Bulgaria's Special Path

Bulgaria's Special Path

Bulgaria's problem is not too little democracy, but ineffective democracy.

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"Bulgaria’s Royal Elections" by Zoltan Barany, in Journal of Democracy (Apr. 2002), 1101 15th St., N.W., Ste. 800, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Although Bulgaria remained a hardline communist state almost until the end, its ready embrace of parliamentary democracy and its relative tranquility since make it unique among the postcommunist Balkan states. It also stands out for a less admirable reason: its long resistance to fundamental economic reforms.

"Bulgaria’s basic difficulty over the last decade," writes Barany, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, "has been a problem not of too little democracy but of ineffective democracy: One freely elected government after another has let the economy slide because ministers feared the political consequences of pushing through necessary but exceedingly unpopular economic policies."

"The first false start came in 1990," after the communist regime fell, with an assist from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in "a sort of polite palace coup." The Communists changed nominally into socialists, proclaimed their devotion to pluralism and the rule of law, and won a landslide victory in free elections that June. But the Bulgarian Socialist Party government failed to deliver on its promise of a gradual transition to a market economy.

In late 1991, the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) won a narrow plurality in the National Assembly. As the ex-Communists "worked busily at turning political clout into economic power," writes Baramy, corruption became rampant. The UDF, however, was chiefly concerned with "wreaking retribution on the communists." Two more changes of government brought economic reform no nearer. By late 1996, with triple-digit inflation and major banks going bust, "the economy was falling apart."

Yet Bulgaria’s young democratic political system held. A big victory in the 1997 elections by the UDF and its coalition partners resulted in a government that "turned the economy around and placed Bulgaria firmly on the road to Euro-Atlantic integration." By early 2000, it had privatized 70 percent of state assets and inflation was down to 6 percent. However, unemployment was still above 18 percent, 40 percent of Bulgarians were in poverty, and corruption remained pervasive.

A disillusioned electorate turned last year to Bulgaria’s ex-king, Simeon II, who had been exiled in 1946 by the Communists. Prime Minister Simeon has promised further economic reform, but his "most daunting task" will be fighting corruption. Barany believes he is ready to do just that.

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