Subjects to citizens – a very difficult transition for young Bulgarians
The word ‘transition’ – ‘prehod’ in Bulgarian – is a peculiar one for Bulgarian people. We use it when we speak of the period after 1989 – a period of political, economic and social transition from socialism to democracy.
It is a word that was meant to describe a short period of time in which the new system of modern, democratic institutions would start to work and the free market would develop, ensuring Bulgaria’s economic independence and prosperity.
The short period proved to be longer. And transitions proved to be far more complex than the shift from planned economy to a free market.
In 2013, a new transition became apparent and it suddenly declared its unexpected importance – the transition from a society of subjects to a society of citizens. In 2013, people in Bulgaria went out in the streets in a civil protest that is unique in Bulgarian history.
Since 1989, Bulgarian governments have done a lot to provoke civil protests and yet such protests have rarely happened, let alone lasted for months on end. Matters like corruption or disengagement with social issues provoked nothing but bitter conversations around the dinner table. Problems were part of the news but not part of society’s agenda.
This changed so suddenly that everybody was surprised.
In the middle of June 2013, the new Bulgarian government appointed a man of questionable morals to be the new director of the National Security Agency, changing the law beforehand so that the candidate meets the criteria for the post. Or so that the criteria meet the candidate.
It was a simple act. It was hardly something Bulgarians hadn’t seen before. And yet it turned out to be the last drop in an already full glass of unspoken anger and disappointment.
It was the first act in recent history that drove the young and the educated out of their homes and offices and into the streets. The beginning of the protests was so sudden for the authorities for one simple reason – up until then there had not been much evidence of the existence of modern citizens in post-communist Bulgaria.
However, this is only the beginning of a very difficult transition for Bulgarians. Becoming a citizen after generations of being a subject is no easy task. It is made even more difficult by the gap between the capital city of Sofia and the rest of the country.
I live in Bourgas. It is one of Bulgaria’s major cities and yet there are no significant protests here. Some people say it is because of the season – summer is the tourist season along the Black sea coast where Bourgas is situated. Yet I don’t believe this is the only reason.
‘If anything happens, it will come from Sofia’ – these are the words of a woman from Bourgas. They made me think about the underlying issues of the emerging Bulgarian citizens.
There is a sense of powerlessness in being a subject. Subjects wait for change to come from outside because they don’t think of themselves as generators of change. This is how people felt back in the days of empires, absolutist monarchies and totalitarian regimes.
Such helplessness takes generations to turn into active democratic participation. It is a process that has begun later in Bulgaria than in Western European societies and it is precisely this time-shift that makes foreigners raise their eyebrows when they come to Bulgaria and witness the functioning of the institutions or the mindset of the people.
The protesters in Sofia are ones that have started shaking off the feeling of powerlessness but this is a process that has hardly begun outside the capital. There are protests in some big cities but they are often related to discontent with the local government, not with the whole political system. As far as small towns and villages are concerned, the process has not even started.
This is probably a normal part of every social change. It is normal for it to begin in the capital and spread across the country. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria there is another ‘normality’ that sounds like part of a medieval reality – people in smaller towns and villages are often afraid to take any political or civil action that may displease the local powerful people.
There is yet another difficulty for the emerging Bulgarian citizen, besides the gap between Sofia and the rest of the country – the questionable representativeness of the protests.
There are people who believe that protesters are paid by groups with certain political or economic interests.
I can’t vouch for everybody who is there, in front of the Bulgarian parliament, asking for change.
What I can say, however, is that these protests are the first social process that people my age are committed to.
I am 28 years old and I dare to say that my generation, as a whole, is apolitical.
Up until recently, most of my friends, myself included, rarely voted. They don’t generally side with any of the bigger political parties. This kind of disengagement with politics has made people my age – again, including me – somehow passive, unwilling to take part in the life of the community, wishing either to emigrate or to isolate themselves from politics that they saw as dirty business.
These attitudes towards politics and politicians haven’t changed but the passivity has. The protests of 2013 are the first social events that leave very few young people in the ‘I don’t care’ part of the civil spectrum.
Some of the people I refer to have gone to the protests and have told me about them, about the general spirit of friendliness and a common purpose. And these people are young professionals that no one has paid to protest.
I personally haven’t taken part in the protests in Sofia up until now but I intend to, should they continue in autumn. I hope – and I am generally a pessimist – that this is a very rare chance for the development of a new civil society in my country.
It is going to be a difficult transition but there is a small fact that calls for optimism – it is a transition that has started. And, as they say, the first step is the most difficult of all.