Voice to the Voiceless

Posted May 1, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

The media in East-Central Europe used to be idea-centric. The unofficial samizdat publications focused on the cruelties and inanities of the regimes, unearthed nearly forgotten history, and often featured philosophic meditations on politics and morality. Even the government-run media tended to be rather high-minded in its emphasis on economic statistics, proletarian values, the activities of fraternal countries, or the workings of the Communist state. In neither case was it Entertainment Tonight.

Today, the media environment looks more or less like it does elsewhere in Europe, with a few serious publications and a lot of tabloid journalism. Scandals and celebrities dominate the news. Infotainment has become ubiquitous. Political figures set up their own TV channels to promote their careers. In short, the world of mass media has arrived, and with it another trend that scholars have called the “Italianization” of journalism in East-Central Europe. In other words, as in Italy of the 1990s, the state has continued to interfere in the media realm, and media outlets have become highly partisan.

Irina Nedeva does a morning show for public radio in Bulgaria, edits the news programming, and does documentaries for Bulgarian national television. She is a serious reporter who tackles serious topics. She’s never been interested in beat reporting in the sense of covering the ministry of foreign affairs or the president’s office. She views her microphone as an instrument that is capable of leveling the playing field in a game dominated by the powerful.

“I don’t feel like the microphone empowers me,” she told me in an interview that took place half in Washington, DC over the summer of 2012 and half in Sofia later the following October. “But even now, because I’m the one with a microphone, I feel that I’m obliged to tell the story of people from vulnerable communities. These people are struggling without any kind of voice, so it’s my obligation to give them a voice. I’m not breaking and entering into their places because of my microphone. I think it’s the opposite. I’m not interested in covering the prime minister, for instance, because he is very wealthy and already has a very strong voice, a very macho type of high-volume voice. He doesn’t need my microphone at all. But there are quiet voices in our society that are never heard, and I feel that it’s my duty to help them with my microphone.”

So, while other reporters in Bulgaria are following the latest twists in the wiretapping scandal involving former primer minister Boyko Borisov, Nedeva is interested in looking at society from a multiplicity of different angles. She has interviewed ethnic Turks expelled from Bulgaria in the 1980s, the man who introduced Coca-Cola to the country under Communism, skinheads who espouse racist philosophies, environmentalists who embrace a new politics, academic experts, foreign observers of Bulgaria, and many, many more. Several of these interviews have ended up in documentary films.

With so many interesting people to interview, Nedeva doesn’t need to chase after the prime minister. “I think that this obsession with the prime minister is pretty unhealthy,” she told me. “I don’t like to even talk about him. We should talk about the policies of government not his personality. I don’t care about his personality.”

She remains, however, passionately concerned about the policies of government and their impact on people. We talked about her early days as a student activist, her continuing enthusiasm for democracy, and her expectations concerning the upcoming elections.


The Interview


I’d like to begin with 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and your thoughts about that period, when you were quite young.


I was not so young. I was in my second year of university. I was born in 1968, so I have a very clear memory of that time. The fall of the Berlin Wall was quite special for me and my family. It was probably the most significant event when I was young. When I compare myself with my friends who are younger than me, sometimes I feel like a very politically old-fashioned woman, because I have this reference in my mind to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was much more significant than the fall of Todor Zhivkov. My parents and my parents’ friends considered the fall of Todor Zhivkov an attempt by the Communist Party and the Communist government to adjust to the reality in Eastern Europe. So we didn’t care a lot. It was going to be either Todor Zhivkov or somebody else inside the Party. But we very much enjoyed the overall crash of the system.


Do you remember where you were on November 10, 1989?


Yes, I remember. I was a second-year student in philosophy at Sofia University, and we were just in the middle of an action. There were 40 of us in this class as regular students in philosophy. Usually the classes were much bigger, like 60 or even 80 people. But the year we applied in 1989, I don’t know why but probably they decided they don’t need such a huge number of students in philosophy. Anyway, we were one of the smallest classes there. The fall of 1989 was a very hard academic year for us, because our curriculum was full of stupid classes like military education and the history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. They were obligatory for all the students at Sofia University, no matter whether you were studying natural sciences or political science. These were the “ideological fields,” classes in Marxist-Leninist ideology. When we started in the fall of 1989, we soon realized that our program was so completely full of these classes that we didn’t have time for reading or attending the classes we wanted like the philosophy of Ancient Greece, the philosophy of the Middle Ages, or contemporary philosophy. It was an absolutely spontaneous decision to revolt against this stupidity. We decided that we would go on strike.

When you are in Bulgaria, probably I can open up my archives and show you those first pamphlets and our attempt to help change the curriculum. I still remember how afraid we were, because it was September-October of 1989, that somebody could interpret our attempt to change the curriculum as a political protest. We were still thinking that it was pretty dangerous. We were saying to all our professors, “We don’t have any kind of political demands. The only thing we want is to have time to be read quality philosophical literature and not to bother with all these stupid classes.” During this first attempt to organize a strike—and it was only our class that did it, by the way – we decided to stay at the university. We simply blocked one of the floors of the building, in the department of humanities. We started the strike in October and then in November came the fall of the Wall and the resignation of Todor Zhivkov.

The philosophy department was the place where all the dissidents were already meeting, where there was this Group for Glasnost and Perestroika for the Gorbachev type of dissidents. They were mainly professors in philosophy. When we started the strike, the university management tried to make a connection between us and this club. I still remember that some of our professors who were very much involved in the dissident group were telling us, “Don’t come to our meetings, because it could be dangerous.”

Finally, by the way, we succeeded — after the fall of the Wall and the fall of Todor Zhivkov. We managed to change the curriculum, so that all those ideological classes were no longer obligatory.


How did you parents feel about this?


About the strike? They were very supportive.


They weren’t scared?


They were scared, but they were supportive because they liked the idea. They were scared that it could affect my future and I remember my mother saying, “Listen, it’s very important to say all the time that it is not political.” I did it because we just didn’t need these classes. We wanted to study the history of all thinking, so why should we focus especially on the history of Marxism/Leninism? It was not even a pure history, just the ideology. It’s strange: I even can’t remember what we called this class. I think it was DiaMat: Dialectical Materialism. This was a Stalinist formulation, I think.


Were you concerned about penalties from the university or about the state stepping in?


I think I was just reflecting my parents’ fears. I don’t know which penalty I was most scared of. But fear was not the main feeling. The dominant feeling was enthusiasm, the feeling that we were doing something great, that we were not alone. We also had some professors on our side. It was more important for us to feel brave and cool than to feel scared of what we were doing.


What did the occupation look like?


Have you been to Sofia University? It’s a very old, very beautiful building, with a big entrance on every floor. So, it was really difficult to occupy, and we were a relatively small group of people that particular year, just 40 students. And out of these 40 students, 15 or more were foreigners. For instance, there were some Greek students, whose parents were connected with the Greek Communist Party, and some students from South America, and a Kurdish student who came from Frankfurt but was not interested in the Frankfurt school of Marxism but the genuine Soviet-style. The foreign students, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, were mainly coming to Bulgaria to study Marxism and Leninism. It was really funny because at the time that we were revolting against these ideological classes, our foreign co-students were saying, “Oh no! Why are you doing this? Everything is so great with the communist system, with the free education—”.


And they went there precisely for the classes you wanted to get rid of!


Yes, exactly! And we couldn’t believe it. “No, no, no,” we said. “We don’t like this. It’s an awful nomenklatura-bureaucratic type of society. We don’t like it at all.” So we were arguing over these issues with our foreign colleagues. It means that during the actual occupation, we were not more than 15-20 people. We also realized that a strike is very serious, which you can’t do without good preparation and dedication. It was sometimes very difficult because some people from our group didn’t show up. Others, as I told you, were foreigners who were not involved in these actions. We were also collecting signatures from all the other students, because these ideological classes were obligatory for the whole university. When we succeeded at the end of the fall, we stopped doing this. We didn’t create any kind of movement or organization. We were just happy that we no longer had to take those obligatory classes.

Later on, after the first elections, the students started a big general strike against the electoral results, because the former Communist Party won those first elections and people generally believed that the results had been falsified. In this general strike, the whole university was involved. Many of us were somehow connected with the strikers as well, but we created our own organization.


When you occupied the university, was it just during the day or did you also sleep there at night?


No, only the day.


And do you remember specifically the night when the Berlin Wall fell?


I think I remember, although I’m not sure how much is a genuine memory and how much is a reconstruction. But I remember that someone told me. The Wall fell on November 9 and Todor Zhivkov stepped down on the 10th. During these three days, there was a conference in contemporary philosophy organized by the Institute of Philosophy in the main building of the Bulgarian Academy of Science. Some students and friends of mine were trying to plan how to go to this conference and also manage the strike. If there was nobody at the table during the occupation, it would look as though we’d given up. So, some people stayed at the university and some people went to this philosophical conference. On the way to the main building of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, somebody told us, “There’s a meeting at the Party headquarters, and Zhivkov stepped down. He’ll no longer be leader, so very big changes are expected.” It was a rumor, but a rumor that turned out to be true.


Do you remember seeing the Wall fall on television or…?


I remember seeing it on television, but I’m not sure if it was on Bulgarian television. In my family we were listening to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle. I really don’t remember exactly the first time I saw the images of the wall. I’m not sure that it was on the same day or a later reconstruction.


Do you remember the night when the Party headquarters was set on fire? It was in August 1990.


Probably I was there, but not until dark. I remember that me and all my friends and relatives, we were very much concerned that what we called at the time “provocateurs” would behave violently, and that it would provoke the authorities to use force and stop the demonstrations. During the burning of the Party headquarters, and the days after, I was really angry that the people who were there allowed this to happen. I still think—I know that this is somehow a conspiracy theory–but I still think that the former Communist Party stood the most to profit from this fire. Later on they pretended that they didn’t keep certain archival materials. The fire at the Party headquarters was a perfect opportunity for the former Communists to get rid of those files.


I was sitting in my room that night listening to BBC when it reported from Sofia that the Party building was burning. So I went outside and I got a taxi. It was probably about 11 o’clock at night, and the taxi driver didn’t want to go there.


He didn’t want to go?


He said, “I’ll drop you off maybe a half a mile away.” So I had to walk the rest of the way.” That was the only time when, during my whole travels, that I was in a kind of a newsworthy situation. I called my friends in the States. I remember waiting at the major hotel off the square. And there was a bank of telephones, and I was waiting there for National Public Radio to call. They ended up not calling. I suppose they were really not that interested. But everybody was trying to make calls from the few phones that were there. There was a representative from the King saying that maybe this was a good time to coming back to Bulgaria. And there was a journalist who was making things up. He was listening to other people filing reports, and then he filed a report based on the information he heard from these other people.


I remember being just right off the square. But I might have reconstructed the memory.


So there was great enthusiasm. Todor Zhivkov was gone. The Berlin Wall has fallen. How long do you think you were in a state of great enthusiasm? I mean, did it last a week? Did it last 6 months? Did it last 5 years? Are you still in a state of great enthusiasm?


Maybe I’m stupid, but I’m still in a state of great enthusiasm. I really am still happy that Bulgaria is a democracy, a multi-party system with separation of powers. Maybe not everything is working perfectly, but I do like democracy more than the previous regime. So, yes, I still feel an enthusiasm for democracy. Many people are critical of democracy, blaming democracy for poverty and all that stuff. They think that the post-Communists are basically ruining the Bulgarian economy. But what I remember of the previous regime was not so brilliant in terms of economic achievements. I remember that Bulgaria was a poor country. I remember that all the social protections were of poor quality, and everyone dreamed of the so-called Western “problems.”

And there were big deficits. These deficits during the so-called socialist period created such a great desire for consumerism. After the changes, people started to consume like crazy. They started to think only about money and only about buying and consuming. It became pretty disgusting. But I do not blame democracy for this. Rather I blame the deficits during socialism.

Also, during socialism, there was no normal public life. People used to live secretly, to have a double layer to their life. They would say things publically that they didn’t believe and maintain their own secret private lives.


You finished your philosophy degree, and you decided not to become a philosopher. Why is that? You won this important battle, you didn’t have to take those obligatory DiaMat classes!


No. I didn’t. I wanted to continue studying. It was 1994 when I graduated, and I still remember that after my graduation, there was only one open position for a Ph.D., and it was not exactly what I wanted to do. It was for the history of philosophy.


There was only one position to start a Ph.D. in philosophy in the country?!


Only one. In Sofia, there was only one university, the state university, Sofia University. Maybe there was also something similar in Veliko Tarnovo, where there was another university, but I was not considering this as an option at all. So I simply stayed without a job for about six months. I was getting more and more depressed. I was reading at the national library all the time. I didn’t have money because I wasn’t working, so I was mainly counting on some money from my parents. I started to apply for Ph.Ds outside of Bulgaria. I applied for an MA in the philosophy of art at the Central European University, which still had some facilities in Prague.

While I was waiting, I heard on the public radio that they were opening a position for a staff editor and reporter, so I decided to apply for a job there. I applied and I was successful. And I was successful exactly on the day that I received information from Prague that I was also accepted into the CEU program. So I had a dilemma about what to choose. Finally, I decided to stay in Sofia, because it was exciting to start to work and I was maybe even a little flattered because the radio station received approximately 200 applications. Out of 200, they chose five people to start working, and I was the first one. Many of the applicants were connected to journalism, but I wasn’t. So I was flattered. Probably if I was selected in the second position, probably I would not be so flattered. And I thought, “Wow, it’s so exciting! I will have a salary for the first time in my life.” It seemed like a stable position. It wasn’t freelancing. For me, it was totally new field, and I was really excited to try it out. Maybe the most important thing was that if I stayed in Bulgaria, I would be with my boyfriend.

All of our friends were also applying to study abroad and I think I was the first one of my fellow students that started to work. Most of them were somehow successful with their applications to graduate programs outside Bulgaria. After 10 years, I realized that my life was very much directed toward working in public radio. I was working all the time. But when my friends came back with MA or Ph.D. degrees from Western universities, it was very difficult for them to find jobs. This was absolutely not fair. But it was part of the reality here.


And it was difficult for them simply because there just were no job openings.


No job openings. There was a lot of competition between these new graduates and the old professors.


You gave me a very good list of reasons for why you decided to stay in Bulgaria and not go to Central European University. The one thing you didn’t mention, and it’s possible because it wasn’t a factor, was the fact that Bulgaria had changed. Did that play any role at all in this decision?


I should admit that, yes, if I stayed here, it was obviously because I believed that Bulgaria had changed. The philosophy department at Sofia University was not completely connected with the old regime, because before the fall of the Wall, it was maybe the most important place for dissident thinking and reading and analysis and talk. The department was an agent for change, and I was happy and proud that I’d studied philosophy, and I was proud that we’d fought to change the curriculum. But why did I believe so easily that the change in Bulgaria was genuine from the very beginning? I have no explanation. But I did believe that change was inevitable, and that it would be cool to live in such times. I liked the demonstrations. I liked the spirit of the so-called City of Truth when, after the first elections, intellectuals occupied the garden in front of the Bulgarian national bank. Their protest wasn’t connected with the bank but rather the presidency and the Communist Party. They supported the hunger strike of some parliamentary members of the opposition, the Union of Democratic Forces. It was an occupation made by very famous Bulgarian intellectuals: musicians, writers, actors. There were tents of the Union of the Bulgarian Filmmakers, the Union of Bulgarian Musicians, lots of new groups. It was really an enthusiastic time.


When you became a reporter, what was the most traumatic thing that you learned? I mean, you’d been living in Bulgaria for a long time, obviously, but certainly you were in a very different position, talking, presumably, with different people. Do you remember using your microphone to gain access to new or unusual places?


That’s possible more in the United States than in Bulgaria.


How is it different than Bulgaria?


In Bulgaria, a microphone doesn’t give you better access, not at least in my case. First of all, I was not interested in being just reporter covering big political parties or big political institutions. I have always been a little bit on my own, discovering my own issues, mainly social issues or political issues, but not exactly the official point of view. Bulgarian radio assigned somebody to cover the council of ministers. They sent the author’s name to the council of ministers, the council of minsters approved these names, and then this particular reporter had access to the council of ministers meetings.


We call that a “beat.”


I have never been this kind of reporter. And I don’t feel like the microphone empowers me. But even now, because I’m the one with a microphone, I feel that I’m obliged to tell the story of people from vulnerable communities. These people are struggling without any kind of voice, so it’s my obligation to give them a voice. I’m not breaking and entering into their places because of my microphone. I think it’s the opposite. I’m not interested in covering the prime minister, for instance, because he is very wealthy and already has a very strong voice, a very macho type of high-volume voice. He doesn’t need my microphone at all. But there are quiet voices in our society that are never heard and I feel that it’s my duty to help them with my microphone.


And was there a particular story early on when you started out that helped you understand this role of yours?


I remember that when I started with radio, they had to find me a place in the system.

The chief editor asked me, “What do you want to do?”

I said, “I don’t know, because my background is not journalism.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “But we decided that you could be very good at this. Do you want to cover, for instance, education?”

“What does it mean to cover education?”

He said, “It means that you stay at the ministry of education and to go to their press conferences.”

And I said, “No, it doesn’t seem very interesting for me.”

“Well, what about culture?”

I said, “Culture, yes. I’m much more interested in culture.”

“Well, but culture is not exciting. Who cares about culture at all?”

“But I’d like to cover art,” I said.

“No, no,” he said, “we don’t have this kind of arts reporter. The strong fields are council of ministers, different departments in the government, different ministries, parliamentary groups. Coming with your background in philosophy and political science, it’s better to use you in this hard journalism, not art. If you’re serious about being an arts reporter, go to a theatre play, then make an interview about it.”

So I was not able to become an art reporter at the time. But finally one of the public radio programs declared that they wanted me and they didn’t care whether I wanted to cover the prime minister or not. They were willing to train me and use me. This was the best program, the coolest program.


What was the name of it?


Twelve Plus Three. Very famous journalists were working there at the time. It was the freest program. It was three hours everyday, and I became a reporter attached to the show. One of my specialties was conducting interviews with foreigners. For me it was interesting to look at Bulgarian society through the point of view of people who were coming from abroad. I started to do such kinds of interviews in different areas, with people who had different points of view, including academics and people working with Turks in Bulgaria.


When we were talking before about the ethnic minority situation, you mentioned that a year ago, a representative from the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) said that they would redefine ethnicity in the governmental statistic office.


It was in 2010. In the official census, there’s a certain pattern for dealing with ethnic minorities. The terminology has always been a very sensitive political issue — national minorities versus ethnic minorities, which groups would be represented, and so on. That’s why Bulgaria didn’t ratify the charter on minority languages but did ratify the convention on ethnic minorities. The youth section of VMRO, which is an old traditional party that claims that Macedonia is part of Bulgaria, said that they didn’t agree with the terminology used in the questionnaire and would start a campaign to change the questions. The official institutions, especially the National Institute of Statistics, claimed in the media that nobody could influence them, that they were very professional and worked at the highest standard. I invited someone from VMRO on my radio program and he said, “No, you will see, we will succeed!” Finally, they did succeed in reframing the question.


They reframed the question only around who is Macedonian?


No, the big battle was how many different ethnic groups would be involved in the questionnaire. According to VMRO, there are ethnic Bulgarians, ethnic Turks, and Roma and all the others are Others. And they made that change.


How do you think the minority question influence the next elections? Will it play a critical determining role or only a minor role?


This is a key question for Bulgaria’s politic development. Even if the Roma vote doesn’t seem to be playing a role in the vote, it will be significant for understanding the direction of the political establishment. I think that there are two options for the new majority. I doubt it will not be an absolute majority. The winning party will need someone in a coalition — and the interesting question is what partner they will choose. It will either be something like a nationalist-patriotic front based on conservative national identity or a more liberal one. It might depend on the EU and whether the EU is moving toward greater isolation. If so, the new Bulgarian majority might adopt the same frame.

I think the coalition between Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Citizens for a European Bulgaria (GERB) will not be possible because of GERB’s whole rhetoric that its main opponent is the Socialist party. Although there are common points — such as the adoration of Todor Zhivkov, the emphasis on security, and the conservative values held by the Socialist party, which is really a party of rich, well-established red businessmen — I don’t think at a public level this coalition will be a reality.

Concerning the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), it’s almost the same. GERB started with very anti-MRF rhetoric. They’re not much interested in talking with Ahmed Dogan. There is, however, a public difference between the prime minister Boyko Borisov and the vice prime minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov. The anti-Islamic actions of the Ministry of internal Affairs are much more associated with Tsvetanov than Borisov. The question is, is GERB Borisov or Borisov GERB? People on the street, when they are protesting some policy measures, they somehow feel that Borisov is part of the protest movement, which is quite strange since he’s the prime minister. Even the ecological movement says, “Borisov is on our side against the bad guys.”

A hidden coalition between GERB and the MRF has more possibility of becoming public than a hidden coalition between GERB and BSP becoming public. That’s why I think that GERB will need another coalition partner. Who? A united nationalist movement or something like a liberal perspective with Kuneva, who could be simultaneously anti-communist and pro-EU.


Some people I’ve talked to about Borisov say that he gets things done. There’s construction on the street and people are working. There’s the new metro.


And this year they will finish the highway to connect Burgas and Sofia.


Ah, finally!


I think that this obsession with the prime minister is pretty unhealthy. I don’t like to even talk about him. We should talk about the policies of government not his personality. I don’t care about his personality.


Then how do you feel about GERB? What if people said, “GERB gets things done!”


I feel better. Even when I’m talking with people who criticize the prime minister or adore him, they don’t say “the prime minister.” They say “Boyko.” I say,” Bokyo who? What is his family name, what is his position?” It’s important to distinguish between political parties and the spontaneous manifestation of subjective will. I want to know where does this political reality come from? If it’s the position of the political party that’s one thing, but I’m uncomfortable if it’s only the subjective will of one person.


Many people of your generation left Bulgaria. But you are still here.


I stayed probably because I was relatively lucky to work in something that I like and to feel a certain level of independence, although with very limited benefits and resources. Also I have my family here: my mother, father, daughter. And there is something to lose if I emigrate. I would lose a certain status. It’s not just financial security. I work with public media, so my salary is probably five times less than if I worked in private media. It’s not a very secure type of living. At the same time, I’m not ready to lose the luxury to do what I love to do and what I think do well. If I emigrate, I’ll have to totally change my work. I’ll have to start at the beginning. I have travelled a lot, so I know. I’ll always be in a position in which I’m overqualified and less experienced, because I will not be able to do what my employers will expect from me, being a poor immigrant, but at the same time I will be overqualified at the position.


What is your feeling about the prospects of the new left here in Bulgaria?


I think the biggest obstacle for the new left will be the lack of authentic reasons to be there. For me it’s an academic project, like the theoretical construction of people who are happy to read some leftist theoreticians but still have no will to be involved with poor illiterate people, for instance. I think this will be the next elitist project for Bulgaria. I’m not against an elite that adores knowledge. But the problem is that you can’t make a good society only out of such people. Not everyone is obliged to read John Locke or Noam Chomsky or Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida.


Especially Jacques Derrida! Some people have told me that 15-20 percent of the population supports Ataka policies even if its vote count fluctuates. There’s an even larger number that supports a softer extreme nationalism. What do you think?


I’m very much concerned about this. I think this is a threat to many people here. It doesn’t matter whether the nationalist parties have bigger numbers in the next election or not. On an everyday level, these hostile feelings and hate threats are increasing.


Washington, DC, June 25, 2012 and Sofia, October 1, 2012


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