TOLERANT PESSIMISTS

by Sonya Ninova

Bulgarians find current life unbearable and prefer GERB, but are becoming more open towards minorities

According to a public opinion survey on www.opendata.bg conducted by the Open Society Institute-Sofia, in May 2012, more than half of the Bulgarians consider the present conditions in the country "unbearable." A mere six percent say they feel satisfied. The pessimists who think the situation has deteriorated make up 13 percent, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 2011. This, however, does spell more happiness, but can be explained with the fact that a higher 32 percent of those interviewed say that in 2012 things are as bad as they were the previous year. Most content are citizens between 31 and 45 years who live in big cities, as well as those on a high income.

Respondents who say that they will vote for the ruling GERB party in the next election appear to be more positive about the future than those who support other parties. They approve of the policies of the government and see them as beneficial to their social and economic life. Supporters of the opposition BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, and the DPS, or Movement for Freedom and Rights, on the other hand, are the most negative and are least happy with Boyko Borisov.

The majority of the interviewees point to the health system, the job market, economic growth and monthly incomes as areas in urgent need of improvement. Their satisfaction is higher with the reforms in infrastructure, public order and transport.

The next general election is in 2013, but if it were in May 2012, GERB would still come out on top. The ruling party gets 41.8 percent of those who go to the ballot, according to the survey, while the BSP receives 31.6 percent and the DPS 5 percent. The third-largest party that would make it into parliament is Bulgaria for the Citizens, a newly-formed project of the former European commissioner Meglena Kuneva. It would get 10 percent. "The support for nationalist parties has decreased significantly," Marin Lesenski, a policy analyst of the European Policies Initiative at the OSI-Sofia, comments: "A few years ago Ataka was quite influential, but the 2012 survey shows that only 1.2% of the population were willing to vote for it, compared to 5.5 percent in 2008," he says.

A little over one third of those interviewed said that they had not been affected by the global economic crisis at all. The other two thirds point to low wages and unemployment as their gravest problems. These have been the worst results of the crisis. In May 2012, the average monthly household income per capita was 407 leva, a little over 200 euros, with the poverty line estimated to be at 200 leva, or 102 euros per month. That means that 19.5 percent of all households in Bulgaria are poor.

Bulgarians continue to be largely sceptical of some of the country's principle institutions. Only 12 percent and 14 percent trust the judiciary and parliament, respectively. Compared to 2011, the attitude towards GERB remains practically the same, with almost every fourth respondent answering that the current government has failed to reform any sphere of their life. Faith in President Rosen Plevneliev, however, appears to be growing, perhaps due to the fact that he only took up the post at the beginning of 2012. European institutions enjoy traditionally high levels of trust, although this shows a tendency to decrease. Over the last year, the number of those who believe in neither Bulgarian nor European institutions has risen.

An encouraging and perhaps somewhat surprising finding of the survey is that Bulgarians are gradually becoming more tolerant towards the country's ethnic minorities. More people say that they do not mind working alongside or having neighbours who belong to a minority group, including Gypsies. Gypsies, however, are still the least liked of all minorities. When asked to choose between working for an Arab, Chinese, Roma or Turk superior, only 31 percent of Bulgarians would accept a Gypsy boss. Turks are at the other end of the scale, as 46 percent of Bulgarians would work for a Turkish superior. The levels of tolerance have also risen compared to previous years, and Gypsy colleagues are accepted by 44 percent of the respondents and Turks by 62 percent. In 2008, the numbers were respectively 29 and 38 percent.

"This change of attitude could be due to a range of factors. One of the first reasons that comes to mind is the impact of Turkish soap operas being shown on Bulgarian TV," Lessenski says. "Still, if that was the only force at play, people would have been more tolerant specifically towards the Turkish minority, and the survey clearly shows that that is not the case. It is a lot more encompassing, ethnic tolerance is increasing as a whole. Bulgaria's accession to the EU is of great importance, too. It is called peer pressure – when members of the union pride themselves on honouring tolerance, Bulgarians cannot just continue to be xenophobes," Lessenski adds.

Bulgarians, however, remain widely disapproving of mixed marriages. Only 11.6 percent say they would marry or let their children marry a Roma. Turks are again the most liked; 20 percent of Bulgarians would allow a Turk into the family. "Bulgarians have made progress, but prejudice and xenophobic acts are still evident. Social gaps remain wide and Bulgarians still have a long way to go," Lessenski says. Young people between 18 and 30 years of age are the most accepting and, unless some unforeseen event overturns the current tendency, Bulgarians are expected to become even more tolerant in the future.

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