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A Tale of Two Norm-Groups: Elite-Society Cleavage in Bulgaria

Emilian R. Kavalski


The paradox of the Bulgarian post-communist transition seems to be that on the one hand it has succeeded to introduce relatively stable political institutions, which, however, have not been able to address popular values, as is indicated by the erratic voting patterns and public opinion surveys. An explanation for such development can be found in the EU approach to the country, which aims to condition Bulgaria’s decision-making practice, but so far has failed to spill over into societal attitudes. As a result, the values promoted by the EU in elite policy-making remain abstract concepts rather than tangible points of reference for the majority of Bulgarian citizens. In its current form, the EU-promoted socialization unwittingly institutionalizes the separation between political elites and citizens. It develops a normative divergence between these two groups. The bottom line is the different premise for evaluating post-communist developments: (a) accession priorities and macroeconomic stability for the elites; and (b) the rising insecurity and decline in economic well-being for the majority of citizens. The suggestion is that such socialization practice (in the long-term) can have detrimental effects on the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration project.


cleavage, elite, European Union.

Question: […] the people continue to perceive the ruling elite as fathers of the nation…

Answer: Well, you see this is part and parcel of the way of thinking which was valid during the lifetime of two generations. It cannot be deleted nor snubbed; it should simply be accepted as a fact.

Interview with Simeon Saxcoburggotsky,
Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria
17 September 2003


With the dissolution of the former Soviet Bloc, the Euro-Atlantic organizations (mainly the EU and NATO) found themselves in a situation in which they had to quickly transform themselves ‘from victor to blueprint’ (Jacoby 2001: 171). This introduced a process of ideational mobility, through which ideas, rules and practices of appropriate policy-behaviour began to be transferred. The expectation (at least on behalf of Western structures) was that in this way normative acceptability would be introduced into East European states and societies; and, hence, facilitate the transition process. However, it seems likely that the dynamics of democratization advance (in certain cases) a normative differentiation between the decision-making groups and the society at large (Kozhemiakin 1998). In the words of the Bulgarian PM Saxcoburggotsky (in the epigraph), this tends to be merely recognized as the fact of the continued existence of a way of thinking characteristic of pre-1989 patterns of relations.

Recently, Kopeček (2004) proffered an analysis of the significance of charismatic leadership in post-communist transition. The objective of this exploration, therefore, is to further its implications by outlining public and elite responsiveness to such externally-promoted norms. It has long been suggested that the newly established governments of former communist states find themselves in the precarious situation of balancing between domestic interests and external (Western) pressure (Kolankiewicz 1994). However, the contextualization of this complex juggling act tends to produce distinct, case-specific explanation and understanding of the dynamics at hand. Therefore, instead of attempting the generalizing task of outlining one-size-fit-all-type of patterns in the post-1989 developments of former communist countries, this study looks at the case of the Bulgarian transition in an effort of drawing attention to potential shortcomings in externally-promoted policy-practice.

The concern of this article is the issue of external agency: i.e. to what extent the so-called Euro-Atlantic structures are able to exert their socializing influence in Bulgaria (as an applicant country). Socialization, itself, is understood as the process of transference of the appropriate rules and norms of international behaviour. Said otherwise, it denotes a ‘process that is directed towards a state’s internalization of the constitutive beliefs and practices institutionalized in its international environment’ (Shimmelfennig 2001: 111). Broadly defined within the Central East European (CEE) environment, to which Bulgaria aspires to belong, such socialization is carried out through the accession process. Owing to the limitations of this publication, the current study is going to explore only the EU-promoted processes of conditioning and learning to comply (Kavalski 2003), through which institutions, practices and norms are transmitted.

The dynamic of EU-socialization aims at bringing candidate-state elites (i.e. those involved in the policy-implementation and decision-making at governmental, administrative and legislative levels) in line with accepted standards of appropriate behaviour. Elite-socialization, therefore, is expected to initiate institutional arrangements for locking in expected outcomes and, thereby, create predictability. Such approach is premised both on the history of West European integration as well as on the underlying interests of Member States of the EU in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. In his Memoirs, Jean Monnet (1978) is explicit on the secretive circumstances of intense elite-negotiations which brought about the European Coal and Steel Community, now recognized as the precursor to the EU. Moreover in the early 1990s, the Member States of the EU were too preoccupied with the reorganization of its institutions, German unification and Soviet disintegration that the prospect of an attainable, yet distant membership for the applicant countries offered the West the benefits of: (i) allaying the fears of domestic publics from immediate enlargement, due to the unwillingness to ‘pour money into Eastern Europe’ (Allen 1992: 123); (ii) by providing them with a conditioning leverage for impacting developments in candidate-states; while (iii) ensuring the applicants’ commitment and compliance through the ‘carrot’ of membership. In other words, the expectation on behalf of the EU was that elite-socialization around promoted practices of decision-making is going to trickle down to the publics of candidate-states as well (as was the case in Western Europe after World War II). Thus, normative transference is perceived as a matter of experiential ideational mobility, which affects the political value-orientations of elites and publics (Gabel 1998). This approach, also, fails to disguise the initial uneasiness of the EU to extend the ‘community-method’ implicit in the model of West European integration to the East.

Such model of elite-socialization for the post-Cold War promotion of EU-order to the East has its apparent benefits, but also shortcomings. However, whereas the benefits can be summed up in some overarching frameworks, the shortcomings are distinctly context-specific. Therefore, the problematique, which this study aims to evince with the Bulgarian case, is merely one contentious node of the current EU-maintained socialization process: the apparent negligence of the normative reality of the publics in candidate-states. Perhaps, some of the explanation for such socializing carelessness can be found in the hackneyed democratic deficit of the EU. However, as this study contends, the normative elite-society cleavage (in the Bulgarian case at least) is also a result of the prevailing emphasis on elite-socialization, and the concurrent expectation of a subsequent normative spillover into the rest of society. Such socialization practice can be beneficial in the short- to medium-term; nevertheless, in the long-term it can have detrimental effects on the integration project. The required caveat is that such negative potentiality is context-specific, which is why it is evidenced through the Bulgarian example. In this way, this research is in agreement with the inference that EU ‘actorness’ is ‘a variable conditioned by circumstances as well as by formal grants of authority’ (Laffan et al 1999: 169).

However, prior to looking at the mechanics of the Bulgarian elite-society cleavage a brief account of the post-communist transition of the country is on order. It is not anticipated as a historical overview of the period, but, rather, it aims to provide a background for the emphasis on the current normative discrepancy between Bulgaria’s state-elites (as participants in the EU-promoted elite-socialization) and society (whose values remain largely unchanged/unchallenged by this process). The main dynamics in the post-communist developments of the country are: (i) managed, constitutional transition, which is marked by (ii) contradictions in institutional development, and as result, the better part of the 1990s indicated (iii) an ambiguity in the direction of the process.

A look at the Bulgarian constitutional transition:

It has been suggested that the consolidation of a framework of appropriate behaviour in the process of transition depends on the nature of the authoritarian collapse (Gunther, Diamandouros, Puhle 1995: 399-402). In Bulgaria, however, the authoritarian regime did not collapse. Unlike other CEE states, the rule of the communist regime remained virtually unchallenged by any form of popular, religious or intellectual dissent.

This is best evidenced by the so-called ‘regime-change of 10 November 1989’. Then, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), at a meeting of its Politburo and Secretariat, ‘accepted’ the resignation of Todor Zhivkov as leader of the party and head of state. The transformation was in effect an internal party coup supported by the Gorbachev-led Moscow government and not the result of a popular movement for reform. Thus, within the context of the literature on democratic transitions, the ancien régime remained largely consolidated through the breakdown phase and emerged very much unscathed and structurally intact (Mainwaring 1992: 322-25). These developments set up the background for a rather unpredictable transformation process, one, which was initiated from ‘above’ and did not reflect a significant social anxiety with the status quo. Such conjecture, however, aims to suggest the leading role assumed by communist elites in the initial stages of the transition and not that there was no opposition to such development – reflected by the groups such as ‘Ekoglasnost’, ‘Podkrepa’, etc. (see Nikolov 2004). Thereby, the salience of leadership in the immediate transformation period proved counterintuitive to the unfolding of a ‘civil consciousness’ (see Rudometov and Nikolov 1999).

Thus, while in other Balkan states the transition process began with a movement away from legality (i.e. ethnic violence in Yugoslavia or ‘managed revolution’ in Romania), in Bulgaria ‘the retirement/removal of Todor Zhivkov appeared to follow the prescribed legal forms’ (Bell 1997: 359).

Thus, policy-shifts were the result (more often than not) of the preferences of particular elites, rather than a reflection of popular demands. The institutionalisation of this dynamic began with the roundtable talks, which began on 4 January 1990. The main priority outlined at these negotiations between members of the BSP and opposition formations was the writing of a new constitution. This option was selected for the perceived benefits that it offered the participants of the roundtable talks: it legitimised both the continued existence of the BSP as well as the participation of the opposition groups.

Therefore, by opting for a constitutional reshaping of the Bulgarian ‘political landscape’ (Dimitrov 2001: 47), the participants at the roundtable talks introduced the facilitating conditions for the current elite-society cleavage. It focused on elite preference for a gradual institutional development rather than immediate economic transformation that would have benefited the society at large. This divergence of priorities prevented the establishment of an environment conducive to the promotion of a civil society sector, and instead (like in the communist period) the majority of Bulgarian citizens were left waiting on the decisions and conditions of elite settlement.

The main shortcoming of the Bulgarian institutional arrangement is not so much the oft-remarked conceptual fuzziness in the separation of powers, as laid down by the 1991 constitution (Ganev 2001: 186-211), but rather its failure to define the ‘“confining conditions” that act as a constraint on political choice once democratization begins’ (Pridham 2000: 11). Instead the dominant patterns of decision-making of the pre-1989 period persisted and, most conspicuously, remained the property of state-elites. Thus, very early on it became apparent that regardless of the political formation in power, the main preoccupation of the ruling elite is the consolidation of its power, rather than reform. It is within this context that the EU-promoted elite-socialization anticipated that the establishment of democratic institutions would introduce a normative alteration in the policy-making that will subsequently spill over into society. As Zheliu Zhelev, the first leader of the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), and, at the time, perhaps, the best known dissident-philosopher in the country, insisted in 1990 that the very existence of free access to alternative sources of information, competitive elections and the right to political participation indicated that communism in Bulgaria is ‘finished’ (Zhelev quoted in Bell 1997: 367). However, the first multi-party elections in the country in June 1990 proved such expectations wrong. Therefore the legal transformation managed from above and, subsequently, maintained by the EU through its association and accession activities, failed to address the apparent persistence of pre-1989 values, and, thence, furnished the institutionalization of an elite-society cleavage.

The nature of the constitutional transition in Bulgaria ensured the promotion of institutions that suggest the existence of democratic governance. However, as it has already been indicated, their introduction did not necessarily translate into appropriate and consistent policy-practices. The period up to February 1997 was dominated by (i) the ‘decisive’ presence of the BSP (Drezov, 2000: 197), and by (ii) the pro-/anti-EU debates. Such conceptualisation is deduced from the deliberations on the process and direction of Bulgarian economic reforms preponderant during that period (Kuti 1999). The distinction between the two is somewhat blurred since the latter query dominated the discourse within the BSP, as well. For instance, the victory of BSP in the June 1990 elections questioned not only the normative attitudes of the voters, but also the position of ‘pro-reformist’ groups within the party itself (Bell, 1997: 360).

Therefore, the pro-/anti-EU debate had the effect of: (i) portraying the EU in very abstract terms, (ii) polarizing public opinion on the issue along party lines, and (iii) ultimately, introduced the possibility for experimenting with an indigenous ‘Bulgarian way’ for reform. The very framing of the political discourse in the early 1990s, turned the discussions on the direction of Bulgarian transition into ‘weapons in internal political struggles… Public opinion has not been presented with a rational discussion of the options available to the country, and has swung rapidly from one extreme to the other’ (Dimitrov 2001: 104). A side effect of the debates on the prospective affiliation to international organizations was its politicization within the context of Bulgarian interests. From the very beginning of the transition the BSP has emphasized that it stands for national values and the Bulgarian flag has been a dominant sign of its rallies. At the same time, the UDF made it clear that it stands for Euro-Atlantic values as the ‘civilizational choice’ of Bulgaria symbolized by the blue flag of the formation.

Within this context, the BSP managed to convince a large number of the rural vote that the anti-communist opposition is genuinely unpatriotic and unBuglarian. However, the failure of the 1994-97 BSP government of Zhan Videnov (allegedly) ended the ambiguity of Bulgaria’s transition. Videnov’s attempt to institute a ‘Bulgarian Way’ to democracy and prosperity resulted in hyperinflation, criminal privatization and a slump in the living standards (Dimitrov 2001: 82). Therefore, the emulation of Euro-Atlantic patterns was perceived as a must. This was at least the understanding of state-elites at the time and it made them more pliant to EU’s power of attraction.

Thus, the UDF’s rise to power in 1997 was interpreted as an aspiration to break with the communist heritage and firmly align Bulgaria with the European mainstream. However, it is often overlooked that the ‘popular’ discontent in the spring of 1997 was instanced only by a strike in Sofia and several symbolic protest in big cities in the rest of the country. The majority of the population went about their usual business, and their ‘civic participation’ was limited to watching the unfolding events on television, which has been the ensconced practice since pre-1989 times. Once in power, the UDF failed to introduce a political process that would condition societal practices to EU norms and instead concentrated its attention to consolidating its power through direct relationship with the EU.

Elite-Society Cleavage:

The brief overview of the Bulgarian transition provides the background for the unfolding analysis of the elite-society cleavage. Per se, EU’s recognition of its order-promoting role in the country reflects these specific post-communist developments, but also takes into account its increased and distinct position in international affairs in the wake of the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Thereby, its post-1999 approaches to the Balkans, generally, and to Bulgaria, in particular, aim at making regional decision-making predictable. However, the suggestion of this study is that EU-promoted practices have introduced a normative differentiation in Bulgaria. Therefore, departing from divergent contexts – Euro-Atlantic recognition for the elites and individual insecurity for the citizens – ‘the government’ and ‘the people’ seem to have arrived at contrasting interpretations of post-communist developments.

EU elite-socialization:

As it has been suggested above, it was the government of PM Ivan Kostov (which came to power in May 1997) that steered Bulgaria (purportedly) firmly in the direction of EU integration by initiating economic and political restructuring. By the end of the year the reform process initiated by the government managed to attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) in Bulgaria than the total FDI for the period from 1991 to 1996 (EC 1998: 13). These efforts were soon matched by more engaged EU approach to the country in the context of the Kosovo crisis.

The purpose of the Accession Partnerships, which the EU signed with Bulgaria at the time, was to provide them with ‘a number of policy instruments which will be used to help the candidate States in their preparations for membership’ (EC 1999a: 2). These instruments are grouped in four general areas: (i) political criteria; (ii) economic criteria; (iii) ability to assume the obligations of membership; and (iv) administrative capacity to apply the acquis. As the Progress Reports make it explicit, the activities initiated within these areas are centred on the promotion of appropriate procedures for ensuring path-dependent policy-behaviours. This objective is achieved in two ways: (i) administrative capacity building and (ii) establishment of management facilities. Thus, regardless of the particular area of involvement, the EU promotes Bulgarian elite-socialisation both via direct conditioning and by teaching them to comply.

-Administrative Capacity Building:

The premise of EU’s involvement in Bulgaria is that the country has a weak capacity to conform, implement and maintain the political and economic criteria set out by the 1993 Copenhagen European Council. In other words, its understanding is underlined by ‘a need to build up capacity to formulate and coordinate policy inside the administration, including the area of EU affairs’ (EC 1998: 46). That is why by conditioning Bulgaria’s policy-making procedures to EU-practice, it anticipates the cultivation of (at least) compliance (if not internalization) of its rules and norms. This is also expected to ensconce more predictable foreign policy-behaviour. Therefore, EU’s measures aimed to ensure that Bulgarian elites, regardless of their political affiliations, concur in the pro-Western direction of the country’s transition.

For that purpose, the EU has focused on reforming the administrative structure of governance through the promotion of dialogue: (i) among different sectors of the decision-making process; (ii) among them and the EU; as well as (iii) by the establishment of an independent civil service. These have been emphasised as ‘the essential precondition for creating mutual trust indispensable for future membership’ (EC 1998: 41. Emphasis added). Such trust-building is achieved through the ‘investment in staff’, which guarantees ‘that the government intends to pursue its efforts to strengthen administrative capacity’ (EC 1999b: 69-70). Thus, EU’s involvement in building Bulgarian administrative capacity has ‘to ensure that [EU’s] priorities are translated into mature projects, and that ministries collaborate with one another and with outside groups and coordinate assistance more effectively’ (EC 2001: 12). In other words, trust is a matter of practice, resulting from the establishment of policy patterns that ensure the stability of institutions, macroeconomic stability and foreign policy predictability.

-Management Facilities:

The three main instruments of EU assistance to Bulgaria are PHARE, SAPARD and ISPA. In order to guarantee that its objectives are pursued consistently, the EU has insisted on the establishment of management facilities attached to particular ministries that coordinate its funds and expertise in Bulgaria. Thus, for instance, in order to maintain the procedures of the PHARE programme, it encouraged the establishment of a National Fund and Central Finance and Contracting Unit, both located within the Bulgarian Ministry of Finance, as well as a limited number of regional Implementing Agencies (EC1999a: 8). At the same time the State Fund for Agriculture has been designated as the SAPARD Agency, while ‘administrative structures and procedures have been put in place by the Bulgarian authorities for the implementation of ISPA projects’ (EC 2001: 12).

Thus, the intended efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of these management facilities has ‘to strengthen the regulatory infrastructure needed to ensure compliance with the acquis’ (EC 2002a: 12) In other words, their purpose was to maintain norm-transference by warranting that Bulgarian decision-making elites adopt ‘the practice of EU Member States’ (EC 2001: 89) and that ‘all European harmonised standards are transposed into Bulgarian standards’ (EC 2002c: 9).


Overall, from EU’s point of view, its elite-socialization procedures initiated in Bulgaria seem to be providing the expected results: stable institutions of governance, macroeconomic stability and predictability of foreign policy.

The stability of institutions has been achieved through the promotion of decision-making premised on the ‘rule of law’ (EC 1999b: 11). It is underpinned by the lack of alternative centres of normative attraction. This has been evidenced by the ‘broad political support for EU accession… between President, government and all political forces in parliament’ (EC 2002a: 19-20).

The achievement of macroeconomic stability has been of paramount significance to the EU. Having recognized Bulgaria’s progress in the adoption of the political criteria for membership at the signing of the Accession Partnership, the majority of institution-building and management capacities promoted by the EU help to facilitate Bulgaria’s economic restructuring. After, the economic collapse at the end of 1996 and the beginning of 1997, the country has managed to achieve significant macroeconomic stability.

Table 1: Macroeconomic trends in Bulgaria.

Source: European Commission, 2002a.

As the data in Table 1 indicates, macroeconomic trends have significantly improved since their mid-1990s levels. This is largely due to governmental compliance with the fiscal discipline promoted by the EU, so that the country could implement the requirements for participation in the European Monetary Union (EMU). A recognition of the considerable progress made in the adoption of the economic criteria for membership has been the assessment that ‘Bulgaria is a functioning market economy. It should be able to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union in the medium term, provided that it continues implementing its reform programme to remove remaining difficulties’ (EC 2002a: 46).

Perhaps, the best evidence of EU’s elite-socialization is the conditioning of Bulgaria’s foreign policy within a framework of predictable (peaceful) international relations. It is the result of the alignment of the country’s decision-making with Euro-Atlantic values. The significance of Bulgarian relations with Brussels is demonstrated by the establishment in 1998 of a mechanism for European integration within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (EC 1998: 41), which in 2002 was ‘strengthened by the creation of a post of a full Minister of European Integration’ (EC 2002a: 22). At the same time the National Assembly increased the visibility of its EU priorities with the creation of a new Directorate for Legislation and European Law to assist the work of its Committee on European Integration (EC 2002a: 20). Therefore, the post-1999 EU engagement in Bulgaria ensures that the country regularly aligns ‘its positions with that of the Union and whenever invited, it has adhered to the Union’s statements’ (EC 1998: 39). As a result, the EU has regularly indicated that the country is a contributor to Balkan stability not only through its participation in KFOR, SFOR, ISAF and OSCE peacekeeping missions, but also through the regional dialogue that it has initiated within the framework of ‘trilateral relations with Greece and Romania, Romania and Turkey, FYROM and Albania, and Greece and Turkey’ (EC 2001: 89). In other words, the EU-initiated measures have ensured the maintenance of predictable (peaceful) foreign policy decision-making, according to the externally promoted standards.

Thus, the socialization of Bulgarian elites seems to have produced the intended results – capacities, institutions and policies in line with EU practice and norms. Such policy practice can be interpreted as a fairly promising elite-socialization process, in which the positive feedback (often indicated by availability of additional funding or resources) from the socialization agency ensures the maintenance of path-dependent policy-behaviour. Despite, the apparent benefits and achievements of this approach, however, there are a number of significant shortcomings: mainly the sidelining (if not exclusion) of public opinion from this socialization. In effect, the EU has suggested that decision-making elites do not follow public opinion when it diverges from the prescribed patterns: ‘In the Kosovo crisis, in spite of divided public opinion, the Bulgarian government, with the approval of the National Assembly, supported the NATO operations… and continues to orient its foreign and security policy towards EU’ (EC 1999b: 53-54. Emphasis added). Such practice has significantly prevented the socialization of Bulgarian society along Euro-Atlantic norms, which has caused the current rift between elites and societies.

Public perceptions of EU accession:

The establishment of the framework of elite-socialization has tended to sideline the social impact of the accession process. The EU has recognized this shortcoming but has failed to address the issue in a way that would improve the elite-society cohesion by engaging the normative basis of public opinion: ‘Although the process of transformation has required large sections of the population to make considerable sacrifices and has led to major economic and social upheavals, the negotiations on the enlargement process are now in the final stages’ (EC 2003: 0101). Overlooking the concerns stirred up by such sacrifices can impact negatively the final stages of accession.

Bulgaria is a good example for the volatility of elite-socialization, where EU norm-transference is limited only to the participants in policy-making. As the argument goes, this ensures formal compliance with prescribed decision-making; however, it fails to promote an engaged social participation in this process. Owing to the delayed start of the reform process and the country’s belated orientation towards the Euro-Atlantic structures (both of which can be said to begin with the 1997 UDF government) the ‘socialist way of life’ (Dainov 2002) for the majority of Bulgarians remained unchanged and unchallenged. For instance, only 19% of Bulgarians are satisfied with their incomes, but 55% are contented with their state-jobs, indicating that people are happy to have a job as an indicator of some security, not as a source of material benefits (PRCPP, 2002: 24). In other words, after more than a decade of post-communist transition, an entrepreneurial ethos has not managed to make a dent on public mentality of waiting on the state to provide for them (Table 2).

Table 2: Expectations from government

It should provide a job for every one




Agree %




Disagree %




Source: Agency for Social Analysis (2000).

Thus, when the government of PM Kostov initiated its economic restructuring and privatisation program, the values of reform came in sharp contrast with the socialist way of life of the Bulgarian electorate. Therefore, the response to the first genuine attempts to alter the economic environment in the country were reflected by the overwhelmingly no-vote of the electorate in June 17, 2001. In the current, 39th National Assembly, UDF has a mere 51 seats, the previously non-existent National Movement for Simeon Vtori (NDSV) – 120, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) – 21 (and two ministers in the cabinet), and BSP – 48 (initially two and currently only one minister in cabinet). Thus, UDF despite having ‘saved Bulgaria from economic disaster’ (Barany 2002: 149) fell victim to its own inability to tackle the mentality of the socialist way of life (even in its own ranks). The blow was rendered even more poignant when the UDF-backed, incumbent, reformist president Stoyanov, lost the November 2001 election to the BSP candidate (and former-communist party apparatchik) Parvanov.

Some have interpreted the landslide victory of Saxcoburggotsky's NDSV as a radical change in the political scene as well as in the civic culture; for others it is just the opposite – a reactionary backlash against everything that the difficult transition has managed (or failed) to achieve ever since its inception at the end of 1989. Nonetheless, both positions overlook the failure of the transition period so far, (i) to socialize the everyday reality of Bulgarians to the importance of the Euro-Atlantic values aspired by the elites; and, thence (ii) to legitimize the country’s accession by enabling the people to take responsibility for this process. Instead, the electorate chose ‘external, quick-fix solution’ grounding their decision on the ‘irrationality generated by the years of pseudo-legitimate reforms and blatantly criminal attempts for social reform of the totalitarian system’ (Gulubov, 2002). Said otherwise, Saxcoburggotsky’s election victory indicates the gulf between the political elite and the electorate and their different perceptions of Bulgaria’s transition. It made conspicuous the inability of the post-communist developments to establish a consistent identity both for the Bulgarian state and its citizens (Table 3), coherent with the Euro-Atlantic objectives of democratisation.

Table 3: How do you live today, in comparison with the period before November 1989?

Better %


Without changes %


Worse %


Source: Dimova (2000).

Thus, the massive anti-UDF vote in the summer of 2001 evinces the popular differentiation between two value-oriented groups: ‘them’ (the elites) and ‘us’ (the people). This distinction is premised mostly on normative criteria rather than on traditional understandings of social class. As Jean and John L. Comaroff (2001: 16) contend, the concept of class can no longer capture the complex constitution of contemporary being, and, instead, reduces it to the mere ‘experience of inferiority’. Therefore, the distinction between elite and societal normative groups is an attempt to underline the divergent premises for their evaluation of reality; and, thence, experience of (perhaps) parallel social existence.

An indication of these different value-oriented groups, for instance, is the data that a year before the 2001 elections, 57.1% of Bulgarian elites assessed the 1997 UDF government as the best government the country has had since the beginning of the transition, while, at the same time only 18.2% of the public opinion held the same view (Vitosha Research 2000: 6). The conspicuous reason for such significant difference is the different basis for evaluation: elites’ point of departure is the positive direction (and external assessment) of the reform process, while society, considers it from the point of the huge cost that this transformation entails. Therefore, the realization of institutional and macroeconomic stability is contrasted by the hardships of transition.

According to the European Commission (2002b) Bulgaria (together with Romania) occupies the last place on the number of essential commodities owned by the citizens of candidate-states. Such meagre ‘wealth’-levels are further compounded by the 46% of Bulgarians, who declare that they were unable to afford enough food in 2002, about the 50% unable to pay for health care and about 68% who have foregone buying clothes (PRCPP 2002: 25-6). The fact of these high-deprivation levels indicates the deep division between the realities of the Bulgarian political elite and the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian citizens. The latter seem no longer to be concerned with the lofty (Euro-Atlantic) ideals, but focus on the essentials of their survival. Thus, it is not surprising that 55% of Bulgarians indicate that their lives have gotten worse since 1997, putting into question all the ‘achievements’ of the transition process (PRCPP 2002: 21). Figure 1 corroborates the suggestion that the majority of respondents find it very difficult to meet their basic needs and living expenses.

Figure 1: What would you buy first if you receive a cash social benefit?

Source: Dimova (2000).

The sidelining of popular perceptions of the reform could significantly undermine the presumed stability of the institutions of government. As official data indicates (EC 2002b), there is a strikingly low level of public trust in these institutions, not least because of the general exclusion of the Bulgarian public (outside of electoral campaigning) from the decision-making process. Such low level of trust can be construed as a reaction to the normative distancing of state-elites from popular perceptions of the process as a result of the EU-promoted elite socialisation. For instance, in 2001, 53% of Bulgarians indicate that they are dissatisfied with the way things are currently going on in their country, and when asked about their conditions of existence, 91% respond that their situation is bad and 72% expect their situation to get even worse in the future rather than improve (PRCPP 2002: 29-30, 39). Such pessimism is in stark contrast with the up-beat statements of the Prime Minister, who announced after his return from the 2002 Copenhagen European Council: ‘I hope that the people can see how we are succeeding to accomplish our aims one after the other’ (Saxcoburggotsky 2002. Emphasis added).

Figure 2: Satisfaction with the changes in Bulgaria in the last three years.

Source: Dimova (2000).

As Figure 2 indicates, the social cost of transition is challenging popular support for the direction of Bulgarian transition. Therefore, the aims of elites are not necessarily perceived as our aims by society. The fact that society at large perceives its conditions of existence as deteriorating rather than improving, fails to produce a popular normative shift in favour of maintaining the process. The inability of state-elites, as well as the EU, to address these issues further compounds the situation. Instead, the outcome of EU’s capacity-building in the country has been elite-responsiveness to EU expectations, rather than to societal ones. As a result, there is a consistent pattern of rising levels of dissatisfaction with the reform process. Asked in 2001 whether their expectations from the process of democratisation overlap with its reality, only 4% of Bulgarian respondents declare their satisfaction with the way things are going on, while 81% indicate their disappointment with the direction of transition. This is a significant diversion from the results of a similar poll in 1998 when 35% of Bulgarians expressed content with the reform process, while 51% declared their disappointment with its direction (Fessel-GfK 2001). Such increased level of disappointment can be explained through the failure of the institutional and macroeconomic stability to address the issues of high unemployment and low-income levels. In other words, the “re-launch” of Bulgarian transition in 1997 failed to match popular aspirations. Instead of decreasing, as Table 4 indicates the margin of job insecurity in Bulgaria remains consistently high.

Table 4: Unemployment rate.








Unemployment rate %







Source: European Commission, 2002a.

The significance of this data is not only that it reflects the high social cost that Bulgarians pay in the process of political and economic transformation, which allows them little opportunity for socializing with the EU-promoted norms. Instead, the externally-maintained institutions and practices are interpreted by Bulgarians as a set of (lofty) rules for political expediency introduced for EU’s rather than their own (let alone their country’s sake) sake. As a result, (Figure 3), public perception begins to question the ability of external standards to tackle domestic problems.

Figure 3: Capability for problem solving in Central and Eastern Europe.

Source: Fessel-GfK (2001).

Therefore, although the result of elite-socialization tends to be a high degree of policy-compliance and increasing adoption of the EU normative basis in the decision-making practice, it seems to alienate public opinion. Since it is society rather than decision-making elites that bears the cost of transformation, people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their (apparent) exclusion from such processes. Consequently, Bulgarians show one of the highest levels of frustration with the process of democratisation. Only 18% support the country’s move towards EU promoted practices, while 79% are dissatisfied with it (EC 2002b: 30). Such findings contradict the traditionally high level of popular support for the EU. The same data, however, suggests an explanation for such incongruity through the low level of knowledge of the requirements for processes of accession. Bulgarian respondents traditionally indicate very positive reactions (64%), high level of trust (65%) and support for EU membership (68%) (EC 2002b: 50, 58, 62). However, this data is undermined by the high level of abstraction of such popular attitudes, since Bulgarians indicate the lowest levels of knowledge (from candidate countries) of the EU, its institutions and the accession process (European Commission, 2002b: 110). Most Bulgarians perceive membership in terms of dramatic (if not utopic) improvement in their conditions of existence: it is understood as right to work (71%), ability to study (59%) and access to welfare and healthcare (55%) (European Commission, 2002b: 56). However, regardless of the perceived social benefits of EU membership, the overwhelming public opinion is that the biggest ‘winners’ from a possible accession are going to be large businesses (75%) and politicians (73%), while the rural population and elderly people are going to lose out (EC 2002b: 94).

Such data, brought together with the above-mentioned perception that democracy is incapable of solving Bulgaria’s social problems and the high level of public mistrust in political institutions indicates a pattern towards non-democratic frameworks of governance. In 2001, only 33% of Bulgarians have declared some degree of satisfaction with democracy, while 62% have indicated their disillusionment with it (Fessel-GfK 2001). Thus, the aforesaid popular perception that democracy is incapable of solving Bulgaria’s problems can be interpreted as dissatisfaction with the conditioning dynamics promoted by the EU. The persistence of pre-1989 patterns in the public opinion can be inferred from the list of most-trusted institutions by Bulgarian society: army – 57% and police – 50%, (European Commission, 2002b: 32). Such ranking suggests the normative presence (if not revival) of the myth of the ‘strong hand’ of the paternalistic state leader who is going to take care of the people. The high-esteem of such traditionally hierarchical institutions of subordination reflects the lack of entrepreneurial values in societal patterns. This conclusion is reflected by the high number of Bulgarians (55%), who indicate that a return to non-democratic governance is preferable to the furtherance of democratic procedures – 44% (Fessel-GfK 2001: 11). The persistence of such trend is evidence by Figure 4.

Figure 4: Patterns of 'democratic' identification in Bulgaria.

Source: Fessel-GfK, 2001.

Another instance of the elite-society cleavage can be discerned in the reasons for the disappointment with the transition process. According to Bulgarian elites, it is due to the shortcomings of the post-communist parties (54%) and the heritage of communism (56%). Public opinion, at the same time, puts the blame at the political class in general (54%), as well as the ‘Western countries and organisations for discriminating against our country’ (23.3%) (Vitosha Research 2000: 9). While such disparity seems to account for the different premises for evaluating the post-1997 transition process, it also reflects the persistence of the popular abstraction of the mechanisms of transition; which also suggests the (negative) potentiality of an elite-society cleavage.

In lieu of a conclusion:

The paradox of Bulgarian transition seems to be that on the one hand it has succeeded to introduce relatively stable (especially by Southeast European standards) political institutions, which, however, have not been able to address popular values, as is indicated by the erratic voting patterns and public opinion surveys. As already suggested, this inference does not imply that the salience of the traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ division of the political spectrum has been made redundant. On the contrary, the claim is that its implications persist in the realm of Bulgarian politics. However, the sequitur of this article is that regardless of their respective positions, Bulgarian political elites are moving ontologically in the direction of justifying their decision-making according to a normative plain increasingly incongruous with that of the society. An explanation for such development can be found in the EU approach to the country, which aims to condition its decision-making practice, but so far has failed to spill over into societal attitudes. As a result, the values promoted by the EU in elite policy-making still remain abstract concepts rather than tangible points of reference for the majority of Bulgarian citizens. In its current form, the EU-promoted socialization unwittingly institutionalizes the separation between political elites and citizens.

Thus, the divergence of views between Bulgarian elites and society seems like a logical outcome. Apparently, the current political elite perceives Bulgarian reality from the context of the international recognition of Bulgaria at the 2002 NATO Prague Summit and the Copenhagen European Council. On the other hand, the majority of Bulgarians seem to perceive their environment from the framework of their surrounding circumstances, characterized by insecurity, dissatisfaction with their conditions of existence and hopelessness. Its implication, however, is that the evocation of closer ties with the EU is reflected in the popular dissatisfaction with the deteriorating conditions of existence. Such relationship could potentially impact negatively the accession-dynamic of the country (a possibility indicated by the recent profusion of anti-EU statements on the decision to shut down two reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear plant as part of the accession criteria). In such sporadic signs of distancing public support for measures undertaken to condition the country for potential membership one can decipher the possible negative spill over on the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the state from the inability of the EU-promoted elite-socialization to make Bulgarians feel involved in the process, which institutionalizes the normative divergence between elites and publics in the country.

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2-3 / VI / jaro-léto 2004 / spring-summer 2004Články / ArticlesTisk / Print 

    ISSN 1212-7817

Recenzovaný on-line časopis
vydává Mezinárodní politologický
ústav Fakulty sociálních studií, Masarykova univerzita

A peer-reviewed on-line journal
issued by the International Institute
of Political Science of the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University

    Ročník XVII / Volume XVII (2015)
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