HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE BALKANS/ Deyan Kiuranov

BG to EU, and Human Rights: negative attitudes, no acts

Deyan Kiuranov, PhD, of Sofia, Bulgaria, was active in the Bulgarian anticommunist
opposition and afterwards worked as a political sociologist and anthropologist for
NGOs and Soros’ Open Society in Bulgaria and Belarus. His main current interests are
interethnic relations and Russia.

Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. The Romano Prodi Commission had given the green light for integration of ex-communist countries five years earlier. At that time, the beginning of the 2000s, opinion polls in Bulgaria were showing a sizeable pro-EU minority, a much smaller anti-EU minority and a majority of people who weren’t clear on the issue, but were generally in favor. The prevailing pro-EU attitude was best formulated by an elderly Bulgarian lady of Romani origin (in an interview for a political anthropological survey directed by the author): “I am for Europe because the Europeans should come and give us some law and order”.

In 2019 it was a Bulgarian, Yonko Grozev, who was “giving law and order to Europe” as judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: the session he was chairing upheld the decision of a German court against a Holocaust denier.[1] He was appointed to the HR court after being a very successful Human Rights lawyer, who had won a series of cases of HR abuse against Bulgaria, Russia and other countries.

However, if one would ask Bulgarians today what they thought about that HR case, it is a safe guess that one would register a negative majority. Not because of sympathy with the German Holocaust denier: there isn’t much active anti-semitism in Bulgaria, predominantly due to the fact that there are so very few Jews still living in the country. It would be because of anti-Europeanism and the negativism towards the idea of cross-border HR legislation enforcement.

We shouldn’t, however, jump to the conclusion that Bulgaria would soon be following Greenland in 1985 and the UK in 2020 in a Bulexit. In this case it wouldn’t be a guessing matter: surveys[2]  show clearly that there is no support for leaving the Union in this country. It looks like a case of an attitude that doesn’t materialize as action, and most probably never will. Why?

We could understand that situation better if we’d consider it together with a positive Bulgarian attitude, which doesn’t materialize either. In an extensive survey of populist propaganda,[3] it was explained why there was in Bulgaria simultaneously a majority favoring Putin’s Russia and a majority favoring the pro-Western orientation of the Bulgarian government. A simple explanation was offered, the result of rather complicated thinking: the West had more to give. The West was seen as not only able to offer more money, but also the prestige of modern/postmodern lifestyles. The heartfelt traditionalistic attractions of Russian postcommunism apparently were no match for that. So the majority would opt for Europeanism with Human Rights (perceived as a bad thing) against Eurasianism without Human Rights (seen as a good thing).

Doubtless this points to a rift between feeling and act, word and deed, and reveals a fundamental moral and bihevioral problem. That problem could be, and probably is, surmounted by systematic lying to oneself, which may be a prerequisite, yet also the result, of a social pathology. The result would be mass low self-esteem, lack of integrity and diminished if not destroyed personal dignity.

On the other hand, we have seen societies, usually of a traditional and closed type, in which the attitude prevails that they shouldn’t act with dignity when dealing with stronger, better developed and open societies. One doesn’t lose one’s dignity when lying to those stronger parties; it’s OK to use subtrefuge against them as it is OK to use a ruse in battle! Dignity is viewed as good for internal uses only, within the boundaries of tradition. We have here Klausewitz’s adage on its head: peace is a continuation of war by other means. This is basically the attitude of the Bulgarian majority towards the EU, translating as: give as little as possible, get as much as possible per fas et nefas. Bulgaria, the poorest and most retarded country in the Union, seems to feel that she is justified to do that (there are other countries doing much the same, but comparisons are beyond our scope here). Besides being closed society thinking, there seems to obtain here an admixture of communist ideology, aimed at morally justifying all attempts by the “poor and ignorant” to better their status. Etc. However, rather than going into social psychology in this cursory glimpse of contemporary Bulgarian society, let’s mark the major acts that do materialize in these circumstances.

Two resounding acts of 2019 have been: (1) the Bulgarian Constitutional court judged the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence as contradictory to the Constitution, hence not to be ratified, and it wasn’t; (2) the Bulgarian government withdrew the National Strategy for the Child 2019-2030 that it had proposed. Both acts were committed in an atmosphere of self-organized traditionalistic populist reaction. A sociologist working for a Bulgarian parenthood NGO that supported the Strategy (David Deyanov) has written in a non-paper in the beginning of 2020: “The [civic] organizations [opposing the Strategy] not only reached their goal, but gained enormous added value”, for during their campaign a facebook goup of their adherents with some 210 000 members appeared, “many of them young parents, with local groups throughout the country”; nationally they formed the association “ROD – Parents united for the children” (in Bulgarian the abbreviation ROD means “genus”.) As a result, he concludes, the conservative values narrative won definitely over the Human Rights narrative, and NGOs such as his have become marginalized and msust find new approaches to stage a comeback.

It should be understood clearly that this reaction to the attempt of the EU and the Bulgarian government to guarantee more rights was democracy in action all along. For thirty years NGOs in Bulgaria have tried to raise awareness to HR and other liberal issues to no avail. However, when anti-liberal causes caught the people’s imagination, they led them quickly to mass self-organization, pressure from below on elites, and finally victory. The word “imagination” is sadly not just a cliché here, for the mass reaction was based on imaginary threats. The Istanbul Convention was perceived as a threat to parents that their children “would be forcibly made from boys and girls into genders (sic)”, an unclear abomination. And the Child’s Strategy “would forcibly take the kids away from their parents”, destroying the Bulgarian family. Sure enough, the poltical establishment also participated: the ex-communist party (the main opposition force) joined nationalistic parties in using that civic upsurge to agitate against the European Union; the established churches – the Bulgarian Orthodox Church united for the occasion with the Bulgarian Muslim Mufti authority to stigmatize the attempted new legislation as unholy, i.e. both Unchristian and Unmuslim, and on that basis would harangue the lay state; all “reactionary forces” chipped in; however the point is that it was basically a case of genuine populist reaction, a reaction of the people. It then became easy for the government to back out of the Convention and the Strategy, pleading democratic submission to the people’s will. But why hadn’t the government denounced that new legislation as Unbulgarian from the start, rather than become the object of popular criticism?

The short answer is that the government is not afraid that popular criticism will produce political action. The present government has governed under the same prime minister for 10 years now, and they have understood the pattern pf Bulgarian politics: there might be strong reactions against particular policies, but those reactions would never turn into acts against the government.  Everyday one hears from the media and in the street (verbatim) “There is no state in Bulgaria” or “It’s not that Bulgaria has a mafia, it’s the mafia that has Bulgaria” (meaning corruption rings at all levels); however, the government is always voted to resume office. Even if there are street demonstrations, there always turns out to be an electoral majority (and elections are not falsified, at least not significantly). The economic situation over the last decade has improved, with an average GDP growth of around 3% and a slowly falling unemployment rate from around 8% in 2009 to around 5% now). Corruption is hard to measure objectively, of course, but is believed to be ubiquitous and high at all social levels. That doesn’t bother the majority, because all endeavor to profit by that corruption in proportion to their standing and opportunities; corruption rings have become consolidated, hence there is a feeling of stability. One may say that the present Bulgarian social contract looks like the people telling the elite: “It’s OK by us that you seize what you can, provided you let us steal what we can”.

In that sort of public climate which ignores the rule of law, Human Rights are seen by the majority as a necessary evil, imposed by the EU, to be managed predominantly by lying to the EU. In particular, that’s why the government (a) proposed the Strategy in the first place, but (b) happily withdrew it. Of course, Brussels has had enough time to learn seeing through such lies. However, as Bulgaria keeps its fiscal discipline and its borders tightly closed to migrants, Brussels would rather not expose those lies and be happy with a government lying about that.  That tacit arrangement has been called here “politics of mutual winking”:  the Bulgarian government winks at Brussels, saying that of course Bulgaria is a democracy and striving to have rule of law, HR and all that, while Brussels winks back as if they believed it; simultaneouslsy, the government winks at the people, saying that it is all for fighting corruption, and the people accuse it of corruption verbally, but wink back indicating that they’ll still vote for the ruling party.

The objectivistic conclusion can only be that at this stage Bulgaria will stably occupy the last place compared to all EU members, both economically (despite its steady growth) and politically, in terms of rule of law and Human Rights (mostly due to corruption plus traditionalism). That this may also look pessimistic is another matter.

 

[1] Judgment of  03.11.2019, Pastoers vs. Germany, see e.g. https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-196148%22]}

[2] There are numerous reliable domestic surveys, but easiest to access on the Internet would be the relevant Standard Eurobarometers

[3] Conducted during 2016-2017 by a team headed by Prof. Dimiter Vatsov, New Bulgarian University (the author was part of the team); results were published in the journal Critique and Humanism, issue 49 (1, 2018) “Media, Conspiracies and Propaganda in the Post Cold War World” (in English); Part 1 also accessible at https://hssfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/REPORT_PART1_EN.pdf