what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, September 21, 2020

How America Lost its Mind

Polarisation has got so bad in the US that some people are now calculating, in all seriousness, the prospects of civil war breaking out in the country.

A common language is sometimes a “false friend” – concealing mutual misconceptions – and although I was pleasantly surprised (if not impressed) when I eventually got to the USA in the late 1980s, I am aware that this is not a very easy country to understand. Not for nothing did Martin Amis use the title “The Moronic Inferno” in 1987 for his analysis of its cultural aspects*.

When, five years ago, I first read “The Puritan Gift”, I was struck with how US Business Schools seemed in the 1970s to have destroyed the original puritan spirit - but a long article I came across at the weekend - “How American Lost its Mind” by Kurt Andersen (based on his 450 page book “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” 2017) – made me realise that things are a lot more complicated.  The article focuses on the last 60 years and shows how both left and right have contributed to the present madness. 

Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.
We Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous

 Andersen suggests that two factors proved to be the final catalyst for the current madness

- the relativism that came into vogue in the 1960s.

- the digital technology revolution of the 90s

Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today - with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

What I particularly appreciated about the argument was first its balance – it’s not seeking to allocate blame but rather to seek to understand the various factors which seem to have reached a point of no return (it’s noticeable that Andersen has no solutions to offer - apart from courage and the voice of reason)

I also liked his use of key books to mark the trail of the past half century or so – although, generally, these track the leftist path. The Right’s path tends to be identified more by religious, listening and viewing habits…..Not, however, that the Centre should be forgotten – with The Social Construction of Reality appearing in 1966

….one of the most influential works in their field. Not only were sanity and insanity and scientific truth somewhat dubious concoctions by elites, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained—so was everything else. The rulers of any tribe or society do not just dictate customs and laws; they are the masters of everyone’s perceptions, defining reality itself.

To create the all-encompassing stage sets that everyone inhabits, rulers first use crude mythology, then more elaborate religion, and finally the “extreme step” of modern science. “Reality”? “Knowledge”? “If we were going to be meticulous,” Berger and Luckmann wrote, “we would put quotation marks around the two aforementioned terms every time we used them.” “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.”

When I first read that, at age 18, I loved the quotation marks. If reality is simply the result of rules written by the powers that be, then isn’t everyone able—no, isn’t everyone obliged—to construct their own reality? The book was timed perfectly to become ‘a foundational text in academia and beyond.

I’m reminded of the great Russian saying –

“Don’t fear your friends - because they can only betray you. 

Don’t fear your enemies – because they can only destroy you

But fear the indifferent – because it’s they who allow your friends to betray you and your enemies to destroy you”

I’m a great fan of intellectual histories – and, although this is clearly a popularised version, it seems to offer a rare insight into how the development of mainstream American thinking over several centuries has brought us to this point of open conflict. A few weeks ago, he published an updated version which focuses on the post 1960 period - “Evil Geniuses - the unmaking of America, a recent history” (2020) 

NOTE; *Amis' book's Introduction tells us that - “I got the phrase 'the moronic inferno', and much else, from Saul Bellow, who informed me that he got it from Wyndham Lewis. Needless to say, the moronic inferno is not a peculiarly American condition. It is global and perhaps eternal. It is also, of course, primarily a metaphor, a metaphor for human infamy: mass, gross, ever-distracting human infamy”.

“One of the many things I do not understand about Americans is this: what is it like to be a citizen of a superpower, to maintain democratically the means of planetary extinction? I wonder how this contributes to the dreamlife of America, a dreamlife that is so deep and troubled. As I was collating The Moronic Inferno (in August 1985, during the Hiroshima remembrances), I was struck by a disquieting thought. Perhaps the title phrase is more resonant, and more prescient, than I imagined. It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality”. 

To which I add 35 years later – and that was before global warming and the very real fear these days for extinction

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Demons and Demos

 Democracy has been on the skids for some time - but it took the events of 2016 (Brexit; Trump) to disturb people from their deep slumber. I remember an article in 2003 by Rene Cuperus which warned of the serious decline in party membership in Europe; noted the beginning (in the Netherlands) of what became known as populism; and ended with an observation made by Ralf Dahrendorf that same year that 

many people were losing faith in elections; voters no longer trusted political parties (“the party game is becoming a minority sport”); party programmes based on ideology had lost much of their strength; and the people no longer view parliament as a representation of themselves and entitled to take decisions on their behalf. Dahrendorf concluded: “Everybody who values freedom should put reconsidering democracy and its institutions at the top of their agenda.”

Making amends for the silence of the past 15 or so years, there has been a flood since 2017 of books about the breakdown of liberal democracy starting with Eatwell and Goodwin’s little Pelican book National Populism – the revolt against liberal democracy (2017) which inspired a post (and great reading list) almost 2 years ago to the effect that - 

- Talk of “populism” seems to surface whenever things seem to be slipping from the control of “ruling elites”

- Such talk has occurred every 30 years or so in the past 150 years – the 1880s in the US and Russia; the 1930s in Europe and Latin America; the late 1960s globally; the start of the new millennium in Europe 
- as a professional and intellectual discipline, Political Science has adopted a rather disdainful view of democracy and a “scientist” approach to its methodology - marginalising those few academics with serious interests in notions of the “public good” being embedded in government programmes

- The US tradition of populism has never died - whereas the European tradition is sceptical at best (with the exception of the French whose celebration of revolt seems part of their DNA)

- But the younger contemporary American academics seem to have lost their sense of history and have produced rather aggressive celebrations of liberalism 

 The People v Democracy – why our freedom is in danger and how to save it by Yascha Mounk (2018) was the book I had in mind when I wrote the last comment. I have to confess I have shunned the book until now - on the basis that I couldn’t trust anything written by someone who had, for several years, been the Director of a Tony Blair-funded ThinkTank.

But a reference to Polish philosopher and MEP’s Ryszard Legutko’s “The Demon in Democracy - totalitarian temptations in free societies” (2018 Eng – 2016 Polish version) had piqued my interest last month. It duly arrived and proved provocative enough to have me give it a close read – and then, at last, to turn to Mounk’s book which proved to be as shallow as I had first felt. One of my first encounters with European Catholicism (as distinct from the Scottish variant) was as a teenager on a bike ride through France in 1960 just weeks before starting University. Even 60 years later I still remember the impact the discourse of a French catholic royalist made on me at the Auberge de Jeunesse we were staying at…It was the first time I had come across a world view completely different from my own….

I had the same sense while readingThe Demon in Democracy” - with the important difference that Legutko’s thesis is much more aggressive than I recall my catholic discussant’s of sixty years ago. He makes little attempt at a defence of traditional values - but rather launches a ruthless onslaught on the “liberal democracy” embodied in modern progressivism.

Basically he argues that “liberal democracy” has the same dangerous and universalist utopianism as that of communism; and that he should know because he’s lived under both regimes….One review of the book caught the argument well, I felt, with this summary 

In pre-liberal society, the burden of proof was on the reformers to show why their proposals would make their society better, not on the conservatives to show why the existing arrangement was good. The mere existence of a given social hierarchy meant it had existed for some time and this meant that great care and caution had to be applied in determining whether its reform was prudent. This cautious attitude toward reform was the by-product of an understanding of society as something that man did not construct and hence as something man could not simply reconstruct. Society and the inequalities with which it is coeval (Legutko mentions family, schools, and churches as manifestations of these inequalities) are, at their most fundamental level, inheritances man cannot fully grasp and before which he stands largely in awe.


In modern liberal-democratic society, by contrast, every institution must increasingly justify itself before the standard of equality if it is to retain its legitimacy, whether legal or social. But because inequality inheres in the very nature of society, there will always be hierarchies to level in the eyes of the liberal-democratic egalitarian.

Indeed, it would seem that the more the cause of liberal-democratic equality progresses, the more indignantly the remaining instances of inequality are felt. Thus “equality resembles a monster with an insatiable appetite: regardless of how much it has eaten, the more it devours, the hungrier it becomes.

 And I confess I have some sympathy with that – the demands of the “identity politics” activists are excessive….out of proportion. At my age I actually can’t easily “bend a knee” but, even if I were fit, I wouldn’t do it. It’s just too…..conventional….

It’s the way I reacted in cinemas at the end of a film in the 1950s when the strains of “God Save the Queen” started. I would sit….ostentatiously….Or these days….with any Brit not sporting a poppy in November being considered persona non grata…..

 But Legutko goes over the top – it’s his argument that’s excessive and out of proportion. The American Left may be a bit out of control – but to confuse it with "liberal democracy" is crass and is simply evidence (yet again) of this strange Manichean habit to which we seem increasingly prey......

To be continued…..

 Further Reading


The Demons of Liberal Democracy; Adrian Pabst (2019) I think the similarity of the title is coincidental

Colin Crouch on Ralf Dahrendorf;






Friday, September 18, 2020

Crowds and Power in Sofia and Bucharest - III

 How, 30 years on, is post-communism doing?

I’ve been living in Bulgaria and Romania since 2007 – for a decade I enjoyed crossing the Danube, with the last 100 km stretch of the drive on the highway through the Balkans and the sight of the Vitosha mountain which dominates Sofia always bringing a particular thrill.  

The last post focused mainly on the Sofia street protests of the past 3 months – with a brief reference to the fact that only in Romania has the Crowd succeeded in toppling governments – three times in 30 years…and twice in the past five years.

This post looks at what two recent books by well-known authors born in these countries have to say about the “progress” the two countries have made since 1989 and considers the prospects for effective change


In the 1990s there was an interesting body of literature known as “transitology” which was effectively a retraining scheme for those in redundant Soviet and Eastern European studies University Departments as they tried to adjust to the new reality of “liberal democracy” and “free-market capitalism”.

The integration of many of these countries into the European Union seemed to leave the others in a state of suspended animation – still “transiting”.

Except that the “integration” had not gone as planned – some countries (such as Hungary and Poland) had clearly reneged on their commitments and were challenging the “rule of law” canons; and others (such as Bulgaria and Romania) had been unable to satisfy the monitors that they had even got to the required judicial standards. Indeed Philippe Schmitter, one of the doyens of the field, went so far in 2012 as to talk of “ambidextrous democratisation


Bulgaria's world-renowned political scientist Ivan Krastev has (with US Stephen Holmes) written one of the surprisingly few books which attempt to assess the fortunes since 1989 of the eastern countries – although it’s primary concern seems more that of “the crisis of modern liberalism”. It’s entitled "The Light that Failed – a Reckoning - published last year, with the Bulgarian translation appearing next month.

The book starts with a chapter on the psychological effects on central European countries of the “imitation game” they were forced to play and the demographic shock as millions left the country for a better future elsewhere; followed by one on how Putin’s Russia moved on in 2007 from imitation to “mirroring” Western hypocrisy; a chapter on Trump’s America; and a final one which takes in China.


The authors argue that part of the nationalist reaction in Hungary and Poland was the shock of realising that the European "normality" they had hoped for had been transformed into an agenda which included homosexuality, gay weddings and rights for Romas. But their emphasis on the “psychology of imitation” totally ignores the brazen way west European countries and companies exploited the opening which the collapse of communism gave them to extend their markets in both goods and people - with the consequences touched on in the first post and brilliantly dissected by Alexander Clapp in a 2017 New Left Review article Romania Redivivus”.


Talk of “transitology” disappeared more than a decade ago and was absorbed into the Anti-Corruption (or governance integrity) field which grew into a "name and shame" industry - complete with league tables and Manuals. But the world seems to have perhaps grown weary even of its talk  

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is a Romanian social psychologist - appointed, in 2007, as Professor of Democracy studies of the prestigious Hertie School of Governance in Berlin - with a unique understanding and knowledge of the issue. This was her blunt assessment in 2009 of the situation in Romania


Unfortunately, corruption in Romania is not only related to parties and businesses, but cuts across the most important institutions of society. Romanian media has gradually been captured, after having been largely free and fair at the end of the 1990s. After 2006, concentration in media ownership continued to increase in Romania. Three owners enjoy more than two-thirds of the TV political news market.

 As long as Romania was a supplicant for entry to the EU, it had to jump through the hoops of “conditionality” to satisfy Brussels it was behaving itself. When Poland, Hungary et al were let in in 2004, the pressures started to relax - but The European Union’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) replaced that conditionality in 2007 and Bulgaria and Romania are still subject of an annual check of their legal and judicial health. Mungi-Pippidi therefore concluded her 2009 assessment with a simple observation - 

At the end of day, “democracy promotion” succeeds by helping the domestic drivers of change, not by doing their job for them. Only Romanians themselves can do this.

 Her latest book  "Europe's Burden - promoting good governance across. borders" (2020) is a must-read for anyone who wants to know why a quarter of a century of trying to build systems of government that people can trust has had so little effect in ex-communist countries. It starts with a sketch of Switzerland’s political development which reminds us that Napoleon was the catalyst for a 50-year period during which the Swiss embedded the basic structures we associate with that country.

It is, however, Denmark to which most countries (according to Fukuyama) aspire to – although a study of its history suggests that, contrary to Dahrendorf’s optimism, that was more like a 100 year journey.


Her description of her own country, Romania, is quite damning –

·         From 2010-17 there were 600 convictions for corruption EACH YEAR – including 18 Ministers and one Prime Minister, Generals, half of the Presidents of County Councils and the Presidents of all the parliamentary parties

·         The Prosecution system became thoroughly politicised through its connection with the powerful intelligence system – the infamous Securitate which was never disbanded

·         The level of wiretapping used is 16 times the level of that used by the FBI

·         Romania heads the league table of cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights dismissed for breaching the right to a fair trial – with a half of its cases so failing

·         The annual CVM reports on the country are always positive and make no mention of any of this – on the basis that “questions about the intelligence services are outside our remit”!!

·         TV stations run by those convicted of corruption have provided damning evidence of the prosecution service threatening judges and fixing evidence


One of Romania's most famous political analysts gave an extensive interview a couple of years ago which was important enough for me to summarise as follows –

·         the so-called “revolution” of 1989 was nothing of the sort – just a takeover by the old-guard masquerading in the costumes of the market economy and democracy

·         which, after 30 years, has incubated a new anomie – with the “social” media dominating people’s minds

·         European integration” has destroyed Romanian agriculture and industry - and drained the country of 4 million talented young Romanians

·         After 30 years, there is not a single part of the system – economic, political, religious, cultural, voluntary – which offers any real prospect of positive change

·         Even Brussels seems to have written the country off

·         The country is locked into a paralysis of suspicion, distrust, consumerism, apathy, anomie

·         No one is calling for a new start – let alone demonstrating the potential for realistic alliances


Dorel Sandor has clearly given up on the politicians and confessed to a hopelessness for the prospect of any sort of change in his country


The stark reality is now that we do not have political parties any more. The Romanian political environment is in fact an ensemble of ordinary gangs that try to survive the process and jail and eventually save their wealth in the country or abroad. That's all! Romania has no rulers. It has mobsters in buildings with signs that say "The Ministry of Fish that Blooms".

One of the reasons why the EU is not too concerned about us is that it is that they reckon that you can only reform a driver with a car that works. We are a two-wheeled wagon and two horses, a chaotic space, broken into pieces. What's to reform? So it's a big difference.”


But he was least convincing when he tried to offer a way forward


I have a list of what to do – starting with the need for an exploration of what sort of Romania we should be aiming for in the next few decades. Such a process would be moderated by professionals using proper diagnostics, scenario thinking and milestones.

It would be managed by a group with a vision emancipated from the toxic present.


I have a lot of sympathy for such approaches – embodied, for example, in the "Future Search" method. But effective social change rarely comes from such an elitist approach; any such effort would have to demonstrate exactly how it would propose to deal with the astonishing level of distrust of others in the country.

In 2014, only 7% of the Romanian population could say that “most people can be trusted” (compared with about 20% in Italy and 40% in Germany).


The revelation of the collusion between the infamous Securitate and the Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) has understandably fanned the flames of paranoia for which the Romanians can be forgiven - given the scale of the surveillance of the population the Securitate enjoyed under Ceausescu. Little wonder half of the population are Covid sceptics



In the 1980s it was Solidarity in Poland; Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia; and reformers in Hungary who were challenging the power structure – I remember taking the opportunity of being in the country to visit the Party’s “White House” in Budapest in 1987 to talk with a spokesman for the latter.

Bulgaria and Romania, on the other hand, were monolithic and frozen societies – with the only sign of discord being the odd Romanian poet – and on the Danube where protestors against a chemical plant included a few establishment figures such as Svetlin Rusev.


But the street has become much more active in the past decade – even if it is the more educated and “entitled” who are prominent there. And it is “the Crowd” that the power elite has always feared – particularly in the last century eg the infamous “Revolt of the Masses” (1930). And who can ever forget the moment when the massed crowd turned against Ceausescu in December 1989 – within minutes, he had been hoisted from his balcony by helicopter and, within days, summarily tried and shot.


It’s noticeable that the figures whose words I’ve quoted – Dahrendorf, Canetti, Krastev, Mungiu-Pippidi and Sandor – all represent the intelligentsia. I was brought up to take their words seriously - but they are not activists!  

The sadly-missed David Graeber was one of the very few such people prepared to get his hands dirty… to work across the barriers that normally divide people and to try to forge new coalitions…


The Crowd needs people like Graeber who understand how to bridge such barriers…………..particularly between the “downtrodden masses” and the “entitled”

Where is Bulgaria’s Graeber? There are, actually, several eg Vanya Grigorova – the economic adviser of the labour union “Podkrepa” (Support) and leading left-wing public figure – who has been travelling the country to present her latest book on labour rights and how to claim them. A year ago she gave this interview to Jacobin, which positioned her on the side of social change in Bulgaria and the region.


Both Covid19 and the greater concern about global warming - as embodied, for example in the recent Extinction Rebellion – suggest that the “normality” being sought by the entitled is a will o’ the wisp.

The Sofia protestors would therefore be well advised to widen the scope of their agenda. After all, smaller countries generally seem better able to “do” change viz Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Singapore, Estonia, Slovenia – particularly when they have women at their helm who have a combination of trustworthiness and strategic vision!!


Especially for them I updated my list of essential reading for activists – adding my own “opportunistic” theory of change which emphasises the element of individual responsibility as well as the dynamic of the crowd viz


Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity – through proper analysis, mobilisation and integrity. It involves– 

·         speaking out about the need for change

·         learning the lessons of previous change efforts

·         creating and running networks of change

·         which mobilise social forces

·         understanding crowd dynamics

·         reaching out to forge coalitions

·         building credibility


I grant you that the time for preparation is over in Sofia; and appreciate that some of this may come across as rather elitist but the process it describes is still a crucial one – prepare, analyse, network, speak out, build coalitions, mobilise, no hidden games…..It’s a tough combination……

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Crowds and Power in Sofia and Bucharest - II

The Nobel-prize winning author Elias Canetti was born in the Bulgarian city of Russe on the Danube in 1905 and would have had quite a few things to say about the protests in Sofia. Better known ironically (thanks to his own autobiographical efforts) as one of British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s many lovers, his “Crowds and Power” (1960) vies with Le Bon’s as the classic treatise on the subject. The book - a  strange mixture of anthropology and social psychology and now, understandably, enjoying a new lease of life - warned of the unpredictable ebb and flow of the crowd. It is, most definitely, not a Marxist take on the subject – for which one should turn to criminologist Matt Clement’s “A People’s History of Riot, Protest and the Law – the Sound of the Crowd” (2016)

Vlad Mitev is a young Bulgarian journalist who also lives in Russe and has a trilingual HYPERLINK "https://movafaq.wordpress.com/category/limba-език-language/english/"Bridge of Friendship blogHYPERLINK "https://movafaq.wordpress.com/category/limba-език-language/english/" which covers political and cultural developments on both sides of that last section of the river Danube. He’s also editor of the Romanian section of "HYPERLINK "https://en.baricada.org/"BaricadaHYPERLINK "https://en.baricada.org/""HYPERLINK "https://en.baricada.org/" , a leftist journal based in Sofia which boasts Bulgarian, Polish and Romanian writers. He and I worked together on an early draft of this piece before deciding to focus on what we each felt we knew best. I’m also grateful for the insights I’ve gained over the years from Daniela, my Romanian companion and conspirator,

Ralf Dahrendorf was a famous German sociologist/UK statesman who wrote in 1990 an extended public letter first published under the title “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” and then expanded as “Reflections on the Revolution of our Time”. In it he made the comment that it would take

·         one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in the recently liberated countries of central Europe;

·         maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy; and

·         15 to 20 years to create the rule of law.

·         some two generations to create a functioning civil society there.


What had in 1989 seemed a bloody Revolution in Romania was later exposed as more of a simple regime change. Personnel and systems remained in place and it was to be 1996 - with the election of Emil Constantinescu as President - before new winds started to challenge the old systems and structures of power. By then the scions of the country's privileged families were being inculcated in the pro-market celebratory doctrines that pass for education in American Business Schools; and the country's (strong) intelligentsia had spent several years quaffing at Friedrich Hayek's fountain.


Privatisation was at last allowed to let rip – with the local oligarchs soon becoming indistinguishable from the politicians.

When Bulgaria’s PM Ivan Kostov was asked why crony capitalism was flourishing under his rule, his revealing comments was


Bulgaria is a small country. We are all cousins”


Eastern Europe as a whole was offered a deadly deal which has almost destroyed these countries – almost 2 million Bulgarians and Romanians prop up the British and German economies; Bulgaria has the unenviable position of losing its population at a faster rate than any other country in the world - and Romania is not far behind. And the pensioners who are expected to exist on a monthly pension of less than 200 euros a month – when the prices in the shops are at western level.


Austrian and Italian companies have taken over the jewels of the Bulgarian and Romanian timber, banking and agribusiness sectors after the massive privatisation which was made a condition of their membership of the EU and NATO.

That last has meant of course militarisation, high expenditures on military procurement and reduced social spending. Bulgaria recently concluded a deal for American fighter aircraft at a cost of 2 billion dollars – placing it at the top of the global table for increased military spending since 2010 – with a 167% increase (Romania is at 150%)


The Bulgarian protests

But it is the EC Structural Funds with their hundreds of billions of euros which lie behind the ongoing street protests in Sofia - directed generally against the country's systemic corruption and, specifically, against Prime Minister Borisov (who used to be the bodyguard of first the ex-dictator Zhivkov and then PM King Simeon II) as well as the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev - whose raid on the offices of popular President Radev in July raised big questions.

Unlike previous street protests in Sofia, this one has attracted wider support – for example from a previous Justice Minister, Hristo Ivanov who launched a mock incursion on the Black Sea home of one of the country’s political oligarchs


The incident transformed Ivanov’s image from detached intellectual to maverick politician setting the terms of public debate, and his centre-right Democratic Bulgaria coalition doubled its support in the polls. “This was not simply the PR action of the year but of the decade,” said Petar Cholakov, a political analyst and sociologist from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.


The two countries separated by the River Danube don't usually have a great deal to do with one another - one is strongly in the EU/Atlantic Alliance camp - the other's 150-year-old ties with Russia still reverberate. But, in recent years, Romania (at least in western eyes) has made significant progress in fighting corruption - measured at least in terms of the number of politicians and ex-Ministers it has managed to put in jail. When Bulgarian activists began to call this out, the power structure tried to defuse the situation by appointing a crony as Prosecutor-General. This is a position which, unlike in Romania, has never been the subject of any reform.


Vlad Mitev’s recent Open Democracy article Bulgarian Protests - battle over anti-corruption gives some of the background to the Sofia protests


The Romanian anti-corruption formula was popular in Bulgaria until 2017-2018. Romanian anti-corruption had gained its fame under the leadership of the former chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Kövesi, now chief prosecutor of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.


As Romanian Chief prosecutor from 2013 to 2018, she presided over numerous arrests of politicians, widely reported in the international press. The “Romanian model of anti-corruption” was lauded in the western media as an exemplary model for delivering justice and building the rule of law. The model of anti-corruption based on a powerful Chief Prosecutor’s office thus came to be seen in Bulgaria as a path towards a European standard of living. The Bulgarian middle class seemed to envy their Romanian counterparts...


But a subsequent article by Mitev in “Baricada” laid more emphasis on the class nature evident in the protests – which the western media has totally failed to pick up -


It is interesting to note that in the earlier wave of anti-oligarchic protests in Bulgaria in 2013 the protesters were called by media and society “the beautiful and the clever ones”, which was a direct reference to the narcissism of their representatives’ and to the abyss that divides them from the “ugly” and “stupid” masses. Romania has an almost exact notion of the same type: “the beautiful and the free youth”, which gets abbreviated as “Tefelists” (TFL – tineri frumoşi şi liberi – beautiful and free youth).

These are important signals that important parts of the overall population feel distant and maybe even ethically superior to these protesting elites, who in turn believe that it is they who hold the ethical higher ground. And these notions have been used by politicians in a divide and conquer manner.


What was imported from Romania was the idea of an unrestrained Chief Prosecutor which suited Bulgaria’s new man Geshev down to the ground – as Mihai Evans explains in a recent Open Democracy article.


As the system is currently constituted there are simply no checks and balances that can rein in the conduct of the Bulgarian Prosecutor General, a position which is largely in the political gift of the government. The holder of this office has effective command of the entire judicial system and can stop any investigation, including a hypothetical one against himself. This has resulted in conduct that reached a nadir in a shocking series of events which saw a senior prosecutor murdered after making strongly worded criticisms of the then Prosecutor General. This appalling episode has never been satisfactory cleared up by investigators or the legal system. The family of the murdered man took a case, Kolevi v Bulgaria, to the European Court of Human Rights whose ruling was that Bulgaria must engage in extensive reforms of the prosecutors office.


Over a period of more than a decade, largely coinciding with the governments of Borisov, it has failed to do so. As a result, as Radosveta Vassileva, a fellow at University College, London’s Faculty of Law argues: “Bulgaria is permanently torn by scandals regarding non-random distribution of case files, abuses of judges and prosecutors who resist political orders, purposeful destruction of evidence by authorities etc.”. In recent years Bulgaria has been repeatedly convicted of violations of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights for failing to ensure the rights of the accused. The Specialised Court for Organised Crime, a parallel system of courts ostensibly established to combat corruption have failed to convict a single politician (in contrast to Romania where dozens have been imprisoned, including the leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party last year). Legal scholars have accused both countries of failing to provide fair trials.


The Sofia protesters’ demand of a reform to the Bulgarian constitution (with the chief prosecutor’s prerogatives being curbed, the political influence over the judicial system curtailed and the judiciary strengthened) certainly suggests a continuing degree of faith in Bulgarian institutions or at least in their capacity to reform and be held accountable.


Pre Covid Hopes of “Normality”

"For a normal Romania" was the slogan used by the campaign of the ex-Mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu in last autumn's elections as he fought to retain the Presidency he had surprisingly grabbed in 2015 from the jaws of defeat. The slogan expressed the dreams of many - not least the millions of younger Romanians (and Bulgarians) forced to emigrate in search of that dream.


Street protests in both countries are nothing new - although only in Romania have they succeeded in recent years in toppling governments. A so-called Social Democratic (PSD) government fell in 2015 as a result of a deadly fire in a Bucharest nightclub which exposed the scandalously lax regulations sustained by the greasing of hands.

Another scandal which engulfed Romania last summer started with the murder of a teenager whose terrified phone-call to the police was totally ignored. The revelation of the scale of the collusion between the Secret Service, prosecutors and the Anti-Corruption Agency in the country (a veritable Deep State) eventually led to the collapse of that PSD government as well - and the re-election in the subsequent Presidential election of the slow-witted but polarising Transylvanian Klaus Johannis


Bulgaria and Romania may have joined the EU in 2007 after a bit of a hiccup but they both still operate under a judicial cloud in the form of The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) which subjects each country to an annual check of its legal and judicial health. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania are happy with the continued EU scrutiny but have at least managed to avoid the threat of sanctions which continues to hang over Hungary and Poland. And both countries have, largely, managed post-1989 to escape the right-wing virus to which they were exposed in the interwar period. For that we should all be profoundly grateful.


But neither country has been able to shake off the legacy of its past - which is much longer than just the half-century of communist influence. The Ottoman Empire had several centuries to engineer human souls – with the Greek Phanariots being given a measure of licence in Romania to exploit the locals whereas the Bulgarians lived under the direct yoke of the Ottomans.

In that respect, Dahrendorf was a bit optimistic in 1990 in suggesting that it would it take only 20 years to embed the Rule of Law and 2 generations (say 50 years) for civil society to be properly functioning! 

I’ll continue this post later