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The Importance Of Civil Society And Civic Education: The Bulgarian Example

Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.

In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?

The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.

I want to speak about this discrepancy.

Let me give you an example related to my own profession. Today’s Bulgaria is the worst country in the European Union in terms of freedom of speech. According to Reporters Without Borders, we rank 109th among 180 countries in the world. This was not always the case during the 28 years since the communist regime collapsed. In the 1990s, Bulgaria ranked among the top 35 countries in the world in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, sometimes ranked ahead of Italy or the Czech Republic. That would mean that the press was an emerging independent political force immediately after communism collapsed, but that it lost much of its freedom later on, paradoxically when the country seemed to make the most progress in terms of democratization.

Does that mean that we succeeded to build a democratic society without a free press? And if that suggestion seems preposterous, we must also try to explain other examples similar to freedom of speech. Today, according to an EU-wide survey, Bulgaria ranks last in Europe in society’s perceptions of corruption, the quality of democracy, and levels of justice.

For many representatives of the former Communist Party, these results are explained by the country’s new political orientation toward the West. From their perspective, there is no surprise that the process of democratization created corruption or censorship, because in their view this is what democracies look like.

But for the vast majority of Bulgarians, we see that these poor results are the result of poor governance during the transition from communism and not the adoption of Western values. Bulgaria is still among the countries with the highest levels of confidence in the EU and we do not have any significant or influential anti-European party or movement. What Bulgarians do not trust is their own government, which has a chronic average approval rating of under 10 percent. Yet, the political party in power is regularly re-elected in free elections.

If this picture of Bulgarian society is confusing, I believe that the reason is likely related to the low levels of civic participation among citizens. Bulgarians have turned out to be alarmingly disinterested in community life and organization: 86 percent of Bulgarians do not participate in any form of civic organization. They don’t join NGO’s, nor charitable organizations, nor any other form of associational life. Moreover, the very concept of building the institutions of civil society is seen by many in Bulgaria as a sign of communist thinking, since in communist times the entire population was obliged to maintain an active membership in the party’s unique structures. That obligatory membership is associated with people’s total disbelief in the ideas that they were forced to publicly advocate. Such cognitive dissonance undermined the very concept of a public life.

What changed in the post-communist period was the law and not the attitude of mind. While the legal guarantee of freedom of association made it possible to advocate any civic cause, and not just the communist one, very few undertook such advocacy. Bulgaria has the lowest number of free associations in the EU (and early attempts at creating such associations, such as free trade unions, could not establish themselves firmly in competition with entrenched communist union structures). This major difficulty must still be overcome; we must find a way to dissociate civic participation from communist constraints.

This picture of Bulgaria is hardly the one we imagined back in 1989. But what is most disturbing is not even the gap between the expectations and the result, it is the gap between the formal status of a democracy and the severe deficits in nearly all aspects that are needed to make democracy real and vital—a free press, civic life, the reliable application of the rule of law. It seems we have missed something terribly in the process of building new institutions and a new state.

I have an explanation for this discrepancy and it is different from the one I would have given in 1989. In that era, the times of velvet revolutions, I believed that change would come with the rule of law and responsible governance. Today, I believe that what undermines our efforts is what we underestimate the most: education.

We simply did not pay attention to what happened in the field of education during the years of transition. As a society, we did not show enough outrage when education was allotted only 3 percent of our GDP year after year, when the poorest 10 percent of the population just stopped attending schools, and when most teachers were forced to abandon their profession because their salaries were among the lowest in the country. Despite all of those disturbing signs, education remained an ignored issue, in the media and in society, for much of these past 28 years.

Mostly, the press concentrated attention on battles between the parties and on the legislative process, that is until the 2012 PISA survey came out which ranked Bulgaria last among EU countries in educational skills and knowledge among 15-year-old students. This report was followed by an Open Society Institute in Sofia study that found a direct correlation between the quality of education and free speech: the higher the level of education in a country, the higher the level of press freedom.

The good news is that the media has finally started to cover many of the problems related to schools. Not abundantly, but enough to understand that in the past 28 years Bulgarian education didn’t follow the political evolution of the country. Communist ideology may have been eliminated from textbooks, but what was never introduced in its place was any explanation of democracy or description of how democratic countries function. Civic education was never introduced. And more: history textbooks avoided the communist past.

This last part is the most sensitive issue for many Bulgarians. What we struggled against in 1989 was communism, with its brainwashing at schools, with its lack of free movement and free speech, with its total replacement of free will with ideologically obligated participation in civic life.

But almost three decades later, an account of communism is precisely what is missing from the history text books in Bulgaria. Usually, the whole historical period of 45 years of communist rule is reduced to several sentences. Many of the biggest crimes of communism — the mass imprisonment, the show trials, the forced involvement of citizens in spying on each other, the attempted eradication of ethnic identity of the Turkish minority — are not even mentioned as crimes.

What is missing as well is Bulgaria’s complicated politics during World War II. As you may know, Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany, and yet the country managed to save the lives of its Jewish population. At the same time, Bulgaria deported to Treblinka more than 11 000 Jews from its occupied territories in Greece and Macedonia. This participation in world history is not commented on in our textbooks.

And here are the appalling results: 50 percent of young Bulgarians between the ages of 15 and 35 say that they know nothing about Auschwitz; 40 percent say that they know nothing about the Bulgarian GULAG of secret police prisons; and 42 percent say that they do not agree with the description of Stalin and Hitler as dictators.

Combining this lack of historical knowledge and lack of civic education, we may end up with a whole generation of young citizens who easily could become victims of today’s populist demagoguery. We cannot expect anything less with a generation that has grown up without knowledge of the darkest periods of the 20th century, and that for generations erased the very concept of democratic values.

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