What’s your breaking point? If your state is becoming known as a hot bed of corruption with an economy in decline what do you do? Do you tough it out with political protests or leave?
This year, protesters filled Kiev’s squares because their president refused measures to bring Ukraine closer to the EU in favor of reinforcing ties with Putin’s Russia. We’re now watching the bloody aftermath of that decision play out across our twenty-four hour news cycle. Former Eastern Bloc countries are at a crossroads where those in power have loyalty to an older regime and the younger generation is compelled to strive for alternatives to the system that failed their parents and grandparents.
Geographically, Bulgaria is as close to Ukraine as Alabama is to Florida and over the past several years it’s been host to numerous long-lasting youth protests. Originally spurred on by EU austerity measures, the protests gained enough traction to pressure real government change in the form of cabinet resignations and regime change. Despite what most would consider positive effects of the mostly college-aged protests, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating from “stable” to “negative” in the last quarter of 2013 citing political unrest as a key factor. Combined with the UK opening its borders, without exception, for the first time this year to Bulgarians seeking to immigrate, Bulgaria is faced with a real dilemma. Is the current generation of Bulgarians going to fight for their country or take flight to greener pastures?
Bulgaria is a civilization state with its own language and a history of independent rule dating back to the seventh century. After the fall of the Soviet Union Bulgaria began democratic parliamentary elections and continued to develop economically joining Nato in 2004 and the European Union in 2007. In the West we might not realize it, but it’s also an entertainment hub for Hollywood. Bulgaria has been the production home of blockbusters like the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen, and the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire.
I was visiting the set of the upcoming 300 sequel in the Summer of 2012 and found a country of contradictions. In the capital city of Sofia I saw beautiful cathedrals contrasted against harshly angled Soviet police stations. I saw modern shopping centers but had my taxi attacked by a pack of wild dogs. The Black Sea is dotted with luxury resorts intertwined with old-world villages. It’s this clash of old and new, sophisticated and wild that defined the Balkan state in a unique way.
A Troubled Country
The nostalgic nature of the Bulgarian people also leads to institutional systems which long overstay their welcome. In 2007 and again in 2010 EU officials urged the Bulgarian government to take serious action against corruption and organized crime with France and Germany going so far as to block Bulgaria’s entrance into the passport-free zone until the EU was satisfied with their progress. It was under these pressures that in 2013 protests started in the capital city. Despite a growing renewable energy market, monopolies controlled the cost of consumer power which lead to the rapidly rising cost of electricity. Many protesters defiantly burned their bills and by February the demonstrations had spread across seventeen major cities. The protesters marched on the National Assembly and on February 20th Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned his cabinet.
Although this was seen as a major victory the issues of monopoly, corruption, and organized crime still weigh heavy over Bulgarian life. This, combined with an unemployment rate peaking at 13.8%, lead to speculation that a mass exodus would happen when the UK lifted its immigration restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania in January of this year.
I reached out to some of the Bulgarians I’d met in my travels to see how their perspectives had evolved since we last met.
Yakim: A technical professional.
Bulgaria is a small country, the communists made a bloody cleaning when they stepped into power in 1945, killing nearly 3,000 people from the former government… political elite, intellectuals, scientists and that way they put the roots of their ruling system in Bulgaria. That form of government and policy lasted for 45 years. When the change came in Bulgaria and the democracy stepped in these roots were never deleted and the ties and connections with the past just blended with the new parties that started to form the new government. Business was ruled by people with money, people from the former communistic government! At every level of the government there is a former member at a key position that pulls strings and pushes buttons! Money laundering, close ties with the former USSR, corruption, racketeering, forming and protecting the mafia in Bulgaria, becoming the protectors and oligarchs of today’s Bulgarian business elite — those are the modern communists, the same ones that were ruling for 45 years!
Thats why we are at the streets, protesting, fighting this system. But we are few, some 100,000 that can go out. We do not want bloodshed and aggression we want everything to go by the book of the democracy; to make the politicians listen to the people… to make them work for the people and the country not against!
We need a change, a drastic one…deleting the past and cutting all the roots; dealing once and for all with all the forms of governments and ruling parties that were part of the past governments and especially the communistic party.
We need a clean parliament — new politics with no bonds and ties to any former parliament or government. Until these changes take part in our life, there will be no economy in Bulgaria, as there is none at the moment. There is no production! The institutions are selling the country,or should I say, sold the Bulgarian economy and production long ago! We take loans from EU and put them in the politicians pockets.
As being part of this sick society,struggling to survive this type of situation, facing corruption and low standard of living and under payment. I, and many of my friends will move to work and live in UK or any other country,prove to their systems that we can be a benefit to their business and their society, with our education, skills and experience.
At the time of publication Yakim is living and working outside of Bulgaria.
Ana: An Artist
Lots of people who I know want to move to work and live in EU or USA, these are people with very good education and a few languages, but these people are not ready to go to UK or any other country from EU to live under the law or to use their social systems.
Bulgaria has tons of problems… economic, political, corruption… these are some of the reasons that make Bulgarians move to UK, EU and USA. Because moving to UK, for example, gives them a chance to work and live better. Someday the things will be better but when will be this “someday” is the Big Question for Bulgaria.
The standard of living is the reason people to leave Bulgaria. Good monthly payment here is between 600 lev to 1200 lev [lev is the currency of Bulgaria]. In Euro 600 lev are €307.69 and 1200 lev are €615.38, also let’s don’t forget that this is money you can make in a big city in Bulgaria, and in a bigger part of the country peoples work one month for 350 lev to 450 lev. At the same time we are paying everything like we are living in UK, Germany, France or countries like these.
If you and Bulgarian pensioner (old-age) you must live with monthly retirement of 120 lev to 400 lev or this in Euro is € 61.54 to € 205.13.
From this money they must pay all bills, medicines, food for all the month and for example one bread is 1.10 lev or €0.56 or 1 kilogram of meat is around 15 lev in euro is €7.69… and if you have diabetes and problems with your heart your medicine for one month are around 100 lev (€51.28 monthly)
With all these numbers it is understandable why Bulgarians want to move out to a countries like UK.
Ana continues to live in Bulgaria despite the hardships she knows her country is facing.
No matter what country you’re from you will always have an innate desire to see your nation succeed. Even when presented with circumstances that appear overwhelmingly difficult, that sense of responsibility can keep you in the community you love working hard for real long-lasting change… but at some point the system breaks down so far that you run out of options. You’re left with fight or flight.
Just like the influx of immigrants that built the United States, the European Union is facing a wave of people hoping to find a better life. Will the EU embrace this unprecedented migration or buckle under the weight of open borders? Will these settlers be prepared for life in a radically different society? What will become of the counties they’ve left behind? Only time will tell.