- Title: BULGARIA: Twenty years on Bulgarians pine for socialist era safety
- Date: 10th November 2009
- Summary: SOFIA, BULGARIA (RECENT) (REUTERS) SOCIOLOGIST FROM ALPHA RESEARCH AGENCY, BORIANA DIMITROVA, BEHIND COMPUTER HANDS TYPING ON KEYBOARD (SOUNDBITE) (Bulgarian) SOCIOLOGIST FROM ALPHA RESEARCH AGENCY, BORIANA DIMITROVA, SAYING "One of the reasons for the nostalgia feelings is the inefficiencies of institutions. Yes, the institutions were repressive during communism, but many people would say: "At least there was law and order then." PRAVETS, BULGARIA (RECENT) (REUTERS) (SOUNDBITE) (Bulgarian) LOCAL VILLAGER, PEKA GUNINSKA, SAYING: "There is no law, my child, there is no order, there is nothing left. I am old and finished, but I am worried for the young." SOFIA, BULGARIA (RECENT) (REUTERS) PAINTER NIKOLA MANEV TALKING TO ADMIRER (SOUNDBITE) (Bulgarian) PAINTER NIKOLA MANEV, SAYING: "Bulgaria is losing its identity, unfortunately, it is becoming Americanised." MANEV'S PAINTING (SOUNDBITE) (Bulgarian) PAINTER NIKOLA MANEV, SAYING: "Looking on the surface, I see new buildings, shops, shiny cars. But people have become sadder, more aggressive and even unhappy, I would say." PRAVETS, BULGARIA (RECENT) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF MONUMENT OF ZHIVKOV OLDER COUPLE SITTING AT BENCH NEAR MONUMENT
- Embargoed: 25th November 2009 12:00
- Location: Bulgaria
- Country: Bulgaria
- Topics: Domestic Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA9D8685UGJUII0QYATLQT46YKL
- Story Text: In the dense forests of the idyllic Danube island of Persin, home to the endangered sea eagle and the pygmy cormorant, lie the ghastly remains of a communist-era death camp.
Hundreds "enemies of the regime" perished from beatings, malnutrition and exhaustion in 1949-59 in Bulgaria's Belene concentration camp, where dead bodies were fed to pigs.
Twenty years after the fall of communism, Belene is largely forgotten -- only a small marble plaque tells its horrific story. And nostalgia for the past is growing in the small Balkan country Capitalism's failure to lift living standards, impose the rule of law and tame flourishing corruption and nepotism have given way to fond memories of the times when the jobless rate was zero, food was cheap and social safety was high.
"Yes, the bad things have been forgotten," said 42-year old Rumen Petkov, a former guard who is now a clerk at the only still functioning prison on the Persin island.
"The nostalgia is palpable, particularly among the elderly," he said, in front of the crumbling buildings of another old jail opened on the site after the camp was shut in 1959. The communists imprisoned dozens of ethnic Turks here in the 1980s when they refused to change their names to Bulgarian.
"We are going down to mud, unemployment beats us. There is no light ahead," says 69-year old Luben Petkov, while sitting on his donkey cart.
Some young people in the impoverished town of Belene, linked to the island with a pontoon bridge, also reminisce, saying they had better lives in the past.
"We went on holidays to the coast and the mountains, there were plenty of clothes, shoes, food," said 31-year old Anelia Beeva , adding that today, even people with university degrees are unemployed.
Across former communist eastern Europe, disenchantment with democracy is widespread and mistrust in the elites, who made people citizens of the European Union, is staggering, pollsters say.
A September regional poll by U.S. Pew research centre showed support for democracy and capitalism has seen the biggest fall in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Hungary.
The poll showed 30 percent of Ukrainians approved of the change to democracy in 2009, down from 72 percent in 1991. In Bulgaria and Lithuania the slide was to just over half the population from nearer three-quarters in 1991.
Surveys by U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House, show backsliding or stagnation in corruption, governance, independent media and civil society in the new EU member states.
The global economic crisis, which has wounded the region and put an end to 6-7 years of booming growth, is now challenging the remedy of neoliberal capitalism prescribed by the West.
Hopes of catching up with the wealthy Western neighbours have been replaced by a sense of injustice because of a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
In Bulgaria, the 35-year rule of the late dictator Todor Zhivkov begins to look like golden era to some in comparison with the raging corruption and crime that followed his demise.
"We have built our houses, hospitals opened - for free. The children studied in various schools, people lived happier lives, it was a second Golden Age after Tsar Simeon's," said 85-year old Peka Guninska, a local villager.
"It is a bad life now. The people divided by class, this is not a life at all, my child," she added.
Over 60 percent say they lived better in the past, even though shopping queues were routine, connections were a must to obtain more valuable goods, jeans and Coca Cola were off limits and it took up to 10 years of waiting to buy a car.
"For part of the Bulgarians (social) security turned out to be more precious than freedom," wrote historians Andrei Pantev and Bozhidar Gavrilov in their book on the 100 most influential people in the Balkan country's history.
After two decades of patchy, painful reforms, the majority of people refuse to make more sacrifices, as would be needed to complete a revamp of the economy and the judiciary.
Demoralisation and mounting popularity of political parties promising "a firm hand" are other consequences.
Not without a reason.
Oligarchs, who control entire sectors of the Bulgarian economy, have emerged from the former communist party's ranks and its feared secret services.
The names of corrupt politicians and crime bosses are an open secret, but Sofia has not convicted a single senior official of graft and has jailed only one gang boss since 1989.
No one has been convicted for the communist repressions.
Some of the most popular words among ordinary Bulgarians are "dalavera", a Turkish word meaning fraud, "mutri", a nickname for ugly-faced mafiosos and "mente", which means counterfeit products.
Boriana Dimitrova of Bulgarian polling agency Alpha Research says people are losing faith that they can achieve success in an honest, decent way.
"One of the reasons for the nostalgia feelings is the inefficiencies of institutions. Yes, the institutions were repressive during communism, but many people would say: "At least there was law and order then," she said.
"There is no law, my child, there is no order, there is nothing left. I am old and finished, but I am worried for the young." says Guninska at a square, named "Todor Zhivkov".
On one front at least, some Bulgarians say, their country has been successful in catching up with and even outstripping capitalist standards -- the thirst for materialism.
A big chunk of the loans taken in the boom years were spent on fancy cars and yachts, flat TV screens, designer clothes, silicon surgeries and exotic trips abroad.
Copying foreign standards went as far as giving babies Western names and flooding TV screens with reality shows like "Big Brother".
"Bulgaria is losing its identity, unfortunately, it is becoming Americanised" said renowned Bulgarian artist, Nikola Manev, who lives in Paris.
"Looking on the surface, I see new buildings, shops, shiny cars. But people have become sadder, more aggressive and even unhappy, I would say," he added.
Nearly three years after joining the EU, Bulgaria's average monthly salary of about 300 euros and pension of about 80 euros remain the lowest in the club. Incomes in the more affluent Poland and the Czech Republic, which joined the bloc in 2004, are also still a fraction of those in western Europe.
A 2008 global survey by Gallup ranked Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania among the 10 most discontented countries in the world.
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