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Tendencies Towards Authoritarianism:
A Comparative Analysis of Russia and Bulgaria
Georgi Dimitrov, Petia Kabakchieva, Jeko Kijossev
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V. Claims and Potential of the Political Alternatives of Transition
2. Similarities and differences between the political situations in Russia and Bulgaria
The nature of political processes in Bulgaria is identical to the modernizing changes in Russia. They are now even more distinct in Russia. Let us remember that the changes in the former Soviet Union started about five years earlier than in Bulgaria. In other words, Russian society has had five more years to see how nice democratic society is - at the same time, however, bread is nicer than democracy. Yet societies for which even bread is a grave problem tend to relegate the idea of democracy to the background.
Russia is currently living through dramatic hard times: a reform imposed by foreign recipes without consideration for the specific realities (and therefore chaotic) that has caused degeneration in society. On the other hand, total plundering of national wealth (S. Govorukhin's book and film The Great Criminal Revolution are, biased as they might be, symptomatic enough), too much mediocrity and corruption in the political elite.
Russia, however, has other grave problems that are not typical of Bulgaria. Starting with vast territories suffering from acute economic, political and cultural backwardness. Russia has always had the mentality of a great power regardless of the economic crises. Today it is cornered, its strategic resources have been practically privatized and Russia does not have the necessary levers of geopolitical influence. Instead of pursuing a national policy, prominent Russian government ministers pursue policies that benefit their companies. There are too many similarities between Bulgarian and Russian politics too. In the 17 December 1995 elections in Russia, for instance, about 50 parties ran for seats in the Duma. This number unquestionably indicates that political pluralism has struck deep roots in society. Unfortunately, both in Bulgaria and Russia the presence of that many political formations is not an expression of the ideological variety in politics. Bulgaria has a Party of Cardiac Patients and Russia has a Party of Women. Let us remember that the easiest thing in a poor society is to buy votes for what is small change in foreign currency.
Russia's new political and economic elite comes, in its overwhelming majority, from the former nomenklatura, the Komsomol-party-economic elite, claims Y. Diskin, Doctor of Economics. After the old socialist system collapsed, the Russians were amazed to see a substantial part of the nomenklatura, especially out of Moscow, keep its old positions, influence, connections and power, supplementing that with sizeable property. The findings of Zeleny & Zeleny's survey on "Reproduction and Circulation of the Elite" support this thesis. Compared with Hungary and Poland, the Russian nomenklatura has kept more of its positions, especially in political power: half of the ex-nomenklatura interviewed still hold key political posts, and 83% of the contemporary Russian political elites are former members of the CPSU. This, however, does not mean that they are pro-communist. On the contrary, reproduction of their status in the new conditions definitely rejects the egalitarian etatist communist model.
Incomes of the highest and lowest paid strata in Russia today differ by a factor of 20, 30 or even more. This makes the chance of clawing up the social ladder hopeless. Which breeds depression and social hatred. Now only the Russian elite and the thin upper crust of nouveaux riches have something to lose. The overwhelming majority of the public has little if anything. In this situation there are two possible ways of development: social explosion or ultimate loss of desire, will and strength to start everything from scratch.
The presidential elections in Russia have highlighted a new tendency. Along with prominent political figures such as Yeltsin, Yavlinsky and Zyuganov, billionaires have also been consumed by political passion. If until yesterday most of them cared about nothing but how to multiply their fortune, today they are earnestly preparing to take the helm of power. All excuse their ambitions with the desire to help their country recover from the crisis faster. However, the real reason for this passion for power has nothing to do with that - they expect to multiply their fortunes through power. Even more importantly, they will thus get security for their wealth. Quite a few Russian nouveaux riches managed to win seats in the Duma in December 1995. But they are no longer content with that - two nouveaux riches openly ran in the presidential election. At that, paradoxically, the one proclaimed himself leader of the Russian Socialist Party and the other, in favour of popular capitalism.
The first Russian millionaire to declare his intention of becoming president was pharmaceutical magnate Vladimir Bryntsalov. Western experts estimate he is worth more than USD 2,000 million. His platform was like a fairy-tale: if he had been elected, he would have ensured a monthly wage of USD 1,000, champagne and caviar. He only forgot to mention how he would do that.
The other presidential candidate, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, is also a millionaire and speculates with the idea of "popular capitalism."
The first round of the presidential elections, however, has shown that the Russians will definitely not side with the new rich. Nor with has-beens in politics: Gorbachev.
A presidential campaign is on in Bulgaria too. Unlike Russia, no Bulgarian nouveau riche has hitherto declared officially that he is running for president. Even if someone were to in the next few months, public opinion would hardly back him or her. As their Russian brethren, Bulgarian millionaires care little if at all about the economic plight of the people. On the other hand, a person who cannot answer the simple question of how s/he made their first million, cannot enjoy public prestige. That is precisely why society is very suspicious about the qualities and skills of the nouveaux riches and will not allow them to reach the official public political peaks.
Tanks rolled sinisterly along the streets of Moscow in August 1991. That was a severe blow to the fragile Russian society. Yet it was the Putsch that accelerated the collapse of the long decayed empire and cleared the way to radical economic and modernizing changes.
The five years since are ample time for comparing and appraising the rate of reform in Russia and Bulgaria. The political and economic reform in Bulgaria is proceeding neither smoothly nor free of problems and severe consequences for the public. In Bulgaria, however, the economic modernization processes have long since mutated, remaining in the field of abstract plans and concepts only. Practically everything has remained within the realm of state diktat. Admittedly, there had been a tangible breakthrough in the development of private property and enterprise, but the norm is still set by the state and its structures and enterprises.
In Russia, the process of denationalization was stimulated and effected in practice precisely after the failed coup. Today the share of private property in Russia, for instance housing, is 85%; much more than half of the gross national product comes from the non-state sector. Twenty thousand enterprises have been transformed into joint-stock companies and the country has over 40 million shareholders.
Unlike Russia, the anti-privatization arguments in Bulgaria have proved too strong, as a result of which the reform has not taken off. Even though it declared mass privatization its main economic priority, the ruling Socialist Party is still cautiously looking around at a loss what to do. They are looking for different, often absurd variants of turning privatization into a magic panacea that will stabilize the economy overnight and make more or less every Bulgarian rich and happy.
This is how the incumbents formulate the problem: how to fuse only the positive aspects from the different privatization strategies in a single mechanism, a little from the Russian, more from the Czech, something from the Hungarian and Polish. Leaving the negative aspects in Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland. Precisely this ambitious but impossible task is emasculating and paralyzing the reform. Many "pundits" have spoken out, arguing that since there was no feasible mechanism of privatization free of "bad effects," then privatization itself was pointless or, if it were to be carried out none the less, then it should be done in a "smooth and gradual" way.
Yet Russia has shown that whatever the privatization model, its assets can outnumber its liabilities, the prime asset being the implementation of privatization itself. The enormous Russian state has managed to make some progress only thanks to real privatization.
The tedious and trivial debates on the mechanism of privatization, typical of the situation in Bulgaria, suggest a fear precisely of the real takeoff of market privatization. People in Bulgaria are wondering how to launch privatization to somebody's benefit - not how to neutralize the liabilities.
The objective reasons for this stalemate in the past year concentrate in the ruling BSP. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Socialist Party is neither a political formation nor a coalition - it is "Bulgaria in small compass" rallying both rich and poor, right and left round a single value: a predictable, controllable and plannable future. This is a caste, a corporation whose periphery covers about two thirds of the Bulgarian nation. No matter whether the BSP's present leaders realize it or not, the free market confronts its enormous conservative body with an insuperable problem: getting used to taking risks, being innovative.
Following mass privatization, a return to "real socialism" is impossible in Russia. Not because restoration does not have its advocates and champions. Mass privatization has simply created an enormous mass of enterprising and efficient entrepreneurs. That very aspects terrifies the BSP. The market creates truly free people - not too strong, but strong enough to be independent. People whose only chance is enterprise and innovation. The preservation of the present economic status quo in Bulgaria, i.e. preserving the mass dependence on the State, will perpetuate the BSP's power, leaving people rightless and dependent on white-collar mercy and corruption.
To quote the influential Russian weekly Ogonyok, the past few years have indeed seen a bloodless revolution in Russia. That very distance lies between us and Russia, as well as the civilized democratic world.
The present political situation in Bulgaria is rife with dangers to the processes of modernization. Starting with the mass political apathy that has swept across a large part of Bulgarian society. The average Bulgarian is becoming increasingly convinced that nothing really depends on him or her in the course of both political and economic reform. This tendency is particularly strong among young people in the country.
Another typical feature of Bulgarian politics in the mid-90s (as evident in the analysis in the previous part) is the resurrection of the omnipotent state. To quote Bulgaria's President, Dr Zhelyu Zhelev, one of the quintessential characteristics of the BSP rule is the attempt to concentrate economic and public affairs around the state. We are gradually moving towards an absurd situation where there are two types of ownership - a good type, state ownership, and a bad type, private. Private enterprise is under pressure from two sources. From the Government, which applies and imposes an administrative style of government. And from organized crime, which is trying to force its own barbaric rules on Bulgarian economic affairs.
We will quote Bulgaria's head of state again. He says that communism cannot be restored in its classical form since neither concentration camps nor abolition of the multi-party political system, outlawing of political opposition, the freedom of speech and of the press are possible. As a model of political government communism is hopelessly dead, even to its supporters. Since the substitution of the idea of democratic society, however, Bulgaria is really faced with a multiparty authoritarian chaos whose atmosphere is great for petty crime, the mafia, corruption, political partisanship, substitution of the idea of the free market by a non-market mechanism.
More and more people in Bulgaria today are becoming disenchanted with democracy, with the modernizational changes from the past six years. At the same time, everyone realizes that the country cannot join the civilized democratic world without far-reaching changes. That is precisely why there have been more and more calls for a "strong arm" in politics. In the Bulgarian transition parliamentary democracy itself might prove the link between totalitarianism and a temporary authoritarian government.
The solid foundations of an oligarchy made up of a select few who, however, have been taking ever more tangible control over the real national wealth, have been built slowly but surely in Bulgaria over the past few years. In this respect, things are developing towards the familiar Russian oligarchic model. Very soon the main problem of that oligarchy will be to legitimate and, in particular, to retain the new status quo. Social contrasts might have acquired such proportions that preserving the status quo could be impossible without intervention by a new "Pretorian Guard" coming from the security services and part of the army.