interview by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Under the Soviet system, leaders exonerated themselves by speaking "in the name of the people". During the transition, they put the blame on the transition itself. Now their defence is the EU

Georgi Lozanov 2.jpg

Georgi Lozanov is Bulgaria's most prominent intellectual. A philosopher, a professor of mass communications in several universities, a former member of the Electronic Media Council, the incumbent editor-in-chief of a popular lifestyle monthly magazine, and an outspoken critic of the system, he is by Bulgarian standards the equivalent of Noam Chomsky, with a strong dash of the Wildean penchant for bons mots - no matter whether he is talking about the legacy of Communism, organised crime, the petty games played in the Bulgarian media or the best restaurants in Sofia. In an exclusive interview for Vagabond, Mr Lozanov divulges the subtle mechanisms governing Bulgarian society on the eve of the country's accession to the EU and looks at the people behind the headline grabbers in today's Bulgaria

Communism was formally overthrown in Bulgaria 17 years ago. What have been the biggest achievements and the biggest failures since then?

The changes are mainly regarding diversity everywhere, from public voices to the houses the people live in. Bulgarian society has turned from ideology to consumerism and from the boredom of the Communist existence to the scandal of life as depicted in the tabloids. The restrictive dictatorship gave way to the urge for pleasure. This is welcome, because finally speeches started with "I'd like to say" rather than "As Lenin teaches" or "As Comrade Zhivkov propounds". It is another matter entirely what post-Communist people wanted to say and did say to one another. The failures had been predestined by a paradox: the transition should have been a movement to the right, supposedly underwritten by a lot of capital, but in Bulgaria that capital turned out to be "Red". The Bulgarian Communist Party, cunning conspiratorial structure as it was, had begun, long before 1989, to take state funds out of the system it had run in order to privatise them by laundering them in some Western economy. It then brought the money back and started "Blue", or rightwing, capitalism with "Red" money. Thus we have capitalism only in terms of the social consequences for the poor. When it comes to values and cadres, however, it is Communism that wriggled out of history. At the start of the reforms it was inappropriate to mention its genealogical links to the old system. Now it is bon ton.

Are there free media in Bulgaria?

To some extent, yes - as long as freedom means choice. Readers, listeners and viewers have a right of choice, which the media have to provide for them if it is free. In Bulgaria we often see the opposite happen: the media rob the audience of choice by imposing their own preferences on them. The latest presidential election in October was a good example of this. Because the polls suggested one of the candidates had a significant lead, the media openly worked in his favour, following the logic that if he was to win anyway, it would be better to side with the champion from the start. I call this the perpetuum mobile of conformism.

Moreover, this candidate was the incumbent president (and former chairman of the Bulgarian Socialist Party) Georgi Parvanov, who was standing for a second term in office.

A mawkish story told on the eve of the second round of the election epitomised all the surrounding kitsch: Parvanov's mother said she'd seen a red rose (the symbol of the BSP) blossom in her yard, though it was late autumn. The episode reminded me that in Pyongyang the trees used to come into flower on the same date each April and that day was the birthday of leader and teacher Kim Il-Sung. Nature celebrated with the president because his lackeys would annually wrap each bud in a piece of cloth so that they could untie them at the right moment and make the miracle happen.

Parvanov's toadies, however, unintentionally reinforced his Communist foundations. His most ardent advocates criticised those who would not vote and suggested changes in the Constitution so that the president could have a third or even a fourth term and reign over us for decades. To put it in a nutshell, to the sound of horo and ruchenitsa, they created a new Todor Zhivkov - not from Pravets, but from Pernik.

Georgi Lozanov

Are there independent media in Bulgaria?

Unfortunately, I've long stopped believing in the independence of media at managerial level. The owners' actions, financial survival and so on are all being handled in a way that has little to do with independence. What does matter, however, is that the way the media are being managed is not evident on the printed page and does not have a direct influence on editorial policies. In this respect, standards of ethics in the media can be adhered to despite the various dependences. Paradoxically, if a medium is good, it is independent when communicating with its audience, irrespective of its dependences. The bad thing in Bulgaria is that many media are not only dependent, but seem to be proud of it.

Are there mechanisms to guarantee the freedom of expression in Bulgaria? What are they and how were they used in Ivo Indzhev's case? What was the result?

There is only one mechanism that works - industrial solidarity. It has always worked in cases of violation of freedom of expression. When leading journalists from the Bulgarian National Radio, or BNR, were fired by Zhan Videnov's Communist government in the 1990s, a civil forum called Free Speech was quickly established to defend them. When, during Ivan Kostov's rightwing government, a new BNR director was "elected" through political pressure, journalists went on strike, backed up by nearly all the media.

In the election campaign this year, freedom of speech experienced a crisis on a similar scale. As usual, the public media were "neutralised" with a law passed in advance; the politically active Radio New Europe, a successor to Radio Free Europe, was transformed into a music station. Before that, Georgi Koritarov, a journalist known for his critical attitude to the Interior Ministry and the BSP, was exposed as an informer for the former State Security. This was done not to make him resign, but rather to make him serve their "cause". One of the political programmes on bTV, "Seismograph", was practically converted into an entertainment show. And so on and so forth. Finally, journalist Ivo Indzhev was dismissed by the bTV management on what in effect were political grounds (probably the result of pressure), because he dared ask Parvanov the only critical question voiced on a popular medium during the entire campaign. He wanted to know if the president had received any favours because of his old-time links with the State Security.

The other media, however, did not react. They chose to embrace the safer interpretation that Indzhev himself was to blame, because in his question he had quoted an anonymous source. This was despite the fact that the Ethics Committee, established by the media themselves, had stated unequivocally that there had been no breach of professional standards.

The sad thing is that there is a kind of relaxation caused by the imminent accession to the EU. Civil energy decreases and this is used by the establishment, both the legal one and those secretly pulling the strings.

Do politicians put pressure on the media? Which of them do it and how? How do the media and the journalists react?

I think I've already partly answered this question with the Indzhev case, which concerns not only bTV, but the whole of society. The political successors to Communism, who are not only left-wing, learned from their "revolution" that they have to control everything, including the media. But journalists... well, there are a few ungovernable ones, but they feel played out.

With Igor Chipev, going out of the Stadion restaurant, a piece of history for the Sofia Bohemians, 1988, photo by Anthony Georgieff

With Igor Chipev, going out of the Stadion restaurant, a piece of history for the Sofia Bohemians, 1988, photo by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria is the only Eastern European country which has not opened its State Security files. Why?

This is an acute issue. It is related to the falsification of biographies throughout the transition, which has become one of the major instruments of power. In other Eastern European countries this process was limited because they had more prominent and authoritative dissidents and more authentic acts of anti-Communist heroism.

So, the answer is: Bulgaria is the only Eastern European country not to open its State Security archives because we didn't have our 1956 or 1968, or not even our 1989 revolution, the kind that we saw in Romania. Thus, everything became possible here. No one automatically qualified, by merit of their past actions or beliefs, to take on the new democratic roles, and, therefore, they remained open to anybody, including former agents and spies. What is more, there are persistent suspicions that, on foreseeing the new historical conditions, and predicting the changes to come, State Security created the rightwing opposition as an "active measure".

Even if this was not the case, the racket using State Security archives became common political practice, even for the rightwing. Thus, despite pathetic declarations, nobody was interested in opening the archives and chasing away the ghosts and vampires from our dark past with valour and a cross. So, we go on living in a historical horror movie, where any attractive looking public figure may at some point face the camera and reveal his long fangs.

What are we to find there?

People sometimes tell me "We've had enough of State Security tales, why are you still raking over the past?". "I'm merely raking over the present," I answer, "probably deeper than you want." Because these archives are the cryptograms of our modern lives, a thick and embarrassing volume of Who's Who in modern Bulgaria. Not that State Security had so many agents, but in a way we are all victims of the same terror. It began with the repressive organs of Communism and was transformed into the post-Communist extortion groups and the Mafia.

In your view, is there collective responsibility? Or collective guilt?

Of course not. We don't have to go back to Nietzsche, who said that morality can only be individual, to prove this. It is enough to point out that State Security used to fight against individuality, against the right to have your own opinion, to be different. Only after the archives are opened will the individual symbolically win over the group in Bulgaria. By the way, we now use the more agreeable word "team". But when I hear it, it inevitably smells like a gym changing room.

In front of the now demolished mausoleum of Communist 'Master' Georgi Dimitrov, Sofia, 1998, photo by Anthony Georgieff

In front of the now demolished mausoleum of Communist 'Master' Georgi Dimitrov, Sofia, 1998, photo by Anthony Georgieff

Is there personal responsibility? If so, can we measure it objectively? Is a stooge who spied on his colleagues equally as guilty as a stooge who never spied, but had become one to promote his career? Or as a stooge who was an active spy, but nobody was harmed as a result of his activities? These are important distinctions, but they can only be answered in a public debate about morality. There has not been such a debate and there won't be one as long as the State Security archives remain closed.

Because there is no "human material", everything remains in the area of slogans and falsifications. The Bible is a model of a moral story: the boundary between good and evil is exemplified with parables. Even the effort to identify these boundaries is a good deed.

Raycho Raykov, head of the Bulgarian Media Council, said that the BBC World Service broadcasts in English to the Sofia area would be shut down. Is this a formal act or is there another reason behind it?

It's not a formal act; it's an attempt to vest certain antiglobalist trends and opposition to foreign voices in legal form.

Back in the 1970s Vaclav Havel wrote a book entitled Living in Truth. Do the Bulgarians live in truth today?

Everybody has to take care of their own truths themselves. This is why I invited media people to join the Clear Voices initiative - personally ask for permission to read their own files in the State Security vaults and make them public. But less than half of those I invited actually agreed. The others probably do not understand Havel. Or simply have not read him.

If you could choose, when would you rather live: in the 1930s, 1970s or 2000s?

The 1930s were to see the beginning of the Second World War, which made everybody a lost generation (after all the atrocities in the middle of Europe, the Europeans lost trust in themselves); the 1970s was the age of Communism and a whole generation was sacrificed; at the beginning of the new millennium we do not talk about generations any longer and this is only right. You can have a drink not on history's account, but to history's credit.

Is there a mafia in the advertising business?

Yes. Every business today is more or less involved in advertising one way or another, so it is not so easy to identify the mafia there, as the responsibility goes to others. Coca-Cola, for example.

Does the advertising business have the media under control? How exactly?

There is neither an obvious result from advertising nor a calculable effect on the tiny, almost family-oriented Bulgarian market. So advertising remains a personal gesture which expects a reciprocal return.


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