Each block that crumbled from the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, foreshadowed the coming of forbidden freedoms to Soviet satellite nations sprinkled throughout the Eastern Bloc. Twenty five years later, the promise of democracy is but an ironic whisper in the minds of many in Bulgaria, my homeland until the age of 12.
The story of democratic Bulgaria at age 25 is a cautionary tale about transplanting one-size-fits-all Western values to a nation still undergoing social and economic upheaval. And there's a division in the way people remember their Communist past.
Communism didn't die in 1989: It lives in people's minds, surviving political factions and visual remnants across the nation—still-standing Soviet monuments, nostalgic graffiti, decaying factories. The country’s dark political past reanimates when visiting forced labor camps, also in ruins, where political prisoners once languished.
Most shudder at the memory of the regime’s brutal ideologies and closed borders; yet just as many, turned sour from post-1989 political corruption, brutal job market and crimes of desperation, equate democracy to disaster.
This is because Bulgaria is still one of the poorest, most corrupt nations in the European Union, its hopes of change wilted by this chronic political instability, high crime rates and skyrocketing inflation. While Bulgarians can now freely vote and protest without much threat to their freedom—with a rise in groups supporting the rights of the LGBT and long-oppressed Roma communities—corruption has become the new oppressor to prosperity. And it is at a 15-year high, across political and civil sectors, according to a finding by the Sofia-based think tank Study for Democracy.
The country also has the most extreme population decline in the world—much of it due to post-1989 emigration, high death rates and low birth rates. There are so few people of child-bearing age in the nation that population statistics project a 30-percent decrease by 2060, from 7.2 million to just over 5 million. In other words, Bulgaria’s population declines by 164 people a day, or 60,000 people a year—60 percent of them aged over 65. As depopulation further saps the nation of its men and women, visions of severe structural and industrial decay become increasingly common, and so, with each visit, I witness more and more of my country’s disturbing vanishing.
What gripped me just as much is the ennui, so casually etched on the passerby's face that it becomes routine, one that fits in sadly well against this startling backdrop of rotting architecture, joblessness, and waning population. It seems that despite what democracy has changed in Bulgaria, the daily struggles of its populace have largely stayed untouched, trapped in a post-communist time capsule. But I believe hope for the country remains with those who are willing to believe in and fight for its still-nascent democracy.