Interview with Ognyan Minchev

“In the process of de-communization in Bulgaria, there should have been more discretion, but without political experience this is hard to achieve. That way we would have seen how the communist elite was mutating or changing, and been able to restrict it,” says political analyst, Professor Ognyan Minchev. In response to a question by desebg.com, asked during the public discussion on “25 years of transition – hopes and reality” , on whether the country only experienced a half-democratization rather than full-democratization, Prof. Minchev answered: “You can attack a position that is empty or half empty of content, and not see the other extreme position offered by the representatives of the communist regime,” adding, “For me, the main problem was that the strategy for the transformation of the former communists into a ruthless oligarchic capitalist elite was detected too late to be prevented.

“De-communization outside the ideological sense of the word, requires safeguards to prevent the conversion of political power into economic power. Done properly, economic power would in turn be used to curb political power in other ways. This process was underrated and omitted.”

Russia’s role in the destruction of the Bulgarian national elite

In answer to another desebg.com question on whether he thinks that Russia still has political intentions in Bulgaria, which may put obstacles in the way of the country’s democratic and European development, Prof. Minchev responded:

“There is no doubt that Russia’s role in the recent history of Bulgaria has been dramatically important. First, Russia, which in its former role as the controlling power in the USSR, helped destroy the Bulgarian national elite. There is no other country in Central and Eastern Europe whose social elite was destroyed to such an extent as in Bulgaria. Russia’s goal now, however, has little to do with communism. It is an imperial goal informed by the legacy of Soviet imperialist attitudes. Russia first tried to influence Bulgaria after they helped liberate us from the Ottoman Turks at the end of the Nineteenth Century. However, this influence was resisted by Bulgarian leaders such as Stefan Stambolov and Zahari Stoyanov. This spirit of resistance remained within the Bulgarian elite which is why it was destroyed with such relentless consistency after the Russian invasion of September 9, 1944.

“I believe that this lesson remained in Russian minds well after 1989. Even though Russia’s status as an international power was greatly weakened, it continued to wield influence through its energy resources, and also through its strategy of corrupting the post-communist Bulgarian elite. This put us in a position of chronic dependence on Russia. ”

In Prof. Minchev’s words, the influence is used for new political designs. “In Bulgaria, money is Russian, apart from the official European subsidies”. According to him, Russia has the possibilities and confidence to try out many different ways to promote its political interests in Bulgaria. “Examples include the pro-Russian nationalists, led by the Attaka party, and some elements of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (party representing ethnic Turkish interests). From Russia’s point of view it is good to maintain ethnic conflicts. Russia also benefits by supporting the fifth column of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Bulgarian elections

Prof. Minchev specifies that over the past 25 years, Bulgarians have had Europe as their first choice. They have chosen democracy, NATO membership, a market economy and economic freedom as the only possible way to ensure stable national security.

“Despite intense ideological debate and protests by opponents, these core values and goals have been adopted by Bulgarian society.” says Prof. Minchev.

Real threats

According to Prof. Minchev, the polarization of Bulgarian society has reached its peak, creating the basis for an ideological turnaround towards the view that the transition has been a failure. Advocates against EU and NATO membership have been at the core of this ideological debate. “If you pay close attention to the debate, you can see that at its heart it is between those trying to protect the liberal system and those trying to shut it down.”

These anti-EU voices proclaim that Europe brings us insecurity, instability and crisis. “Those people believe that we make our payments to the EU, but that the EU simultaneously stops our subsidies. It is also said that Americans continuously benefit from us without giving us anything in return, that our democracy has collapsed, and that membership in the Eurasian Union and closer relations with Russia would have been a better choice for Bulgaria.” says Prof. Minchev.

“The problem is that because these arguments are at the centre of public debate they attract attention. However they do not express the true political competition, and are relatively peripheral to the election results.

“Now, we are not happy with the recent election results as they stand, but imagine what would happen if this electorally peripheral but noisy perspective became a sufficiently powerful political alternative? Imagine what the election results would look like then.”

Lack of national awareness

According to Prof. Minchev the fundamental question focuses on a missing element during the Bulgarian transition, namely consciousness and awareness of national identity.

“The legacy of the ‘Revival Process’, in which ethnic Turkish Bulgarians were forced to Slavicize their names or leave the country, equates national identity with nationalism and the repression of minorities. We were liberal to such an extent that in the 1990s no one dared to say a word against Ahmed Dogan and his cronies’ ruthless, self-interested plunder of whole regions of Bulgaria.”

Prof. Minchev notes that Dogan’s DPS party (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) was formed in a very interesting way. It is an ethnic party, with an aim to protect minority Turks from attacks, but it is also very corrupt. They use ethnicity as an excuse, but when it is not profitable to represent the interests of the Turkish minority, DPS assumes positions that are well-disposed to all ethnicities.

Restoration of the Bulgarian social elite

“Without restoring a sense of national identity and an awareness of this identity we will not be able to pursue common national goals,” says Prof. Minchev. He does not suggest rebuilding national consciousness on a repressive, authoritarian or any other radical basis. Rather, “It is about being able, politically and ideologically, to answer the question in every Bulgarian’s mind, namely ‘where is the point in 7 million people living together and following the same goals?’”

Prof. Minchev is not at all surprised that so many people respond to this question by concluding that there is no point, so they pack their bags and go abroad.

“Nothing can be achieved if we do not lay the foundations for the restoration of the Bulgarian social elite, which was destroyed in the upheavals during the second half of the twentieth century and the 25 years since the fall of communism. First, it was destroyed in the decade-long crack- down after the communist coup of September 9 1944. The Bulgarian communist elite who replaced the previous one never became a national elite unlike, for example, in Romania. Instead they defined themselves as the colonial administration of the USSR in Bulgaria. They were never interested in anything but Moscow’s opinion.

“When circumstances gave the Bulgarian communists a real opportunity to work as a national elite in 1989-1990, they failed to do so and sought help from Moscow instead. Unfortunately, the encouraging signals from Moscow never came, and the elite managed only to divide and fight among themselves over the spoils of public money. Their only achievement was to prevent the emergence of alternative elite, which was not difficult due to the fact that the alternative elite started from scratch in 1989. ”

From this perspective, according to Prof. Minchev, Bulgaria remained in a very dangerous vacuum. The lack of national elite has allowed the Bulgarian state to remain in an inert and passive position.

“As a result, the only well-organized group where ‘pluralism’ does not exist was the political and economic elite which surround Dogan.” According to Minchev, this group was able to control a significant section of the economy and has achieved maximum infiltration within the institutions of the Bulgarian state. “Reform is not a solution to this problem because it would merely initiate conflicts of interest at all government levels between this corporate network of Dogan elites and potential reformists.”

Prof. Minchev repeats that, “Without the recovery of the Bulgarian national elite in its various forms – as spiritual, political, economic and intellectual elite – restoration of Bulgarian national identity is barely possible.” A strong parliamentary majority and “an executive branch made up of people who are prepared to make difficult choices and ready to promote change” are necessary for this to change to become reality.

Oligarchy does not hide back stage, it sits on the stage

According to Prof. Minchev, the Bulgarian oligarchy, largely organized around DPS, is no longer hiding, rather it sits fully centre-stage. “Forget about the phrase ‘behind the curtains’. Today’s oligarchy is so arrogant that it no longer feels the need to hide, but dictates all actions from onstage”.

Prof. Minchev says that these oligarchic elite orchestrated the “circus” around the KTB Bank collapse, and that the events and players that caused the crisis were obvious to anyone who was not blind. “I’m not an economist and do not participate in the KTB debate, but from my experience, I do not see how a bank, whose owner is just a façade, can be rescued. This person had lost the confidence and trust of the real owner so there was no way the bank could be saved. The nominal owner probably imagined that he was ‘in charge of the train’ as the Bulgarian businessman Ilia Pavlov used to say. Many things happened in Pavlov’s life mainly because he thought he was ‘in charge of the train.’”

According to Prof. Minchev, the Bulgarian oligarchy created a system through the KTB bank, whereby people in senior political positions became dependent on them. “Oligarchs would hardly give up power, or allow themselves be controlled by parliament. Disputes over who is good, and who is bad, who is capable and who is not, are memories from the past and are no longer of any use. Given the current political infrastructure, whoever enters the parliament in Bulgaria, you or me, would have to obey the oligarchy or leave. And this situation will continue until the changes I have talked about come to pass.”

Ognyan Minchev is professor of political science, Dean of the Department of Political Science at the University of Sofia (1999- 2008) and policy analyst. Dr. Minchev is heading the Institute for Regional and International Studies and is chairing the Board of Transparency International in Bulgaria. His publications are mostly focused on issues of post-communist transition, institutional reform and modernization, energy security, transatlantic relations, Russian and post-Soviet studies.