talk to people from North Korea or China, I see some similarities.

 

I was surprised when visiting North Korea to discover that the level of control was so much higher than here. And there’s so much greater segmentation in this region than in North Korea. It’s homogenous in North Korea in ways that you just don’t see in this part of the world: ethnically, economically, socially, and even politically. But still, the lessons will be relevant for North Korea in a way that the lessons from Spain and Portugal were not so applicable here.

 

Yes, at the end of the day, I’m not making the comparison between Bulgaria now and Bulgaria 1989 but Bulgaria 1989 and what we expected it to be. That margin is very big.

 

What are the most important tasks for the Bulgarian government and for civil society on this issue of catching up? What are the most important tasks for getting ahead of Romania? More seriously, what are the important tasks for Bulgaria to get into the more developed clusters?

 

It’s self-evident. Good governance and then democracy, that’s what we’re missing. Probably it’s my bias from civil society. If you ask economists, they’ll probably say economics first. The difference between Bulgaria and Central Europe and the Baltics is good governance and the level of democracy.

 

You’re speaking of accountability.

 

And corruption. I don’t know how to achieve this. The problem with Bulgaria is that its party system is in a terrible stalemate. The government has been talking about this so many times here and nothing happens.

I know I’m dreaming, but I want a professional administration that’s not so dependent on political changes. From what I see now, even if you have very good, competent people in public administration, they are so dependent on the political level to make decisions, and the government just grinds in place. The executive should give more authority to the administration. We have a cycle here. One year before the elections, everyone is campaigning and nothing happens. The people at the lower levels, they can’t do anything.

 

Civil society level is also in transition. There’s a new kind of activism involving people who are not related to the NGOs from the 1990s. This is quite encouraging. Now, civil society revolves more around ad hoc coalitions of professionals and issue-based coalitions.

 

Let me ask then about this new wave of activism. Are NGOs outdated? Some people have told me that governments are structured in such a way that they need conversation partners that are similarly structured, and those are NGOs. On this topic of corruption, however, perhaps these ad hoc formations might come up with a different set of solutions?

 

Until now we’ve used a narrow definition of civil society: professional NGO activists who are registered in court and do this work for a living. When these new types of activism emerged, someone said that the old NGOs are dead and are no longer needed. But you need both, the professional NGOs, even people in think tanks, because they have accumulated a lot of experience. But you also need these ad hoc coalitions. So, why can’t they exist hand in hand? That’s what you have in the United States.

I’ve just come from another discussion about the role of NGOs in the EU. Someone said that there were 35,000 NGOs in Bulgaria. What was implied is that they’re not doing enough. But the truth is that NGOs can be anything: soccer clubs, choirs. The professional NGO sector has to get accustomed to the idea that there are other people working on these issues; and ad hoc coalitions have to learn how to use the networks of the NGOs.

Returning to the European level: if we want a EU, we need to create European people. This has to be engineered somehow, and NGOs, trans-border NGOs engaged in much more cooperation, will be important in this.

 

When you think back to what has changed here in Bulgaria from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate those changes on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed?

 

4.

 

When you consider all that has changed in your personal life since then, using the same scale, what score would you give it?

 

Considering that I was in the army then, I would say 10!

 

When you look into the future and the next 1-2 years and you think about the prospects for change here in Bulgaria, what number would you give it, with 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

 

3.5.

 

Sofia, September 25, 2012


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