The Transition: Myths and Memories

In a national public opinion survey, 25 years of democratic changes in Bulgaria, pollsters interviewed 1200 Bulgarian citizens aged 16 and over. The interviewees represented a cross-section of gender, age and education-levels and came from a representative range of rural, suburban and urban areas.

The study was part of the 25 years free Bulgaria initiative and was implemented by Alpha Research. The research team agreed that retrospection about communism and the transition could not be put an end to, and is not limited to collective memories and expectations from one specific period in time. This could only be achieved through a complete and comprehensive analysis of all archival documents from that specific period, including judicial, legal, constitutional and economic models, cultural layers and the media. Such an analysis is yet to be carried out. The main aim of the survey was not to tell the ‘truth’ about the transition period, but to reveal the blind spots and contradictory narratives with respect to our recent past, as they require explanation and raise urgent questions.

Main conclusions:

  • Twenty five years after the beginning of democratic change in Bulgaria, the collective memory of Bulgaria under communism has gradually faded away and knowledge of the period is disappearing.94% of 16-30 year-olds know extremely little about this time, and 40% cannot identify whether the end of communism was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall or walls in Moscow, Sofia or China. 92% know  neither the effective, nor the metaphorical borders of the former communist bloc. Knowledge of the era is almost entirely based on personal impressions and conversations. The number of people who have learned about communism from books is very insignificant at 10%. Another 10% have gained information from school or university, and a further 16% – some knowledge from television programs.
  • Lack of debate in the media and the public sphere, alongside the reluctance of cultural and educational institutions to address the topics of communism and transition, have prevented younger generations from fully appreciating the ideological and political identity of the communist regime, as well as its span and fall. The realities of communism have been forgotten and its so-called achievements idealized because of the perceived failures of transition. Renowned political figures from the 1980s and 1990s like Thatcher, Kohl, Gorbachev and Walesa, and events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, have been ideationally removed from many Bulgarians’ understanding of social change. The poll results show Bulgarian society vacillating between the idealization of their youth, ‘work for all’ and ‘free’ healthcare on the one hand, and painful memories of travel limitations, imposed manifestations, empty shelves in shops, lack of freedom, and repression of people who held ‘different’ opinions.
  • 25 years after the end of communism, opinion is highly polarized and determined by people’s beliefs. For example, those on the left of the political spectrum, particularly the elderly, overwhelmingly view the communist period as one of security and calm. Full employment, free healthcare, good education and the industrialization of our country show this period in a positive light.  By contrast, people on the political right have a much more critical, but also heterogenic understanding of communism: restrictions, lack of justice, lack of freedom, dictatorship and censorship all feature as basic targets for criticism. This was a political regime, which limited basic human rights and freedoms, a period of utopia and common misunderstandings.But while the leftist assessment does not see a hint of fault in communism, the right acknowledges some of its achievements – e.g. affordable healthcare, success in education and science, low unemployment and social calm.
  • As time goes by, reflections on Bulgaria’s development in the period 1944 – 1989 are sliding on the ‘moving sands’ of nostalgia and reassessment. The dashing of many hopes during the transition ‘rewrote’ Bulgarian citizens’ assessment of this period and of Todor Zhivkov, the last Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Two years after the fall of communism, when memories of living under the system were still vivid, 76% of people surveyed gave negative feedback of Zhivkov. Today we see a sharp shift in this attitude, with 55% giving positive feedback. Personal memories, nostalgia for the lost tranquillity and the fading knowledge of the regime’s darker side have gradually burnished communism’s political taint, and fed into both old and newly-coined myths.
  • The reconstruction of today’s answers to the question “where to after 1989?” clearly defines six circles of our ideas of freedom and Bulgarian development:opening the borders (30%), higher incomes and welfare (27%), development of a market economy and new job opportunities (20%), an increase in human rights and freedoms (19%), return to private ownership (18%), and free elections (15%). Even though, in objective terms, most of these expectations have become fact – Bulgaria is a member of the European Union and NATO, we travel freely, private ownership has returned, and we have a multi-party system and free elections – subjectively, it is felt that expectations and reality have met only in three areas: EU membership, the freedom to travel and private ownership.Only 2% think that the expectations of justice have been met; 5%, that we have democratic institutions; and 10%, that we can freely elect our politicians in a democratic way.
  • While attitudes towards communism have been polarized and strongly marked by individual experience and political orientation, retrospection on the period after communism is more unified and shows a stronger negative trend:50% of the population over the age of 60 consider the development of Bulgaria after 1989 unsuccessful, whereas only 10% hold the opposite opinion.Meanwhile, the assessment from a personal point of view is more pessimistic – 29% think that they have lost out during the period of transition. We see a very clear tendency: the narrower the scope of assessment, the fewer differences there are – people identified both the negative and positive sides in their life. On the contrary, the broader the level of summary, the stronger the interviewee placed the blame for failure on the Bulgarian transition.
  • One of the biggest problems we face after 25 years of change is related to the question of why people have more varied responses to the transition with regard to personal matters, and identify both positive and negative aspects, while in the more public aspects they see only failure. The answer, expressed in everyday language, could be found in the way Bulgarians identify the achievements and failures of the transition, which is within the binary of ‘politicians – ordinary people’. In other words, no matter the change in social structures over the last 25 years, this opposition is neither economic, generational, nor ethnic, but purely political. It gives the impression that a higher social class was created very quickly, which is exempt from any rules or laws. Members of this class can never meet with the lower levels of society, where rules and laws are obeyed. With this juxtaposition, society shows its discontent with the fundamental problems of the transition – failure of rule of law and provision of justice, and ineffective and corrupt institutions that enable abuse of power.
  • This massive negative reaction towards the transition is not a denial of the purpose of the process. The survey clearly shows that people do not want to abandon the achievements of the last 25 years. People have discovered the core of the problem: they do not blame politicians or the government or left or right political views, but poorly functioning institutions, which have been focused on extracting resources from society rather than on improving the mechanisms that guarantee the rule of law, professionalism and loyalty.This is how, after 25 years of change, Bulgarian society faces yet another political challenge: the need to create effective and transparent institutions that guarantee the rule of law, and will curtail, not encourage, abuse of power.