“The problem was that the country was in transition, but it didn’t seem to be transiting to anywhere…”
Evgeni Dainov is one of the leading thinkers in Bulgaria’s rich civil society community. He is also a rock musician. Holding degrees in modern history and Russian from Oxford University, he has published many books and articles, in particular about civil society, politics and reform. Dainov leads the Centre for Social Practices, whose origins date back to the early nineties:
“In 1993, a group of us started meeting together twice a week in the evenings to discuss where the country was going. The problem was that the country was in transition, but it didn’t seem to be transiting to anywhere (…) The reform government had just been toppled and the gangsters were running the country.”
Besides Evgeni Dainov this group included Bogdan Bogdanov, who then was chairman of the Open Society Institute and had just founded the New Bulgarian University, which he is still leading today; Ivan Krastev from the Centre for Liberal Strategies; Vasil Garnizov who later became deputy minister for regional development and now teaches at the New Bulgarian University; and Dejan Kuranov who was one of the opposition figures of the late 1980’s.
Intellectual thinking in the mid-1990s, even in circles like Dainov’s, was very pessimistic and gloomy. Looking back to this time also shows how much Bulgaria has changed in the meantime:
“The discussions were as I expect discussions in Russia are at the moment . What can we expect of Bulgarian society? There were several view points. One was that Bulgaria is a primitive society and the only way it can function is as a satellite of the Russians, because we are not Western people. Or that it can become like a Middle Eastern country. It sounds really ridiculous these days, but we really didn’t know which way the country was going.
One of the positions was that this country will never make it. The other position was the idealist position, that this country has a unique opportunity of starting from zero and producing the perfect society – of perfect brotherhood and perfect law, and perfect everything – which I never believed in.
My personal expectations were very modest, I was thinking this society has some potential to become something like a very primitive version of Portugal or post-war Greece. A free, poor society, where there would be no boutiques, no expensive restaurants, but there would be everything in small, little shops. I was expecting a kind of European Bangladesh. Freedom, but no prosperity. And certainly never a member of the European Union.”
It was against this background that Evgeni and his friends, inspired by the philosopher Karl Popper and his concept of “open society”, decided to take the initiative and provide a direction and a vision for Bulgarian society.
“What we particularly liked about the concept of open society is Karl Popper’s idea that any society at any given stage can decide to become an open society and go and make it. History doesn’t matter, historical inheritance doesn’t matter, it’s all a matter of decision. And any society can decide it. In those days, the prevalent thinking was: Bulgaria will never become a modern European country, because it has a certain kind of history. And we were saying, you know: that’s nonsense. We can decide what we want to be at every given second. Which gave us a kind of, you know, energy to do things. (…)
We discovered that all these different viewpoints could be submerged into this concept of open society: We can decide at every given stage to go in any given direction. So let’s try and move this society towards deciding that it wants to become an open, free, European society – which is what ultimately became the national agenda. But it wasn’t just us, there were all sorts of other groups thinking along the same lines. (…)
And then we decided that the group would not survive for long on the basis of meeting twice a week. And so we put together an organization that would continue – together with others – to work on the agenda of the transition, as we then called it. That was 1994. It was my idea to call it “practices”. In those days, all sorts of other discussion groups were becoming think tanks or policy tanks. We decided that if we did this, we would fall into a trap of divorcing analysis from action. I thought it would be very frustrating, if we just did analysis and then delivered them to governments who would not enact them.”
In the years to come, Dainov’s Centre for Social Practices would work in very different areas. Initially a big focus was placed on conflict resolution in Bulgarian society, particularly between the wider public and governmental institutions, leading to the creation of ombudsman institutions at different levels of government. Environmental issues were prominent and the Centre played a big role in the establishment of river bed councils. Much work was also done on minority issues, especially in relation to Roma and Roma children, and on municipal development.
But the overall political environment had not yet changed. In fact, in the early years of the centre’s existence it changed for the worse. Before the vision of Evgenii Dainov and his colleagues became first a credible perspective and later a reality, Bulgaria hit rock-bottom. In the winter of 1996/97, the banking system and the national currency collapsed, triggering a dramatic economic crisis with hyperinflation, wiped-out savings and soup kitchens in the capital. Despite Evgeni’s laconic descriptions, it also hit the Centre for Social Practices:
“During 1995-1997, during those troubled years, there were many many projects we were doing. A lot of them were American foundation projects. Our richest period was 1995/1996. Then, unfortunately, the currency collapsed, the financial system collapsed, and all our project money disappeared. That was the end of the autumn of 1996. Suddenly, because, under the rules of that time we would get the money in Dollars, but we had to keep it in the banks in Lev, which means the hyper-inflation just blew everything away.
However, 1996/1997, prior to Vasil becoming deputy minister, we had a wonderful time. I was getting some real money, Deutsch Marks from Radio Free Europe. It was like 22 Deutsch Marks a week. And Vasil was getting some Dollars from somewhere else, like 60 Dollars a week or something. This made us very very wealthy, when people were getting like 3 Dollars monthly wages. So we were basically supporting everybody here [in the Centre], on like 20 Dollars a week.
And we spent months and months eating out in restaurants. Because, when I was young, I had read Erich Maria Remarque’s novel on German hyper-inflation in 1923, and what I remembered was that you have to spend it in restaurants, because the restaurants can never work out, the restaurants always underestimating the level of inflation. (…) So they are always at a loss, and for us it’s cheaper to eat in restaurants than go and buy the things and cook it at home.”
But the thinking and the conceptual struggle with the problems of the time was not futile. After the 1997 elections were won by the reformists and a government was formed under Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, the ideas developed by the rich variety of think tanks that had sprung up in the first half of the 1990s became an important source for the government to draw on.
The think tank scene also included the Centre for Liberal Strategies (CLS), the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) and the Institute for Market Economics (IME), to just name a few of the most prominent ones. The Borovec seminars (named after the mountain resort where they took place) illustrated the influence of independent institutes and think tanks at the time:
“In July 1997 until mid-1999, around every six months we invited the government, the parliamentary majority of the UDF, all the regional governors, and the UDF coordinators, something like 700 people who would then run the country. We would invite them to a big hotel in Borovec for a three-day brainstorming session on what the government needed to do the next six months. We would come up and say for the next six months we think these would be the issues and we think this is the way they should be resolved. It was like the peak of any influence on the government, because it was not the government getting together to think inviting outside experts, which happens all the time. It was us, the outsiders, inviting the government. And they came.”
After two years, Kostov turned the tables around, having the government organise events and invite specialists and experts. The importance of these events decreased, however, as did the extraordinary influence of these institutions on policy making. While some see this as a negative development, it reflects the normalisation and maturity of Bulgarian democratic structures. Bulgaria still boasts one of the richest think thank communities in Europe.