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  • Bulgaria’s Symphony of Hope
  • Venelin I. Ganev (bio)

The preterm parliamentary elections held in Bulgaria on 19 April 1997 marked the last stage of a momentous transformation that has dramatically reshaped the course of Bulgarian politics. Up to the end of 1996, Bulgaria could be described as a textbook example of a country where democratically elected neocommunist elites, playing upon popular fears, rejected “capitalism,” “monetarist fiscal policies,” “the egotism of the market,” and “the neocolonialism of international financial and political institutions” in favor of a loosely defined “left alternative” that emphasized “gradual reforms,” “low social costs,” increased bureaucratic regulation, and the benefits of international “neutrality.” By January 1997, however, it had become clear that this strategy had brought nothing but immiseration and hopelessness to millions of Bulgarian citizens.

Antagonized by their rulers’ arrogant refusal to assume responsibility for the socioeconomic catastrophe, these citizens took peacefully to the streets, demanding that the neocommunist-dominated National Assembly vote itself out of existence and that new general elections be promptly held. After 40 days of strikes, mass demonstrations, and round-the-clock student protests, the leaders of the former communist party finally acknowledged the fiasco that they had created, and stepped down.

The elections simply registered the sea change that had already taken place in public opinion and popular preferences. For the first time, a noncommunist coalition (the United Democratic Forces, or UtdDF) won an absolute majority in the National Assembly—137 out of 240 seats. The neocommunists, meanwhile, plummeted from 125 to 58 seats and [End Page 125] found themselves relegated to the periphery of the political scene. Also for the first time, a government has been formed with the support of all noncommunist parliamentary groupings. The largest of these is the UtdDF, whose biggest component is the similarly named Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). The new government also has the backing of the Union for National Salvation (19 seats), a coalition whose largest member is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the party of ethnic Turks; the Euroleft (14 seats), and the Bulgarian Business Bloc (12 seats). After several years of wandering through the surreal labyrinths of postcommunism, the citizens of Bulgaria have bestowed a mandate for change on politicians who call for a radical break with existing patterns of governance.

This remarkable turn of events can be fully comprehended only when approached within an analytical framework that takes properly into account the peculiarities of contemporary Bulgarian politics. Bulgaria’s “postcommunist” period began on 10 November 1989, when conspirators within the single-party communist regime forced resilient dictator Todor Zhivkov to resign after 35 years in power. This incident triggered events that would completely transform the sociopolitical order. Unfortunately, the complex nature and various aspects of these transformations have not received extensive study, and the available Western analyses are fraught with conceptual confusion and crass simplifications. Bulgaria’s successes confound the putative experts, while its failures reveal hidden dimensions of the postcommunist political condition. Providing an adequate description of the problems and prospects of Bulgaria’s democracy would appear, then, to be a timely and worthwhile endeavor. While certainly not a land of impenetrable mysteries, Bulgaria is a small country whose experience challenges certain large generalizations about how democracy appears and takes root.

Since 1989, Bulgaria has developed a consolidated democracy in which fair elections determine the outcome of elite competition, alternation in power occurs regularly and peacefully, ethnic minorities are integrated into the political process, and the existing constitutional system enjoys wide support.

This claim will surely arch quite a few scholarly eyebrows: the dearth of democratic elements in the longue durée of Bulgarian history, as well as the more recent reign of the palace coup as the preferred “mode of transition,” seems to bode ill for the future of democracy. Yet despite the apparent lack of propitious “initial conditions,” a political order endowed with salient democratic features did begin to emerge.

The first steps along the road to democracy were cautious and tentative. Immediately after Zhivkov’s ouster came several weeks of uncertainty. During this time, the new regime’s “reformist” promises coexisted uneasily with militant vows to defend “the accomplishments of socialism” and to continue...

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pp. 125-139
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