by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarians are wary of anything from world politics to neighbours

Anyone wanting to stay in Bulgaria for longer, either professionally or for pleasure, will sooner or later end up in a meeting with a bunch of Bulgarians and will likely be befuddled by at least some of the local ways. No, I am not talking about the fine differences between the various brands of rakiya and why it should be taken as an aperitif, preferably with a Shopska. Helping yourself to copious amounts of the local liquor and doing it exactly as the locals do is easy to learn. So is the bemusing Bulgarian habit of nodding when you mean no and shaking your head when you are in agreement. These can be mastered hands down. There are many other attitudes in the Bulgarian psyche, however, that require a lot of insight and a lot of effort to understand.

Trouble is, you are not alone. Many Bulgarians, too, fail to understand what's happening around them, and why. Because their leaders never tell them the real reasons for things, and because to understand a simple piece of news you have to watch three different TV channels or go through five different Internet sites, the locals tend to be suspicious to anyone who comes up with anything out of the ordinary. In turn, this leads them into the parallel reality of a post-Communist world where nothing is what it seems, where the executioners' faces are always well hidden, and where a conversation you overhear in a tram appears to be more credible than what the prime minister is telling you from the TV screen.

What to do? Rule Number One is not to try find common sense explanations for things. They simply don't work as far as the Bulgarian mind frame is concerned. Best advice is to accept life in this country as it happens, and then, as time goes by – provided if you have been armed with a sufficient amount of patience, the real reasons may or may not dawn on you. The example of a bunch of sexagenarians bickering, in 2014, over why they lost the 1990 election is a case in point.

Here is an inexhaustive list of Bulgaria's suspicions – and their explanations.

SUSPICION OF DEMOCRACY. Until the end of 1989, Bulgaria used to be a very closed country. It was deemed to be the closest satellite of the Soviet Union, with everything that goes with that. There was little or no political opposition, there was little or no dissent. Bulgarians got along by going along. They may have been subject to shortages and were not allowed to travel abroad, but a quarter of a century after the collapse of Communism many of those, who have direct memories of Todor Zhivkov and his system, feel nostalgic about it.

Oddly, Bulgaria's Ostalgia is different from that of, say, the former East Germans. No one is missing a particular brand of state-produced pickled gherkins, nor the kind of mustard available in state-run shops. Nostalgia in Bulgaria is a lot more subtle, which makes it a lot more dicey.

Having spent 25 years in a "democracy," many Bulgarians have difficulties to accept the very idea of democracy without the quotes. Manifestations of this are visible in all areas of public and even private life in Bulgaria of 2014 – from politics to state administration, from the way you do your shopping in a corner store to the fashion in which ministries spend cash to develop their internet pages.

Like everybody else, Bulgarians tend to forget what's bad, but want to go on thinking that whatever good happened to them in the past will happen again. So, the majority will be prepared to cast aside major accomplishments such as the disbanding of the former secret police, the introduction of private property and the liberalisation of travel and focus on the fact that the main explanation for the mess Bulgaria was brought into at the end of the 2000s by its own, democratically elected politicians is mainly due to the country's subservience to the Ottoman Turks from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

The Bulgarians do not want a Constitution. They want someone who would violate it but would be shown constantly on TV cutting ribbons and inaugurating stretches of asphalted road.

SUSPICION OF ISLAM AND ESPECIALLY TURKEY. The period of Ottoman domination is represented in textbooks as an uninterrupted bout of slavery, savagery, rape and rivers of blood.

A timid report by the State Anti-Discrimination Commission recently about stereotypes in Bulgarian textbooks was met with huge opposition by many Bulgarians left, right and centre.

The fact almost 140 years after Bulgaria gained independence is that it is at the moment the only country in the EU that has a significant Muslim population that is not immigrant. Muslims in general and Turks in particular have been here for generations.

Bulgarians have trouble with this. Forget the examples of "traditional tolerance" your Bulgarian friends will try to thrust down your throat. Traditional tolerance may have existed at the turn of the 20th Century when Bulgar, Turk, Greek and Jew lived side by side. Do mention the Bulgarian Turks and the modern Republic of Turkey to your average cab driver in Sofia and you will get an outpour of hate speech that you will probably find very difficult to stomach. The Anti-Discrimination Commission has a lot of unfinished, and sometimes unbegun, work to do.


SUSPICION OF HISTORY. Bulgaria's major national heroes are all related to the struggle for independence in the mid- to late 19th Century. The Bulgarians have erected a closely-guarded pantheon of anti-Ottoman fighters. Access to it is prohibited even for Bulgarians.

Significantly, the individuals inside the National Heroes' Pantheon are usually quoted selectively. Sometimes even sentences are broken up to suit the political agenda of whoever does the quoting. Levski (1837-1873), who is usually the last (or first) resort of any Bulgarian politician, famously said that he favoured a "pristine and sacred republic." Few Bulgarians would want to remember the rest of the sentence: "in which all – Bulgarians, Turks and everyone else – would live in harmony."

Hristo Botev (1848-1876), a great poet but a failed revolutionary, is of course on the national curriculum, mainly with his lyrical poems. His scathing satire about his fellow Bulgarians, however, is rarely mentioned.

Had Botev and Levski lived in the Bulgaria of the 2010s they would have been given a very rough ride.

SUSPICION OF RICH PEOPLE. Before Communism, Bulgaria was famously described by the National Geographic magazine as a "country of peasants without a farm." After 1944, the Communists "collectivised" that farm. Their Marxist egalitarianism was forced upon willing victims. Bulgaria's Socialism was a society where no one really worked and everyone got just a pittance, but everyone voted "for" – to quote an old joke.

Capitalism arrived in these lands in 1990. But that was not the tempered capitalism of Britain, Germany and France, with its checks, balances and safety nets. That was the capitalism of semi-criminal elements, many of whom now had political power. Some got immensely rich whilst the majority of Bulgarians saw their lives' savings go down the drain of a handful of corrupt banks.

Logically, rich people, whom the media describe as "successful," are deeply unpopular. They have always been. Mention the manager of Russian oil giant LUKoil or the director of Unicredit Bulbank, and ordinary citizens will give you nothing but spite. These belong to the so-called "oligarchs." What is an oligarch? Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov defined the term as "rich people who would not have dinner with the prime minister."

Those, who do have dinner with him, do not qualify.

SUSPICION OF POOR PEOPLE. There is a good Bulgarian saying about poor Bulgarians: "A poor man is a living devil." It was made up by Bulgarians who also fear rich people (see above). The rest is self-explanatory. In the area of politics, some Bulgarians would actually prefer to elect rich people into parliament and so on. Their reasoning is simple: if they are rich, they are unlikely to want to steal a lot.

SUSPICION OF INTELLECTUALS. Anything remotely smacking of intellectualism is bound to be unpopular with ordinary Bulgarians. Chalga music, substandard soaps and the still new TV talkshow culture is de rigueur. Anything that requires further reading or a greater-than-usual mental effort will not go down well. Read the tabloid newspapers or watch television.

Bulgarians are fed up with intellectuals using quaint words to describe simple facts of life. Truth be told, some of the "intellectuals" in question are largely to blame. It has become part and parcel of Bulgarian culture to constantly whine about the "national predicament," and to seek to put the blame for it anywhere but on the Bulgarians themselves. Not very productive, and the majority of Bulgarians respond to it the only way they know: through rejection and condemnation.

In the 1980s, an American film producer who happened to know something about Bulgaria said (and I keep quoting him because his words still ring true 40 years later): "In America we are trying to tell sometimes very complicated stories in simple language. In Bulgaria, they are trying to do the opposite."


SUSPICION OF THE WEST IN GENERAL AND THE UNITED STATES IN PARTICULAR. Gone are the days when Bulgarians looked up to America as a beacon of democracy and as a would-be saviour from Communism. America did not deliver, in the view of many Bulgarians. Instead of the free and prosperous country that it should have become, Bulgaria now is on the verge of an economic and moral collapse – and the people who kept saying they were pro-Western are actually to be held responsible.

Curiously, Bulgaria is the only former East bloc country that has warm feelings to the USSR and the Russians. The Russians are viewed a lot more positively than the Americans in 2014 because they, not the Americans, are spending money on the Black Sea coast; because they, not the Americans, are buying holiday homes in Bansko; and because they, unlike the Americans, will not be leading us into a war with Iran. Ukraine is just a small detail.

SUSPICION OF THE MEDIA. Many media calling themselves media in Bulgaria are not really information outlets in the Western sense. Their opus vivendi is to promote the policies of their owners and associates rather than to "inform, educate and entertain." Cash and politics come first, the truth is secondary. What matters is to suit whoever is paying the bill.

The techniques being used to accomplish that are many and varied. Typically, bits of truth are being liberally interspersed with half-truths and plain lies. Add generous amounts of Balkan pepper, and what you get is the daily Bulgarian media diet. Sometimes you really need to be a seasoned media expert to understand what's going on.

Curiously, the response of many Bulgarians is sometimes one of trust. There is an old Bulgarian saying that there is never smoke without fire.

SUSPICION OF THE TRUTH. This comes after suspicion of the media. What if the media did tell you the truth? Likelihood is that it will hurt a lot more than fiction – and it will probably be a lot more grotesque.


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