After 1989, some of the dissidents of East-Central Europe went back to their original jobs as journalists or engineers or teachers. Others threw themselves into politics, as Vaclav Havel somewhat reluctantly did. And then there was the smallest category of them all: the dissidents who turned professional.
There were, after all, still some tyrants to topple around the world. Some of the experienced dissidents, using the skills honed over the years of underground activism, helped out their compatriots in Serbia. Others looked further afield to the former Soviet Union where the Color Revolutions beckoned. Still others could be glimpsed behind the scenes of the Arab Spring.
Deyan Kyuranov is a professional regime changer, though he is too modest to adopt that moniker for himself. He was deeply involved as a dissident in Bulgaria in the 1980s. After working in civil society after 1989, he helped out the anti-Milosevic forces in Serbia. And when Milosevic eventually fell, he turned his attention to Belarus.
“I’m a very lazy guy,” he told me in Sofia in September. “I don’t want to invent new behaviors, after I invented the one for Bulgaria. In Serbia I was repeating more or less what I did here. In Belarus as well. In a sense, I’m not really a relic from the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. As long as I’m working on the same situations, I’m not a relic, I become a relic the moment I step out.”
It’s not just the skills that are applicable, he explains. There’s also the understanding of national culture. For instance, Deyan Kyuranov was reluctant at first to work on Belarus. He tried to push a Serbian candidate for the job. Ultimately, however, he realized that perhaps a Bulgarian was a good fit after all.
“The Serbs know more about rising up, and both winning and also messing it up,” he explained. “They’ve done both. We Bulgarians know a lot about not rising up. Belarusians fall more into that category. It’s not that they would never rise up, but you really have to push them to their limit. It’s the same in Bulgaria. And once past this limit, things get really nasty.”
I first met Deyan Kyuranov in 1990. He was affiliated with the Center for Liberal Strategies, as he is today. In a relatively short period of time, he managed to explain everything I found bewildering about Bulgarian society. I checked back with him again in 2007. This past September, we focused on the situation of ethnic Turks and Roma, the persistence of nationalism, and the meaning of Europe.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall?
No, I don’t remember. I remember where I was when I heard that Todor Zhivkov fell. We were moving the family of our friends and co-oppositionists. We were on the street. Somebody just came and told us.
And what was your feeling?
That this was probably the ending. I didn’t quite believe it for sure. But when I got wise to how it happened, I decided, “Yeah, that’s it.”
When did you first acquire political consciousness? Was there a particular moment or a particular event that was a turning point?
Yes, I do remember. It was a question of whether I should enter the Komsomol or not. I decided to enter it and try to reform it from within.
And how did that experience with the Communist youth organization go?
Badly. Whatever I tried—and that was the first year—it just didn’t go off so well. I thought I’d been wrong to do it, but I didn’t find enough reasons to leave. To leave was a rather dissident political act, and you could lose quite a lot by that. And I didn’t know exactly what I would do it for. I mean, except for its failed agenda, I didn’t think that the Komsomol was such a bad organization. It wasn’t a fascist organization that I couldn’t possibly associate myself with. It was nothing really. People were making careers through it. At that time at least, I didn’t think that it was worse than that. It just wasn’t prone to changes from within.
And was there a moment, after that decision to try to change the Komsomol, when you said, “Okay, I am now a dissident”?
Yes. Strange, but I do. It was when I was at university. I was an assistant professor. We heard that Zheliu Zhelev had been interned again. We were a group of 20 or 30 so-called questors. We were spying on students to see whether they were cheating on the entrance exams. It was after the exam. We started arguing, “Is that possible or not?” And then somebody—it could have been me, but I’m not sure—said, “Okay, let’s go and see. He lives just 10 minutes away.” And then three of us went, out of this group of 20 or 30. And that was the moment when I thought, “Okay, this is passing the threshold,” because Zheliu Zhelev was the dissident. Of course, everybody heard about what we did. So, that was that.
And were there specific consequences for that?
No. That was maybe 1982, I’m not sure.
As you probably recall, the issue that has interested me the most in Bulgaria is the question of ethnic minorities: Turks, Roma, and so forth. If I remember correctly, you told me that you and Dimitrina Petrova did a report on the situation of ethnic Turks maybe in 1987. Tell me how you became interested in that issue.
Everybody like us was interested in that issue. My mother, who was a member of the Communist Party, stood up and told a Party gathering what she thought, and she thought a lot of bad things about it. So it was no big deal to think about it and understand that it’s a big issue. So when Dimitrina Petrova and Krassimir Kanev told me that they had a connection to a Czech and that we could get in contact with those Czech guys, this encouraged us to try and do something ourselves. It just happened that a fellow student of mine was an ethnic Turk. So I said, “Okay, we’ll go visit Zakir and he’ll tell us all.” And we visited Zakir and he did. And he put us in contact with another person who corroborated and then told us another story. That was it. There was no third person.
There was no third person because…?
It was very hard to get anyone to talk, and those two talked because Zakir knew me and knew he could trust me.
That was 1987?
That was two years after the worst part ended: the violence, the deportations, and the killings.
What kind of reaction to the report was there here inside Bulgaria?
None at all. It was only years after that we learned that Helsinki Watch had used it. We sent the report over two separate routes, and one copy had reached them. We never knew which one.
So it had a big impact outside Bulgaria, but you didn’t even know that it had.
Yes. We didn’t have any direct connections with Helsinki Watch. Not until 1989, when Jeri Laber, who was one of the big shots there, came over to Bulgaria.
So, for the dissident community in the 1980s here in Bulgaria, the ethnic Turk issue was a major issue. It also became a kind of mobilizing issue in 1989-90?
Not really. It became a divisive issue. It was an issue that divided people like me and Krassimir and Dimitrina from most of the rest of the organized opposition. Or let’s say, the active organized opposition.
They didn’t want to touch the issue?
Or it turned out that they were nationalists! Or “patriots,” as they called themselves.
And that divide has continued?
And the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) emerged in 1989…
Or 1990. It emerged after Ahmed Dogan was let out of prison around Christmas 1989. In the beginning of January he told me he had formed a party and already had 20,000 members. At the time that was a lie. But maybe a month later, he did! It just erupted!
And what role do you think the Movement ultimately played?
Very positive. The good thing is that Ahmed Dogan himself was not an irredentist. He was non-irredentist and has remained that way. This could have been one of the important factors that saved us from civil war in winter 1989-90. On the other hand, Zheliu Zhelev also understood the Turkish question, the Muslim question in general. And this became especially important when Zhelev became president a year or so later.
Zhelev’s leadership was important around the issue of whether the Movement, for instance, could even exist as a party, given the provision of the Bulgarian constitution.
Ah, that’s another story altogether. That was the first absolutely unprincipled and yet absolutely politically necessary decision of our newly established constitutional court– which everybody used to say and I still keep saying is the best new working tool of our democracy. Although it occasionally makes terrible goofs. Its decision about the MRF was understandable. It was an ethnic party and still is an ethnic party. The constitutional court closed its eyes to that.
But the MRF also was important because it was willing to work with other parties.
Yes. It didn’t want to separate itself out on an ethnic basis.
And it was willing to work with the Socialist Party.
It was willing to work with anyone. It said, basically, “We will work with Bulgarians. If the Socialist Party wants to give us something in return for our good offices, we will give our good offices. If the others are willing, we’ll also work with them.”
You could say then in that sense they were the first real political party.
They were. A bit worse than “real political,” but effective.
And how do you feel now about the Movement’s evolution over the years? It’s gone through several different incarnations.
Speaking about present-day political Bulgaria, I have to say that for ten years I was intellectually involved in Belarus not in Bulgaria, even though I was working from here. So when I speak of the present, I speak from the position of an outside observer. So, that should be taken into account.
Having said that, I have the feeling that the MRF evolved from a party to an institution for promoting Turkish minority interests. Again there were these deals and favors, as in “If we help you Socialists with some votes here, or if we help you GERB [Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria]with some votes there, then in return you do this for us.” Also, it’s been said that the MRF has become very corrupt, and I tend to believe that. It could be the most corrupt of all parties.
When I talk to people on the Roma issue, they speak with a certain wistfulness about the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, because their opinion is that whatever its faults the MRF has accomplished a great deal for the Turkish minority, and that the Roma lack a party that could do that.
I share that opinion. But we talked about that in the 1990s. We gave the example of MRF to the Roma elite and asked, “Why aren’t you doing something similar?” After the fifth time we mentioned this and nothing came out of it, I began to lose interest, and they did too. I would attribute it to the general inadequacy of political culture in the community. Even the most ambitious leader could not find enough organization to support his efforts. Right away rival clan figures would start promoting themselves, and chaos would ensue.
So that’s on the Roma side of the equation. On the ethnic Turkish side, do you see evidence that the Movement has effectively fulfilled its mission of raising the profile and the economic standard of living for ethnic Turks?
No. Discrimination continues, but it has helped in preventing gross acts of state discrimination against the Turks. On the other hand, there’s this EU factor: the Bulgarian elite wanted to join the European Union, so they behaved.
Is there any evidence that now that Bulgaria is part of the European Union, the elite is no longer willing to be quite so accommodating?
Not on the ethnic issue. I think the ethnic Turkish issue has kind of blown over — despite the relative success of fascist-type formations like Ataka and some others that are even worse. It’s become a political non-starter. The moment somebody tries to raise the ultra-nationalist flag, they become really marginalized, seen by the majority as too radical. Although, deep down inside, Bulgarians will say to themselves, “We know about those Turks.” But it’s not something we talk about.
So Ataka, for instance, has already passed the crest of its popularity?
It passed it less than one year after its foundation as a party. During the time of political crisis, the interregnum, Ataka’s popularity was higher than everyone else. Nobody could form a government, until finally a government was formed by a three-part coalition of the Socialists, the King, and the MRF. If that hadn’t happened, we would have had new elections and, likely as not, Ataka would have won. Unilaterally Ataka very probably would have had an absolute majority in parliament. We conducted special nationwide research to evaluate this scenario.
But in six months, after the government was formed and Ataka entered parliament, it was all over. There was internal bickering inside Ataka. There were all kinds of affairs: public scandals, thefts, misappropriations. Ataka people started peeling off from the parliamentary group. Now Ataka’s parliamentary group is frankly nonexistent.
Did you ever think you’d be happy to see the return of the king as a counter-force to Ataka?
No. I believe it’s a textbook case of what democracy can do just by virtue of its own mechanisms. The king won outright and he didn’t want to be the head of his party, and he didn’t want to be the head of government. And the party forced him to become the party’s head, and then they forced him to become prime minister. And he obeyed, because probably they said to him, “You do this, or else we’ll do it without you and you’ll get nothing.”
Where has all of the sentiment behind Ataka gone?
I don’t see much of that sentiment around anymore. Again I’m speaking rather as an outside observer. Maybe in the next elections, for the first time people will vote more dispassionately, for instance looking at their checkbooks. They will vote a little bit more rationally instead of just, “Oh, that’s the real magician! All the others turned out to be fake but this one’s the real messiah so we’ll vote for him!” The king was elected that way. And after him, Boyko Borisov was elected that way as well. The Ataka leader would absolutely have been elected that way. Even if they reelect Borisov, I believe it will be a different type of election.
How would you characterize the current government in terms of its political philosophy?
Nonexistent. I can characterize its way of doing things as giving the majority of the people what they want. And what the majority wants is…
I was in a small town participating in a summer course teaching kids the basics of civic work and citizenship. We conducted a poll. The local election was coming up, so the question was, “How would you describe the ideal mayor of the town?” The kids went around asking people. Then we grouped the answers into different categories. In the category that got the highest response, people described their ideal mayor as someone who steals but also leaves something for the people and for the town as well.
So, a new standard for fairness!
Yes, exactly. So I believe what the people of Peshtera – that’s the name of the town — said about the mayor is what the majority of Bulgarians, if they were as honest, would say about the Borisov government.
Let me ask you about Belarus for a moment, because I’m curious to know how and why you got interested in that country.
It was pure chance. I was out of a job. I mean, I had my job with our think tank, but I was not very interested in doing research in Bulgaria or the Balkans. After the fall of Milošević, the Balkans were not really that interesting to me any more. Before, I had been working with the Serbs trying to topple him in a peaceful way. And after that did miraculously happen, I had nothing to do. I was just going through the motions.
And then a friend called and said, “Hey, we’ve just had a terrible debacle in Belarus and we’re thinking of closing the project.”
And I cried, “No! Don’t do that!”
“You had the same problem with Macedonia, and then Bulgarians told you to go ahead and stick it out and keep working there. And now I’m saying the same thing about Belarus.”
And she said, “Okay, but we need a director.”
I said, “Take a Serb.” That was 2001. “They’re still warm from Milošević.”
She said, “We tried. We haven’t found a Serb.”
And then it dawned on me that I could speak for myself. And I got the job.
The experiences you’ve had in Bulgaria and in Serbia, in what way did they prepare you for the situation in Belarus?
I didn’t feel prepared because I didn’t know what was out there. Even after having some experience, it took me two to three years: I was very slow in understanding Belarus. I believe I understand it now, but…
It turned out that I had been wrong about suggesting that a Serb be in charge of that program. I believe that I should have said “a Bulgarian” the first time. There were too many parallels at the level of national psychology. I don’t like the term, but it can be used to understand, and occasionally even explain, behavior in Belarus, beginning with personal everyday life behavior and ending with political decisions at the highest level. So it turned out that simply being Bulgarian—not so much my experience with the opposition or with the research that I did after 1989–did help.
Can you explain that a little bit more? Why from the point of view of national psychology would a Bulgarian, rather than a Serb, be more appropriate?
The chief question for Belarus is, “Why don’t they rise up?” The Serbs know more about rising up, and both winning and also messing it up. They’ve done both. We Bulgarians know a lot about not rising up. Belarusians fall more into that category. It’s not that they would never rise up, but you really have to push them to their limit. It’s the same in Bulgaria. And once past this limit, things get really nasty. For the Serbs the threshold is lower.
In Belarus, these have been the cardinal questions: when and why not? I felt rather at home, especially with my pessimistic prognoses. And they all turned out to be true. Unfortunately.
I doubt I’ll go to Belarus. Except in the happy event that Lukashenko falls…
For that to happen, he should fall from the sixth floor…by accident. If they murder him, that would not be a good thing. But if he falls from the sixth floor, it could be a good thing.
That shows your Serbian experience, because if I remember correctly that was the call for Milošević: to commit suicide.
That wasn’t my attitude. Milošević was a different case. I believe he should have been murdered by the secret service. At the beginning.
No, like 1992. It would have saved a lot of lives. But not in the case of Lukashenko.
Because it won’t improve the political situation in the country?
Not at all. The most you would get would be another dictator who would not be such a brilliant improviser in politics. And also, for some reason, Lukashenko decided that he wants Belarus to remain independent.
So, Belarus is a problem mostly for its own citizens, not really a problem so much for other countries in the way Milošević was a problem for Serbia’s neighbors.
Let’s say that Lukashenko falls, one way or another, and Belarus becomes more like the Serbian situation. Would it then become, for you, less interesting? Do you feel, personally, that that is your mission? To work in countries like Serbia and Belarus?
Oh yes. I’m a very lazy guy. I don’t want to invent new behaviors, after I invented the one for Bulgaria. In Serbia I was repeating more or less what I did here. In Belarus as well. In a sense, I’m not really a relic from the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. As long as I’m working on the same situations, I’m not a relic, I become a relic the moment I step out. Which is going to happen on January 1. The project is being ended by OSI.
This could be a grand opportunity for you to switch focus slightly from Belarus to the really big issue.
Well, I’ve thought of that. But the OSI program there has a different view from mine. I told them to move their office away from Moscow, and not to St. Petersburg but to some large provincial center. In all the provincial centers that I went to, NGO work was booming and most of them were being persecuted, not just harassed. And they were still doing excellent work.
That seems a very sensible suggestion. Looking back, how do you feel about your nearly 30 years of activism?
I haven’t been very active. I’ve been looking at people risking their asses everyday and not risking mine!
Well, you risked your ass at one point.
We get up from the table and I go back to my comfy futon. And they go out into the night and don’t know whether they will come home or not.
I suppose it’s all relative. I’m coming from an American context in which most activism is not life or death.
In Belarus it’s not exactly life or death. It’s more like normal life or life in prison. Did I tell you the last time we talked that I was planning to marry a Belarusian and get in the country that way?
That answers your question to an extent. I don’t like it when people are doing it and I’m watching it.
Why did you decide not to do that?
The Belarusians told me it just wouldn’t work. Marrying a Belarusian, it turned out, did not at all guarantee that I’d get citizenship. They might allow me in the country, but that would be all. They also told me, “We will be wasting our time trying to protect you and not doing our job.” And once I started working, I’d end up in prison very quickly anyway. I would still be “the foreigner” and not the local guy.
But of course, as I’m sure they pointed out to you, you played a critical role as an outsider.
I don’t think our Fund played a critical role. We played a critical role for individuals, and they were mostly marginalized. I became the donor of the marginalized within the opposition. And the opposition itself is practically nonexistent. I absolutely believe that these people are doing the right thing in very difficult circumstances. But it doesn’t mean it has a nationwide impact. Their good practices didn’t catch on. People just don’t want to go through that kind of risk for those kind of low returns.
So, in terms of the level of xenophobia in this country, with Ataka no longer having its political impact, is the xenophobia in this country as worrisome, for instance, as what we see in Hungary today?
No. But I wouldn’t call it xenophobia. It’s our traditional “enemies,” like with everybody else in the Balkans: all the neighbors. I would say that politically it’s gone down, but in everyday life it’s gone up.
Is there a causal relationship between these two?
No, I don’t think so. It’s just that it’s no surprise that Ataka, at one point, could have won. There was strong popular support. Ataka was just saying out loud what a lot of people thought inside. It’s in our education, in our history and literature, which is anti-Turkish and anti-neighbor. In the 1990s, when everything was possible, we tried to change that. We failed, and it has remained the same ever since. And the former president has condemned any attempt to approach such matters objectively, i.e., from the point of view of a non-romanticized history. This national-romantic reading of history is the one and only approach, or else you are a traitor to the nation. It’s what we learn at home when we’re very young.
Let me tell you a brief story. I was with a Belarusian sociologist and we were going around Bulgaria. He wanted to go to the Shipka Memorial to the Russo-Turkish War. There, Russians and detachments of Bulgarian volunteers fought together to beat off the Turks. It was very heroic; the casualties were huge. And they kept the Shipka Pass, which was important strategically. There’s a huge monument there with a lot of stairs. But finally, when you get to the top, the view was very very good. And we both turned out to be rather inclined toward romantic history. He was thinking of Belarusians who had also been in the war. I was thinking of my great-grandfather who, although not part of those detachments, had joined while they were passing through Bulgaria. Nearby I heard a family, a mother and father, a boy of eight or nine, and a granny. And the boy said, “Okay, so the Turks are our friends right?” And the granny said, “No! It’s the Russians who are the friends, it’s the Turks who are the enemies.” Pause. And then she “translated” for the kid: “The Turks are the baddies!” I’m translating word for word.
I talked to my wife over the phone, and she said, “You made that up.” I didn’t make it up.
So, this is informal. But you don’t see much evidence of this at a formal level.
No, no, we’re not going make them wear the Star of David or the crescent or whatever.
But even in terms of disparaging remarks…
There are plenty. More than before.
What does Europe represent for people here? Is there greater ambivalence given the economic crisis, given where Bulgaria’s position is relative to other EU member states?
Here, I would differentiate between what the media is saying, and they set the agenda of socially accepted talk, and what people actually hear and how they act. The socially accepted media-generated discourse consists of rather negative criticism. It’s more than Euro-skepticism. Occasionally it becomes rather vicious. And it’s tied to this new self-assertion, “We Bulgarians,” which in turn is tied to a rise in badmouthing other ethnic groups. The media promotes these attitudes because they sell and because they correspond to education at home, in the schools, and so on. It’s part of the culture.
However, we’re good at duplicity. We proved that under communism. So I believe that most people think of Europe very pragmatically. They see that the pros definitely outweigh the cons, and they try to do as much business as they can with Europe. They try to travel as much as they can. They try to find jobs as much as they can. Occasionally they emigrate. Although many go to Canada or Australia, others go to Europe because it’s closer and it’s easier to stay in touch with relatives. So, I think this Bulgarian Euroskepticism has become what we call in sociology an “artifact.” In other words, people say it because it’s the thing to say — what interviewers expect — but it’s not really what they think. They might even think it, but there would still be a gap between their thoughts and their actual behavior.
How can Bulgaria leapfrog to a higher position in Europe — or, less ambitiously, incrementally improve its position in Europe?
I don’t think anybody has formulated a coherent policy on this. Mostly I believe people think in terms of personal behavior: “For me, I would incrementally improve my situation in life because of the fact that we’re in the European Union.” Otherwise, besides the Euro-criticism, there is this more traditional, media-propagated self-criticism: “Even if Europe is not that bad, look at us. We’ve proved we are not Europeans. We’ve done this, and that, and the other…”
Is there a left here in Bulgaria, however you might define a modern left?
Not as modern as I would like to see. But yes, there is some. It’s usually tied to environmentalism or something like that. Which means it’s a middle-class left, or a pro-middle-class left—especially among the young. It’s not wealthy, but more-or-less well-to-do. It’s not much in terms of political weight but it’s genuine within these limits. The Socialist Party, forget it. The youth movement of the Socialist Party, forget it doubly.
Forget it because…?
It stinks in what way?
Like the old Komsomol used to stink. It’s a career vehicle for not very bright and promising young things. I’m still interested in the left. I still don’t believe that the left will be good for Bulgaria at this stage, but I’m theoretically interested, so I’m watching. There is a bit in the academy of this left liberalism. But it’s ineffectual.
When you say that a left would not really be useful in Bulgaria…
At this point what would be politically useful?
I didn’t hear what you said. Prosthetics?
Protestant ethics. Which is near to prosthetics for Bulgarians! Near enough. It’s about learning to work the amount you contracted for, and getting the money you contracted for, and revolting if you don’t get it—but only then and provided you did the work. We still have to learn that.
Did you see the report from the European Stability Initiative on the central Anatolian region in Turkey? It’s about a Muslim “Protestant ethic” that has emerged in Central Anatolia. The study talks about how Islam works functionally the same way as Protestantism, even if the precepts are different.
Yes, probably it has to do something with the transition from traditionalism: hard work, probity, a well organized home. Maybe that’s the vehicle, or one of the vehicles to get out of Turkish traditionalism, which is pretty nasty.
What would be the equivalent of a Protestant ethic here in Bulgaria?
I don’t know. We had something like that during our “national revival,” and people are kind of remembering it. But it definitely doesn’t work. The young and more-or-less prosperous with good middle-class expectations model themselves along the lines of the Western middle-class: Do your job and then have fun.
In the 1970s, and I don’t know if this was the case or Bulgaria, Poles would go work in Western Europe and behave like uber-Protestants. They’d work hard, save all their money, and bring it back to Poland.
Bulgarian workers abroad, all of them, were like that. Not only Bulgarians: Albanians, Macedonians. You work very hard, you don’t spend, you don’t take breaks, you don’t take holidays. Seven days a week, month after month. And you save the money and you bring it back.
One thing that we haven’t talked much about, and which I was interested in back in 1990, is the Roma issue.
I don’t know if, when you were here last, we had already completed a project by OSI Bulgaria about what policies for the Roma we could propose for the government. There were 12 of us: reasonably intelligent, well-meaning, and well-informed people on the question. Finally, we came up with nothing. Then I started a little internal revolution and imposed my view on the group. The group accepted it. And then all of a sudden OSI did not accept it. And OSI never published that view, though it had become the view of the whole group.
What was it?
One point was that the only real integration we can get is through economic integration, through work. If we want to help the Roma, we help them get into the job market. Which means only helping those who really want to get into the job market and get more lucrative positions. All the rest, all that advocacy about equal opportunity, it doesn’t work for many reasons.
The other point was that in most cases the Roma elites have become an obstacle for further development of the Roma population. They have learned to enjoy their position as middlemen. They don’t want to budge. They get from the government, and they extract from the people. That was the main reason why OSI didn’t want to publish it. They said that they would be accused of being ethnically intolerant. I said, “Okay, stand up to it. Let’s fight the accusation.” Not the OSI!
But you could have gone ahead with the recommendation even without the analysis.
Yes, okay. But there was a rather long series of negative proofs why this slow economic approach is the only thing that remains viable. We would tear down the rationale of all those “help the Roma now!” programs. The integration of schools: it doesn’t work. It is a question of abandoning the vestiges of their traditional culture. Why does that make sense to me? Because if they live by that culture, they will only subsist, suffer, and then die. So much for cultural tolerance!
OSI does have this program of placing young people as interns in multinational corporations. They say, however, it has not been successful in getting them into Bulgarian companies. Bulgarian companies don’t want Roma interns.
Even if they did get into these companies, they would be the brilliant cases, the people that would want to get acculturated anyway. There is a very small minority that says, “Okay, I don’t want to become a professional thief or a professional basket maker. I want to slave it out like those idiot Bulgarians.” They get accepted and acculturated. They’re treated by us as the right kind of turncoat.
David Rieff wrote a book in which he pointed out that the truly multicultural organizations were corporations. They brought in non-Whites not for altruistic reasons, but because they wanted to make profits in those communities.
Exactly: “I want the right guy to make the right business and get the good profits. I don’t care whether he’s black or yellow or whatever.”
And why does Hollywood suddenly produce all these films about African Americans? Because they decided that they want a rainbow of choices? No! It’s because they discovered through market research that African Americans were going to the movie theater more than Whites on average. So, maybe the key to getting Roma into the workplace and into culture is to demonstrate that the Roma are a market.
Well, it could be. But I wouldn’t say now. For the moment Roma are still considered “trash.” Even the Turks treat them badly.
But I’m sensing a better situation today than when I was here four years ago.
In what sense?
Obviously to hear the derogatory comments made on an everyday basis is discouraging, but ultimately what we’re interested in is how it’s operationalized. And it’s not being acted on in a political sense.
Agreed. As I said, at the political level, it’s down. Thanks to the European Union, Bulgaria is becoming more open. I see it from the small town of Peshtera, where I live quite a lot of the time with my wife. It’s everywhere. People have become different, because Spain and Spanish towns are becoming household words. Because people’s family members are there, and in Brussels, and in Germany, and in England.
But you also see the emptying out of the countryside. Which is a big problem in terms of agricultural production and…
This is a big problem, and it’s very bad for those old people who are left virtually helpless and alone.
So do you see a dividing line between those that are cosmopolitan and the traditional Bulgarian that’s left behind?
Yes, and some of those villages that have become virtually deserted by Bulgarians are now inhabited by Roma who have become more sedentary. They live very badly there.
Let me finish with three quantitative questions. Number one, when you look back at 1989-90 and you evaluate the direction Bulgaria has gone, from then until now, how would you rate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
Same question, but about your personal life between 1989-90 and today.
And then finally, when you look into the near future for Bulgaria over the next 1 to 2 years, with 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
Sofia, September 25, 2012
ON THE MOVEMENT FOR RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
Yes, it is corrupt. But no, that doesn’t mean it plays a bad role in today’s political establishment. One of the reasons is that the whole establishment is corrupt. Perhaps the MRF is more corrupt, but it doesn’t make a qualitative difference in their behavior or the outcomes of their behavior. I’d rather bracket the corruption. Corruption is ubiquitous. To fight it consistently, you would have to go back to a police state. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather have democracy with corruption.
The MRF has become a “normal” Bulgarian political party. It represents mostly the interests of its own elite in parliament and in the executive. It has a populist politics: it protects tobacco, it helps Turkish businessmen like everyone else in power. In fact, it’s neither better nor worse than the rest. There is not much to differentiate them by. They of course have extra leverage through the press, and they can manipulate their electorate. And they have that ethnic leverage when they say, “We are the only ones for you because we are the Turks in power.” It works, as it works for other minorities in transition and post-transition situations.
It’s a good thing that there’s a party that represents a minority in parliament and that it didn’t bring an end to the Bulgarian political system. We were unsure whether or not it would cause major turmoil. We were afraid not of the Turks in the party, but of the backlash from Nazi-type Bulgarians. For some reason, that kind of backlash never really materialized.
When Ataka appeared two years ago, we were very concerned. Our center found the money to do a special survey. Our conclusion was that it was not as dangerous as we initially thought. The party would probably succumb to internal strife. That did not happen. Rather, it was sort of eaten and swallowed by the political machine, a bit like the king’s movement was four years ago. It turns out that Bulgaria had established quite robust democratic political mechanisms that don’t allow for many fuhrer-type formations. The king tried to be a fuhrer figure hidden behind the guise of a father figure. As king, he tried to be above politics. When he won elections in a landslide victory, he was forced by the party to become a formal leader, to become prime minister and take the rap. Simeon’s movement was streamlined by the machine. So, the same is happening to Ataka. It is becoming a quasi-normal party.
One of their representatives who is now a European parliament member started a fight at a bar because these other customers were talking in Turkish. When the police tried to stop him, he called the police chief and swore at him over his mobile phone, and that was broadcast over the news. We’ve had two or three similar incidents like that lately. It doesn’t help the image of the party.
Before the tripartite government formed, feelings were running so high then that even I came out of internal political exile and talked to the socialist government to say, “Hold on to this coalition, make all the concessions you need, because if we go to another election, Ataka will win.” It had garnered 25 percent, and they were in for more. But now, you see, Ataka’s popularity has fallen 10 percentage points over the last 12 months. Why? Because the political mechanism has started to operate on them. I emphasize mechanism. It’s mechanical, not due to any effort by a particular group making a special effort against these fascists. Of course, it’s important that all three parties united against Ataka. The whole political spectrum united against them. These isolation tactics worked. Ataka was branded as unacceptable.
ON NATIONALIST BACKLASH
In the 1990s, we were constantly afraid of nationalist backlashes. There were several possibilities. One of the most interesting was the ex-oppositionists. There was this absolutely vigorous person who used to be a priest. In the summer of 1989 he gave us use of his church to celebrate a mass for the victims of ecological catastrophes all over the world. He was excommunicated for these things. Of all things, he’s also a motorbike fan. He tried to organize the Bulgarian bikers. We were a bit of afraid: they were part of the fascist bouquet, and attracting part of the youth. This went on for two years. We thought, “This is going to get bigger.” And it didn’t.
I wrote an article on the cases of nonviolence In Bulgaria. We expected violent incidents to happen. When they didn’t happen, we couldn’t explain why. There were some incidents that involved Turks, and some backlash. Yet it never came to blows. We still don’t have a rational explanation for that. I’ve seen it elsewhere. I’ve seen it in Russia. So, there was no major clash here. No one came up with the slogan, “Let’s kill some Turks.”
Initially, the Ataka crowd was writing “Make Roma into soap” on the walls and trams. Now, on their TV channel, they have a permanent show run by Roma. Why? Because they are trying to mobilize all the negative attitudes, all the complaints, all the anti-government spirit. And of course the Roma have a lot to complain about. For the moment, Ataka is forgetting that they are Roma because they are anti-government. This is the most popular TV channel. I occasionally force myself to look at it. It’s very interesting: real people giving the world a piece of their mind. Most of the time, it’s not a very pretty piece of mind, though. Yes, there have been beatings and even murders, but it’s not Ataka. It’s the marginal types, skinheads, and that could happen all the time. Now we are hearing about some sort of group that just formed and has intentionally adopted the Nazi uniform. They look just like a caricature of an early Sturmer, rather fat, very stupid looking. So there are some 20-30 guys in Sofia. But, based on previous experience, they won’t develop into a big movement. The Roma have created a commando group of their own. But I don’t think that they will last either. Looking at Roma development, we’ve been speculating that of the new generation, the ones in their early 20s and now in their early 30s, some of them will turn to violence, much like the Black Power movement in the United States. They certainly have reasons to turn to violence, but they haven’t done so yet. It would not be politically productive. There was no violence when Bulgaria recognized Macedonia. There was a backlash, but it was all words. We were afraid of a coup against the president. It didn’t happen. By the way, the president did that without waiting for anyone to make a suggestion. He simply did the right thing.
Integration – whatever that means in Bulgaria – might be okay. But anything called ‘integration’ is either not done, or ends up being a form of forced acculturation. So, you can choose between the two bads. You either lose money for nothing. Or you don’t lose money but the situation becomes worse because the minorities end up losing their ethnic identity and being coerced into doing so.
We did some research, conducted focus groups and interviews to follow how desegregation worked its way through the schools. At a class level, teachers are teaching racism, behaving in racist way, even within the framework of desegregation policies. Why? Because they have been trained that way, and taught that way. The latest thing we’ve started is a kind of informal group, people from our center, from the university – historians, philologists, etc. – to figure out how we can counter this sort of attitude. To change education, we first have to educate the teachers. Then we go from teachers to students. It sounds a bit idiotic. But our surveys in the schools show how deeply rooted these attitudes are. We’re looking at Bulgarian history. It is generally portrayed as a zero-sum game in which everyone is trying to get their nation from the Turkish empire. Everyone is against us. We can only be Bulgarian by being anti-Turkish, anti-Serbian, anti-Greek. This is the basic paradigm in Bulgarian schools. It has prevailed for over 100 years. During Communist times, there was no real change.
Though some attempts were made, they were short-lived. If in the late 1940s the envisaged unification with Yugoslavia had happened, maybe we would have broken away from that paradigm.
Based on the experience of the ethnic Turks, probably the best thing for Roma was to get political representation. Initially I was against ethnic parties on theoretical grounds; then I thought, okay, if that’s the way it’s happening in Bulgaria, the Turks have proven that this is feasible. Let Roma do it this way. So we started monitoring their party-building process. But it’s been a total fiasco, repeatedly. For me, that has been the major political problem for the Roma community. For the near future, they won’t be able to unite their vote to get political representation. They’ve been split this way and that. They’ve been bought and sold politically.
Some of their leaders – I’m thinking of the newer generation leaders here – have managed to get into the bargaining game preceding elections and secure something good for the Roma community, or at least for part of the Roma community. They have started out quite well, but I don’t think they will be able to do much more. The massive inclusion of Roma elites in political parties like the Socialists or the MRF has not really happened. They have some people in the parties, but that’s not what defines Roma politics today. Rather, it is this pre-election bargaining, which is rather rudimentary as a political tool.
Yes, Roma are getting abused. On the other hand, most of them are not ready for the job market. Because of radical cultural differences, we will see a cultural acculturation in the sense of learning to be a normal economic person, normal by Bulgarian, European, or international standards – that is, modern standards. The only real integration for the Roma in the near future is at this level. This is not an ethnic issue any more. It’s an issue of modernizing a traditional worldview. I’d rather not spend time and money on desegregating the educational system unless we change the basic paradigm. Desegregation will backfire unless we deal with this. On the other hand, the state can do a lot by helping the Roma to modernize. The state doesn’t have to push them. They are pushing themselves. The state could create a bit more opportunity, more incentive.
Our center ran an exercise in deliberative democracy. The topic was: what do we do with the Roma. We had a representative sample of 300 Bulgarians that was meticulously chosen. We brought them to Sofia for two days, crammed them with information about Roma. We had a plenary with the best experts to speak to the audience. Then they had discussions in groups. The most interesting thing was that you could really see a sample of Bulgaria. When you do a poll, you usually don’t see the people. Here, you could see, hear, and smell them. We polled them at the beginning and at the end of this process. There was a marked change. This was the case three years ago, too, when we had a similar exercise on judicial matters, when 60 percent of the participants started out for the death penalty and ended 60 percent against. Here again there was a pro-Roma trend at the end. The discussions showed a moderate and rational attitude in most people. If you ask them about Roma, they say, “Yes, I hate them, but they are people, what can we do about them?” Then they switch to a pragmatic perspective. On the topic of privileges, like affirmative action, they said no, they don’t work, they backfire, they demoralize the Roma themselves, it’s bad for their image. They supported education, but not the sort of bullshit about desegregation – just better education. Make the parents responsible, make them pay for not sending students to school.
ON THE BALKANS
We started calling ourselves Balkan in the mid-1990s, partly as a way to show off: “I am a Balkan and I am proud of it.” But also, we never had a chance to say that we are not in the Balkans. I’ve heard that Romanians and Serbians say that they are not in the Balkans. I don’t think that we are very comfortable with this. We’d rather admit it and turn it into a bit of pride, like saying, “I am black and proud of it,” or “I am a woman and proud of it.”
I went to ex-Yugoslavia on an evaluation mission. Our chief finding was to stop funding of post-war programs. “Post-war” no longer obtains. It doesn’t mean that the war wounds have healed. But the threat of war no longer exists, even with all the problems that Kosovo still generates. The group of Dutch churches that hired me – and they do very good work on ground – they didn’t believe me. They still wanted to go on with anti-war programs because the Balkans are a war-generating place. But even with the situation in Kosovo sharpening, even with nationalists in power in Serbia, nobody says that war is a possibility.
It’s the next big non-event, the next case of non-violence.
It was a mantra in 1990s that Bulgaria was overperforming politically and underperforming economically. After the 2003 transition, we were rather stagnant democratically but doing better economically. This seems to be some kind of mechanism we don’t know anything about, the equalizing of economic and political development.
Described as “Bulgaria’s Lech Walesa” by some, Deyan Kyuranov has been involved in the Bulgarian opposition from the beginning: on ecological issues and later, working on behalf of ethnic Turks. With the establishment of the UDF, Kyuranov facilitated some of the early meetings. But in March, he left active politics, dissatisfied with the path political work had taken and has turned to more acaademic work. He is involved with the Center for the Study of Democracy, a thinktank that includes professionals of various political persuasions. With startup money from the National Endowment for Democracy among others, the Center has projected several interesting conferences and events for 1990-1991 (I’ve enclosed the itinerary) and is planning a weekly paper for political analysis entitled Geopolitika committed to independent point of view. “Right now there is partisanship all over the place,” Kyuranov noted.
First we talked about two polls that the Center has conducted. The first, compiled before the election, predicted the results quite accurately, though it did not count on quite such a big lead for the BSP. The BSP, Kyuranov explained, stretched beyond its natural constituency while the UDF did not. Partly this was because the BSP campaign was simply better run; the UDF’s was “inept.” Because the pre-election poll conformed relatively to the election results, Kyuranov speculates that election fraud at most could have accounted for 2-3 per cent of the vote and that was not a decisive amount.
The more recent poll, published in Kultura, revealed some interesting post-election trends. When respondents were asked whether they would continue to vote for the party they had voted for, the results were:
73 per cent: BSP
90 per cent: UDF
84 per cent: Movement for Rights and Freedom
66 per cent: Agrarian party
The largest rate of drop-off, then, was for the Agrarian party, with the BSP coming in second. Another interesting syndrome: 40 per cent of respondents said they voted for the UDF in the election while 38 per cent voted for the BSP. This is, of course, paradoxical: people changed their vote in retrospect to that of the loser!
I asked about the “impasse” between the opposition and the party that until recently seemed difficult to break. Kyuranov responded that it only seemed to be an impasse. “This was the easiest and most banal way of describing the situation. Rather, it was Asiatic. Bulgaria learned its political culture from Byzantium.” It was clear, he noted, from the beginning that the candidates put forward for president from the various parties would not be accepted. This was simply maneuvering, despite the headlines in Demokracja and Duma (the newspapers of the two sides). “Politically, the situation is OK, considering. It could have been much worse. Twice now we have been able to escape from violence.” The first came in January during the nationalist demonstrations. The second came when some militants called for actions against the City of Truth. The City, Kyuranov pointed out, had indeed done some rather extremist things, calling for actions against the National Assembly. “There were some people who would have been happy to beat up these people in the tent city.” Nevertheless, the country stayed buoyant politically, though the process of reform has been particularly hardgoing given the split in the nation. The common belief: if the situation comes to violence, it will be very violent. Nevertheless, the Center’s researchers interviewed the students during the occupation strike and only 20 per cent said that they supported violent action against the system. So, all in all, the country is on the right track but not doing things with any degree of grace. “Bar violence, we’ve committed every political blunder,” Kyuranov concluded.
I asked for some examples of these blunders. Seven months ago, he said, “we had a rare, precious, beautiful human rights movement here.” The opposition was united on the question of rights for ethnic Turks. Both Turks and Pomaks (ethnic Bulgarians forced to take up Islam during the Ottoman rule and who were then forced in 1984 to rechange their names back to Bulgarian names, something they weren’t very happy with) were working together with Bulgarians. Now, however, both Turks and Pomaks have pulled out of the coalition and backing their own movement. Why? Because the opposition couldn’t come to terms with Ahmed Dogan, the leader of the movement. Dogan had been in prison, on charges of terrorism (which meant that he had written pamphlets on behalf of the ethnic Turkish cause). He was released before Christmas, largely as a result of the human rights movement. Dogan looked around at the opposition and decided at that point that he couldn’t work with the human rights people and so started his own movement (the Movement for Rights and Freedom–see below). Kyuranov was sorry to see this development. He knew that a party based on ethnicity or religious beliefs would ignite the Bulgarian nationalists. Nevertheless he sees both sides of the argument: that restricting a movement to lobbying for certain human rights takes away from the larger issues; that such generalizing ignores the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. So Dogan’s movement has emerged as a third force, but has recently kept a low political profile. In his first interview, Dogan caused a stir by saying that the road of Bulgaria to Europe might be covered with an Islamic carpet. This was immediately picked up by the nationalists and Dogan was branded a Tukish agent. The UDF, though wanting to keep the ethnic Turks within the coalition, did not want to antagonize the nationalists. The wedge that Zhivkov had successfully wedged between a nascent opposition in the 1980s has yet to disappear. Kyuranov had gotten involved in the opposition precisely because of the situation of ethnic Turks. The reason: “OK, I hate chauvinists.” More recently, he has leaarned to work with Bulgaria’s new nationalists. He has learned to accept that 3/4 of the country has this national feeling, a stage he considers the country has to outgrow, has to crawl through “though I hope through mud and not blood.”
Another blunder: the UDF wouldn’t listen to predictions that it would lose the elections, predictions from the Center’s poll and other places. The UDF was saying it would win the election with 70 per cent or more. The UDF will, Kyuranov thinks, hold together until the local elections: the drubbing in the national elections will serve as the glue. The Socialists might, however, split into two factions–reformers and hardliners. One rumor floating around is that the “radicals” within the BSP might unite with the Social Democratic party. These BSP “good guys”, Kyuranov noted, were not so good: they haven’t behaved very well in parliament and have not succeeded in creating an independent image for themselves as reformers. The are loud-mouthed about their ideals but when it comes to voting, they hold strictly to the party line.
How is parliament functioning in his opinion? OK, he answered, within the context of the possible. But, he notes, only Ecoglasnost within the opposition had succeeded in establishing normal, democratic procedures of decision-making. Such procedures were non-existent within other groups and parties. When he worked on the coordinating committee of the UDF, Kyuranov observed that Ecoglasnost was not able to transfer its organizational experience. Why? Because the UDF already had self-styled politicians. Even now, the UDF has yet to develop democratic procedures and decisions take place behind closed curtains. Nor does the National Assembly have any rules of order: the sessions are conducted in a slap-dash way. Kyuranov tried to persuade the opposition to push for new rules of order, because he thought that the Communists would not function well under such procedures.
Economic reform? “I’m afraid we’ll have to get into the mire and then there will be real reform,” he said. So far, what has happened, he wouldn’t call simply cosmetics, but it hasn’t been much. The BSP hasn’t been made to pay politically for the economic mistakes it made in the past. Therefore, the opposition shouldn’t join in government or else it will be submerged. Given the strength of the BSP, the country, he thought, needed a strong opposition. Appeasement would come too early. The “Polish solution” (a Solidarity government after the Communists “won” the national elections) would not happen here because the opposition doesn’t have enough support to warrant forming a government on its own.
Neither the BSP nor the UDF have been able to gain the support of workers or peasants. True, they have received electoral support from these constituencies, but not qua worker or peasant. The trade unions have kept a low political profile. Kyuranov is afraid of a populist movement capitalizing on the support of workers and peasants who say: “Ok you damn intellectuals. You let this happen to us and are now escaping to the West. Now, we’ll teach you!” He is not sure the trade unions could control this reaction. In this case, Kyuranov would prefer a milder nationalistic movement similar to Democratic Forum in Hungary.
Because of this possibility of a populist uprising, Kyuranov does not favor fast economic reforms. He supports slow reforms and no turning back. A more rapid reform would alienate workers and peasants. The UDF does not have a clear-cut policy on these issues. Ecoglasnost had clear-cut policies, but the UDF has yet to formulate demands so clearly. Kyuranov does see a political force emerging among students: idealist, pure, inexperienced. Appearing during the occupation strike at the university, this force has yet to coalesce. Maybe in the fall.
Then Kyuranov mentioned something interesting. At the beginning of the opposition in Bulgaria, many members thought that perhaps parties were outmoded, a function of anachronistic modernist thinking, and that political action should be organized around specific issues. Therefore, they considered working for the creation not of a party system but of a hybrid of the old and new. People would be elected to Parliament not on a ideological basis but according to abilities shown in solving political issues (this would not be, he stressed, either a technocracy or a meritocracy). Rather this would be based on a old Bulgarian tradition of aldermen, similar to the paternalistic system in Japan. Although he liked this idea, Kyuranov never believed that it was tenable, and that “reality was against us.”
The Macedonian issue has also resurfaced in relations between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Both governments want an outside issue to divert attention away from internal problems. Bulgaria’s point of view on the issue is that ethnic Bulgarians are living only temporarily in Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia and all Bulgarians will some day be united within the national borders of the country. Yugoslavia, meanwhile, would like to create a separate Macedonian nation that would include the southwestern corner of Bulgaria and would become part of Yugoslavia. Bulgarian scientists say that Macedonian is only a dialect of Bulgarian–this according to Kyuranov is historically possible but certainly no justification for seizing the land “and anyway I don’t believe in blood and sperm arguments.” Are there Bulgarians who call themselves Macedonian? In a poll the Center conducted in the region, of 300 interviewed, 3 called themselves Macedonian and 2 of these supported the pro-Yugoslavia movement along Macedonian lines. The support such a movement has in Bulgaria comes more from Turks and Pomaks (in fact 70 per cent of Bulgarians said they had never heard of the movement) who on principle support the rights of minorities. Yugoslav Macedonians, meanwhile, are perhaps less enthusiastic about being tied closer to Serbia given the assimilation, often ruthless, that has been visited upon them. He supports the unification of the Balkan region through the gradual pulling down of borders.
We returned to the problem of ethnic Turks. The worst thing that could happen to ethnic Turks in Bulgaria would be to actually live in Turkey, given its violations of human rights. 300,000 left for Turkey in 1989 and 80,000 returned. They came back but found many of the apartments had been seized. The opposition helped in particular cases, for instance, when returnees were not permitted to return to work (because of “democratic” and collective decision of the workplace). There had been 1.2 million ethnic Turks in Bulgaria; now there are something less than 1 million. They are mostly rural and badly educated though they all speak Bulgarian. In 1984, in addition to the forced name changes, they were forbidden from speaking Turkish. In 1987, he and Dimitrina Petrova (now an Ecoglasnost representative in Parliament) wrote a report on the situation and smuggled it out to the West. Now, the ethnic Turkish movement has closed ranks with some Bulgarian helpers out in front. Originally the group’s name was the Movement for the Rights and Freedoms of People of Moslem Faith and Turkish Origin. The group lopped off the last two qualifiers to appear more universal. But it is an open secret that it is working almost exclusively on behalf of ethnic Turks.
In January, an all national council on the nationality problem was created including the BCP, the Nationalists, the opposition and the Turks and Pomaks. The council argued for two weeks on what to do: opinions and problems were aired and the nationalists were forced to speak and make their generally illogical arguments. The ethnic Turks conceded on two points. The first was not to push for education in Turkish, simply to accept a faculty in Turkish capable of providing optional language training. The second concession involved guarantees for Bulgarian minorities living in regions of high Turkish concentration. The agreement was that some of these regions would be subjected to direct rule from Sofia rather than local control during the local elections. At the time, the concessions were necessary, Kyuranov said. Nationalist demonstrations in Sofia were attracting busloads of people from all over the country; there were vigils in front of the National Assembly organized by both nationalists and Communists. At first, the UDF didn’t understand the situation, thought that it was only provocation of Stalinists within the BSP. They didn’t realize that the appeal of nationalism went far beyond the Stalinists. This was an important first test for the opposition: distinguishing between outright provocations and genuine but manipulated movements. Whoever they were, Stalinists or non-communist nationalists, “of course, they were absolute idiots. I remember one of them. He came out draped in the national flag and gave a real Goebbels-type speech.” Out of this process came the national reconciliation commission, a TV program called “Appeasement.”
More recently, the ethnic Turks have decided not to honor the January agreement on the issue of direct rule from Sofia. This has not made relations with the opposition any easier.