03/21/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

The Goldilocks Generation

If you were of a certain age and with certain skills, the changes that took place in 1989 in East-Central Europe created an enormous world of opportunity. Those young enough to change with the times could suddenly rise to the heights of politics and business. And if you spoke English - or were willing to learn it very quickly -- you could become an intermediary with the West and enter an entirely different world of possibility.

Some people were too old to take advantage of the changes. They couldn't retool, couldn't pick up the necessary language and computer skills. As for those who were very young at the time of the changes -- and everyone born afterwards -- they took the new world as a given. They didn't realize how lucky there were.

But the Goldilocks generation -- the people who were neither too old nor too young -- could appreciate what 1989 meant for their own trajectories. Whether or not they participated in the revolutionary changes that led up to that annus mirabilis, they had the chance to participate in shaping the post-revolutionary environment. Some members of this generation -- Slovakia's Robert Fico (25 in 1989), Hungary's Viktor Orban (26 in 1989), Poland's Alexander Kwasniewski (35 in 1989) -- even came to dominate the public life of their countries.

Ivan Krastev was also in his early twenties when the ground shifted seismically beneath his feet in 1989. He had imagined a life connected to academia. Suddenly, other options were available.

"A totally new public space emerged," he told me in an interview last April in his office at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna where he is a permanent fellow. "We were also a very lucky generation. When this new space was opened, there were not so many people interested in dancing in it. Being young in this period was a major advantage. For me personally and my generation, this was an incredible opportunity. Overnight, what you were saying was perceived as important, and you had the feeling that you were part of making history."

Today, Krastev is a political theorist and one of the most prominent and acute commentators on the realities of the post-Soviet space. He is perhaps best known for his TED talk on the relationship between democracy and trust, which has nearly 500,000 views and which he turned into the TED book In Mistrust We Trust. He is also the founder of the Center for Liberal Strategies in his home base of Sofia.

We talked about the exhilarating proliferation of opportunity in 1989 but also the disappointments that came in 1990. The downside for the Goldilocks generation was that they were also very conscious of the closing down of opportunities when the early post-revolutionary optimism began to fade.

"At the beginning people were always listening to you," Krastev explained. "In the first year there was a great empowerment of intellectuals and anyone who could tell a story. After this, it disappeared. The marginalization and alienation of this type of intellectual class is also one of the sources of the bitterness that you hear. There was no one to explain any more. The agents not of change but of explanation were not in an explaining mood. They were in a complaining mood. This created bitter divisions."

And the new story that emerged from the disappointments of the intellectual class was one of manipulation. In countries like Bulgaria, where the general perception is of a transition that failed, conspiracy theories became rampant. According to such theories, people behind the scenes stage-managed the transition in a way to enrich themselves. "If before people believed that they were weak and powerless because they couldn't promote themselves or their ideas, they next saw people getting rich and they didn't understand how that could happen," Krastev continued. "Economic success became totally criminalized. You can never explain to anybody that you have been lucky. The idea of luck is totally absent, which is typical of conspiratorial societies."
We also talked about corruption, the rise of radicalism and the backlash against liberalism, and how money has changed the very geography of relationships in post-Communist societies.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Sofia, and I remember seeing this on television. I was with a friend and we talked a lot about this. But Bulgaria was the country in Eastern Europe where the fall of the Berlin Wall was the least commented on, because the next day [Bulgarian Communist Party General Secretary] Todor Zhivkov resigned. In the late 1980s, Communism in Bulgaria was like nature. You could like it or not, approve of it or disapprove of it, but to believe that it was going to disappear overnight was not an option to be entertained. So we were very much obsessed with what was happening in our own country.

That event I remember in more detail -- what we were thinking and what we were doing. I was in the National Library reading something, when somebody came by and said that there was some news about Zhivkov resigning. I met up with some people at the end of the day, and we went to the restaurant inside the University of Sofia. There was a group of some dissidents talking and drinking, led by the future president Zheliu Zhelev. We joined them and there was a lot of discussion. The talk was about the new general secretary of the Party, who was the foreign minister. I remember Zhelev saying, "Okay you young people, you are going to see the end of Communism." This was November 10. Several months later he became president of the country! At that time, we had the feeling that a year was being churned through every week. Also at this dinner at some point, when everyone was quite drunk, one historian started to sing God Bless the King, which was also quite prophetic, because as you know the king eventually came back and became prime minister.

It is difficult to reconstruct what we were thinking at that time because Bulgaria, more than other countries in Eastern Europe, was part of the Soviet debate. For example, at this moment, we were doing at lot of reading of the Soviet press about what was happening in the Soviet Union. In Poland there was much more of a focus on domestic politics, even before 1989. When the change started, especially after March 1990, Bulgaria basically cut itself off from this. As a result of this, we don't remember correctly what we were thinking back then because we basically believe now that we thought what we should have thought back then.

You were about 24 at the time. Given the fact that Communism was there as an implacable force, what did you imagine your personal trajectory would be leading up to 1989?

I had a very clear idea that my career would be university-related. I was coming from a family that didn't have any problem with the regime. From this point of view, I didn't fear that I wouldn't be allowed to do this or that. I had been publishing in samizdat, but even this was a tolerated dissidence. Basically I imagined being part of the cultural-academic circles that were complaining about what was going on but were still part of this milieu. Of course, a lot of things changed after 1990. A totally new public space emerged. We were also a very lucky generation. When this new space was opened, there were not so many people interested in dancing in it. Being young in this period was a major advantage. For me personally and my generation, this was an incredible opportunity. Overnight, what you were saying was perceived as important, and you had the feeling that you were part of making history. Compared with people who are 24 now, I don't believe that they have this opportunity open to them. I was really very lucky.

The first election in 1990 was a major shock to everyone associated with the opposition, particularly those living in the big cities like Sofia and Plovdiv. Did you anticipate that the opposition would lose?

No, I didn't. I was also in Sofia. At some point I realized that the situation was not exactly as we were imagining it. All of us in Sofia were basically the hostages of our own environment. I was never one of those who believed that the opposition was going to get 70 percent of the vote. But I believed that we would win the elections. But then about three weeks before the elections I went to the village where my family is from. The people there had already seen me on television, and they were very interested in talking about politics. There was an old relative of mine who had never been interested in anything political, had never been a Party member. Most probably his family had voted for the Agrarian party in the 1940s. He said, "I can't understand anything having to do with the opposition. For instance, this Zhelev, did he go to school paid by the Communists? What does he want?" Then you start to understand that it's not simply that these people are against the opposition. They just didn't really understand what was going on.

The night of the elections was a shock. I didn't know how to react. First, were the elections manipulated? Even if this was true, it was not the major explanation. Second, we had a divided nation, so we didn't have a consensus about the future, a consensus on the past, or a consensus even on the election results. Certain groups in the opposition were problematic for me because I believed that they were simplifying what was going on. It was a difficult year to figure out why certain people were doing what they were doing or saying what they were saying. Personal relations here also were very politicized.

Personally I was always putting a lot of effort into talking to people who had a different position. This became a passion of mine. I simply was intrigued. Even in the United States, when I was there before the recent elections, I could see that, like in Bulgaria in the 1990s, it was not easy to get Republicans and Democrats to watch the debates together.

In 1990, at the invitation of the French government, I went for four months to Paris. I had not travelled to the West before this. And I thought, "Is this real?" Then in 1991, I went to Oxford for a year, on one of the first fellowships. Oxford was already much more serious because I had to try to understand a culture that I didn't understand. It wasn't simply the language. I was back in Bulgaria for the presidential elections in 1992. I was coming from Oxford with certain ideas about what was going on and then I was back in reality! It was an extremely interesting period. Everything was possible. A colleague of mine once said that at this point you could say that you were a banker and people would give you money. You could say that you were a political commentator and people would listen to you. But no one asked you, "How do we know you're a banker or a political commentator?"

That opportunity was mostly available to people of a certain age. If you were over 60, you didn't have the capacity to reinvent yourself. But nevertheless, when I returned to Bulgaria in 1993 and certainly when I was there in the fall, that was not the sense I got from talking to people. When they talked about 1990, their primary point of reference was the lack of opportunity, except for the brief period of excitement. Instead, the way they framed it was in terms of manipulation. There were no possibilities because the game was rigged beforehand.

This is very typical. Basically Eastern Europe is divided into two. There were the countries in which people believe in the end that the transition was a success -- as in Poland where the majority of the people, no matter how critical they are, basically don't reject the transition. Then there are places like Hungary and Bulgaria where the transition is perceived as a total failure. Because of this total failure, people have started to rewrite everything that happened, including in their own personal life. Their story has become one of naiveté and being manipulated. People surrendered their subjectivity in the process. They came up with a conspiracy theory that everything was rigged and predictable. It was not. Strangely enough, in Bulgaria, it was even less than in other countries. The Communist Party was strong enough and self-confident enough, so that it actually was not planning what to do if it lost. The Party was not about to lose.

Second, any mistake or failure was explained in terms of somebody else's game. That created a mentality for which we are still paying. If Havel was talking about the power of the powerless, now it was about the frustration of the empowered. And if 1990 was very much about enthusiasm, then 1991 was very much about frustration at the election results. It was a major divide between the generations, between the big cities and the countryside. Also, this frustration ended in a radicalization that made the political center very weak in Bulgaria.

After this, the economy came back. In 1990-91, people were not talking very much about the economy. This is one of the games of transition. Those who perceived themselves as losers first appeared to have gained a lot out of it. The losers on the political stage at that time decided to go into the economy and make money -- not because they believed that this was more important, but this was basically where they could go. Compare, for instance, the careers and the life trajectories of the people working in the political police and the military intelligence. The political police was criminalized very early on, and those people were expelled from the system. So they used all their social capital, their contacts and so on, to make money, because this was the only available option for them. Even more, they had their moral story about becoming victims and being rejected by everyone. The military intelligence people, meanwhile, were not attacked. They stayed in their jobs and remained invisible and did nothing. Five or ten years later, when they decided to turn to the market, there was no place for them. This was the same group, the same intelligence community.
When the money came in, then came the second level of criminalization. If before people believed that they were weak and powerless because they couldn't promote themselves or their ideas, they next saw people getting rich and they didn't understand how that could happen. Economic success became totally criminalized. You can never explain to anybody that you have been lucky. The idea of luck is totally absent, which is typical of conspiratorial societies.

The second bad news of 1990 was that it prefigured the emigration of people abroad. The normal reaction of people after losing the election was: "Okay, if we cannot change the country, then I don't want to have anything to do with the country." This is a problem for a small country like Bulgaria because we are on the periphery of Europe. This is the exit-voice choice that Albert O. HIrschman wrote about. It's so difficult to change society and so easy to leave it that Bulgaria never had a critical mass of people who could make this change.

You spoke of divisions in society in terms of generations, between city and country. I've also seen it in terms of Western-leaning and nationalist-leaning. I've seen it not only in Bulgaria or Romania but also in Poland, which is held up as a success story -- in the debates around Smolensk, for instance. Have you seen any examples of political or social efforts that have been successful in bridging those gaps?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.