This article appeared in Kapital Weekly on 2 November 2013.
Optimism often seems in short supply in Bulgaria, both amongst Bulgarians and the foreign observers who serve here as guests. People look for reasons that things are getting worse, particularly if they can do so in comparison with other countries. But I believe that Bulgaria is – broadly speaking – on the right track, albeit that it has not since 1989 fulfilled its potential as quickly as it should have done, and remains behind the curve. Even within the political upheaval of this turbulent year we can find positive aspects to give us confidence for the future.
It is as an optimistic voice that I have been asked to contribute to Kapital’s 20th anniversary edition. Earlier this year, I gave a speech in which I argued for optimism about Bulgaria’s future and made some suggestions about how we might get to a brighter future, more quickly. I was greatly honoured by the enthusiastic and positive response to that speech. I have therefore taken on the task of imagining Bulgaria in 20 years time, with the key suggestions that I made implemented and a reality.
In so-doing, as before, I write not as someone whose own country has all the answers (although I hope that the many mistakes the UK has made can assist Bulgaria); it would be highly arrogant to assume that Bulgarians need foreigners to tell them what to do. Instead, I write as someone who has visited extensively different towns and regions in Bulgaria and who has had many conversations with many Bulgarians, of all backgrounds and political views. What I say here reflects mostly what I hear from Bulgarians, perhaps with more optimism!
At the heart of everything, not the edge of everywhere
The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry should produce a series of authorised maps, which put Bulgaria at their centre, in the process destroying all the ones I see at conferences which instead put Austria and Switzerland in the middle, and Bulgaria at the bottom right. Like my own country, it is true that in terms of the European Union, Bulgaria is at its edge, with an external border. However, whilst the EU is Bulgaria’s most important relationship, it is by no means its only one.
In 20 years time, I expect Bulgaria to be far more comfortable in exploiting its geo-strategic location. As a regional leader, it will have acted as wise Kum and Kuma to the next generation of Balkans countries seeking marriage with the EU, and will hold together the relationships (and frankly, votes) needed to ensure that the particular needs of this region are both understood in Brussels and recognised in its policies.
The zero sum debate over Bulgaria’s orientation, and whether it should look West to Brussels or East to Moscow, will be long-buried. In its place will be a win-win understanding that you can have both, with thriving Russian-owned companies and Russian citizens continuing to invest here, but on the clear understanding that the EU’s rules must be followed. In the same way, I expect an energy-diversified Bulgaria to be receiving gas directly from Russia and Azerbaijan, with the pipelines that transport it following EU rules on competition and finance.
I also expect Bulgaria and Turkey to be the closest of allies. As an island of stability, within a sea of troubled states, Turkey needs the support of its western friends. And as a fast-growing economy – Europe’s only true BRIC – there are huge opportunities for Bulgaria, as its best-positioned neighbour and obvious route to market. Moreover, with a large minority of Bulgarians speaking Turkish as a native language, Bulgaria has an advantage in human capital too.
With the relationships to west and east cemented and strategic, 2033 Bulgaria will have thriving markets in Central Asia, the Middle East and around the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean. It will have repositioned itself as an excellent EU provider of educational services to this wider region, and be recruiting the next generation of science and tech academics and professionals to build on its long-standing reputation in this area. The EU’s, and Bulgaria’s, future lies in the knowledge economy. Higher living standards, closer to western European levels, means that educated young people will choose to live and develop their career here. This will also be a positive option for those who left to return.
Trusted neighbours; trusted leaders?
With Bulgaria’s external relationships in good shape, what of its internal situation? Looking at where we are today, you would have cause for concern. The elections that took place this year attracted only a 50% turnout and many of those who did vote, supported small parties that they knew would not enter parliament, a clear protest against those parties that would. There is a crisis of confidence in the ability and integrity of Bulgaria’s politicians.
That lack of trust was particularly evident during the protests that erupted in June. Tellingly, the protesters chanted slogans and carried banners that attacked all the parties in parliament, including the previous GERB government. Similarly, the day that GERB tried to assume the role of leading the protests was the day they stopped. That suggests to me that those on the streets were not for or against any political party, but against the way in which politics is done in Bulgaria, and for far-reaching reform. I have seen no suggestion that those on the counter-protests, supporting the government, are opposed to political reform.
So far, it is fair to say, there is no indication that any of the parties in the current parliament support the reform agenda, whether because they do not believe in it or do not believe there are votes in it. But we are optimists today so let us believe, therefore, that there will be a political response to the demand for a new kind of politics. Let us believe that politicians are troubled by the lack of trust the electorate holds them in, and want to win that trust back. What might Bulgaria in 20 years time look like?
It will above all be a far more transparent country. Not only will every decision and public contract be published, but there will be transparency in the decision-making process as well. All interested groups will have the right to participate as laws and policies are drawn up. Citizens will be able to query items of expenditure and procurement processes, at national and local level.
But it will also be a far more accountable place. Bulgaria’s regulators will become universally admired, known for their independence from government and proving time and again that they are not yes men. Parliament will devote less of its time passing and amending laws, and more time holding to account those responsible for their implementation. An independent commission will give assurance to citizens that deputies have no conflicts of interest or concerning sources of income, and that political party financing is entirely above board.
I believe that people go into politics for the right reasons: to improve the country and the lives of its people; to argue for a political philosophy to be at the heart of law-making and government. I am sure that this is also the case in Bulgaria. It is surely in the interests of Bulgaria’s politicians for this to be believed more widely.
Less corruption, more efficiency: a changed relationship between citizens and the state.
Well before twenty more years have passed, Bulgaria should have completed its transition to a digital world. Most interactions between the citizen and the state will take place online, reducing at a stroke the potential for corruption and improving efficiency. Similarly, we will see the court and legal system online, with monitoring of the performance of judges and prosecutors and independent control of the decisions made, including those overturned on appeal.
More importantly, the e-government and e-justice revolution offers an opportunity to redesign and reshape the relationship between the citizen and the state. In many countries, not only those that suffered under communism, for far too long there has been a culture that the state knows best and that citizens should be grateful for the services they receive. As business, particularly consumer-facing business, has discovered, such attitudes are out of date. Citizens are increasingly discerning and demanding, able to use online data to shape their expectations and compare products. As taxpayers, citizens are both demanding consumer and expectant shareholder in public service provision. So in 2033, Bulgarian public services will be entirely designed around the positive experience of the citizen consuming them.
One thing that will not change, but will strengthen….Civil Society
In 2033, it will be fascinating to look back and determine whether 14 June 2013 was the birth of a new Civil Society in Bulgaria. Senior politicians and leaders inside and outside Parliament have told me that Bulgaria changed profoundly when the pressure from the street forced the reversal of the controversial Peevski appointment. They believe that such an appointment will never be possible again; that the level of scrutiny would ensure politicians in future met higher standards. Certainly there is a sense now that the government is keenly aware of public opinion and will seek to avoid any actions that might reignite the protest movement.
If the assessment of Bulgaria’s political leaders is right, then perhaps the biggest and most profound impact on the next 20 years will be in the establishment of a genuine Civil Society. That means ordinary people believing that they have not only the power, but the right, to intervene with government, judiciary and business, for the good of their group and their country. This means determinedly forming grass-roots organisations and movements; of acting together and raising their voices loudly when needed. These will be years in which Bulgarians themselves will have witnessed the power they behold to solve big problems. No matter what progress is made, or how developed economically, socially and politically a country is, there is always a need for civil society to hold power to account.
I will conclude simply by saying that I feel it is a great privilege to live in Bulgaria today and to be a part, however small, of this wonderful country with its incredible people. I look forward to regularly being here over the next 20 years and seeing the progress realised as Bulgaria continues its positive transformation.
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