Tag Archives: European Union

Poor, Poor Bulgaria

It’s the Poorest Country in the European Union, phrasing promulgated decisively if not precisely. Or sometimes the moniker is Poorest Country in Europe. Either way, the appellation is clearly considered absolutely indispensable to journalists writing about Bulgaria. Even when—in fact, despite when—these words have absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, say, when headlining an article on Bulgaria’s admirable wealth of women in the tech world.

It is exasperating to read one or the other of these phrases printed just before or after the word “Bulgaria” in virtually every instance that “Bulgaria” is deigned to provoke journalistic interest. What on earth does “the poorest country” mean? You certainly won’t be enlightened by the article itself—we are clearly meant to accept and understand what is meant without explanation of how this apparent poverty is measured or by whom. It merely fits a sort of post-1989 narrative of Eastern Europe or the Balkans generally or Bulgaria specifically. It presumes an easy path to understand the entirety of the country in all its complexity by placing it in a piggy bank filled with only a handful of pennies. It announces the absence of responsible journalism with critical thinking skills and imparts to the reader the shoddiest of reportage without actual information. It is, in brief, a sort of propaganda.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that Bulgarians generally have a lower standard of living than in the Scandinavian countries. Or that infrastructure is less than ideal. Or that many healthcare facilities aren’t in dire need of upgrades. Or that Bulgaria has not for years been suffering a brain drain that puts a terrible drag on the country’s ability to grow and prosper. And so on.

But poverty can be measured in vastly different ways by individual countries and transnational organizations, by economists and sociologists and political scientists, by people’s sense of their own lives and well-being. What exactly is being measured when Bulgaria is called “the poorest country’? Is it the average—knowing that average itself is a highly imperfect, often deceptive measure—daily income? I remember when I first lived in Bulgaria that Bulgarians often asked me about my salary in the United States. I demurred, because I knew that salary alone explained nothing; the cost of rent, food, clothing, healthcare, transportation, and taxes had to be set against income for any numbers to be meaningful. Telling me how much a Bulgarian makes in a day as compared to a German is worse than telling me nothing because it purports to give me information and instead gives me a distorted data point that misinforms.

Is home ownership being measured? Bulgarians own their own homes in strikingly high measure exceeded only by several other Eastern European countries. And that doesn’t include the great number who additionally own a weekend cottage in the mountains or a seaside vacation spot or a house in the family village. Of course one can be a homeowner and have so little income that impossible choices have to be made between heat and prescription medicine and food. Impossible choices so many Americans make each month in a “rich” country.

Perhaps “the poorest country” is being examined macro-economically in regards to its national debt, pension funding, currency stability, or inflation. In all of these, Bulgaria compares favorably to other European countries and in some cases leads by example.

Access to health care, education, transportation? All systems needing more funds invested, facilities modernized, personnel better paid—that is without question. But the systems are there, funded regularly if not optimally, and Bulgarians have access to all despite the inadequacies. As important as the social safety net provided by the government is the social safety net provided by extended family. Bulgarians in the city can provide funds to buy shoes or home repairs for their village relatives and those in the village provide their all local, all organic food to take back to the city. How can the cost of such food be measured? It figures nowhere, because no one is counting.

And then there are the myriad non-monetary measures. Bulgarians, notoriously pessimistic and cynical in the best of times, might be stymied by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, but they value leisure time (working to live vs. living to work) to enjoy Bulgaria’s natural beauty and cultural expression. These are dimensions of a country’s wealth that enrich the lives of its citizens.

I have no objection to calling out Bulgaria’s weaknesses, or those of any other country for that matter. There are pensions so terribly low that they cannot be stretched to meet the most minimal needs. There are salaries too low for young people to move out of the parental apartment and lead independent lives. Too many people exist on the margins. But simply pointing a rhetorical pen to casually label Bulgaria as “the poorest country” tells us nothing. It’s lazy, it’s ignorant, and in many instances it’s just not true.

10 Years in the European Union / 10 Години в Европейския Съюз

We like to organize time in easily measurable spans. We like to label those spans and ascribe certain characteristics to them. It’s all in retrospect, and in retrospect anew we re-label. The Dark Ages are now the Middle Ages and the longer we go on the more “Middle” seems a bit miscalculated, a misnomer needing a new name. We might now be in need of a second Age of Enlightenment and the world is still painfully reckoning with the fallout of the Age of Exploration. And of course of all of the foregoing is Eurocentric and says nothing of the way time is divided, referenced, and assessed by other cultures.

In our own lifetimes, we tend to fall back on the decade. And we tend to do the easy thing of measuring these spans of ten as beginning in a zero and ending in a nine even when, as in “The Sixties,” the cultural and political trends ascribed don’t actually begin and end so neatly.

However arbitrary a measure of time and whatever the starting and ending digits, a decade does allow us to take a fixed look at life in a way that would be insupportably broad without such parameters.

On January 1, 2017, Bulgaria will have been a member of the European Union for a decade. But even as the BBC noted the elation on January 1, 2007, it noted the lack of enthusiasm by other member states. The reckoning had already begun.

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The New Republic didn’t wait for the ten-year anniversary to damn EU membership when in 2013 it used Bulgaria as proof that “agreements with the European Union don’t always work in your favor.” Having neatly wrapped up the foregone conclusion, the article’s author found no necessity to take a look at the situation in Bulgaria pre-EU membership, let alone pre-1989.

Earlier this year in advance of the March 20 International Day of Happiness, Eurostat published the findings of its “new multi-dimensional data collection answering the question “How satisfied are people with their lives in the European Union?” It found that “residents in Bulgaria were by far the least satisfied.” Many such surveys about happiness and satisfaction have been done having nothing to do with the EU question and Bulgaria is perhaps singular in its constant position at or near the bottom. Consequently, whether EU membership has anything to do with longstanding Bulgarian pessimism is doubtful.

The London School of Economics’ Dimitar Bechev observed, “Joining the EU has not made Bulgarians happy…perhaps expectations were higher, they thought it was the silver bullet. Bulgarians saw their own government as problematic and Europe as the solution.” On the January 1, 2007 accession, The New York Times noted the closer-to-home pocketbook issue “Romania and Bulgaria, now the European Union’s poorest members, hope that membership will help them raise per-capita wealth, which is one-third of the union’s average.”

It’s clear no matter whom you ask that Bulgarians expected more out of EU membership than they have. They expected to be farther along in the battle against corruption, in judicial reform, to have less Kafkaesque bureaucracy and more effective institutions. They thought by now they would have more money in their pockets via having higher salaries and lower prices, less worry about the cost and efficacy of their children’s educations, better jobs that were obtained by merit and not by connections. They believed their cities would resemble those in western Europe as if EU membership conferred the eradication of the graffiti ubiquitous in even the best Bulgarian neighborhoods, the repair of all potholes, modern sewers and gutters, re-plastering of all building facades, and a good paint job when the other work was done.

Of course, there are major highways, environmental projects, educational and health system investment, business partnerships, entrepreneurial training, and other benefits of EU membership that can be seen throughout the country.

But naturally membership in the European Union, even after ten years, can only do so much.

The psychology of EU member benefit expectation and reality in Bulgaria may be something like this. If I were to swim regularly with a competitive swimmer, I would certainly improve my swimming. No doubt she would advise me, and my observations of her and my natural tendency to want to catch up would make me faster and better than I otherwise would be. But I would not be at her level because—natural talent aside—she started far earlier, has been on the international stage for many years, and has had a coach all along.

If I somehow embedded myself at the Supreme Court and listened to all the discussions made in conference and in the individual judges’ chambers, I would learn a tremendous amount about law, but no one would confer a Juris Doctor degree on me unless I myself successfully completed law school study.

If a team of volunteers cleaned and painted my entire apartment building and a group of miscreants and malcontents the very next day spray painted rude words all over the façade, the volunteers would more than likely not return nor would they go to the building next door to invest the same sort of effort.

passportWhen the BBC reported the January 1, 2007 accession, it quoted then Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. Parvanov was enthusiastic and optimistic. He also gave a warning that seems to have been immediately forgotten or discounted.

“But let’s make it clear, our future success as a nation depends not on European funds and resources, but on our own work.”

Indeed it does. Perhaps this first decade can be labeled something akin to Bulgaria’s adolescence in the EU. Everything seems black and white. There’s some lashing out, there’s bad behavior, there’s testing the boundaries and a refusal to understand the consequences. Homework isn’t done and bad grades result and yet righteous indignation is the reaction of choice. There’s I have no friends in my new school and the popular kids don’t like me and the old gang (e.g., Russia) is beckoning and saying there’s still a place for me even though I don’t really like them anymore.

What will the second decade bring? The reckoning no doubt will begin even before another ten years passes.