Why do I live in Bulgaria?

In June 1991 completely unexpectedly, came to visit Sofia at the request of a very dynamic Bulgarian academic. I expected to stay a week and then get back to my “field” of development policy. Clearly the association didn’t end with my flight out of what was still the People’s Republic of Bulgaria at the end of that week, otherwise I would not be writing this article. It has been a “generation” since my first visit, and this seems like a good time to get some perspective on how things have changed and why. In every interview I give almost inevitably the first question is “Why did you come to live in Bulgaria?” This is often accompanied by an intonation of some incredulity since two million Bulgarians have emigrated since I first set foot here (and the population was around nine million). So, I really need to take stock of why do I live in Bulgaria?

The last time I was asked that was at U.S. Immigration in Chicago, and my answer came quickly and easily: “That’s where my friends are.” But, there is more to it than that, though I confess this is the primary reason. First of all, I must make it clear that I did not come here with some romantic notion to be the “English Neighbour” buying up rustic homes in one of the many dying villages; nor did I rush to snatch-up property on the Black Sea. However, I am old enough to remember the Black Sea coast before tourism eliminated much of its natural charm, and I am grateful that I had that opportunity.
So, what was my reason for this unanticipated visit one year after the Berlin Wall was opened and then fell down? Like many things in life it was totally serendipitous and happened on the Regency elegance of the City of Bath, on a bridge to be precise. A supercharged lady with bright red hair had attended a speech I gave in which I spoke about my vocation, which was creating universities and departments in many countries. “We”, she declaimed, “are creating the first democratic university in my country to produce those educated citizens that Plato valued so much.” The excitement in her voice was infectious and there and then she talked me into paying a visit to help them with my perspective on their ideas, and how a “western university” was structured and funded. Actually, I did not, at that moment, know where she was from, and when she mentioned Bulgaria, a completely blank screen dropped down in my mind. The journal Foreign Affairs had recently called it “The Last Unknown Place.” So, I was in good company.
The mission, then, was to sit down with the creators of the New Bulgarian University (NBU), and comment on their ideas from my own experience of the academic world both scholastically and with respect to more practical matters—such as “how do you fund a ‘private’ university?” Twenty-five years on I am a Distinguished Professor at the NBU, so clearly something worked. It was hard to make comparisons for the Bulgarian scholars at first since my own Indiana University had 95,000 students and a budget of $3 billion. The NBU, I discovered on Day 1, did not actually exist but occupied some rooms in the museum-apartment of Angel Karaliychev on Tolbuhin Street. But, I was closeted with some of the smartest brains I had encountered, and more hope and enthusiasm than I had, I think, ever seen. There was a tendency to take “The West” as a model without sufficient regard for historical provenance that had created a very special set of problems for Bulgaria (and most of the former “Soviet Bloc” states.) I will talk about some of this below, but I well-remember the remark by Professor Toma Tomov who said that we should “teach an understanding of psychosis because that’s what we have right here and now.”
Once in the grips of this extraordinary “design a university” challenge I was hooked because they had all the right ideas—many of which I had seen eroded in the “West” as higher education became money/consumer driven rather than imparting what that “Responsible Citizen” of Plato needed in an informed democracy. The Liberal Arts are key to this, and fundamental, I was delighted to see, to the teaching of the NBU. However, in the dark rooms of this nascent, but yet unborn, child of the new age in Bulgaria, an organisation was born which has flourished in a way I would never have imagined.
The week-long visit grew into a second one with some colleagues from other disciplines, and then into a Fulbright Scholar award in 1992 which gave me the opportunity to be in Sofia for several months. During that time I was able to witness the legitimate birth of the university by act of the National Assembly. At the same time, older Bulgarians will remember the year 1992 as traumatic, as the country did not seem to be transitioning but collapsing into chaos. People wondered whether this was a fall into chaos as unemployment, inflation, the collapse of the real value of pensions, and even a threat that there were no finances to pay for the fuel to heat Sofia through the winter.
I came back most years after that to teach a course or two, and they included 1997, which really did look like the apocalypse—long lines stretching outside the mostly-Russian banks on Tsar-Liberator Street where people were trying to rescue their savings from collapse and theft. The lev was inflating itself out of existence, and between 1992 and 1997 the great wave of emigration began ultimately stripping away by 2015 around two million people to seek jobs overseas.
I mention these two crisis years for a reason. When I launched my book "To Sofia and Back" in Sofia in 2004 (recounting that year of 1992), and elderly man stood up at the back of the room and introduced himself as an Akademik (member of the Academy of Sciences) and addressed his comments to the younger people in the room, including quite a few high-school children. “Before you all pack up and leave for foreign parts, you should read this book and see what your parents and the rest of us went through in those terrible years. We have made great progress since then and we need you to continue this”, he said with some emotion. I realized that this perspective was true—notwithstanding that this was still one of the poorest countries in Europe. His comments were delivered during the great boom that later crashed throughout Europe in 2008. So there was considerable impetus to leave as jobs were plentiful, and the gap between Bulgaria and Western and Southern Europe was very marked.
There is a strong streak of pessimism in the Bulgarian genome that I came to recognize, and this man caught the moment for me. Stop dwelling on how bad it is, and dwell on how you can make it better. That had, of course, been the intention—or one of the principal intentions—in creating the NBU: a new generation for a new system. However, old ideas died hard and change was a difficult process as the same people who were running the old system—like the civil service for instance—were still there now running the new one—now apparently dedicated to “delivering the fruits of democracy and a market economy.” The fox in charge of the henhouse is what it really looked like. When I asked my students what were their career ambitions they said “emigrate.” I pointed out that “emigrate” is not a career. They countered with “we won’t have a career if we don’t emigrate.” I will deal with this below because it is the country’s most serious problem—though I am not going to dwell on problems; better we look at how to address and change them. Time is running out on that one and it didn’t help that Bulgaria joined the EU precisely at the moment when the boom crashed and the recession-depression took over and is still with us, especially in the Euro Zone (to which Bulgaria is tied). If I didn’t believe in the extraordinary talent, character, originality and sense of, and pride in, their identity that got the Bulgarians through 500 years of the Ottoman Empire, I would not have returned annually and eventually settled here.
I thought I would give my view of the problems first so that we can end on a positive note addressing how they can be turned into opportunities and what it would take to make this happen.

A subjective view of the Problems

A Lack of Confidence:
I mentioned this attitude of “hopelessness” especially among the educated and ambitious young people who represent the future. This has to be turned around, and we shall, eventually, look at how. Recently nine-tenths of the graduating Bulgarian doctors left the country, and a large proportion of other graduates and even high-school leavers do the same. The better-qualified the students are, the more likely it is that they leave. Often this is for higher education, but the majority tend to stay outside this country to build their careers. This leaves a population that is increasingly skewed toward the elderly, many of them pensioners, who in turn raise the tax burden they represent, at a time when the future tax payers are headed for the airport. Bulgaria needs a growing younger work force to pay those bills by taxes not remittances. The trend is accentuated by the very low birth rate in the country—perhaps also related to uncertainty. This portends a dramatic further drop in the population as the aging population dies off, not to be replaced. The level of foreign direct investment is exceedingly small and that compromises the future too.
The young and investment are the future. Entry into the EU has made this out-migration logistically much easier despite the high level of unemployment existing in many EU countries since the recession. The health service of the UK regularly comes here fishing for medical staff of all descriptions to fill their gaps at much-higher salaries than can ever be expected here. It is a wrench for many of these people to leave because they have family here and because they love this country. This exodus needs fixing radically. We need to eradicate the word “hopeless” from the Bulgarian lexicon. We have to accept that, for those with skills, and during the boom, for many without, the income gradient within the EU makes emigration attractive to those from its poorest member country (though this is also affecting other countries in much greater numbers, such as Romania). But there are ways of approaching this. It is not inevitable. The same thing, by the way, affects the Irish Republic which is experiencing huge numbers of emigrants approaching those seen after the potato famine of 1848.

Geographical Isolation:
The physical position of Bulgaria within the EU is very peripheral, it being the south-eastern extremity, far from the power-houses of the UK, France and Germany. Even though the EU is “borderless,” out of sight can still mean out of mind. This is something that has bedevilled Bulgarian history for centuries: it has been the north-western extremity of the Ottoman Empire; the south-eastern extremity of the Central/Axis powers; the south-western extremity of the Soviet Bloc/Warsaw Pact, and now, as mentioned, the south-eastern extremity of the EU. How do we deal with this issue of remoteness? It does not have to be the Last Unknown Place.

This is often forgotten, but it is, I believe, critical. Just over a year ago there was a fierce debate raging in the UK about the lifting of the seven-year restrictions on movement from Bulgaria and Romania into that country after their accession to the EU in 2007. The UK was represented in Parliament and the press as facing a “tidal wave of immigrants” from these two relatively poor countries in January 2014. Presenting these countries as a “threat” did not help the image of Bulgaria at all. It was, however, compounded by a general melding of the Bulgaria/Romania question with that of the Roma people. Prior to this “scare”, in my opinion, Bulgarians in general were “invisible” and my colleagues in the UK could not name one, or count one among their friends and colleagues. At the height of the debate the deputy-leader of the right-wing nationalist UKIP party was challenged to visit Bulgaria by a Bulgarian student in the UK, rather than just pontificating about a country and people he did not know. He rose to the challenge and was filmed in Sofia in a Roma settlement reinforcing the image that was appearing in the British press about Bulgarians (Gypsies) exploiting the social-benefit program and organising groups of children as pick-pockets on the London Underground. Nothing substantial was done to counteract this image and people still remember it, even though the tidal wave of Bulgarians and Romanians never materialised. The French press has had an ongoing battle between French values and the “camps” of Bulgarian Gypsies that are frequently destroyed by the police and local authorities. One of my Bulgarian students went to Scandinavia and some people were astonished to find out he was Bulgarian because he was “white!” This requires work.

Accentuate the Positive: or, why I live here — really.

The National Character:
When I came on my first Fulbright scholarship in 1992 I had the opportunity to visit other parts of the Balkans—mainly in the Western part. I saw the aftermath of inter-ethnic strife in and around Mostar, and in Zagreb you could take a bus “to the war.” Later I went to Kosovo; it was a nightmare. In sharp contrast to this Bulgaria, with significant Pomaki (Islamic ethnic Bulgarians), Turkish and Roma minorities has never experienced this strife between communities. There are some problems but nothing such as we have seen on the rest of the Peninsula in terms of ethnic cleansing and destruction of property. This reflects well on the Bulgarian character, as did the refusal to send Bulgarian Jews to Nazi camps during WW2, when it was allied to the Axis powers. Maybe the reason that so many people have little or no impression of Bulgaria in the West is because it never make the news with ethnic-cleansing, massacres of ethnic minorities and destroyed homes and villages. News often makes you known for all the wrong reasons. Furthermore, when Macedonia announced its independence, Bulgaria recognised it immediately, and renounced all its territorial claims—despite having occupied the area three times in that century and having a strong affinity with the Macedonian culture and language. This represented a maturity and understanding that reflected well on the young Bulgarian government. When there were serious disputes between the Bulgarian people and the government of the time, even where huge numbers were involved in Sofia, people came to the demonstrations with their children. In other parts of the Balkans such differences often turn violent and confrontational—but not here. And in the two most-significant cases, a change of government eventually resulted. Every government change in Bulgaria has been the result of the electoral process—but who, in the rest of Europe knows any of this?

Working for Change:
I am fortunate to work for an institution what is dedicated to the “New Bulgaria”, as its name suggests. So I get to see the younger generation and realise what potential there really is here if we can hold on to, and harness, it. I don’t want my efforts to be subsidising the development of the advanced parts of Western Europe and the USA. I want my students to be part of building that elusive New Bulgaria.

The Social Bond:
I was having a conversation with my wife, who lives in Colorado, on the No. 7 tram—which is my lifeline. I noticed a boy of about seven get on complete with rucksack, clearly coming home from school. He got out at Motopista when we did and set off walking confidently in front of us. I remarked to my wife that you would never see that in the USA, and she agreed. When people trust society enough to allow children of that age to travel to and from school unaccompanied you know you are in a strong society. It means nothing to Bulgarians because they see it every day. But there are not many places outside this country where you can still see such a thing. When I stop seeing this, maybe I will leave because Bulgaria has become like everywhere else. The small restaurant in my area is always packed with families at all hours of the evening, and friends and colleagues during the day. Parents buy apartments for their children and émigrés send remittances to their elders. They do not put parents in “retirement homes” but look after them. I have eleven times more friends on my mobile phone here than I ever had in the USA. Back in 2006 the Washington Post reported on a survey that showed that the average American had two real friends. Bulgarians would find this ridiculous.

The Potential

Human Capital:
It is essential, for survival and a future, that Bulgaria creates the opportunities to hold the skilled, younger population in place and entice émigrés back. In the IT sector, for instance, Bulgaria has made some success in hosting Microsoft, HP and others, who pay much-better salaries than are normal in this country. This has retained some bright young people and it builds on an earlier tradition of computers and IT skills that Bulgaria held in the Soviet space endeavours—though much of this human capital was poached away to America during the 1990's. One example that comes to mind on retaining human capital is “medical tourism.” Taking advantage of skilled doctors, medical education and support staff, this country can offer internationally competitive quality medical treatment at a fraction of the cost in richer countries. A facility like the Tokuda Hospital in Sofia demonstrates this, though its audience is not really international yet as far as I know. My wife, for instance, who is one-hundred per-cent American, comes to Sofia for medical check-ups and treatment and is thoroughly impressed at the quality—both human and medical—of those providing the treatment at a small fraction of the price she would pay for the same thing in the USA. This came as “a surprise” to her because, like most outsiders, she drew a blank on the word “Bulgaria”. If you consider, as another example, the case of In-Vitro Fertilization, precisely the same treatment can be delivered here in modern surroundings for €2,000 that costs $25,000-30,000 in the USA. But, nobody knows about it, or about Bulgaria for that matter and don’t want to “risk it”—something we shall come to. If this market was explored and tapped, and a competitive pricing structure evolved for foreigners, doctors could greatly improve their prospects without thinking of emigration as their one chance of getting on. Clearly this is an “Image Problem” and only aggressive marketing can overcome it. This could be linked in with dentistry and ocular treatment, which I have found to be easily as good, or better, than what I have received elsewhere. But, this requires funding to equip and re-equip facilities, make these services known, provide reasonable accommodation for persons accompanying the patients etc. Another example is the Narrow-Gauge Railway that runs from Septemvri to Dobrinishte. Bulgarian Railways is perennially looking at closing that down because it does not “pay its way”. Though well-used this train charges a very low price (by international standards) but within the range of what most of its present customers can afford. This track passes through spectacular scenery where the Thracian Plains pass into the Rhodope Mountains and beyond. It links the spa city of Velingrad, the bear sanctuary of Belitsa, the ski resort of Bansko and the mineral water baths and ski slopes of Dobrinishte. Upgraded carriages could be added to the train, not to penalize the existing passengers, and stop-over tourist packages sold along the way. There are literally millions of train enthusiasts in Europe and the USA and Septemvri is easily reached from Plovdiv—a deserved tourist attraction selected as a European Cultural Capital for 2019 and which is recognised as Europe’s oldest city. India has done this with the Himalayan Mountain Railways which attract well over a million tourists per annum. We have already lost the other two Narrow-Gauge railways, and now we look like losing the last. It requires authorities to think in terms of potential not existing costs. Coincidentally, the very day I wrote this comment on the Narrow-Gauge Railway, which I chose not to delete, it was announced that this perennial threat of closure has been withdrawn and an agreement has been struck with the Swiss to revitalise the system. This is very encouraging and, I hope, represents a positive approach to developing the country’s assets rather than abandoning them. Perhaps this turn around was a result of a petition signed by thousands of local people and the remarkable exertions of a nineteen-year old boy from the region writing to the Prime Minister after the Railway administration totally ignored his earlier letters.

Land Resources:
The transition period struck an almost fatal blow at the agricultural sector, reducing production, at one point, to ten per-cent of what it had been in Communist times. Restitution dispossessed many of those who knew how to use the land and put it into the possession of those who often knew nothing about agriculture or left the farmers without land as the process dragged on for ever after the cooperatives were closed down. One of my students from Sofia inherited a large block of land in the Dobrudja, where she had never been. Villages started to die. Traditionally, farmers in Bulgaria lived in villages and not on their farms as in England. Under Communism the land was consolidated around the villages and the people organised into “cooperative farms” with a tiny amount of personal land. These (Labour Cooperative Agricultural Unions) collapsed, closed and were thoroughly vandalized with the fall of Communism. It is estimated that 2,000 of the villages (which, not farms, represent agriculture in Bulgaria) are now below fifty people or more-or-less abandoned and about 160 are depopulated completely. Sofia started to grow like topsy. There is little chance that these villages can be revived, but the abandoned land is surely an asset that could be resuscitated by modernization, possibly by Israeli or Chinese investors who have succeeded in these types of ventures elsewhere.

The Geographical Factor:
In some “past times” Bulgaria was not “on the edge” but in the middle of the action—in the Roman Empire for instance. Constantine loved the place. Even during the dark days of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria was the entrepôt between Constantinople and, particularly, the Danube and Vienna. Many Bulgarians flourished and grew rich during this time leaving us architectural gems such as Koprivshtitsa, Kotel and Plovdiv. To the southeast of this country lies the dynamo of Turkey and the great energy resources of the Caspian Basin. Bulgaria fostered close relations with Azerbaijan and, for a time, it looked as though the Nabucco Project was going to revitalise the Europe-Asia Bridge that was Bulgaria. That collapsed despite all the efforts that this country put into the venture, and that oil and gas will benefit Turkey, Greece and Albania now on its way to Italy. There is still a great nervousness here about Turkey stretching back into history, but Bulgaria is the gateway for the Near East into the EU, and perhaps it would be good to think along those lines. So many people have expressed a fear to me about Turks and Russians (350,000 of the latter have already acquired Bulgarian property) coming here and “buying up land” etc. If no-one else is going to make it productive, why not? History should not determine the future.
The reality is that Bulgaria is Europe’s most strategic and potentially its most dangerous frontier, whether due to: (a) its critical position relative to Russian and Caspian energy sources and influence through these sources; (b) it being the de facto line between Europe and the Islamic World; (c) its very sensitive position as a crossing point for illegal immigrants, entering the EU (>38,500 last year). A substantial proportion of these immigrants are from Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan; and (d) the associated risk of being a transit point for people with links to the Jihadist movement—which threatens all of Europe—crossing through Bulgaria via Turkey to Syria and vice versa. We have seen in January 2015 high-level visits from the USA, the UK and NATO often stressing these points and asking Bulgaria to “spend more” in reinforcing its critical bridge position. This requires resources Bulgaria doesn’t have and so such requests must be accompanied by real assistance coming from those who now recognise Bulgaria’s strategic importance. If Bulgaria is the weakest point and the crisis is already here, there isn’t time for sending experts, technical material and funding the training of Bulgaria’s specialists in that field. As the threat is knocking on Europe’s door, the obvious solution is to send experienced specialist personnel to assist directly. But, at least Europe and NATO have suddenly woken-up to how critical Bulgaria’s geopolitical position really is. Now let’s see what are they prepared to do.

While the government of Bulgaria is selected according to democratic principles there still are problems. As the EU consistently points out there are grave weaknesses in the judicial system that make foreign investors wary and the threat of organized crime is still not under control. The recent breath-taking clean-out of billions of lev from the Corporative Trade Bank is a good example of the inadequacy of oversight of key economic functions. Sadly, many Bulgarians expect people to get away with these enormous crimes against the people. Calls for reform are never thoroughly and effectively implemented. The bureaucracy in general is slow and often obstructive. This may be why direct foreign investment is so tragically small—almost invisible in fact. In the political arena the parties are divided into competing interest groups that exercise power beyond their size because of the need to include them into endless uncomfortable, and sometimes non-functioning, coalitions. At a time when real vision is needed, it can never come out of these unhappy alliances, which is why governments come and go with remarkable frequency, the people are out in the streets, and people are giving-up on the system (another example of the “hopeless” syndrome). If only there was some possibility of a Government of National Unity to regain the confidence of the EU and the people and turn the country around. As things drift there is a tendency for the “nostalgia” effect to surface (a return to the old days before 1988/9, when there was no unemployment, prices were stable, pensions were worth something...), or a tendency to turn to the Far-Right, which is gaining ground all over Europe putting “patriotism” at the helm, or simply to throw up one’s hands and say, yes, it’s “hopeless—the same thing going round and round but going nowhere”. This is what comes back to me in conversations anyway.

The “Image Thing”:
This is a term coined by the first President Bush, and it really applies here I feel. The Foreign Service, the Ministry of Culture etc. should embark on a coordinated image-building campaign to reveal to the “rest of the West” what this country and its people are about. The budget of the Diplomatic Service, as it stands now, makes this impossible. Profiles of “successful” (but honest) Bulgarians should be promoted simply to show that the species exists. Particularly, this applies right here at home to show young, bright people that you can succeed here. However they need to see that they are wanted, supported and financed. Part of the “image thing” is marketing—to my mind one of the weakest of all the skills in the country. Of course, during Communist times it did not exist since the economy was run on the Gosplan model in which supply and demand were not connected, prices were imaginary and competition was extinct. I know of several Bulgarian entrepreneurs who make an excellent product, but have no concept of how to sell these things. This skill must be emphasised and taught since it was extinct for a half-century, and then this must be pushed aggressively at home and abroad.

Bringing Them Back:
Having lost 1.5 to 2 million nationals to other countries what are the chances of bringing them back? Certainly not until they see some vision, some action and some financial resources here. This is going to be particularly difficult in such a poor economy, but if the model was evolved, the politics was behind it and the “vision” apparent, then I think the typical Bulgarian’s love of this country would work to reverse the flow. I honestly believe that the typical émigré would be happier here than where they are if the opportunities exist. Of course the Euro is in crisis, though Bulgaria is not in the terrible debt situation of Greece, Ireland, Italy, etc. Debt, however, is acceptable if it is devoted to real investment—like medical tourism, image-building etc., because it pays for itself eventually. Debt to pay for a rapidly aging population is not going to yield any returns. Tax has to do that, and without a serious turn-around in the economy, the tax base will become increasingly inadequate. At the end of the nineteenth, the start of the last century and, especially after Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia were united in 1885, there was a huge rise in the national spirit and the country had “A Vision”—where it wanted to be and what to achieve. In that period many bright Bulgarian studied in the West, but most of them returned to Bulgaria, as their sense of personal mission was very strong (Geo Milev is a prime example of this). You could see then teachers with degrees from the Sorbonne, from German, Italian, British and other western Universities. They were to be found teaching in small towns or even rural villages—they were proud of that… and they were very much respected.
The same trend was demonstrated when the Balkan Wars started… A lot of emigrants to America returned to join the army. After the USSR forcibly intruded its communism here—the full desperation took hold, and hasn’t entirely left after that.
This all sounds like an impossible dream to many, I know. But, I don’t see any alternative if this country is not to decline rapidly in the number of its citizens (it already has the record for the most extreme population decline in the world!!!) and the stagnation of its economic system. There is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the “hopelessness” argument. If skilled, young people leave because they believe this, then the situation will really become increasingly “hopeless”, as they will not be here to turn it around. Furthermore, the country will not turn around on remittances, as these are, as we noted, to provide supplementary basic resources for the elderly, not to invest in the country. From where will this inspiration come? Increasing frustration on the part of the citizen-voter may move the country in this direction as a result of frustration—as evidenced by the call by demonstrators for the convening of a “Grand Parliament”, as only this way the Constitution can be changed. There is a tendency in Bulgarian politics to look for miracles or to try the untried, and National Salvation has not been tried yet. There are still a lot of people here who are committed to their country and really want to see things get better peacefully. It is tragic that Bulgaria entered the EU at precisely the moment that organization moved into the biggest crisis in its history financially and economically. So Bulgaria’s problems are, once again, marginal to the focus of its new regional affiliation—the EU.
So, we have moved from the dystopian scares and calamities of the 1990s to slow, relentless sinking, more like the events on the Titanic. This is still a wonderful country with a great past (and we may say that Europe began here historically), and a great potential future. We need confidence, not hopelessness to tackle the problems that have become systemic here. That needs the highest level of vision and cooperation. I intend to stay to see this happen.


The article was published in “Life” magazine (13 february 2015)


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