Why had it proven so difficult to shake off the communist legacy in Bulgaria? By 1995 there was no shortage of explanations. Some pointed to the country's traditional orientation to the East and Russia. Some highlighted the domestic support communism had had in Bulgarian society. Others referred to traditional values of Bulgarian society that predated the communist experience. A widespread view held that the whole transition process had been hijacked by a mafia-like "deep state" linked to former communist structures, the secret services and organised crime. None of these explanations contained much hope for radical change, however.
The fact that the end of communism came as a surprise to the vast majority of Bulgarians and happened in the absence of strong domestic pressure for change explains some of the confusion of the early 1990s. While communist Bulgaria was perceived in the West as a country sponsoring international terrorism and engaging in brutal repression of its Turkish minority, it was also seen as stable. Unlike in Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland, there was no history of Bulgarian dissidence, no anti-communist uprising like the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, no reform movement like the Prague Spring of 1968 and no civil society activism as in the Solidarnosc years in Poland. As one author put it at the time, communism was popular; there was "a widely shared feeling among Bulgarians that the country has made large and steady strides in economic, social and cultural realms." In 1991 the UN human development index had placed Bulgaria in 33rd position among 174 countries.
Communist Bulgaria had been the most faithful and reliable of the Soviet Union's East European vassals. Bulgarian communist rulers stressed the country's image as the smaller but older brother of a traditionally friendly Russia – bound by Slav ethnic ties, Eastern Orthodoxy and a common history of war with the Ottomans. This was not a mere romantic notion: Bulgaria was able to import cheap Soviet oil and gas, and to export its products to the undemanding Soviet market, helping it turn into the most industrialised country of the Eastern Bloc (Comecon) by 1988. In 1987 more than 68 percent of consumed energy in Bulgaria came from the USSR (compared to 32 percent in East Germany and 13 percent in Poland). Communism was not perceived to be a foreign imposition; it was certainly no vehicle of foreign exploitation, and there were no Soviet troops stationed in Bulgaria.
Bulgarian stability was built, however, on total economic dependency on the Soviet Union. The end of Comecon, therefore, was to have an immediate impact on Bulgaria. In December 1990, oil deliveries fell from 1 million to 243,000 tons per month. There was no alternative way to import energy: by the first quarter of 1990 currency reserves had fallen to $138 million, barely enough to finance energy imports for two weeks. Between 1989 and 1992 more than one million people (23 percent of the total workforce before transition) were to lose their jobs. Bulgaria's communist ruler Todor Zhivkov was deposed by the communist central committee on 10 November 1989. The first free elections took place in the summer of 1990, with the (renamed) communist party winning an absolute majority. Between 1990 and 1997 all governments except one (lasting barely one year) were to rely on the ex-communist party.
Explaining deep-rooted popular scepticism in Bulgaria towards a market economy, Roumen Avramov, an economist, argued that the country's "economic memory" reached back to the early 20th century. Even Bulgaria's "first capitalism" before 1944 was characterised by strong state involvement in the economy, by protectionism, bailouts for state companies and even by forced labour. The period, wrote Avramov, helped prepare the ground for the communist economy.
This was also a major difference between Bulgaria and Central East European states like the Czech Republic or Hungary, Avramov argued. "The roots of the latent economic xenophobia of the Bulgarians should be sought in that."
Against this background, it was perhaps no surprise that in the mid-1990s Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d'Estaing could argue against Bulgarian membership in the EU on civilisational grounds. One decade later, however, the picture changed dramatically.