Remember: this country never had the Enlightenment. To fathom the overwhelming mixture of the sometimes ostensible controversies of life in Bulgaria, you need to understand how Bulgarians think – and what the main tenets of the mental process that forms psychological associations and models of the world are. Here is a tentative top 10. Peruse sparingly and apply plenty of common sense as well as a little humour.
Because Bulgarians have been lied to by their governments, their oligarchs and even their next-door neighbours for so long, they tend to be extremely suspicious of everything that's been promulgated officially. They know: because nothing is what it seems, there is always some hidden agenda.
The Balkans in general and Bulgaria in particular have for centuries been fertile ground for conspiracy theories, and in 2016 they tend to proliferate exponentially. Conveniently, they are being assisted by a plethora of Internet sites purporting to carry "news," but in fact disseminating a bizarre and often appalling mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Their favourite topics? The West in general and the United States in particular are bad because they try to usurp Bulgaria's "traditional" values. Russia is good because it is a "great" country that liberated us twice: once from the Turks in the 19th century and once again from ourselves, in 1944.
The Bulgarian proclivity for conspiracy theories is so vast and omnipenetrating that it easily overshadows any other tenet of the Bulgarian mental process. Anyone doing business in Bulgaria should have it in mind.
History (and especially the Great Powers)
There are a number of things besides football and alternative medicine that every Bulgarian feels very comfortable talking about. History comes first. After a couple of drinks any conversation around a Bulgarian table tends to turn into 19th or early 20th century matters.
Significantly, most of those are myths rather than historical facts. And they are myths carefully created under Communism and designed to assert two things: that Bulgaria is unable to achieve anything without the Soviet Union, now Russia; and that whatever Bulgaria does achieve, it does so in spite of the Great Powers. Take your cue from here.
One curious side effect of Communist-era historiography, still thriving quarter of a century after Communism is no more, is the deeply ingrained sentiment of victimhood. Bulgaria, like most other Balkan nations, had a rough time at the beginning of the 20th century, with chunks of the country being taken out of the hinterland (through various treaties masterminded by the Great Powers), with the result being hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarian refugees settling in the country. However, Bulgaria never really experienced the Second World War, not in any way if compared to Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece and Hungary, not to speak of Poland or Belarus. Yet, Bulgarians constantly whine at how unfair history has been to them. Furthermore, they tend to explain the current state of affairs in the country with events that happened many years ago. One example is a recent debate in the Education Ministry to tone down the word being used to describe the Ottoman occupation of historical Bulgaria – from the poetic "yoke" to something more sensible. It provoked such an outrage that the education minister was dismissed. Yes, many Bulgarians are proud to have been "slaves."
Forget, but never forgive
Even though they are such lovers of history, Bulgarians tend to forget quite fast. During the sunset days of Communism, for example, the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Station was seen as a rundown Soviet factory likely to explode at any time. Chernobyl had just blown up and the Bulgarian government kept it a secret from its own population. The Bulgarians, quite rightly, were outraged. In the 1990s however, and especially following Bulgaria's decision to comply with EU requests to shut down parts of Kozloduy for safety reasons, a cunning and very effective propaganda campaign succeeded in what had looked like an impossible task previously. It changed the image of the plant from a dangerous hole filled with uranium into a symbol of national pride and even patriotism. It remains so to this day.
Bulgarians will happily forget everything bad, but they will be reluctant to offer any absolution for even minor wrongdoing. Many Bulgarian families would not talk to each other because of some property dispute 50 years ago that no one remembers any longer, and anyone willing to offer reconciliation with history will be snubbed at and declared a communist, a fascist or a gay (the word being used in Bulgarian is actually quite offensive).
Moderation lawyers are not doing a good business in Bulgaria.
Never ever ever admit any wrongdoing
Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to unfaithful husbands and wives only. It applies to history, to business, to politics – practically to all spheres of private and public life in Bulgaria. Admitting guilt, Bulgarians surmise, will inevitably bring on a request for compensation, and no – we don't do any compensations.
In 1943, Bulgaria famously rescued its Jews from the Nazi concentration camps. The fact is well known and used liberally by the Bulgarian government to assert the traditional Bulgarian virtue of magnanimity. However, the story is not black-and-white. Whilst Bulgaria did not deport 49,000 Jews, the Bulgarian army, police, administration etc quite willingly put over 11,000 Jews in Macedonia, northern Greece and southern Serbia – territories it had de facto occupied – in northbound Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars. Not only will Bulgaria refuse to acknowledge this, but it would also go to great lengths and spend taxpayers money to produce articles, books and even TV soaps to put the blame elsewhere, usually on the Germans.
Perhaps the best illustration of the Bulgarian reluctance to admit any guilt is the current Bulgarian prime minister. Notorious for his uncouth nativism and almost comical handling of his own staff, Boyko Borisov always finds someone else to blame. His adage from the 2000s, when he was chief of police, has become one of the witticisms of the GERB era: "We catch them, but they let them go free." Originally, it was meant to describe how the police, which Borisov headed, arrested criminals but the courts released them for lack of evidence. It has come to mean a lot more than that. "We catch them, but the vets let them go free," is still making the rounds to explain why there are so many stray dogs in the streets of Sofia.
The most recent one came last month. In the wake of a major TV station's banning of some cartoons depicting the prime minister as "fat" and "bald," citizens responded with a joke: "I allow them [the cartoons], but it [the TV station] bans them."
Real or imaginary bogeymen
The reluctance to admit any guilt logically leads to yet another Bulgarian penchant, for real or imaginary bogeymen. In the 1990s, the current prime minister was in the protection business and, allegedly, several other businesses. In one of them, he had a partner, one Alexey Petrov. The name of Alexey "Tractor" Petrov was fed to the media in 2010, when he was arrested and accused by his former partner, now prime minister, of running a large-scale criminal enterprise involved in hijackings, assassinations and so on.
Petrov was subsequently released by the courts and recently even won an European Court of Human Rights rule against the Republic of Bulgaria for violations of his basic human rights.
What is important, however, was that he was turned into a bogeyman. The ruling GERB and its leader branded anyone who disagreed with them as being an "associate" of Petrov.
Depending on the current political and social winds, various people and organisations are being turned into bogeymen in today's Bulgaria. To those, who like Putin and call themselves "Russophile," the main bogeyman is George Soros, the Hungarian-born millionaire who started, at the beginning of the 1990s, a program to assist the establishment of an open society in Eastern Europe. Ivan Kostov, a rightwing prime minister in the late 1990s, is another. The protesters of 2013 identified Delyan Peevski, an MP for the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, as the chief lieutenant of what they called the "Bulgarian backstage." Depending on whom you talk to, either Ahmed Dogan or Lyutvi Mestan are also to blame for either serving Russia's or Turkey's interests. If Dogan and Mestan and Peevski disappear, new bogeymen will come forth.
Who is paying you?
It is unthinkable for many Bulgarians to accept that sometimes people can be making their money without actually stealing from anyone else. It is also unthinkable for many Bulgarians to accept that some of their fellow citizens can actually take to the streets, or go to the ballot boxes, or write a book, or make a film without having received a payment from the CIA, the KGB, the Mossad, the Turkish secret services or George Soros. "Who is paying them?" has become the main question asked by anyone when confronted with a situation that falls out of the very obvious.
If Jesus Christ were to appear in the Bulgarians lands in 2016 there will surely be a number of newspapers, not to mention the Internet sites, that would immediately ask the question: Who is paying this madman?
Because all kinds of archives are in poor shape in Bulgaria, Bulgarians love lists. Lists speak much more to the Bulgarians than the name of a single individual because if there are several names on a list that suggests a conspiracy (see No. 1 above).
Consequently, all kinds of lists circulate in Bulgaria. There are lists of foods that will kill you instantly. There are other lists of famous Jews, both locally and internationally, that are detrimental to Bulgaria. There are lists of Internet sites that you should click on and lists of other Internet sites you should never go anywhere near to. There are lists and lists and lists.
Bulgarians tend to be far less critical to lists than they would be to the naming of names of single things. Consequently, it is only too easy for those who compile the lists to manipulate them as they wish. If you have a list of 100 foods you should not eat, perhaps the No. 69, after all, is not that dangerous?
Patriotism may be the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings, but in Bulgaria patriotism, the legitimate love for your country, is almost always confused with nationalism. Consequently, it has become the excuse, well accepted at that, for any kind of criminal behaviour, for example the vigilante gangs hunting down asylum-seekers at the Bulgarian borders. Politicians of all shapes and shades have portraits of Bulgarian 19th century revolutionaries hanging in their offices, and both the general public and the authorities often allow them to get away with anything as long as they (mis)quote some dead patriotic poet.
The Bulgarian new nationalism is a direct consequence of the years of Communism when generations of Bulgarians were incessantly told by the propaganda machine of the state that the West is bad and the Soviet Union is good. As a result, this country's new "patriotism" has assumed a rather bizarre shape. Unlike nationalism in the West, which largely means putting, say, Germany über alles, or saying that the Scots are better people than the English, in Bulgaria it means putting Orthodox Russia first and actively opposing the liberal West (see No. 2 above).
Of course, nationalist and fascist scum periodically surfaces all over Europe. But after the ripples it inevitably makes in Western societies, governed by laws that are actually enforced, it usually goes under again. We are yet to see where this will be the case in Bulgaria in 2016.
Justice is a door in the field, the old saying goes. Bulgarians are right to be critical of their justice system because if it does function, it functions selectively, arbitrarily and often unpredictably.
What Bulgarians are not so ready to understand, however, is that justice – any kind of justice – cannot really work unless there are citizens willing to cooperate.
Take the following example. If a new rule or regulation is passed in Western Europe, the overwhelming majority of citizens start thinking of ways how to comply with it. If a new rule or regulation gets passed in Bulgaria (and they do all the time – the Welfare Code, for example, has been changed over 45 times in six years), the first thing Bulgarians do is start thinking of ways to bypass it. The law is for stupid people, one man told me once as we were observing how expensive German cars were speeding up in the Bulgarian motorway's emergency lane the moment there was a hint of congestion ahead. Clever people always find a way.