06/05/2013 08:54 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Playing Catch Up in Eastern Europe

Many people I've interviewed in East-Central Europe have talked about their initial expectations in 1989-90 that their countries would soon leap the development gap and join Europe proper. Within a few years, they thought they'd be living in the equivalent of Austria or Italy. When several years went by, and then several more, and they were still not living in these Austria-like countries, quite a few people simply got on a train or a plane and left for the West. If Western Europe doesn't come to you, even after accession to the European Union, then you might just as well go directly to Western Europe yourself.

You can sense this persistent gap whenever you take the train from Vienna the short distance to Bratislava or the ferry from Finland to Poland. As you move east and south, people in general have less money, the infrastructure looks more run-down, there is more talk of corruption, and citizens have considerably less trust in their political institutions. Of course there are pockets of wealth in the East and pockets of poverty in the West. But these impressions of a continued disparity nearly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall are borne out by the statistics. The GDP per capita of Austria and Finland is approximately $47,000 compared to the Slovak figure of $16,899 and the Polish figure of about $12,000.

But gut impressions and GDP figures are just rough estimates. If you want a more precise evaluation of Europe's development gap, check out the Catch Up Index. A project of the Open Society Foundation in Bulgaria, the index looks at four different kinds of indicators: economy, democracy, governance, and quality of life. Each of these categories aggregates a basket of measurements that includes everything from GDP per capita (for economy) and Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (for governance) to the Gini coefficient measuring inequality (for quality of life) and the Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders (for democracy).

The latest Catch Up Index, published this January, has no overall surprises. Scandinavia remains on top, and the Balkans are still on the bottom. But some of the details are important. The economic crisis, for instance, is bringing about a minor convergence between rising Eastern European countries (Poland, Czech Republic) and falling Western European countries (Ireland, Spain, Italy).

Marin Lessenski has been working on the Index out of Sofia. Bulgaria has not fared particularly well in the charts. It currently ranks 29th out of 35 countries. To add insult to injury, it fell a spot in the latest edition.

"What we saw in the previous edition was that Bulgaria changed places with Romania," Lessenski told me in an interview in Sofia back in September. "Previously Bulgaria was one notch above Romania. Romanians were very unhappy, I was told. The Romanian foreign minister was talking about this index. I told them, it's not a big thing. It's just a notch. It's not statistically significant. Now this year, Bulgarian is one notch below Romania."

We talked about the growing divide between the Balkans and the rest of Europe, the expectations that EU accession have produced, and what it means that Bulgarians like Turkish soap operas so much.

The Interview

Has the concept of Europe in your opinion changed in the perceptions of average Bulgarians compared to the pre-accession, pre-membership period when Europe was a goal? Now Europe is a reality.

When people here say, "I'm going to Europe," it means that they don't think they're from Europe. This belief that Europe is somewhere different is in Maria Todorova's book, Imagining the Balkans. I'll give you an example. I was in Varna, near the seaside. They have a booming economy. And I was listening to the news there. They started with the local news, about the municipal council, the mayor, local business. Then they said, "Now the news from Sofia and Brussels." That was it. It was as if the national and international news was something happening outside their world.

The first thing that changed for us, even before the moment of entering the EU, was that moment of visa-tree travel. That's when personal contacts started. People became freer. The concept of Europe began to change. If you ask the average Bulgarian -- Joe the Bulgarian or me -- to answer the question if we are Europeans, the first answer would be "no." This is not about cultural identity. It has much more to do with incomes and material things. If you ask a Bulgarian, "What is Europe?" they'll say it's richer, it's cleaner, it's civilization. There is a divide in this society between those who are mobile, who travel to the EU, and who know languages, and those who are outside this process, who cannot afford to travel, who don't have the contacts or the languages. These people feel isolated.

I remember this moment just before entering the EU, in 2006, when there were a lot of people -- the middle class, people with small businesses, people who could pay their bills - who we assumed to be the motor of European integration. But these people were more afraid of accession because they were afraid of competition from the EU, from big companies. So there was this backlash at that moment. It has changed a bit over time. These people have come to see that Europe is not such a dangerous place.

Bulgaria is still one of the most enthusiastic countries in the EU, one of the countries that believes in the EU. But I think that even in Bulgaria there's a healthy dose of realism. Bulgarian politicians told the public that January 1, 2007 would be the end of history, that we would be entering something that would be constantly progressing and that it would be an irreversible process. Then, all of a sudden, the crisis started, and now people are not so sure where they are. Compared to the old system, they're still enthusiastic but...

It's often said that Bulgarians have the highest level of enthusiasm for Balkan identity as well.

Bulgarians don't have problems with Balkan identity in comparison to the other Balkan countries. There's no inferiority complex.

Does that have any implications in terms of Bulgaria's relationship to the EU? Does Bulgaria feel it has a certain commitment to other Balkan countries to help in their accession, to create a Balkan bloc in the EU?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.