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Escape From Ignorance and Chalga

There is a joke in Bulgaria. What are the two ways out of the current crisis?

Terminal One and Terminal Two.

Those would be, of course, the terminals at the Sofia airport. An enormous number of people have left Bulgaria since 1989. Over the last quarter century or so, the population dropped from approximately 9 million to approximately 7.3 million people. Some of the population reduction is the result of a low birthrate. But the rest just left.

In 2011, Bulgaria earned the dubious distinction of topping the list of the world's most rapidly shrinking countries. This outmigration is often referred to as a "brain drain," though many people who have remained in Bulgaria naturally bristle at this phrase.

Vihar Krastev is one of the many people who left Bulgaria in the 1990s. He's also part of the more recent and more modest wave of returnees. Not long ago, he retired from his job in Canada and now lives in a lovely house in the hills above the port of Varna, on the Black Sea. The house is filled with the beautiful weavings of his partner, Yassena Yurekchieva.

I met Vihar in 1990 when he was working at an opposition newspaper called Vek 21 (21st Century), which was affiliated with the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the coalition of opposition groups. At the time he was quite enthusiastic about the changes and was optimistic about how quickly Bulgaria could be turned into a westernized country. He was also about to take his first trip to the United States, to attend a journalism seminar at Tufts.

A couple of decades later, he looks back at that period with no small amount of bemusement and honest self-criticism.

"If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself -- and I don't know if I said this in my first interview -- were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, 'Oh, wow, why not?' That's an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence. And that's how the UDF lost their position with society, and that's how people started disliking the opposition."

Vihar Krastev has been through a lot. When I met him in 1990, I didn't know about all the twists and turns his life had taken before he landed at Vek 21. And, of course, I could know nothing about all the subsequent snakes and ladders he would traverse after 1990. It is a powerful story, and I am grateful that he sat down for two hours in Varna to relate it to me. Below this, I've also reproduced our discussion from 1990.

The Interview

You spent a good bit of time in the opposition movement in UDF, Demokratsia, Vek 21. Thinking back now, what's your impression of the opposition? Are there things that the opposition did really well and others that it did poorly?

There was a lot of enthusiasm but a lot of incompetence, a lack of basic knowledge and concepts. Some of the people were quite idealistic, honest people, but they knew nothing about social development, social structures, social change, how to work with crowds when there are crowds, and how to work with civil society. I now can recount numerous cases of flagrant ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence in the official opposition.

Can you give an example?

Here's an example close to my editorial practice. Every day hundreds of people -- some of them normal supporters of UDF, some of them in some position like regional coordinator or city boss -- came to the editorial room of Vek 21. We were in one room, two editors and one assistant and one photographer. They would bring stuff that was unreadable, let alone publishable. Even if I put my best effort into polishing it, it wouldn't work. It didn't say anything. There was no message. There was just the eagerness to show off. You couldn't even explain it to them. I told them that I could work with them, help them. "Nooo, who are you to say this to me? I'm the party leader in Yambol! I want this published! Otherwise I'll complain to your boss!" There was no boss. He couldn't complain to anyone. These people were hungry for glory, recognition, to be of importance. They had been so insignificant in their past, and now they saw their chance.

I remember during that strike in late December, some of the bus drivers I was on friendly terms with were coming to talk to me. "Tomorrow, will you give me a job?" they asked. I said, "I'm not becoming a political leader. I'm not doing this for myself!" But they saw an opportunity: if they were friendly with me, one day I'd make them deputy minister or something. I know why they did this. They wanted something better for their kids. Or vanity. Or to have their kids respect them more because now they were someone of importance, not just a plain Jane.

There are many more examples. If I have to be more honest: some of us, including myself -- and I don't know if I said this in my first interview -- were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, "Oh, wow, why not?" That's an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence.

That's how the UDF lost their position with society, and that's how people started disliking the opposition. Some of them were obnoxious. I'll tell you a joke about that. There was this Bulgarian dissident, Radoy Ralin. He was a writer, a smart guy, well liked. He played a double game during communism: tolerated by the communists but at the same time writing some critical stuff about them. One day he comes to our office and he was gloomy, which was unlike him, particularly in those years when he was very optimistic about the changes. He wasn't himself.

We asked him, "What's wrong?"

And he said, "Things are not going very well."

We asked, "Why are you pessimistic?"

And he said, "To be honest, the former communists belong in jail. That's clear. But the new ones, they should be institutionalized."

Back then I did not pay much attention. But Radoy Ralin must have been smarter than I. He must have seen the truth. The communists were criminals, but the new ones are so incompetent and corrupt that they look and behave like crazy people. That struck me a couple years later as something that I should have understood back then.

Here's another example. We had two spokespeople for the UDF. One of them was a literary person, a writer, a literary critic, exceptionally smart, a true erudite: Mihail Nedelchev. He knew everything. But he was very vain. He thought he was Louis XIV. The other one was a rough person, Georgi Spasov. Nedelchev was the civil one, Spasov the uncivil one. They would take turns every night on national TV. They had five to 10 minutes to present whatever happened with the UDF: declarations, statements, whatever. They had a guaranteed time, but it could be a half an hour if they wanted. There were no rules. It was a chaotic time. It would come on about 8 p.m., around the time of this nightly broadcast for young children. Children would be in front of the TV waiting for their program, and then this Spasov guy would appear. Kids would start crying immediately, that's how frightful he was! He had no charm, no presence. He was like the devil on screen.

I remember the debates on TV during those first couple of elections. You know the infamous example of how Nixon's looks during his TV debate with Kennedy probably ruined him: this was much worse. UDFers here didn't know how to dress. They'd come out almost in their pajamas. They had no manners. When they talked in those debates, they would be gesturing and yelling and fighting. It was horrible. How can you trust the government of a nation to someone who doesn't know how to behave, how to talk? The Socialists, meanwhile, were better trained. They spoke more eloquently, spoke better, quieter: "speak low, speak slow, don't say much". And the opposition people were ruffians. So, when people had anecdotes -- truthful or not, and some of them might have been exaggerated or the communist propaganda may have dreamed up some sins of the new people -- but people believed them, because it was plausible that these savages would be greedy, corrupt, and incompetent. And we were incompetent. I have to admit it.

When I went to the States in 1990 -- you met me just before I left -- I learned a lot. But I would have been much better if I had learned all that before the changes, before my initial involvement with the opposition. I was ashamed of some of the things I had done prior to going to Tufts. Did I really say that? Did I behave like that? And I didn't know that I shouldn't have done that?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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