Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Bulgarians wait for Change to come from the outside

A Pole spent seven days in Bulgaria and came back with discoveries and take aways

A Cross-border P2P talk on Malgorzata Kulbaczewska’s impressions from her visit to Bulgaria. A talk about stagnation and change, about the cultural and geopolitical place of Bulgaria, about its tourism attractions, about Polish-Bulgarian relations and other issues. Malgorzata sees untapped potential in Bulgarian reality, but also has the feeling it is really a country on the margins of the EU.

General impression from Bulgaria

Mrs. Kulbaczewska, You spent a week in Bulgaria in March. What is your general impression from the country and from the people you met?

Well, my first general impression is that your country has a huge potential that is still not discovered and not exploited in a proper, positive way. I spent some of the time like a typical tourist – sightseeing, watching the historical buildings of Bulgaria, of Veliko Tarnovo, of Rousse. And I feel these locations could have been visited by thousands of people, tens of thousands, perhaps even more. And they could be, they really could be presented to the wide public everywhere in Europe with pride, and they could attract much more interest than it is today.

I think that the tourist potential of Bulgaria is not yet fully discovered, not fully promoted. And this is a great loss, I think, for your country that the promotion of this historical history of Bulgaria, the historical heritage, is not not great enough. 

Secondly, it was very painful for me to witness traces of the unsuccessful or if you prefer, stagnant transformation or the period between socialism and capitalism in Bulgarian history. It was really painful to see, for instance, railway stations that are very big but meet only a couple of trains per day or to see industrial buildings abandoned, or to see villages with empty houses. Places that could be beautiful and well kept are abandoned instead. Well, all these things that made me really think that Bulgaria could have been a beautiful place for living. But instead, something bad has happened there. Or perhaps it’s still happening there. That doesn’t allow the nation to unleash the potential that you have.

The political crisis in Bulgaria

You were in Bulgaria a week before our parliamentary elections, the fifth elections for the period of two years. What do you understand about this political crisis which plagues the country right now?

Yes, finding out what’s going on in your politics was the second reason for my coming to Bulgaria. And I was somehow surprised to hear, even from people whom I interviewed there, including journalists, including social activists, that even Bulgarians themselves don’t really understand what is happening. As I learned, many of you have the feeling that the political games that you can take part in by voting are only a facade. And behind that, there are some other power games whose real outcomes are not available to the wide public. 

There was another thing that I sensed from most of the conversations I had with Bulgarians. No matter what age they were or no matter whether we talked in Shumen, in Rousse or in Sofia, most of my interlocutors said that these elections would not change anything. That a real breakthrough, if it is possible, could come only after another half a year of political crisis, and that your society is so hopelessly divided that the political deadlock can continue for long with bad consequences for international image of Bulgaria and for the very capacity of Bulgaria to seek alliances, to seek cooperation with neighbors.

Another thing that I learned is that there are very big differences inside Bulgarian society and between Bulgarian citizens. I mean, when you come to Sofia, you can even forget for a moment that you are in Eastern Europe or in Southeastern Europe. You come to cafes, you come to clubs that could have also existed somewhere in the West,  in Warsaw or anywhere. But then when you go outside of Sofia, you see the abandoned villages or cities which really wait for renovation, like Rouse. You realize that these people live in a very different world than the middle class or the more wealthy class of the capital. So that is the question that immediately comes to mind: if there are more worlds inside Bulgarian society, then how could these different social groups, different social classes, if you want, have a dialogue about the country, about the needs of the country, and how can they work out some common vision of Bulgaria? 

Another very sad conclusion that I have after this visit is that apparently not many people care about the future of the country. If the political crisis continues for weeks, for months, for years, it inevitably makes me think that apparently for all the political class, the individual interests or the individual businesses are more important than progress, some empowerment of your own people that instead everybody is lost in some fight over particular businesses. And in the end, everybody is locked up in the crisis with no way out or in inevitable or in waiting for some savior or some event that happens outside and forces a different trajectory of change inside the country.

Bulgaria’s position in the world

I’m bearing in mind what you say and what you observe in Bulgaria. How would you describe the cultural or geopolitical position of Bulgaria in the world, which is the region, or which is the entity, the group of countries to which you would classify Bulgaria as belonging to? And what are the similar nations you have been to?

I would say Bulgaria is a crossroads in many senses. Bulgaria is a place where you still feel that you haven’t quitted Europe, but that you have come very close to the Middle East or to the Turkish world. So it is not yet the Orient as you prefer, but it is quite far away from the European Union, from what you popularly think is Western Europe. But this is not something bad. It is actually one more lost chance for Bulgaria, in my view. A country which is located in such a place could be a wonderful bridge between worlds, between cultures, between nations. And as far as I know, relations between Bulgaria and Turkey are quite positive. There is exchange.

So Bulgaria again could play a much bigger geopolitical role, profiting on its location on the border of the European Union and on the gates of the Eastern world. You ask me what geopolitical bloc Bulgaria belongs to, and this is a fairly difficult question because it is connected to your previous question about Bulgarian politics and the crisis inside Bulgarian politics. Well, in my country, whenever Bulgaria is mentioned, there is always some shade of Russia behind Bulgaria. They are usually interconnected in the popular discourse. And I think this is not just because even if there is a huge sentiment for Russia in Bulgarian society, and even if you can find streets of generals Gurko, Skobelev and others in Bulgaria, which would be unthinkable, I think, in most European countries today. There I also met people who were very skeptical about Russia’s role in Bulgarian history and who definitely wanted to close this part of history while Bulgaria was facing the East and who wanted to go forward together with the Western Bloc. This is one more reason for which Bulgarian society is so divided, by the way.

But coming back to your question to which bloc Bulgaria belongs, I think we need to differentiate between these cultural and historical legacy and geopolitical and geopolitical partnerships that Bulgaria has. Bulgaria is a part of NATO. This has consequences. Bulgaria has recently seeked a strategic partnership with Romania, another NATO Euro-Atlantic oriented country. This also will have consequences, I believe. So historical legacy is one thing. Popular sentiment is one thing. And your geopolitical situation, your participation in organizations, in international organizations is something else. After all, Bulgaria is still a member of the European Union. Bulgaria is a member of NATO. And even though some of my interlocutors told me in Bulgaria that somebody may insert the topic of a Bulgarian exit into your political discourse, I don’t really believe that you would just make a U-turn in your participation in the organizations.

Bulgaria as a tourist destination

You traveled in a few cities of northern Bulgaria and even in the Sofia region. What are your impressions from Bulgaria as a tourist?

Well, first, I haven’t seen what is the most popular tourist destination in Bulgaria. That is, I still haven’t traveled to the Black Sea coast. I hope to do it next time when I visit your country. But as I said, I was impressed both by the mountainous landscapes that I had to travel through when traveling from Sofia towards the north. And I was also impressed by the historical legacy I could touch on in Bulgaria. The visit to Veliko Tarnovo will stay for long in my memory. The same about the visit to the monastery of Rila, which was truly an adventure, both by crossing the mountains and then by seeing the place in itself.

Ruins of Tsarevets, the former medieval fortress in Veliko Tarnovo. Here the capital of Second Bulgarian Kingdom was located, before it was conquered by the Turks. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

As I said in the beginning, Bulgarian history can be fascinating. The Bulgarian architectural legacy can be really interesting for people in Western Europe and elsewhere. And what you need to work on is the tourist infrastructure to welcome guests from abroad for traveling, for traveling through Bulgaria by train is an experience that makes you really doubt about how successful the passage from socialism to capitalism was. Frankly speaking, the railways don’t leave the best impression, and there is a lot of work to do, a lot of construction and repair work just to do on them. Also, if you want to welcome more guests, you also need to build other infrastructure like hotels, like, I don’t know, resorts ready to accept more guests. I think that you have the potential. If I said that for people interested in history, for people interested in architecture, there are a lot of destinations in Bulgaria that I think can be discovered.

Okay. You were in northern Bulgaria, which is a less developed area. So I’m certain that if you go to southern Bulgaria you may find a lot of hotels and infrastructure, even better railroads.

I am happy to hear that. I’m really happy to hear that.

Bulgarians and Change

Let me ask you about something else. We had a long period of stability, let’s say, under Prime Minister Borissov and two years ago, even a little bit more now, he was taken down and then a new party appeared, which was called Change Continues. So I wanted to ask you about Bulgarians and change. What are your impressions from the people you spoke to about their satisfaction with life? What do they understand as change and what do they do for this change to come true?

Frankly speaking, most of the people to whom I talked did not believe that the change might happen in the near future. A change understood as a change for the better, as making their lives better, making the level of living higher, or getting the old infrastructure repaired, or bringing politics to bring more transparency to Bulgarian political life. Most of the people whom I asked about the perspective of change then answered that a change can somehow come from outside, that this is the best chance for Bulgaria to have a change inspired from outside. Not by some meddling into your elections – they basically claimed that the Bulgarians that are able to change the Bulgarian reality are those Bulgarians who have some experience from outside, either from working abroad or from studying abroad, or from both. Most of the people to whom I talked basically said that to have the motivation to fight the system, to change the system, to not to just try to adapt to the realities, you need to have the comparison with what some people called European standard, or, like some others said, just with how other people organize, other nations organize their public life. So there was not a feeling of change in the air. 

While there were some signs of elections coming soon in the late March Bulgaria, the overall atmosphere in the country was for from excitement or expectation of change. Photo: a banner of GERB in one of the streets in old Rousse. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

There was rather a feeling of stagnation, perhaps a feeling of some lost opportunities. Perhaps there was some sense, some thought that Bulgaria is too small and too little influential to produce some change from inside. I’m not saying that everybody to whom I talked was a pessimist, as it might sound. I also talked to people who believed that their activity on the local level could then bring results palpable on pan-Bulgarian level. And interestingly enough, these people were either engaged in the Democratic Bulgaria or positive about the Change Continues party. So apparently those who really want a change, a reconstruction, a different organization of your public life are really on the side of this Change Continues organization. 

I heard one important thing from an activist from Ruse who told me that the Bulgarians do not have a protest culture like we in Poland do. That it would be more probable for them to adapt or to try to survive than to contest openly the system. And rather than the spirit of change or the belief that a change is possible, I basically felt this spirit of adaptation or waiting for what happens next.

Polish-Bulgarian ties

You met a few people who have had interaction with Poland, either knowing Polish language or having relatives who were studying in Poland, etc. What is the current nature of Polish Bulgarian relations as far as you know them? And how much is Poland contributing to social change in Bulgaria?

First of all, I wish that more people in Poland knew what Bulgaria is like and knew more than just, as I said, associating Bulgaria with Russia, which is unfortunately a very strong stereotype. There are a lot of still a lot of press publications on Bulgaria that appear in Polish media that tend to look for Russian influence in Bulgaria or for connections of top politicians in Bulgaria with Russia. While these links could of course be investigated, other directions and other possible interaction of Bulgaria with other countries are not that interesting, or a lot of people are not even aware of them. It is like Bulgaria was in the European Union, but we still did not fully believe that it happened, that they were here with the West and not together with Russia, Belarus and the others.

And as you asked, how does Poland contribute to social change in Bulgaria? Unfortunately, I don’t think that Poland contributes that much, even though there are projects in Poland. There is the political project of the Three Seas Initiative that also includes Bulgaria, and there is interest in Poland to build bridges basically to the Balkans and Poland. Poland wants there to be the country that somehow facilitates the contact between the Balkan countries and the European Union understood as the center, so the center of the European Union. But frankly speaking, I am not sure if you even need this intermediary view of Poland. 

I would be happy to see more. I would be rather happy to see more exchange between people, more Poles coming to Bulgaria and on the other the other way round or more trade exchange between countries. And also there is another problem. I have partially mentioned that already, but I could elaborate a bit on the fact that we don’t really know much about this. We don’t really know a lot about Bulgaria. There is one stereotype about Bulgaria that is present among Polish people is that the country is very poor, which is unfortunately not only a stereotype, and the other is that you have beautiful beaches on the Black Sea, which is also not, which is of course not a stereotype only. But I don’t think that these two statements form any complete picture of Bulgaria. So first of all, I wish that there are more cultural exchanges between both countries. There is more mutual knowledge in both countries. And then I think that we could build up interesting connections also on trade and political level.

Photo: A quarter of Veliko Tarnovo (source: Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat)

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