Bulgarians can talk at great length about what went wrong in 1989-90 and why the country didn't immediately become economically successful and politically liberal after the end of the Cold War. Some will tell you that the politicians didn't embrace the Western model quickly or thoroughly enough. Others will wax conspiratorial about secret Communist Party machinations.
Ognyan Minchev, a political scientist who heads up the independent think tank IRIS in Sofia, views the problem from a slightly different angle. Bulgaria's uncritical acceptance of an outside model, in his opinion, was the original sin that contaminated the transformation.
"My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for," Minchev argues. "We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment."
The result was a strange hybrid. On the outside, Bulgarian politicians and economists mouthed all the right phrases. On the inside, the Bulgarian system managed to preserve many elements of the previous order. And, meanwhile, this hybrid beast slouched toward Brussels.
"We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion's share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system," Minchev continues. "We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it's much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning."
I met Ognyan Minchev 23 years ago when he participated in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. On this occasion, we discussed Bulgarian nationalism, ethnic minority issues and the mistakes that were made more than two decades ago when Bulgaria faced several paths of transition.
Was there a point when you were growing up or in your early youth when you made a step in the direction of opposition to the government?
I was not happy with the government -- in my particular way, at all different stages in my youth development. I was unhappy at school as a teenager when they insisted that we all have haircuts close to the skin. We were unhappy with the limitations on listening to Western rock-and-roll music. Later on, my colleagues and I were unhappy with the more or less visible censorship at the university. At the university this censorship was much milder than elsewhere, but still it was present. It was possible to see this censorship and understand it in the lectures of our professors and in the communications among ourselves.
A turning point in my intellectual and value system development was when I was in Poland in August 1980. I was there for one month on a so-called student brigade. It was an exchange of students in all communist countries. We worked for three weeks as workers, and in the last week we had an excursion around Poland. It was the time actually when Solidarity was created. That was my first direct taste of freedom -- talking to ordinary people on the train and in the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. On my return, I tried to learn Polish better and read the Polish newspapers available in Sofia, even if they were also communist-censored. So, Poland of 1980 was the turning point of my so-called weltanschauung or picture of the world. From then on, whatever I could think or do or work for, I have not made significant changes in my viewpoints, at least not until the collapse of the regime in 1989.
And how did that change your viewpoint?
Until 1989, I had an explicit understanding of the system I was living in. I didn't have a detailed understanding of how the Western system worked. I had a more-or-less liberal-positive ideological understanding: a rosy picture of the Western system. It was rosy because it was abstract.
After 1989, I had access to the West for the first time. I could communicate with the West. I had free access to any publication I wanted to read. I traveled. I spent a year at UCLA. So my understanding of the world changed because of the substance and structure of this new life I could live.
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