A  LETTER  FROM  BULGARIA


 

Dear   friends,

We read with great interest your article on freedom of information in Eastern Europe ("Access denied?" August) - a greatly underestimated issue in post-communist transition. In recent years, however, Transitions’ coverage would suggest that Bulgaria is the least problematic transitional society. It is true that we have no civil or ethnic wars, but the failure of reforms here and the ongoing agony of pseudo-transition is no less dramatic. Our people were forced to pay a severe price for nothing and are still forced so.

The Bulgarians are specific with their dysfunctional individualistic response to illegitimate power and our rulers have learned to misuse these mentalities. THIS should be discussed and a special agenda should be set against manipulative exclusion in pseudo-democracy.

Monitoring access of information practices, as done by the Access to Information Foundation in Bulgaria, is a positive development but we should like to point at the great deficits in legislative guarantees for transparency and real civic inclusion that could block manipulative exclusion and corruptive power.

In 1995 the "Free information society" emerged as an informal civic group decided to resist the arbitrary dismissal of a Bill initially ordered by the Government and worked out by a group of experts - the Information Bill. We decided to address the wider public who are actually the victims of secrecy, manipulation, missing public dialogue and gaps in information rights.

 We raised the issues of information and participatory rights because manipulative exclusion and indirect control are major instruments of post-communist pseudo-democratic regimes and because more rights of that kind could compensate some other deficiencies of our citizenry (in capital, in democratic tradition and political experience).

Our point here is that (1) information resources are much more developed and accessible today and (2) that our people are EDUCATED ENOUGH to quickly master their new civic roles. They are neither so ignorant nor that much traditional in their thinking BUT HAVE BEEN CONSISTENTLY SUPPRESSED AND EXCLUDED (were given no chance) by authoritarian, totalitarian and lately - backstage-mafia regimes. The problem is not so much in mentality and economic retardation but mainly in CORRUPTED POWER operating out of civic control and hence dismembering society. Official myth-makers love to label our people as retarded, inert, paternalistic and lacking respect for state and law but they forget the policies of cultural, financial and legal deprivation/discrimination as major factors reproducing such mentalities. Hence what we need is `anchoring' the state in society by empowering the individual with MORE CIVIL RIGHTS.

In our case all power resources are so unevenly distributed (concentrated in the hands of the ex-nomenclatura and ex-secret-police officials) that civil society can't even emerge by itself. It is easily displaced by ex-communist imitations and effects no real shift in power balance.

No `third strata' exists here since potential citizens were twice expropriated  by state or ex-state officials - once in 1948 by the nationalization and again after 1985-89 by "wild" privatisation, manipulated "inflation", fake (nomenclatura) "banks" etc.
Hence democratisation here requires MORE DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS for the impoverished though no retarded citizenry. The disbalance in power is great and specific so a specific set of means is needed for a real inclusion in politics and overwhelming of mafia power.

In this context information and participatory rights are not just a luxury but a chief priority in a post-communist democratic agenda. Without them multi-party elections and media pluralism are not shifting the power from our ex-rulers to society. A weaker though not retarded citizenry faced by over-concentrated political AND ECONOMIC power NEEDS and is CAPABLE of running a stronger democracy. This is our major thesis. (see fuller version, Petition and links for discussion at http://members.tripod.com/~freeinf )

Already in June 1996 we appealed to the Parliament to open public debate on the bill of information that was mysteriously dropped off the agenda few years ago. We have printed and disseminated 5000 leaflets appealing to citizens to support demands for information and participatory rights. We have organized two seminars (Nov. 1996 and March 1997) and held a pres-conference trying (unsuccessfully) to appear in the news. Major dailies, national TV and radio ignored us.

 In Jan. 1997 we started collection of signatures under a petition demanding civil rights and calling ex-officials to account for ruining the country, blocking the reforms and assisting the pillaging of national capital. We demanded exposure of illegal capital and checking corruption by massive civic inclusion. At that time we assisted the emergence of "Civic participation society" in Sofia.

In Oct. 1997 we entered the Petition signed by 6000 people in three parliamentary commissions (the legislative one, the civil rights one and that for culture and media). Recently only one of them answered that we should find a deputy to enter detailed drafts. So our demands incl. that for public discussion, were not heard and again were silenced by the media.

The new regime has promised "dialogue" and "social contract" but has "forgotten" to negotiate its terms with the public. Concrete legislative projects - e.g. the drafts of laws about illegally acquired properties and taxation of undeclared revenues vanished from the agenda without any explanation. Existing legislation allowing inspection of illegal property is not implemented. An easiest way is to compare income declarations and the huge immovable possessions where citizens could be of help if these declarations (incl. those of public persons and managers of state firms and banks) were not a secret in Bulgaria.

We had a number of spectacular show-campaigns (taking and returning expensive cars by prosecutors, several arrests of minor bankers, recently - commissions checking the origin of properties etc.). We have waited and are still waiting but we see ONLY new waves of threats and `gestures' against mafia-power and corruption. Financial inspection of only SOME big mafia firms has started recently. A list of credit-millionaires with $1.5 billion unsettled debts was published but it is incomplete and `toothless' (see our website).

The new government has not as yet asked any foreign government for help in taking back illegally exported state capital (some $18 billion). At least $ 4 billion could be restored from abroad, experts say but no moves are taken in this direction.
The "blue"("right") Chief Prosecutor is providing as far the best protection for the "red"("left") mafias. He is their "secret weapon". Cases are blocked and jammed, gangsters are set free and later returned by Interpol at much greater expenses... and the man is untouchable and unaccountable to anybody. We were recently denied information about his actual contribution as chief-prosecutor.

The draining of savings continues in new forms. Taxes are not reduced but new were invented (in neighbouring Macedonia the profit-taxis is 15% since 1994 while here they are still discussing lowering it from30 to 28%). So the once robbed public is now forced to pay again a `transition price' while nobody is disturbing the red-barons that had pillaged the economy without reforming it. The "previous ones" are silently being forgiven for all the harms they have done to our community. Their "dirty" fortunes, stolen from the people via state politics and property are being silently legalized.

A really positive effort was made to resettle the gas contract with Russia excluding a useless intermediary but this would hardly change the ill balance of power inside the country since no responsibility was claimed for the enormous loses and draining of public money.

The drafting of new electronic media legislation was scandalously delayed in Bulgaria. The Bill of electronic media was twice discarded by the Constitutional court and lately by a President's veto. We have sent (to parliament and media) a vision of our members for wider civic participation, transparency, accessibility and democratic management of public media. No one paid attention. And no rights were given to the people in that respect- the legislation kept `friendly' for further manipulation and indirect exclusion. That's the logic of pseudo reforms.

Disappointment is rising not so much out of economic hardships but out of missing "retribution", "dialogue", "social contract", transparency, and due to the unjust burdening of the whole nation while pardoning the really guilty ones. Such policies ENCOURAGE incompetent rule and enrichment via state power IN FUTURE. THEY and not the mental heritage undermine the legitimacy of official power, respect for law and the very emergence of civic culture.

The public media gave no publicity to our demands. A 10-minutestransmission by the Second program of the national radio was the only exception. The major dailies "Trud" (Labour), "24 hours", "Continent", "Novinar", "Standart" treated these demands as non-existent. "We don't like some of  your demands so we won't write about your petition", a chief-editor ("Standart") plainly explained himself.

The problem of  CLOSED MEDIA clearly showed up in our campaign. A petition of 6000 citizens was expelled from `reality' by our “independent media”. In Slovenia 5000 citizens can enter a bill in parliament, in Bulgaria 6000 petitioners are not even mentioned in the news. Gaps in political rights and demands for them are not a problem and not an `event' for our media. The political rights issue is overshadowed and expelled from public debate by the myth of "successful democracy". The people are kept UNAWARE of their LEGAL and POLITICAL deprivation generating and reproducing all the other kinds of deprivation.

We try to develop the intra-civic communication but without funding and with closed media this is difficult to achieve.  We have opened two free websites - "Shady Affairs in Bulgaria" and "Civic participation"- www.bulgariaonline.bg/freeinf  http://members.tripod.com/~freeinf  but we can't open an Internet cafe where access to public dialogue will be free and easy. We have a workable scheme for a weekly civic `studio’ in national radio. It requires no additional funding or change of major radio programs. But there is no will for such experiments.

Our demands are really `bad' for corrupted oligarchic power relying heavily on secrecy and manipulation. They cannot be distorted but should only be silenced and removed from drafts in `closed chambers'. And that’s what they are doing.

Without public debate and legislative initiative for citizens gaps and selective reception of western experience will persist. A good intention to pass a bill about secrets and information was announced in the spring BUT no debate has started and no drafts or conceptions have appeared as far.

Though having a chance till exclusion is indirect, in small communities like our one dominated by powerful, incl. foreign mafias autonomous civic initiative is embryonically muffled and displaced by imitations. Indirect exclusion is quite efficient when resources are so unevenly distributed. So we need to combine our efforts with other civic groups in Bulgaria and worldwide striving for a wider democratic agenda.

Ivan Christof, pres. of Free Information Society, Sofia