Bulgaria and the UK

Bulgaria and the UK: Turning Things Around and Getting Started

Let me start by explaining the origin and nature of my perspective on GB/BG/GB relations, since it makes my interest rather focused, or “distorted” as some might say. I must also confess, immediately, that I spent the period 1985-2008 as a professor at Indiana University. Perhaps this has given me a less than entirely “British” perspective, though I did spend 14 years building and heading a department at a British university (1970-1984).
I came to Bulgaria in 1990 at the behest of Emilia Kandeva-Spiridonova (who tragically died in 2013) whom I met on an historic bridge in the beautiful English spa-town of Bath during a conference there. I have made a career of building universities, and their schools and departments, around the world in the USA, the UK, Spain, Bolivia, Sudan, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria and I was lecturing on “Higher Education in Transition”.
As this energetic and powerfully motivated red-headed lady cornered me on the bridge, she told me that she, and several like-minded colleagues, were embarked on creating her country’s first “democratic university devoted to new and necessary fields of study and new approaches to teaching and learning.” She had attended my session discussing reforming Spain’s teaching of Public Administration after Franco, and similar perspectives acquired at Moscow State University in 1990 (from which I had just returned when we met). This resonated with her needs as a professor of Law and Public Affairs and interests, and she was determined that I should come and “help”.
What she didn’t tell me was where she was actually from. Something she said hinted in my mind she was from Turkey, and so, when she asked me to “come at once,” I said I would and that it would be new terrain for me as I had never been to Turkey. She stepped back, shocked, and said, “ I am not from Turkey, I am from Bulgaria”. Round about that time the journal Foreign Affairs had issued an article entitled (I recall), Bulgaria: The Last Unknown Place. The effect on me echoed that as a blank screen dropped. I was, if anything, an Africanist and had never encountered a Bulgarian in my life.
The institution she and her colleagues had embarked on inventing and realizing was the New Bulgarian University, which had a mission of creating a new type of Bulgarian for a new Bulgaria: questioning, free-thinking, European and dedicated to the future of a democratic Bulgaria in a democratic Europe. I have been connected with NBU since those conceptual days until, upon my retirement from Indiana in 2008, I moved to Sofia and have held the position of Distinguished Professor there, and taught classes. The use of the Bulgarian language was a deliberate attempt to root scholarship in the national culture and the nation’s needs (though all students are required to acquire a foreign language as part of the Liberal Arts tradition that is the foundation of the university’s model.) I must admit that we drew far more on the US model than the British tradition.
Over these 23 years I have seen many changes, including the entry into the EU in 2007. Today I see several areas of profound concern.

Human Capital Hemorrhage

Starting in 1992 — the year of my first Fulbright here, things became alarmingly bad1 and it looked more like impending anarchy and chaos than “transition”. The rush to find work abroad and, through it, some modicum of security really began then—a time of boom across Europe. In 1997 things became radically worse in Bulgaria with the collapse of many doubtful banks, the runaway inflation of the lev, and a profound crisis of confidence. The pattern was now set, reinforced by growing doubt about the capacity of the political system to manage the state and institute visionary change—more or less where it is now.
Recently I spoke to the graduating class of the country’s top public high school and when I asked them about their future they all indicated an intention to “study abroad.” There was an embarrassed silence after that when I asked, “and then, will you come back?” With EU-wide recognized qualifications, and a huge hourly income gradient between where they are in northern and western Europe, and coming back to the “poorest nation in the EU,” it is not too hard to see where their decision will take them. Of the class I spoke to, more than 80% have already left for Germany, and another 10% for other European destinations. In an interview conducted with graduating Bulgarian students at the Medical University in Sofia, more than 80% said they were leaving at graduation. At this rate, Bulgaria is spending its money to subsidize the professional services of much-richer countries who are, like the UK, actively recruiting medical personnel abroad. It seems ironic for the poor countries to subsidize the needs of the rich. This is to say nothing of the fact that the country needs these people, but cannot pay to keep them here.
The population pyramid (2012 shown here) is already seriously alarming as there is an ongoing decline in the absolute number of young people, and so many of them will emigrate2.  The huge middle bulge is transforming itself into a massive elderly population that will be drawing pensions that almost no-one is around to pay for. This, I believe, deserves the word crisis as the population declines from the 9.2m that was here when I came, to the less than 7m that remains. And it is the talented, visionary and ambitious that are being stripped out of this structure. I am sometimes told that they will come back and bring their new ideas. Why? The political climate and vision are not here and neither are some of the necessary democratic infrastructural elements that are needed to make people confident in returning, investing and securing the, and their, future. At least, that is how it seems to me, and I would dearly love someone to convince me this is wrong—with proof rather than wishful thinking. I long for the day that the first question in any interview, or opening gambit in a conversation with a new Bulgarian friend is not “Why did you ever come to live in Bulgaria?” I long for the day when I ask my students about their future career and they do not say “Emigrate.” When I mention that “emigrate” is not a career, they say “There is no career without it.” The émigrés are, through remittances, pumping tens of millions of $ into this country, but this should never be confused with “investment.” This money goes toward the subsistence of the elderly—not investment.


The thing that worries me most about the young is the increasing use of the word “hopeless.” I applaud the protesters who have endured seven months or more trying to bring about “change.” They, at least, clearly still believe in the possibility of a better future here, so though they continue to be ignored by the odd triumvirate that forms the present government, and as their agenda is still not clear to me, I am not optimistic that this sincerely-felt chagrin among many of the population will result in anything radical enough to change the stagnation that prevails. When young people say the situation is “hopeless,” then it suggests they see no reason to stay and try to change things, so their “hopelessness” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—which is where I believe, as they say in Indiana, “we are at.” These emigrés are, after all, the very people that this country needs the most to turn things around—or get them started.
In fact, there are two dimensions to overcoming the “Bulgaria Situation:” (a) to inspire confidence in the country among potential investors and promoters abroad, and some of the key issues with this are discussed below; (b) to inspire confidence within the Bulgarian population that is disenchanted with the lack of progress and the political miasma, which offers little confidence in a radical renewal and turn-around. Writers for over a hundred years have commented on the prevalence of “pessimism” as a component of national culture of Bulgaria. Now, however, there may be some real reason for this.

The View from Afar

We have moved some way from the label in Foreign Affairs, but I am not sure that “more news is good news.” I rely heavily on the BBC for my news and commentary, as well as the online editions of some of the British press. The “news” and image of Bulgaria has become increasingly negative and the current issue of restricting the “flood” of Bulgarians and Romanians who, it is said, will head for the UK in January 2014, is tending to create what the President of Romania has called “the emergence of second-class EU countries.” Here are some elements that I have encountered from conversation and the media:


  •      Blurring of the line between “Bulgarian” and “Roma” especially in the British press. In fact, the “visible” element of newsworthy Bulgarians seems to be entirely focused on the Roma. Recent items have included: (a) Roma “exploiting” the social-benefits and welfare system, including housing, immediately on arrival in the UK to the extent that the Prime Minister (as leader of the Conservative Party) is recommending a delay of eligibility for all benefits after arrival in the country (which would apply across the board of course, but this fire was stoked by incendiary articles about the Roma in this context in leading British papers); (b) Television documentaries about gangs of “Bulgarian Roma” pickpockets—especially children—haunting the London Underground; (c) The “Daily Mail’s” feature on Fagin-like schools teaching (Roma) “Bulgarians” how to steal from people, (d) the Roma desire to “escape crushing discrimination” in Bulgaria, which was the them of a long article in the December 29th 2013 issue of London’s “Daily Telegraph.”
  •      Political Fuel for the Rising Right: The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been making capital out of the (Bulgaria/Romania situation) “migration issue” and quitting the EU, to challenge the Conservative Party in particular, and the present Coalition in general, in the context of the upcoming 2015 elections. They have been pushing for a serious change in the “7-year restriction” as strenuously applied by the UK (which previously promoted immediate Bulgarian employment eligibility in the pre-entry debate). The UKIP sense a deep concern among part of the British electorate over the “immigration issue” and the loss of “British identity and sovereignty.” I suspect they are right, as they would be in France, the Netherlands and some other EU locations3. Г-н. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, has maintained a constant, unrelenting, but well-modulated, opposition to the Conservative/Lib-Dem views on migration—indeed the banner at the top of his website at the time of writing (December 10, 2013) is: “Following the release of the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, the government's approach to bringing migration under control has been branded a ‘complete failure’ by UKIP Leader Nigel Farage.” He received a letter from a Bulgarian student requesting him to come and see the country—which he had never visited—for himself to counter his negative pronouncements. He came, complete with camera team, and ended up on UK TV speaking from inside a Roma settlement, and I don’t have to explain what impact that is going to have on the British watching-public; (d) the migration issue, and other elements of “the EU’s theft of British sovereignty”(viz. the recent comments on the fact that the EU Court of Human Rights should not be allowed to supersede the British Supreme Court, and remarks about ‘countries having the sovereign responsibility to set limits to internal EU migration’ made by Theresa May—no less than the British Home Secretary). Clearly, Bulgaria and Romania are being used as the scapegoats for renegotiation of some of the fundamentals of the Treaties of Rome (1957) as Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina are just beyond the horizon of EU membership. But, in my view, Bulgaria and Romania have suffered badly from the coincidence of (i) the closeness of the British election and the “need” for the ruling Conservative Party in particular, to have a hard line on migration and the terms for remaining in the EU4;  (ii) the timing of the January 2014 change in the immigration status of people from these two countries to the UK after the 7-year waiting period. It pays to give Bulgaria and Romania a “bad press” in order to focus the need for migration law changes—and this has been done with relentless energy. Bulgaria is the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—something that has cursed it many times in the past.
  •      More recently there has been a focus in the European press and online about the fate of refugees, undocumented arrivals, asylum-seekers etc overwhelming the system and being treated to Victorian-like workhouse conditions. Germany has already said that it intends to send back to Bulgaria anyone who goes from there to Germany and does not secure employment in six weeks. Sadly, it appears that Bulgaria has become the “soft underbelly” of the EU—as Greece was for some time—and the reaction of many on the right in the EU is to contain them there, in the country that has the least resources to deal with them and almost no capacity to handle them. We hear and see nothing about them.
  •      There appears to be no countervailing publicity on honest, hard-working Bulgarians accepted into the British system5.
  •      We see more and more that the Costa Brava is being overtaken by the Black Sea as a source of cheap alcohol by an uncivilized element flying in from the UK—though they are not alone. If the British view of the Bulgarians is increasingly negative, the opposite is well on the way to becoming true also. Hard to say whether the Roma or the alcohol-tourists would score lower in public opinion.

Investment Climate

What Bulgaria needs, more than anything, is a strong, positive image as an inducement to foreigners to invest here. Endless stories—often true—about drug trans-shipments through the country, people-trafficking, money-laundering, as well as constant remarks about the state of the Judiciary do not suggest protection of contracts, property etc. It is true that many of the stories in the press are, these days, about successful police actions, but this may seem like the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of what is going on. The figures are more than alarming (see right). So much of foreign investment here, anyway, is in the form of retail outlets, malls, and other ways of selling mostly foreign-made items. Agriculture now stands at 10% of its output in the previous system—a huge underutilized resource, and most of the rural population seems to have moved to the capital, which may have 45-50% of the country’s population now.

What To Do?


  •      To get out of this situation needs vision and strategy, and that cannot come out of the present political situation, which is more-or-less paralyzed, and I cannot see how any future election can make a fundamental change to this, though this is what the protestors so much want. Perhaps a more direct involvement by the EU in a transition period of non-political government, which alone might get the economy started, rebuild confidence at home and abroad. It has been done elsewhere.
  •      The future also needs uncompromising action—with perhaps EU (direct?) member-support of a very real nature—on tackling the judicial and criminal-justice elements of the investment climate.
  •      There needs to be a serious media attempt to portray the “other Bulgaria.” This is a country of smart, hard-working people who are as good as any I have taught anywhere. But we never see, nor hear about them. Indeed, when I was addressing the nation’s top public-school6 several students told me they had withdrawn their applications to universities in the Netherlands where they had been accepted because they had learned online and from friends already there that “they hate Bulgarians here.” Their friends had run into the Bulgarians=Roma problem.  This needs some serious counter-action.  We don’t need the usual focus on Rakia, forests and traditional singing—we need success stories. I came to live here, started a company (the bureaucracy needs a total work-over) and am happy to spend my days in a wonderful place. Let’s tell others.
  •      The FDI crisis needs to be turned around—there is a wealth of under- and unused good agricultural land. Why?
  •      In the past, for instance during the Roman, and even the Ottoman, Empire Bulgaria was not the far-forgotten corner of Europe7 but the bridge between Europe and the East. East of Bulgaria is the dynamo of Turkey and the enormous oil and natural-gas resources of the Caucasus and the Turkic nations. Surely, Bulgaria should, at least, think about this critical geographical situation. However, any suggestion with the word “Turkey” in it brings a welter of historical stereotypes and reference to the “Yoke.” That ended in 1878. Relations with Turkey are rather good, but not much comes of it. This, however, needs more vision than anything else. Being “European” and in the EU doesn’t have to indicate turning the country’s back on the neighbor next door. It is such a tragedy that the Nabucco project was lost. That project was iconic and Bulgaria’s loss is Albania’s gain.
  •          Putting money into education is much-needed as the infrastructure and salaries at the moment are no incentive to join the profession. But, greatly improving the education system in the present very poor employment/salary situation is only likely to boost the emigration figures.
  •      We need a non-partisan geopolitical overview encompassing a vision of the country’s potential and an investment plan to go with it with some serious promises and long-term commitment. Otherwise Bulgaria will continue to become a nation of old people on remittances leading to a dramatic fall in the national population as they pass on, and no-one follows .  Nothing less than this can solve the problem. Here, outsiders can bring impartiality, avoid old prejudices and help determine what it really takes for a new and different future.

List of Notes:

1 I outlined some of this in my book Summer in the Balkans, Kumarian Press, Connecticut, USA, 1994, and its expanded Bulgarian version До София и Назадд, Marin Drinov, Sofia, 2004.
2 If you look at the chart you will see that the children aged 0 to 5 amount for half of those who are 35 to 39, and astonishingly those aged 60 to 64. This relationship holds true for the entire population 0 to 19. The role of 1992 is noticeable.
3 http://www.ukip.org/
4 The Daily Telegraph of December 29th, 2013 mentions that their poll suggests 70% of British people polled supported major changes to UK immigration law.
5 One person attending the MFA Round Table recounted how he needed an operation and decided to go to the UK to have this treatment (he is a UK citizen). In the operating room he discovered that the surgeon and the anesthetist were both Bulgarian.
6  In the Bulgarian sense, ie a State School.
7 This is the “On The Edge” interpretation of Bulgaria’s history. It is a an amalgam of many ethnicities because this was history’s crossroads. However, it became the northwest extremity of the Ottoman Empire and excised from Europe. Then it became the southeastern extremity of Central European ambitions. After the last War, it became the southwestern extremity of the Warsaw Pact/USSR. Now it is the southeastern extremity of the EU. On the other hand, Bulgaria is at the nexus of the European—Turkic—Russian cultures—a unique opportunity or a poor place to be in geopolitical chess.

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