Back in 2009, I lived in Romania for several months and traveled repeatedly back and fourth between Romania and Bulgaria, across the Black Sea, and everywhere throughout the region for business purposes… Let me be the first to tell you, the Balkans are a world struggling to progress while they play catch-up to Western Europe at the expense of wrestling with a communist past. There is a very strong sense of a polarized tug-of-war being played out today in the old East Bloc, and we can find evidence of this in the cultures of many Balkan nations. Romania and Bulgaria, for example, are two states trying to look towards the future while stuck reflecting on the Past. They are so intermingled, yet so far apart in the idea of progress that they exist today as bordering nations stuck in the mud on progress, and simply crossing the border between them can send a person back in time to the Soviet era of the Cold War. But to understand why this is important for international relations today – and how it relates to a globalized leadership context – you must know just a little bit of their history. However, talking about the shared history of these two nations’ transitions to their modern statuses could easily fill a 5,000 post! So let’s just focus on one for now, shall we?
During the mid-part of the 20th Century, the USSR had swept up the Black Sea region into the Warsaw Pact Alliance for a few reasons; a counter weight against NATO, the gathering and exploitation of raw material assets throughout the areas, and the maintenance of a strong foothold in Europe were chief among the many. The Balkan states were assimilated into the pact and each took to the process very differently. Bulgaria had it easy. It did not fight its inclusion into the Soviet system, but instead found dependency on the pact. Inclusion into the USSR came to be an event that Bulgarians took advantage of and one could even say that the nation prospered from it to an extent. Bulgaria was a very poor nation (and not much to this regard has changed today) and was better equipped in farming than any other industry. After being assimilated into the USSR, the nation used the farming market to produce economic growth, and this created a good sense of stability despite the soviet impositions. As a result, until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, its economy was stable, even if its political affairs were not. Ultimately for Bulgaria, however, its own stability would be derailed at the hands of its own politicians.
In 1984, a corrupt leader plagued Bulgaria. Todor Zhivkov, general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party, embarked on a campaign to create a prominent “Bulgarian” identity for the state, and he did this by banning its Turkish citizens from their ethnic identities. Anything that did not conform to the idea of what Bulgaria “was” or “should be”, was outlawed. For the Turks, this was everything from their very names, to their religion and customs. When they refused to conform, he banned them as a culture from living in Bulgaria all together. His government began operations to gather and expel Turks in mass from the nation, and opened up their now empty homes and left-behind possessions for sale to the remaining Bulgarian populations. However, what he failed to realize, was that a significant portion of the Bulgarian skilled work force was now gone, and Bulgaria’s economic well-being was now at jeopardy. (Gilbert & Large, 2009)
Casting the Turks out of the nation had destabilized the states economic standpoint because so much of the workforce had grown to be manned by the Turkish population over a long period of time. Production of local industries slowed to a halt, and Bulgaria’s economy took a sharp nosedive. Lower production meant lower exportation of goods and the nations GDP trickled. It was not long before the people themselves felt the sting of Zhivkov’s decisions, and controversy began to grow and spread like wildfire. By 1989, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Petar Mladenov, finally felt enough was enough. He led a peaceful coup in the Politburo that resulted in a takeover of the government. Zhivkov, in his late 70’s by this point, resigned his office on the 9th of November… the same day the Berlin Wall started coming down.
Now, since the Fall of the Wall, Bulgaria has had numerous setbacks on the road towards recovery and political improvement. Bulgaria was a through and through communist nation after all, but that was not the only problem. After Mladenov took power, he reversed the politically set discrimination policies Zhivkov put in place against the Turks and welcomed them back, culture and all… but to the Bulgarian people, this was a source of much disdain. Not only were the Bulgarians a poor people not used to having many possessions – as they now had once the Turks were kicked out, but were fearful would be taken away with the reversal – but bad blood already existed between the Bulgarian people and the Turks. The Turks had invaded Bulgaria hundreds of year’s prior, and since their advancement north was held at bay by Romanian forces, Bulgarians suffered throughout the centuries as a result. To say the Bulgarians were not fond of the idea that Turks would be returning would have been an understatement, and the communists knew this. (Gilbert & Large, 2009)
Despite the fact that the USSR was in turmoil, the breakup did not exactly motivate the nation to follow suit. Communists used the resentment of the Turks to their advantage in a swift campaign to undermine the new reintegration efforts, and this persisted in making change within the old Soviet bloc increasingly more difficult to produce. Even after the brief 1991 to 1995 reform period – when anti-Communists finally had the power to fight back, old communist officials where prosecuted, and more Democratic reforms were pushed into the spotlight – the purge of Communism was thwarted yet again due to economic depression. Stagnation in the economic growth of the state itself gave rise to increasing rates of crime as the nation struggled to implement change. As a result, this gave the old communists another leg to stand on, and by 1995, they had once again been restored to power. Of course, as we all know, communism does not allow for economic growth, and the nation was soon on the brink of total collapse. Disaster loomed as the state protected its own power and assets, which only caused inflation to skyrocket. 1997 brought another try at capitalistic reform, but no matter how hard it tried to take root, the nation still suffered.
Today, the history of Bulgaria’s struggle to change since the fall of the USSR is still very apparent, even after its move towards integration into the Western European system. Walking through nearly any location within the country will prove that communism still readily exists within its borders in some way. Strong, prominent Soviet figures and landmarks can be found nearly everywhere, and everything from the poorness of the people across the countryside, to the types of conversations to avoid with locals, show how the nation has struggled since the Soviet collapse. But there is hope. Many cities are now entering into a revitalization period – like Sofia (the capitol) and Burgas – and with the help of the international community, Bulgaria is even attracting tourism with its beautiful landscapes and warm summer beaches. Who knows how the future may play out, however, one thing is for certain… Bulgaria, even after its recent acceptance into a loose NATO trial alliance (for the agreement of aid and military training), and its push to integrate a sense of European belonging within its boarders, is still a nation struggling to define itself as it plays a game of tug-of-war with its past communist attachments against its desire to progress. It would be wise to understand the subtleties of this internalized conflict the nation lives every day, if you are ever to make progress with them as well.
Gilbert, Felix and Large, David C. (2009). The End of The European Era – 1890 to the Present. Sixth Edition. W.W. Norton & Company, New York | London.