“Of the past let us make a crime…”: Anti-Populism and the Politics of Memory in Bulgarian Liberalism

Notes from the LeftEast editors: this article is published in cooperation with Bilten.Org where it appeared in Serbo-Croatian on the 12/16/2016.

Note from the author on the English language publication: In this article I focus on the latest chapter of the ongoing ‘memory wars’ in Bulgarian public and political life. I tease out the demophobic implications of the latest amendment in the 2000 Law that declares Communism a criminal regime. Anti-communism was the staple food of the 1990s democratic opposition: “democracy” was conceived as anti-communist by definition. The more time passes, however, the more the official anti-communist rhetoric degenerates, as manifested in a 2016 amendment to the original law whose express concern to make the law more ‘pragmatic’. The 2000 bill did not provide any actual lustration guidelines and anti-communists deemed this a deficiency in the law from its inception. The 2016 amendment came to remedy this ‘deficiency’ by criminalizing popular memory of Socialism as embodied in the diverse material heritage the Socialist regime has left behind it. It is the culmination of the assault by liberal intellectuals and policy-makers on what is referred to as “socialist nostalgia,” which is accused of being the greatest fetter for the realization of “real” Western-style democracy in the country. By taking a look at the law and the debates surrounding it, I demonstrate how anti-communism has departed from its original democratic moorings and become anti-democratic; how liberal democracy becomes democracy for liberals.

Judging from the amount of events, projects, political parties and civil society initiatives targeting Bulgaria’s Communist past, it seems that the more times passes since 1989, the more the urgency for decommunization increases. Various segments of the ruling elite in Bulgaria periodically resume the efforts for decommunization with renewed enthusiasm. Most recently, the city of Varna ramped up the efforts to overcome the incomplete destalinization оf the city (called “Stalin” between 1949-1956) by solemnly removing the status of Stalin as an honorary citizen.

Less humorous than this instance was the November amendment to a 2000 law that condemns the “criminal nature of Communism.” The Act was drafted by Georgi Panev, from the radical-liberal party and passed by Parliament on April 26, 2000. It is a fairly straightforward Act consisting of only four articles. The bill has solely a declarative effect, that is to say, no material implications arise from its implementation. This was behind some of the criticisms back then: namely, the Act is not radical enough, it is not tied to lustration of the Communist-era cadre and so on.

Let us abstain, for a moment, from scoffing at or ridiculing the (obvious absurdity of the) Act and carefully examine its phrasing.

Article one opens thunderously: “The leadership and leaders of the Bulgarian Communist Party are responsible for 1. purposeful and premeditated destruction of traditional values of the European civilization”. Point seven of article one holds the party responsible for “the destruction of the moral values of the people” [narod]. In other words, we have the figure of the evil party working against the people. (The party is held responsible also for the “systematic destruction of nature”, as per point 10, art 1). Article three states that the Communist regime is “criminal” and so is the Communist party. Article four rehabilitates the struggle of “everyone” who ever fought against Communism as “just, morally justified and worthy of praise” (apparently, also of fascists.)

The great purge of public space

What emerges as the object of the Act’s attention is the Communist elites. Moreover, this elite is depicted as a source of gratuitous violence (even “terror”, art 2, point 8) against “the people,” as, for example, in article 2 that states that “the regime.. dispossessed the citizens from any possibility for free expression..” and “oppressed vast groups of the population…”

In short, the paragraphs target explicitly members of the Communist party leadership: the word “party” appears 6 times, “leader” – 2 times, “regime” – 4 times and whatever reference to the people there is, it clouts it in the language of victimhood. (Save for art. 4, which exonerates “everyone who struggled against Communism” and was punished or killed by the regime for that.)

In an interview on March 30th, 2000, the Bill author Panev stated the following:
Q: Does your proposal have any practical value?
A: A huge one because we need more than just bread for our existence. If we follow the history of humanity, we will see how in moments of great tribulations, nations still experienced moral progress… if material actions have visible result, it is because behind them stand moral stimulus like a motivation. And where there is an injustice, there is no motivation. That’s why I am convinced that for the vast majority of our narod (and only 30% of the Bulgarians are directly or indirectly connected to the Communist party), this [Bill] constitutes an act of reinstatement of justice. (my emphasis)

On 24 November the Bulgarian Parliament voted that law which now enforces material, and not just symbolic, consequences to the Law that declared Communism a criminal regime. The Bill was drafted by the GERB MP Metodi Andreev and 3 MPs from the Reform Bloc: Petar Slavov, Vili Lilkov and Martin Dimitrov (RB is the liberal pro-European party). The amendment now targets Communist symbols. The crucial difference with the original law is that these symbols can be found everywhere in the material make-up of Bulgarian villages and cities. Further, according to the Bill, people who do not comply and remove the symbol from their property, or people caught wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, are liable to pay 100 EUR fines, or 1000 EUR for organizations. The law now makes a provision for monuments to be removed from public spaces and put in a museum. Those symbols, which are too heavy to move to a museum (such as housing blocs), should be supplied with a plaque stating that this is a symbol of a “criminal regime”.

From “enemy of the people” to people as the enemy

In addition to the fines, the Law also makes mandatory the teaching of “Communist crimes” in the national school system. Actually, the Socialist period already is featured in school textbooks but that doesn’t prevent education activists to demand its inclusion in the curricula.

The targeting of symbols and the intervention in school curricula not just makes the amendment of the act a practical compensation for the purely symbolic nature of the original law but also departs from the original law in its understanding of the sources and carriers of the responsibility for Communism. If the old version of the law assigns symbolic responsibility for the crimes of Communism to the Communist Party elites, the new one punishes materially the wider Bulgarian population.


A plaque on the side of the house of communist militant Ivan T. Uzunov in the town of Strelcha, Bulgaria, which was under fire and was robbed by a fascist gang during the communist rebellion in September 1923 in (source: Raia Apostolova)

Because the amendment’s interpretation of “symbol” is extremely broad (buildings, monuments..), under this definition fall the vast Socialist-era concrete panel blocks which still house the majority of the Bulgarian urban population. Not to mention t-shirts that common people are more likely to wear than are ex-nomenklatura. Similarly, the impact on school curricula will have a potentially lasting effect millions of school pupils.

In short, if in the original, 2000 version of the law, Communism was associated with “the elite” (or at least, “not more than 30% of the population”, as Panev declared), today the ‘totalitarian masses’ are at the heart of the ever-escalating liberal project to purge the country from “the metastases of Communism”.

What can explain this change?

At least one financial crisis, would respond scholars of Eastern Europe such as Kristen Ghodsee who explains documents such as the Prague Declarations with the onset of the 2008 financial meltdown. In fact, economic and financial crises are the typical context in which anti-communism bursts out and thrives. But we cannot explain the eruptions of vituperative anti-communism solely by virtue of the oscillations in the global political economy. Local history also matters. Let us attend to the Bulgarian one in a brief historical detour.

Our saviours are God and Czar

Even though the first democratic elections in 1990 were won by the “reformed Communists” of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the transition to liberal democracy actually enjoyed substantial public support. Election turnouts then were twice as high as they are today, which attest to an enthusiasm for democracy that is lacking today. In 1997 mass riots in Sofia, culminating with a siege on Parliament, forced the then-ruling BSP out and the snap elections were won by the anti-communist opposition on a platform promising market solutions to the raging economic and hyperinflation crisis as well as fast integration with Europe. The Euro-Atlantic liberal consensus endured at least until 2005, even though in 2001 it changed its main representative with the return of the exiled Bulgarian ex-czar as a prime minister. In 2005 the first cracks in the consensus appeared with the electoral shock gains of the far-right “euro-skeptic” party ATAKA.[1] ATAKA gradually evolved into a pro-Russian party, especially after the strong geopolitical confrontations of 2013, which reached their high point with the annexation of Crimea. Intellectual round-tables about the “dangers of populism”, which were already happening because of the destruction of the two-party model by the ex-czar[2], also intensified after 2005. The liberals had found a formidable enemy: “populism”.

In the early 2000s some disillusionment on part of the intellectual class with how the Transition was unfolding was finding outlets in ruminations about “the totalitarian masses” and their “atavistic Balkan unconscious”. These are quotes from a famous article by cultural theorist and literary scholar prof. Alexander Kiossev detailing the deterioration of the public sphere after 1989 for which great hopes were harbored with the demise of Communism but which supposedly fell prey to the psychopathologies of the Bulgarian people [narod].

The cadres decide everything

This is immanent to the following conundrum anti-communist intellectuals and activists found themselves at pains to solve: formally, Bulgaria is a liberal democracy with smooth electoral transition of power, competing parties, separation of powers, private property over enterprises guaranteed by the law and so on. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be an EU-member. Yet, while formally Bulgaria is an apparent democracy, the right-wing are not always happy with the result. My explanation is that the only way one can keep one’s faith in liberal democracy yet jab at its effects, is to declare the existence of substantive deficits. In other words, the deficiencies of the liberal capitalist system get externalized and projected onto a mythic “populist”, “Balkan mentality” that is found guilty of harboring “the metastases of Communism” and thus subverting Bulgaria’s “return to Europe”. No one summarized the “problem” better than long-time PM Boyko Borissov himself who said in a 2009 in a meeting with Bulgarians living in Chicago that “we’ve got bad human material in Bulgaria”:

What is the foundation of the population at the moment? – 1 million gypsies, 700-800 thousand Turks, 2,5 million retired. [Read “unproductive” populations]. The stupid pensioners are solely motivated by their nostalgia [for socialism]. And you guys [to the Bulgarians in Chicago but he means the entire Bulgarian diaspora in the West] who ran away… The material that comes to vote and from which we can pick cadres, it’s not very rich.”

The term “metastases of Communism” is in wide circulation nowadays and informs much of the post-EU accession efforts of anti-communist intellectuals to implant a “correct memory” about Communism to the Bulgarian population, oftentimes accused of having no memory at all. For instance, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung sponsored a conference in 2013 in which historians and sociologists announced the “worrying” results of a survey according to which 60% of Bulgarian youth do not know what terms like GULAG or the Iron Curtain mean, whereas 14% think that Socialism was a democratic regime.

The trouble with soul-engineering

The education system was singled out by the activists as the primary culprit for the deplorable situation, but also the lack of public museums dedicated to “communist art” or memory sights such as “Memento Park” or “Teror Haz” in Budapest. (The private sector meanwhile had not hesitated to occupy this niche, with think-tanks such as the “Hannah Arendt Institute”, or publishing houses such as “Institute for the Study of the Recent Past” churning out regularly scholarly as well as propagandist publications about the Socialist period, or private websites that acts as ersatz-archives about the activities of the Secret services).

The moral panic the survey results generated led to further intensification of the decommunization efforts of the intellectual class. One of the most influential activists and prolific commentators on the “lack of memory” has been prof. Evelina Kelbecheva, who teaches history in the American University in Bulgaria. She is less famous for her academic work (of which there is hardly any trace) than for her political work and countless interviews in which she chastises the Bulgarian nation for having “no memory” about Communism and is thus supposedly unable to extricate itself from the trap of “socialist nostalgia”. She initiated the drafting of a 2013 petition signed by over 2000 “civil society signatories” and later endorsed by the outgoing Bulgarian President Rossen Plevleniev. Throughout his term, the president participated actively in such activities. For example, he chaired the “25 years free Bulgaria” initiative, which consisted of exhibitions, lectures, and public talks.

“There’s proof on the Internet”

In 2016 another petition to introduce “in-depth” knowledge about Communism in schools was drafted, this time around by Metodi Andreev, a GERB MP. Andreev is also a co-author of the above-mentioned amendment to the anti-communist law, which bans the “symbols of communism.” A sports journalist asked him if the famous Sofia-based CSKA sports club, formerly associated with the Bulgarian army, will be fined since their logo contains the five-pointed star, to which Andreev replied:

No! I see no connection between the star of CSKA and the communist pentagram. This is because when the Communist state got created in Russia, the authorities wanted to clout it in some symbol… They were torn between two symbols: the five-pointed star and the swastika. Both are very ancient symbols. The star was selected on the insistence of Trotsky and Rothschild, who bankrolled the Communist revolution. The star symbolizes the five sons of Rothschild. That’s why it has nothing in common with the star of CSKA. These facts are accessible in the Internet. Let the youth read them.

In other words, an MP who openly espouses the typical Nazi view of Communism as a “Judeo-bolshevik” conspiracy, and urges everyone to “check the facts” online, is bent on reforming the school system so as to introduce “in-depth” knowledge of Communism. It is safe to assume that the depth of this knowledge is not far from his “erudite” understanding of October 1917. Andreev also endorsed the legislative attempts to purge the Bulgarian judiciary system from the “influence of Masonic groups.”

Usually the word “totalitarianism” is used to describe the so-called “twin evils” of Communism and Nazism but both petitions operate with a restricted meaning of “totalitarianism” in which the only connotation is Communism, without any comparable plea to deepen pupils’ knowledge about Nazism/Fascism. Not to mention that a petition to teach school pupils deeper knowledge about Fascism than what already exists in textbooks has not yet been initiated by the liberal policy and intellectual elites.

The new spectres of communism

The description of this situation will be less than complete without a few words about the opposition to these legislative attempts. This opposition usually comes from academic circles arguing against the collapse of different memories and experiences of Socialism into the non-democratic propagandist category of “non-memory”, on the one hand, and for the freedom from political meddling into the university autonomy and the concomitant threat to impartial scholarship. However, not all academics are always impartial, not only because many of them sign/draft these petitions, such as prof. Kelbecheva, but also because their indignation at political meddling is triggered selectively. (For example, the nationalist uproar concerning the teaching of the Ottoman period of Bulgarian history is a case in point of selective academic indignation).

There are intelligent opinions, which fear that the law ultimately represents a closure on what should be an “unending” and free public discussion about the history of the Socialist regime. For example, historian Elitza Stanoeva is one of the few liberal commentators who approach the issue from the “free debates” perspective and details the practical absurdities, which the implementation of the law would necessarily generate, such as punishing scholars of Socialism, like herself, for publishing books containing “communist symbols.” She warns against the dangers of rehabilitation of fascists and the possible repercussions on scholars by providing examples from Poland where similar attempts on part of the state to legislate on memory have led to the persecution of leading historians such as Jan Gross for questioning the state dogma about the Polish “innocence” in the Holocaust. She points also to some convenient omissions on part of the legislators: for example, while in the 2000 Bill, the crimes of Communism are illustrated by reference to the so-called “People’s Tribunal,” which sued and executed politicians and collaborators of Bulgaria’s WWII government[3], as well as to the labor camps, it omits the so-called “Revival Process,” which is how the ethnic cleansing of Bulgarian Turks in the 1980s was referred to by its apologists.

To conclude, 27 years after November 1989 it appears that the politics of decommunization becomes ever more resilient, and therefore counter-productive. As if influenced by Derrida’s Specters of Marx, the BSP MP Yanaki Stoilov warned that “At the end of the 1980s, Todor Zhivkov [the General Secretary of Bulgaria’s Communist Party between 1954 and 1989] enjoyed higher disapproval than today. According to a recent survey, 50 per cent of Bulgarians have a positive opinion about Zhivkov.”

jana-tsoneva2Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology and Social anthropology at CEU, Budapest. She researches the latest anti-government mobilizations in Bulgaria and is interested in theories of populism, ideology and civil society.





[1]  “Euro-skeptic party” is of course, an expression from the vocabulary of (liberal) political science, which occludes more than it reveals about the attitude of these parties to Europe. Parties like ATAKA actually often claim they stand for “European civilization” against Asiatic/Islamic/Communist/refugee/etc barbarism. Also, back in 2005 ATAKA declared itself resolutely against Turkish EU-membership, thereby assuming the role of “guardian” of Europe against Turkey, and it also helped found the far-right “Europe of the nations” party in the European Parliament. I therefore consider the word “euro-skeptic” a misnomer, but deploy it since it has a wide circulation.

[2] The czar was the first to run on an explicit anti-political platform of expert-led and “new morality” rule (beyond left and right). He also availed himself liberally of the discourses found in business literature and “new public management” and initiated the privatization of public services such as utilities and energy.

[3] I highly recommend the excellent article of Kristen Ghodsee on the production of “victims of Communism” in contemporary Bulgaria, and how this discourse is functional for neo-fascist politics: “Tale of “Two Totalitarianisms”: The Crisis of Capitalism and the Historical Memory of Communism.” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 2014, 115-142.