Reuniting Europe

The Bulgarian Round table, which greatly helped my country’s transition, avoiding bloodshed and extremism, took place in the spring of 1990. Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was ousted in a palace coup d’etat on 10 November 1989, one day after the fall of the Berlin wall. But in the meantime the former regime was very much on power. And the pressure of the street and ethnic tensions resulting from the forced assimilation of ethnic Turks in the late 80’s could have led to violence, such as in Romania or former Yugoslavia.

So the Round table, largely copied from a political process in Poland from the previous year, brought together the government and the opposition leaders. As Petko Simeonov, a leading dissident said, “people who couldn’t stand each other sat at the same table and reached agreement for the most important things in the country”.

I was in Paris on 10 May, for a conference, organised by my good friend, French researcher Francois Frison-Roche in the ENA, the prestigious National school for administration, which brought together the living main actors of the Round table. Present were Zhelyu Zhelev, the former dissident and first democratically elected president of Bulgaria (1990-1997), Dimitar Ludjev, a member of the opposition who later became deputy prime minister (1990-1991). Petko Simeonov whose name I mentioned and who never took office.

Also present were actors from ‘the opposite side’ – Socialist leader Aleksandar Lilov, who had been a sort of ‘dissident’ in the communist ranks, advocating for social-democracy, and Georgi Pirinski, a Socialist leader who until recently was the president of the Parliament. The only main protagonist missing was Andrey Lukanov, the strong man from the Socialist ranks from that period, who was murdered in front of his house in 1996.

Present were also a number of political scientists of different nationalities, some of whom I happen to know well. As my friend Philipp Claret from the University of Bordeaux IV said, in Bulgaria as in the Polish case, the adversaries who previously hated each other, at the end of the process had developed mutual esteem and were able to agree on a project for the future.

However, as Francois Frison-Roche said, the thing is that 20 years after those events, nobody wants to celebrate. And as Lilov added, “comparing the quality of the political dialogue in present-day Bulgaria with the one from the Round table, I give my preference to the second one for its democratic credentials”.

All those historic protagonists, some more strongly, others more diplomatically, deplored the political and cultural climate of present Bulgaria. Lilov spoke of the “surge of mediocrity” and Ludjev called the present governing elite a “populist mediocracy”. Simeonov said that the Bulgarian society is “drowning in sub-culture”. Zhelev told me in an interview that he regrets that the government of Boyko Borissov doesn’t have a consistent policy. Sooner or later, this will have bad consequences, he warned.

It was striking to see such unanimity among former political foes. And not very reassuring for the quality of the Bulgarian democracy, twenty years later.

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