Historical Revisionism is a fascinating topic. And for us folks in the Balkans, the most obvious example that instantly comes to mind is probably the way the new nation of Macedonia has been crafting its new identity where none existed: by stealing history from neighboring nations. We’ve all heard of Skopje 2014, the huge, majestic, ultra-megalomaniac re-doing of the city center of the Macedonian capital. They put a huge golden statue of Alexander the Great on a horse – so huge that when you stand on this huge square and look to the statue, the only thing you’d see is the horse’s golden balls. And that’s just the centerpiece of a much larger complex of buildings that look as if they’re in the capital of the Roman empire at its zenith. All the while, the rest of the country sinking in squalor and being torn to pieces by lingering ethnic tensions.
It’s a mess. But I digress. This is just a symptom, the tip of the iceberg. It’s a sign of something bigger, deeper about the Macedonians that’s troubling. And it’s not just the fact that the Macedonians have struggled to find their identity ever after the artificial creation of their nation back in the early 20th century at the behest of the Soviets who wanted to split a nation (the Bulgarian one) into pieces to rule the region more easily, and favor their buddies the Serbs. Geopolitical games have such consequences, you know – they pull people apart, often even people of the same nation. The Macedonians have gone to tremendous lengths since that time – they’ve turned a certain variety of the Bulgarian language into a new language that they call Macedonian (the joke goes that it’s Bulgarian, written on a Serbian typing machine); they named their territory after a province in Greece which is traditionally associated with an ancient Greek group called Macedon (Greece has blocked their EU integration because of that, which has forced Macedonia to name itself FYROM); and they’ve completely re-written all their history books, and indoctrinated their children for a couple generations now, to believe that today’s Macedonians (predominantly Slavic people with quite a bit of Thracian DNA in them, just like the rest of the peoples living around these regions) are somehow the direct descendants of Philip and Alexander. They’ve even claimed many great historical personalities and current celebrities have some Macedonian ancestry – hell, even a Macedonian discovered America while sailing alongside Columbus! (Except, that sailor never called himself Macedonian). What’s next, we often joke here – claiming the Moon is Macedonian territory as well? (“Oh Moon, you Macedonian land! Are we gonna fight over you too?“)
If that’s not an example of historical revisionism in desperate search of a non-existent identity, I don’t know what is. It’s all a consequence of the many complexes and frustrations that the Macedonian people have had through the centuries. A small country, squeezed between several larger ones, always kicked and moved around, always used as a pawn, and cannon-fodder in someone else’s wars. I understand them. WE ALL understand them. Which is why we’ve given up trying to argue with them. We’ve stopped trying to convince them that they’re not what they claim they are. It’s not worth it. We gain nothing from it. We’ve thrown our hands in the air, and decided on a different approach. Which is why my country was the first to recognize Macedonia’s independence when they split away from Yugoslavia. We accepted the name Macedonia (unlike the Greeks, who’ve had their reasons to vehemently oppose it). We recognized their language, although we all know too well that it’s just a dialect of ours. Even most Macedonians, when you ask them off-camera, would say they feel Bulgarian. But don’t tell that to their leaders and politicians, it’s a different story there.
Who cares. It’s all in the past. They can define themselves as they wish. They can claim all the great glory of the world if they like. The rest of us know the truth. Let them think of themselves as they wish. We should be looking to the future now. Together. Which is why our governments signed an agreement for neighborly cooperation just yesterday. It was carefully crafted in a way not to insult anyone’s sensibilities. Because there are lots of sensitive questions surrounding Macedonia. Yet, some in Macedonia still opposed this large step toward regional peace and harmony. There’ll always be those who’d want to draw political benefits even from the most noble of occasions. Anyway. We’ve done a big step into the right direction, and the process now looks irreversible. Because the Balkans have always been a powder keg, split up and divided and kicked around and used and abused by various “Big Powers”. And if there’s one solution to all that, it’s to take matters in our own hands, forget our differences, and walk together in the same direction. Hopefully, that step will be followed by many more. And hopefully, the Macedonians will stop living in the past, and finally look forward from now on. Because the alternative is quite disastrous. And to all big players in the West I must say: hands off from the Balkans!
Exactly a quarter of a century ago, in a small Dutch town called Maastricht, the European community was renamed to the European Union. The beginning of this union became a tale that everyone kept telling their kids as an example of economic and political success. But the downsides of that success that few people used to talk about until recently, which remained largely ignored for the last quarter of a century, are now threatening the future of the union more and more.
In the first years after Maastricht, these flaws might have been too difficult to spot, granted. But they remained there to linger, never to be addressed, and it took a lot of time for them to come to the surface and start threatening the unity of the union in a noticeable way. That time has come now.
One of those flaws that were put in the very foundations of the EU from day one was its inability to adequately assess the crisis in Yugoslavia and prevent the escalation of the conflicts among the warring sides. It later transformed into an inability to pacify the region in a meaningful way.
Practically, Maastricht was Germany’s way of transferring its economic power onto a larger scale – but also one of its inherent flaws: the EU became just like West Germany at the time of the Cold War. An economic giant that was simultaneously a political dwarf. That dwarf has almost stopped growing for the last quarter of a century. All temporary therapies with growth hormones in the area of foreign policy and security policy have proven futile. No coherent foreign-policy strategy towards the West Balkans ever came to be for that long period. And the region has remained engulfed in political instability.
The EU has also proven incapable of achieving consensus on its foreign policy. The fact that Germany has shown stringent firmness towards the crisis-stricken economies from the southern periphery, while towards the refugees it showed an inexplicably lax generosity, could’ve been excused with some sort of humanitarian or financial logic. But both policies were poison to the EU’s unity. Furthermore, these decisions were pushed through with force, without consulting with the public or with the sides involved in the respective problems. As were a number of prior decisions before that. When Greece was getting ushered into the Euro zone, all Western EU members chose to turn the other way to the fact that Greece wasn’t ready. The same happened when Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia were getting accepted. The story repeated over and over.
The Dublin rules which says the refugees should remain or be returned to the country where they first entered the EU territory, serves Germany and the other wealthy North European countries well, but it puts a huge pressure on the Mediterranean countries. The stubborn neglect of the migration pressure coming like a wave from the south, has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass grave, and the Syrian tragedy, into an all-European drama.
America’s military logic, which has always served the EU’s interests, has brought a series of interventions in foreign lands. They’ve not only caused unimaginable destruction and the collapse of entire states, but it has eroded the solidarity between the EU members. Now there’s no trace left of the solidarity towards the weaker countries or migrants. Which is why the Brexit happened, why Kaczinski rules in Poland and Orban in Hungary, and why Le Pen and Wilders are charging for power in France and the Netherlands, respectively. As if the situation wasn’t already complicated enough, what with the growing assertiveness of the likes of Putin, Erdogan and now Trump.
The current situation in the EU is starting to resemble the pre-collapse era in Yugoslavia. The catastrophe in Tito’s former dreamland happened in result of an explosive mix of economic crisis and rapidly growing ethnic tensions. Thus, all political and economic cracks that had already been there, quickly became huge rifts, and grew into ethnic conflicts that saw the disintegration of that state.
In the eyes of the Western analysts, that sort of development looked like an outdated remnant of times long past at the time – more like a sad deviation from the general trend of unstoppable progress towards “the end of history” (as per Fukuyama). But now, 25 years later, unfortunately we’re compelled to realize that the collapse of Yugoslavia was just a minor precursor to what’s now starting to increasingly look like an inevitable end of an entire process that has passed through all stages of its life cycle.
Evidently, the neo-liberal elites in the Western societies have completely underestimated people’s fears. Which is why nationalism is rearing its head back again, and taking over the public discourse, including in the Western European countries which were supposed to be nearing the coveted stage of eternal and unshakable peace and prosperity. Austria almost elected an ultra-nationalist president, and what’s going to happen in France, no one can predict at this point.
So all that said, what can be done? As simple as it sounds, the way out of this predicament may not be that easy to implement: the EU has to behave as a team at the international scene, firmly united around a certain set of values. As for domestic policy, it has to really be a solidary society. Not just on paper and in words. It’s far better and cheaper to invest into early efforts than later do politically and economically expensive damage-control interventions after the fact.
Whether Europe would re-invent its failed idea for a European Constitution, or it’ll ultimately split into a “Europe of two speeds”, is of secondary importance in that respect. What’s of crucial importance is if the EU would work as a capable, solidary union internationally, a team that has a clear and solid strategy that it has discussed openly, understood completely, and decided to defend unfalteringly – or it’ll just keep floating along with the current, only to sink further down into irrelevance and obscurity. Time is running out. We must decide.
In the conditions of a transitional “monopolar” age in international relations which emerged at the end of the 20th and the beginning of this century, the Western states, just like one or two centuries ago within the framework of the so called Westphalian system, have tried to assume the role of vanguard, projecting (including through force) their own preferred values and institutions (free market, human rights, liberal democracy) upon other societies, regardless of their local cultural and historic specifics and peculiarities. In return, the latter (although to a varying extent) have shown a tendency to oppose this process and, and as paradoxical as that may seem, many of them have tried to uphold the integrity of the very institutions and norms previously imposed upon them by the West itself (like national sovereignty, territorial integrity, diplomacy as a primary tool at the international stage, etc). In this sense, the system of international relations continues to be based on the relations between center and periphery, where the role of generator and distributor of new values belongs to the West almost exceptionally.
Now, as for the proneness of imposing values through force, the last fifteen years have seen the emergence of a doctrine designed by the American political class which employs the imposition of simple (and by definition, forceful) solutions to international problems, and has thus become the core of the US political discourse. And though America has promoted terms like “soft” and “smart force”, that hardly means Washington would somehow magically relinquish its attachment to the traditional instrumentarium of hard force any time soon. The US continues to conduct policies based on their global military presence and projection of their own influence in the key regions of the world. In the conditions when the formation of a monopolar tendency in world politics was considered almost self-evident and natural, that may’ve made a lot of sense. But the situation is changing very fast now. If until 10-15 years ago the notion of a “multipolar” world order looked extravagant and fictitious, in more recent times the tendency toward polycentrism, redistribution of weight and influence of the separate states in world economics and politics has become ever more plausible, changing the picture that we got used to at the turn of the century.
As some US experts point out, the US should rather be supporting diversity not just within their own borders but around the whole world, and accept that liberal democracy ought to be in an open competition at the market of ideas with other types of political system, without presuming to underestimate their value or assume the moral high ground in relation to them. Because in reality, tolerance to various types of political systems matches the US interests to a much greater extent than the arrogance that we’ve seen from the Neo-cons, or the short-sighted idealism of today’s US liberals. The respectful attitude to responsible governments, tolerance to political and cultural diversity, the balance between global rule and the transferring of prerogatives to the regional powers, as well as the more moderate approach to globalization, are the principles that should probably be at the core of a future world order.
We’ve been hearing calls for sparing resources, limiting the scope of international activity, or cooperation with other states and transferring of prerogatives to them for problem-solving within the framework of their respective regional sub-systems. I.e., a more frugal approach to world politics, which would be less exhausting economically and less damaging morally to the global cop itself. On the other hand though, we can hardly rely on the US adopting self-control, a more regionalized approach, or embracing a well thought-out cooperative culture among the US political elite any time soon. Almost no high-rofile US politician (maybe save for Ron Paul, who’s got a number of other shortcomings, unfortunately) has openly called for America to limit its own role of global arbiter and regulator, or to relinquish its plans of forming a politically homogeneous “democratic world” under its sceptre (which is basically what defines this constant drive for “spreading democracy”, and explains the effort to change regimes in sovereign countries around the world).
The problem is not solely being viewed through the prism of looking for effective instruments and relevant ideas that could consolidate the America- and Western-dominated world order. For the ruling Democrats, the main goals for guaranteeing the US global leadership have boiled down to guaranteeing a prosperous economy, untouchable military power, and attachment to the policy of imposing “universal values“. Having in mind the financial problems, in the mid-term perspective, America’s goal is to make other countries contribute more for creating “global public goods”, to support the new international norms and institutions, and to cooperate for regulating the conflicts in various regions by the Western terms.
The US and their Western allies (in the most general sense) have continued to act as a generator of international norms and principles even in the conditions of the global financial crisis, which otherwise accelerates the processes of redistribution of influence, and facilitates the increase of potential of a number of non-Western power centers (China, India, Brazil, Russia), each of them having a certain set of positive and negative sides as well as certain amounts of regional and global influence. The crisis has demonstrated the incapability of a limited group of Western countries to bear responsibility for global regulation for the last few decades (and throughout almost the entire 20th century, in a broader sense), and to control and uphold the global order, and overcome the challenges of the epoch.
So what about these new players on the scene? Well, there sure has emerged a severe need for broadening the circle of countries participating in taking the key decisions. This has become a stimulus for the emergence of new institutions of global regulation (like G-20). In the meantime though, the Western countries have insisted on remaining the main factor for defining the norms and principles of this global regulation, as if that is their given right, granted to them by historical inertia.
This is where the obvious discrepancy in the current transitional situation in global politics emerges from. The monopolar moment remains part of the past, while the norms that were created in its core, previously capable of guaranteeing relative stability, are now having a strongly destabilizing effect in an increasingly polycentric world (namely, the principles of “limited sovereignty”, “selective legitimacy”, interventionism, etc). These still remain in place, and are actively pushed forward by the West, but the situation has changed, and they’ve become a detriment rather than asset.
In other words, when in the framework of a monopolar system of international relations, the Western countries deemed it necessary to start transforming the traditional Westphalian sovereignty, it became clear that it was exactly them who were intending to take benefit of that transformation, in order to project their own influence upon the other participants in international relations, by legitimizing (or, conversely, delegitimizing where appropriate) this or that political practice. The countries that tried to exhibit an “unsystematic” behavior were constantly being threatened with sanctions and even military intervention. Until very recently, this used to discipline most players in world politics (both state and non-governmental players in fact), and create a sense of controllability of the conflict situations, and the presence of “firm rules of the game”. Implicitly, it was self-evident that the limitations (including that of sovereignty) wouldn’t ever affect the leaders in that monopolar system in any way, but that was okay, as long as the rules were clear, and stability was guaranteed.
Thus, the “outsiders” and the marginal countries and “fringe states” were turned into subject of deligitimization of their own sovereign status, and a potential target of foreign intervention, while the US and the West as a whole were playing the role of the arbiter. What’s more, the very idea of a possible conflict between the big players was completely out of question.
But now the accelerating tendency toward forming a polycentric world order is changing the big picture, and pretty fast. The establishing of the principles of limited sovereignty, preemptive action, unilateralism, selective legitimacy, and interventionism, are not only NOT facilitating the better management of the processes in world politics, in fact they’re breathing new life into the political unpredictability and uncertainty that was forgotten for a while. The until-recently valid norms and principles of international law (including the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs or the threat of use of force, and the principles of internal and external sovereignty and border integrity) were largely designed to minimize international conflicts in a potentially polycentric system. Which is why ignoring or outright disregarding them poses an immediate danger to world order. In the emerging polycentric world, the norms and precedents that are being set by the US and the West, could now be used by other emerging new powers for their goals, and we might not like the results very much. In result, instead of an illusion for manageability and control, the advocates for the active promotion of new norms and principles in modern world politics could soon be faced with a rather chaotic picture, and even the complete destabilization of the world order that they strive so much to control. I.e., yet another case of presumably good intentions backfiring pretty badly.
In this sense, perhaps it’s not too far-fetched if we forecast an exponential rise of the global risks for the system, since the new and fast emerging powers will surely be asserting their claims for a more active participation in defining the rules of the game, and will be drawing their own “red lines” ever more definitely in regards to the various aspects of their internal and external politics.
There is some hope that the current crisis in the relations between Russia and the West could stimulate, if not the respective political elites, at least the expert community in both America and Europe, and prompt them to look for more inclusive strategies, and formulate more balanced approaches to forming and promoting the norms and rules of modern world politics – and I’m not just talking about the problems with sovereignty. It’s becoming ever clearer that there’s no viable alternative to that.
In any case, the increased enthusiasm for setting new precedents, and the drive for imposing one’s own rules of the game upon everyone else (with a back-door option for arbitrary reinterpretation of these rules as a “leadership bonus”), is incapable of creating, in the conditions of an emerging polycentricity, any stable basis for anything resembling a predictable and manageable development of international relations, and would certainly be the cause of many new global crises instead.
In the context of the ongoing Ukrainian debacle, a number of Western authors, including reps of the so called “expert community”, have often criticized Russia for violating international law. From such interpretations the conclusion comes out that Russia has not only delivered an unprovoked blow on a neighboring country, but it has eroded the fundamental principles of world politics: equality between all countries, territorial integrity, and refraining from external intervention in domestic affairs. Ultimately, the institution of sovereignty has been stomped over yet again.
Although this picture does indeed look very dramatic, it might turn out to be a bit less nuanced than reality actually is. If the problem solely boiled down to Russia’s behavior at the international scene, perhaps things wouldn’t be as confusing. But the truth is, as it turns out, things are not just “not as bad as they seem”, they’re much worse than they look at a first sight. Because, I’d argue, the political maneuvering of the Western powers and their elites for the last couple of decades has led to a situation where the violation of national sovereignty and meddling in other countries’ affairs may’ve become the norm rather than being a mere exception. Don’t believe me yet? Well, do bear with me now.
One of the global tendencies in the analysis of international relations for the last few years has been the activation of the political debate on the sanctity of the so called “Westphalian sovereignty“. In the framework of scientific discourse, the question about the possibility of external intervention into the domestic policies of one country or the other has become very frequent. The goals, means and limits of this intervention are also being regularly discussed. It’s understandable that in the modern world, where every country functions in the conditions of significant internal and external limitations, interdependent connections and obligations, and where the globalization processes lead to the redistribution of the power resources from the governments toward other subjects of global politics (like international institutions, financial and corporate economic entities, NGOs, trade blocs, military alliances, etc), there can be no such thing like “absolute sovereignty”.
However, the notion that national sovereignty has now become a mere anachronistic remnant of an old and increasingly eroded Westphalian system and organization of international relations, remains questionable. As does the notion that “traditional concepts of sovereignty” are somehow incapable of reflecting the entire complexity of modern international relations. Conversely, we could argue that “everything new is a well-forgotten old”. So when we’re faced with claims about the incompatibility between the old, “outdated” sovereignty and the humanitarian principles of the modern world order, we can’t help but recall the idea of one of the founders of the theory of international relations, Edward Carr, who more than a century ago argued that overlooking national sovereignty is an inherent part of the ideology of dominant states, which see in the sovereignty of the lesser states a sort of obstacle to the full assertion of their dominant position. There’s a sort of double standard that he noticed: in a nutshell, the bigger players like to be more independent, while they don’t like when lesser players are too independent.
The question about the character and the modern tendencies in the evolution of the concept of sovereignty remains very controversial. Of course, various transformations of the key norms that define the functioning of the international legal system, have been happening frequently throughout history. Some of these have almost completely died out – like such fundamental principles and institutions like the dynastic principle of power transferral, or the institution of colonialism (although many would argue here that neo-colonialism is just as rampant as its previous, more overt form used to be). In the meantime, a reinterpretation of other significant principles and notions is also going on. For example, in the 17th-18th century the market was mostly defined by the doctrine of mercantilism, while for the last century and a half or so, free trade has taken primacy. In other words, the very fact of transformation of the concept of sovereignty is nothing surprising or unexpected at all.
That’s not really the problem. The problem rather is that the role of an arbiter, interpreter and lawmaker of the principles and institutions has been taken over by a select group of states (mostly those in the West, which in essence makes this a sort of manifestation of the principle “might makes right”). A sort of instrumentalization of sovereignty is happening right in front of our eyes (if we’re to use the terminology of Stephen Krasner), i.e. a manipulation of international legal recognition through threats of conducting “humanitarian intervention” with the purpose of realizing the practical goals and interests of certain select countries.
International politics largely functions by the principle of rational expectation. A cornerstone of the previously dominant (and, in most expert opinions, still existing) archaic and pluralistic system of international relation from the time of the Westphalian Peace (and even before that), is the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Meanwhile, the modern competition between the countries is supposed to be limited by the structure of the internationally recognized legal norms and sovereign rights. National sovereignty has been the basis of world politics, and has played an important function of minimizing violence in the relations between the countries for quite a while. So, it’s no surprise that many authors from the late 20th century have predicted that any attempt to undermine this basis of world politics and put in question the significance of the “primary institution” that is national sovereignty, would inevitably result in uncontrollable chaos.
In the foreseeable future, world politics will likely keep witnessing the confrontation between two diametrically opposite tendencies: one is toward asserting sovereignty, the other toward its limiting. And these tendencies will often be embodied in the policies of one country or a group of countries (these countries doing their best to essentially fortify their own sovereignty while actively working to undermine that of their rivals, is a frequent element of that, too). The contradiction between the tendency toward more sovereignty and less sovereignty will be a permanent source of international tension. The new interpretations and the newly found great flexibility of the term “sovereignty” will largely depend on the specific situation at the specific time and region, and of course the capabilities for power projection of the sides involved.
The post-Cold-War period is kind of unique in this respect. First and foremost, for almost two decades no one looked even remotely capable of challenging America’s global leadership (many analysts and experts have openly spoken of American hegemony, of the “hyperstate”, etc). The US power was indeed formidable and hugely intimidating in most respects. The US had 20% of the world’s GDP, more than half of the military expenses of the planet, etc. The US still remains the world’s center of innovation to this very day, and it sets the pace in most political and economic processes, and defines the course on most key decisions of global significance. All of this has been practically viewed as sufficient condition to perceive America’s global political leadership as de facto legitimate.
Even at the time of the bipolar global standoff during the Cold War, the US was actively participating in the shaping up of a system of international norms, which was supposed to be serving their own interests and those who supported them, and to develop the values and principles that the US and their allies saw fit. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the US achieved unprecedented success in legitimizing and institutionalizing their claim to the right for power and omnipresent global influence – mostly through asserting the viability of their own model of political and economic organization. The US-led liberal model (the so called Washington Consensus) included free market economy and the development of democratic institutions, and was being accepted by other countries because their political elites and the broad public there deemed it the most efficient at the time (and many of them still do).
There’s been such an overwhelming consensus about the primacy of liberal democratic ideology that many have taken Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history” much to heart. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who in an article on the essence of liberal ideology made the famous conclusion that “in a sense, liberalism is everything in America”, we could say that at the beginning of the 21st century, everything in the world (including the theory of international relations and political practice) has been literally soaked with the ideas and principles of liberalism.
In the context of the triumph of the liberal ideological paradigm, an attempt was made of crafting an axiom out of the notion that liberalization was essential for guaranteeing peace and security for all, and that this could become reality even in countries that were extremely different from each other. Another axiom stipulated that neo-liberal states are less prone to aggression and less likely to succumb to the temptation of increasing their military might for the sake of projecting power. And that the liberal regimes were always more peaceful in principle. As a consequence, the rule said, the level of threat in international relations somehow depends on the ratio between liberal and non-liberal regimes. In that context, regime change and democratization (i.e. the “export of democracy”) has been perceived not as a blatant violation of international law and national sovereignty, or a direct intervention in the domestic affairs of this country or the other, but as a totally justified and humane cause, and simultaneously the most rational strategy for achieving global stability and guaranteeing “human security“. It’s also being viewed as a tool for guaranteeing a country’s own safety, and securing the moral and political leadership of the old liberal democracies. Moreover, by forming a more peaceful and cooperative international environment, the liberals preferred to focus their attention on the issues of economic interdependence (especially among the countries with a market economy), and on the role of international institutions. They have put the emphasis on the idea that liberalism is universally applicable, regardless of the national and cultural specifics.
If we take a look back at history, we might notice that in various historical epochs, the leading countries have often tried to take the initiative and promote specific paradigms and formulations of a set of values and rules of conduct at the international stage. There’s a very simple explanation for that. The policies of a leading country which otherwise does not have sufficient legitimacy, would inevitably meet resistance (whether active or passive, or both) from both rivals abroad and at home. In such conditions, pushing one’s own political agenda is rendered impossible, or in the best case requires huge additional resources and efforts. So, in the absence of such consensus, the level of mutual trust between the main political subjects at the international scene is usually rather low. After all, leadership (and of course, hegemony) that does not rest upon international legitimacy soon turns out a burden too heavy to sustain.
According to most Western experts and a significant part of the political elites, in order to minimize the energy and resources that’s required for realizing and sustaining leadership, establishing a certain set of common rules and values is necessary – they’re to ensure support for the political agenda of the leading country, and legitimize its leading position. In this sense, the transformation of the old international values, rules and regimes, and their substitution with new ones, could turn out of paramount importance for the leading country, because they would ensure the necessary international support, and thus guarantee the efficient projection of power and influence. Furthermore, the dominant countries are to refrain from being too aggressive in their attempts to counter the imposition of certain limitations to their own activeness from the international institutions, and are to respect the commonly accepted norms and rules that they’ve themselves promoted. The Western countries, and most of all the US however, have shown time and time again that they’re not exactly capable of such self-restraint. And, while in the case of the authoritarian regimes that’s understandable (since the disregard for international law is part of their very definition), from the point of view of liberal democracy that’s a serious problem.
In other words, while some apologists of American exceptionalism may be rather eager to look for justifications for arbitrary unilateralism in the actions of various totalitarian regimes, rogue states or extremist groups (i.e. the “but they do that too” argument), using North Korea, Putin or the Taliban as a yardstick is not exactly the most compelling argument, especially when claiming the moral high ground constitutes an essential part of making your case. If we’re to fully embrace Realpolitik, on the other hand, things become much simpler, more cynical, and yet at least somewhat sincere.
In result, as paradoxical as that may seem, during the short “monopolar period” of world history that followed after the Cold War, it turned out more difficult to create and sustain international regimes in the sphere of security, the control of various specific spaces (the Arctic, the ocean, interplanetary space, etc), and to respect the ecological norms. The double standard and the ad hoc standard for acting according to the particular situation or based on some single precedent that you’ve set yourself, has become an inherent element of the model of international relations that the US and their allies have been trying to impose for years.
Granted, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that these were the only countries that have benefited from this rampant normative indeterminateness. The arbitrary construction of international norms by the global hegemon and its servile minions has benefited an entire group of mid- to minor-sized countries, at least until very recently. After all, these conditions have given them the opportunity to take part in various temporary (or even long-term, like NATO) alliances, designed to fortify their regional political and/or global economic positions. This circumstance has ensured a certain degree of stability to the whole system, which can’t be a bad thing, by any measure.
In the meantime though, promoting the democratic norms and values, and the saturation of the modern political discourse with humanist and humanitarian rhetoric, has generated a lot of questions, since this transformation of the rhetoric has been coupled with active attempts of diluting some key norms of international law, and legitimizing such vague terms like “limited sovereignty”, “regime change”, “humanitarian intervention” (especially when not internationally sanctioned), etc.
…That being said, next time I’ll attempt to have a look at the way the norms of the slightly older monopolar world have largely become obsolete in the emerging multipolar one.
When in the early morning of March 9, 1230, the Tzar of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Asen II decided to declare war on the short-lived Despotate of Epirus, he did that in an almost ritualistic way. He ordered the parchment of the peace treaty that had been violated by the Byzantines to be impaled on a spear. In the ensuing Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian ruler turned the enemy into retreat and routed the Byzantine army, he captured their emperor Theodore Komnenos, and restored previous territories to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire.
That’s the picture that comes to mind to any pupil as they read the history studybooks, and all the novels and movies. It’s a conventional notion of war where one state directly attacks another, two armies meet at the battlefield, and the winner of this clash subdues their rival, either conquering their entire territory or parts of it. History abounds of such examples. But a fact that is little discussed is, such a development is more like an exception than the norm.
War has long ceased to be a separate act. The line between war time and peace time, between military and civilians is rather blurred. About two centuries ago, using Napoleon’s experience, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz formulated the argument that war is a mere continuation of politics, but with different means. The military is but a tool in a much wider array of means, one that’s only limited by the available resources, the imagination of the commanders, and the willingness of the leaders to respect (or not) the established international norms. The Thirty-Year War for example was bloody, messy and full of atrocities (mostly because it was religiously motivated); the following War of the Spanish Succession was widely viewed as a refreshing reversal to “decency” and “honor” in war actions.
Military history is rich of examples where economic sanctions, blockades, and messing with the financial system of the rival state has been employed in addition to military means: for example, printing and fake money and flooding their economy with it, economic sabotage, propaganda, and psychological spec ops. These have targeted not only the military but also the population of the opposing side. The palette of not-so-military means also includes initiating and aiding rebellions against the ruling regime, “revolutionary” or “freedom-fighting” movements (like the one that ultimately triggered the end of 500-year Ottoman rule over my country), direct embedding of agents amongst the ruling elite, creating internal divisions and pitching one ally against another, etc, etc.
The combination of military and non-military tools is what makes a war a hybrid war. The term is relatively recent. Various analysts of the military actions between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 introduced the term “hybrid threat” for the first time. The same year it appeared for the first time in an official document, the US defense overview report. Still, the analysts are able to trace the manifestations of hybrid warfare way back in time – back to the 1st century AD actualy, when the Jewish Rebellion happened, and the Jews used criminal gangs to undermine the Roman legions of Vespasian – these were used in combination with regular armies and voluntary guerrilla units, and the tactic included a series of ambushes, and even the use of stolen siege equipment. I suppose some future researchers will some day find even earlier examples of hybrid conflict.
Of course, the term “hybrid warfare” became particularly popular after the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Within hours of Yanukovich’s deposition, military units from the Russian military base at Sevastopol and from Russia-proper took control of the Crimean key infrastructure, including the main civil airport of Simpheropol, and also various communications infrastructure, radio and TV stations, etc. Pressured by the Russian special services and lacking clear instructions from Kiev, the Ukrainian army and security services in Crimea were unable to put up any resistance. The result of the ensuing pseudo-democratic procedures, which were later recognized by the parliaments of several EU member states (or at least some nationalist parties, which turned out to be funded by the Kremlin), gave more credence to the Crimean annexation, which was a de facto conquest of territory. This allowed Putin to consolidate his success, which had begun with the swift and resolute use of force, and then got legitimized. He then used the same model to launch a similar campaign in East Ukraine, which chopped large portions of that country away and practically put them under Russian control.
All of this has prompted some NATO countries to make their own analyses of the situation, the conclusion invariably being that Russia is a major threat for their national security, in part because of its skillful use of hybrid warfare as a viable method, in combination with conventional military actions, propaganda, economic (mostly energy) blackmail, etc. Russia has reciprocated since then, of course.
NATO’s response to the changing situation came in September 2014, when a decision was made to double the NATO Response Force, and create units with a high state of alert, like VJTF and NRF, which would be able to respond to urgent situations within a couple of days. A command and management infrastructure is to be created, which would direct the redislocation of military personnel and equipment to the sensitive regions in times of need, and the military exercises in the NATO border states with Russia were to become more frequent. These elements are part of the Readiness Action Plan, and most of them have already been completed. This complex of measures is considered sufficient for the time being to halt a potential advance of geopolitical rivals like Russia which do not shy away from using military force – if Russia is stupid (or desperate) enough to do such a step against NATO at all. This is all part of the realization that hybrid warfare is now a fact, and is being perfected and used on a regular basis by countries that can afford the resources for it.
The conflict in Ukraine has shown that the methods are old, only their names tend to change. The mutual economic interdependence, the new information and communication technologies and the utter and complete dependence on them, plus the free movement of people and capitals, are among the factors that create new opportunities for expanding the variety of methods of hybrid influence. Apart from all that, the essence of war has not changed much. It remains an extension of politics, and aims at subduing an opponent and forcing them to accept terms and conditions that suit the aggressor.
Except, in order to achieve these goals, it’s not necessary to completely eradicate the entire military of the opponent, or conquer their cities, and murder all their soldiers. The hybrid instrumentarium provides opportunities for direct access to the “will of the opponent”, and manipulate it through financing political parties and proxy agents, blackmailing corrupt politicians, manipulating public opinion through the media, and embedding agents into crucial positions within that country’s elite.
For instance, in 2003 the Central military committee of China adopted a concept for information operations which includes three strategies: coordinated strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulations, and defense policies targeting specific segments abroad. Although this sort of operations are mostly supposed to be directed at Taiwan, the 2014 annual report of the Czech intelligence notes that the Chinese administration and special services have directed their efforts toward ensuring the expansion of the Chinese influence over the Czech political and state structures, and collecting politically sensitive intel with the active participation of select members of the Czech elite, including politicians and state officials.
Another way of influencing is through taking control of key economic sectors (like the energy, finance, communications sector), and establishing monopolies. China gradually does that in Africa for example. This method makes it relatively easy to induce crisis situations and respectively to collapse the public trust in the rulers of the targeted country. This effect could be achieved through cyber attacks, and looking to influence critical infrastructure: financial, energy, transportation, communication. As well as limiting access to critical resources like water, essential foods, fuels, medicines.
An alternative approach is through propaganda and psychological influence on the populace. It can be done relatively easily, especially if the aggressor already has a strong influence on the traditional, electronic and online media, and when specific segments of the populace are associated with the aggressor along ethnic, religious, linguistic or other lines. This is practically the employment of non-military tools by specific groups – both prior to, for the duration of, and in the aftermath of the use of actual military force.
It may just so happen that NATO does have the necessary potential to counter all major challenges of hybrid warfare – if it can use it wisely. NATO has already made steps in that direction by strengthening its conventional forces on the eastern flank, and raising their response capabilities if need be. In principle, the main question is how to determine the threshold beyond which they are to be deployed – for example when the potential aggressor uses non-military tools and keeps their military capabilities on high alert without using them. In other words, the question is how to achieve a level of understanding of the situation where adequate decisions could be made by all NATO member states, even if there’s no clear declaration of war and the moment of the start of that war is blurry.
NATO is gradually finding solutions on questions as complicated as these. One example is the alliance’s policy on cyber defense. It is also assumed that the creation of the VJTF is already having a deterring effect. But this still doesn’t remove the deterring effect of the nuclear arsenals of the leading NATO members.
EU’s ambitions in this respect are more limited, and its capacity for military response too, respectively, In light of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, JC Juncker has urged the member states to agree on the creation of European armed forces. But this remains just a long-term plan for the time being.
In the meantime, the EU is developing and using a wide array of policies, which by the way could serve as an antidote to the non-military tools of hybrid warfare. This includes policies aimed at transparency in political funding, the supremacy of law and countering corruption, policies for bolstering competition and busting oligarchic monopolies, energy security and diversification of energy sources, border control, free and pluralistic media, transparency in business and property relations, etc. We could say with a good amount of certainty that all these policies and measures will continue to be perfected as the risks and threats for EU’s functioning evolve, including the hybrid threat both for specific member states and the union as a whole.
As for my country, what it can do is to restore efficiency in the intelligence system, and make it capable of identifying illicit external influence, and come up with ways to counter it. We also need a working judicial system that could sanction such influences and deter future hybrid actions from potential aggressors.
This is going to be about the way history itself can be treated, and twisted, and perverted, for political purposes. Do bear with me. For the target of my contention is your fave boxing bag too: Russia. And for a good reason.
December 5, 1931 was a dark day in history. One of many at the time. It was the day that Stalin ordered the demolition of the Christ the Savior cathedral in downtown Moscow. That same day, the magnificent Memorial of the Bulgars was also blown up in Kazan, in Tatarstan, to the east of Moscow. In the meantime, along with this destruction of massive cultural treasures, a hectic effort in rewriting the history of the Russian Empire was going on. Because it was supposed to be substituted with the glorious history of the emergent Soviet Union. The drive of the Bolshevik propaganda to redraw not just Russian history but the history of all the parts of the world it could put its paws upon, was meant to prove to the peoples of the new empire that the spiritual and historic legacy of imperial Russia was supposed to be perceived as solely the achievement of the Russian people and no one else – and not just any Russian people, but the “right” social groups. Everything that dared to contradict this fantasy, was doomed to oblivion. As collateral, the Bulgar(ian) role in Russian history became a victim as well.
Saints Cyril and Methodius were two titans of the Early Medieval Renaissance with huge significance for the Balkans, East Europe and the Slavic world. Their disciples brought their legacy and their work to Russia as well, among other places. This fact became a primary target for the Soviet historiography, and was a taboo topic in Russia for a long time. The very thought that the Slavic alphabet that was so important for an entire civilization, was brought by a tiny country like Bulgaria (an empire at the time), was unbearable and unacceptable for the Kremlin. Russia had to be the standard-bearer of the Slavic civilization, and it wasn’t meant to share that pedestal with anybody else. So, the historical truth was quickly substituted with a pseudo-scientific theory about Cyril and Methodius’ imaginary “mission” to the Crimean Khazars in 860. A scribe at the time wrote that Cyril was shown a Bible that was written in a local runic alphabet. That detail is at the core of the Soviet myth that the Slavic alphabet was created in Russia (or under Russian influence). What’s more likely than that story is that Cyril was familiar with the Varangian (Viking) runes that were popular among the northern merchants who were quite influential in Byzantium at the time, and who, among other things, were the trigger factor for the creation of Russia. In fact, the Russian tribes intentionally invited a clan of Swedish Vikings (later dubbed the Rurikids) to come show them how to build a state of their own. Another historical fact that was (and still is largely) a taboo topic in Russia, by the way.
Even a cursory glance at the Grand Soviet Encyclopaedia shows that Cyril and Methodius’ mission and significance is deliberately disparaged, and for political reasons. Instead of clearly stating their South Slavic identity and the explicit Bulgarian patronage of their disciples’ work, they’re being associated with some sort of vague “Slavic influence”.
Plenty of Bulgarian history teachers now recall that in the Soviet era, they would frequently hit all sorts of road-blocks and wade into all sorts of trouble if they ever dared to cite actual historical facts about the key role of the First Bulgarian Empire for the development and popularization of Orthodox Christianity throughout East and Central Europe, including Russia. The fact that Bulgaria was the first enlightenment factor in this half of the continent, long before Russia, was yet another taboo topic. Which hadn’t been the case before the Bolsheviks – in fact, many Russian writers and academics have acknowledged that “our southern cousins taught us to read and write, and to pray to God”. Citing these was also forbidden in Soviet schools, and severely frowned upon in Bulgarian schools, pre-90s. A pre-Bolshevik professor named Yuriy Venelin (whose words I’ve just quoted) had his grave and memorial plate blown up by the Soviet Moscow authorities in the 30s in result of that stance.
Another victim of this hectic historical revisionism was St. Cyprian of Bulgaria. He became a Bishop of Moscow and All Russia in the late 14th century. He was born in Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and was among the most influential figures in Russian history, with huge importance for the Russian Orthodox Church. As is the case with Saints Cyril and Methodius, Constantinople was the facilitator of the Russo-Bulgar relations at the time. Cyprian, who was a friend and ally to our own legendary patriarch Euthymius of Tarnovo, was sent on a mission to Russia to help spread Orthodox Christianity in a country that was being torn by civil war and threatened with Asian invasions. The tremendous talent of the Bulgarian cleric managed to bring the warring lords to the table, achieve internal peace, and mobilize the Church and hence the populace to unite against the Tatar threat. Cyprian gained huge support among the people, and embarked on a unifying and enlightening mission until his death in the early 15th century. He was head of the enormous Muscovite and All-Russian Patriarchy.
Centuries after he was canonized and proclaimed a Saint though, his origin and role for unifying Russia and the Church began to be undermined and questioned. At times he was declared a Greek, and his contribution as leader and reformist of the Russian faith started to get ascribed to some imaginary Russian hermit. After long negotiations between the Bulgarian and Russian Patriarchies, about 16 years ago Cyprian’s bones were re-buried at the Uspenski Cathedral within the Kremlin complex. The visitors can now see his tomb, with an inscription from the Russian Orthodox Church, acknowledging his true origin and his significance for the formation of the Russian nation. He had to wait nearly a century to re-gain his status. And that says a lot.
There’s yet another episode in the history of the bilateral relations that is much darker than this. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution gave way to illusions among the heirs of the Volga Bulgars (living between the Volga and Kama rivers) that they’d be granted a revival of their national identity. They did not want to be falsely given the identity of the Tatar invaders who had conquered Volga Bulgaria centuries before, so they were naive enough to believe the new Soviet regime would help them. But the Bolsheviks first used them for their civil war, and then removed the threat from a possible Bulgar revival by either massacring, deporting, or generally repressing any and all activists who were hoping for a Bulgar autonomy. Instead, the Tatar Autonomous Socialist Republic was created around the city of Kazan. And the dream of Khan Kotrag’s heirs was drowned into the Volga and Kama rivers.
A USSR census conducted at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika gave a chance to the long-oppressed people to raise their head once more. However, as soon as our newly born democracy attempted to voice its support for our cousins around the Volga, Moscow sent us an angry note, ordering us to refrain from “meddling in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation” (while simultaneously not shying away from meddling into our own domestic affairs, regarding our energy industry, etc). Naturally, being true to its old instinct of laying lower than the grass until all storms have passed, BG duly obliged and shut up. A few years later, a petition was signed by 150 thousand Volga Bulgars who demanded that a Bulgar nation be recognized within the Russian Federation was sent to the Russian embassy (other nations have been recognized for far less, btw). But it so happened that the Second Chechen War broke out at that moment, so our “leaders” figured the moment to press such claims that could be interpreted as “separatists”, was inappropriate. So the cause of the heirs of the Bulgars was again drowned somewhere into the bog of political expedience and coyness.
Of course, Soviet “national engineering” has been well-known far and wide for years. Formerly influential regional powers like my country have been of particular interest in various partitioning efforts, for the sake of fulfilling various geopolitical purposes. The peak of this was reached during our own pro-Soviet regime (1944-1989), where our obedient Soviet marionette governments were actively used to “create” such mongrels like a Macedonian, Moesian, Thracian and Dobrudja nations. Moscow built a neat and nice theory regarding the establishment of a new “Gagauz” nation in the Ukrainian and Moldovan autonomous republics, especially in the regions tightly packed with ethnic Bulgarians. The ripples of all this nation-building can be felt even today. Brothers are pitched against brothers, arguing who’s more authentic than the other. The purpose of all this was clear: rob nations of their identity, dilute their historic legacy. Divide and rule, you know.
We’ve often been told that we owe our freedom to the benevolent Russians, because they liberated us from the Ottomans. In fact, ever since the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century, we, along with a number of our Balkan neighbors, have consistently been used as both a source of manpower for the Russian nation-engineering and re-population purposes (the Southern Steppes of Crimea and Caucasus had to be Russianized and absorbed into the expanding empire, after all), and as a host territory to dump the respective indigenous Crimean and Caucasian peoples into, in exchange (particularly in the eastern portion of Bulgaria). Given the Russian efforts from the near past to erase our legacy and diminish our role for the formation of the Slavic civilization, I could say that if anyone still believes that Russia’s intentions towards my country have ever been benevolent (and I’m speaking of Russia the state and the government, as opposed to the Russians-the-people), then they’re as naive as a 3rd-grader. Because if anyone has been paying attention in history classes, they’d have noticed by the 3rd grade that something’s terribly wrong with the whole “Russia is our friend” narrative.
Of course, that’s not just directed at us. We’re no special snowflake. In fact, Russia likes to do that all the time, with anybody. Kremlin’s historical revisionist prowess has been well-known. As any other craft, it’s been passed from master to apprentice. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the various artificial nations that have sprung from this nation-building frenzy would start inventing histories of their own at some point. Just look at the way the “antique” history of the Former Yugoslav Republic of…. Blabla-bla, was invented, perfumed, put in a shiny package, and sold to the public. After all, the complexes and deficiencies of a (quasi-)nation that has not existed until recently and is therefore rather confused about its own identity, always tend to reflect on the way its (hi)story starts to look under closer scrutiny. And some national stories do reek of cartoonish ridiculousness, indeed.
Awesome lettuce salads for Easter, May 1 parades under the open sky and all that, while in blissful ignorance about what had just happened not more than a thousand km away from our homes – that’s what I could say about April 1986…
About thirty and a half years ago, the biggest and most dangerous incident happened in the nuclear plant in Northern Ukraine. The consequences were devastating and the effects are being felt even today. And for those who’d like to make parallels with Fukushima – I’ll just say this. Believe me, these two incidents are very different. If anything, that one was marked by the complete silence of the communist elites who kept the people totally in the dark, letting them sunbathe outdoors, eat fresh lettuces and queue under the radioactive rain, only to learn about the horrible incident many days and weeks later.
The Chernobyl disaster happened in the small hours of April 26, and it released vast amounts of Cesium 137, Iodine 131 and Strontium 90 into the atmosphere. The radiation levels exceeded those at Hiroshima by 600 times. The radioactive cloud spread to the Scandinavian countries at first, who were the most affected in the whole world beside Ukraine and Belarus.
Then the wind direction changed and the radiation came towards the Balkans. The cloud remained in the sky above my country for a week around May 1, a time usually spent by the locals on vacations in the countryside, and mostly outdoors.
I myself was 7 years old then, and my mom has told me stories about our trip to the countryside (we liked camping in the forest), and the weird incident where she was about to prepare a fresh lettuce salad before leaving home, and then the boiler suddenly had a short circuit and almost exploded, going into flames. This, she now says in hindsight, must’ve been some sort of bad omen or something. We ate that lettuce salad eventually. That was on May 1, just enough time after the Chernobyl disaster for the wind to have changed direction towards my country, and for some rainfall to have fallen. I’m OK though, if we exclude the slightly higher-than-average amount of non-malignant moles on my back, which must’ve been all I got from the event, I guess. But it’s a scary story nevertheless…
During that week when the cloud hanged over my country, approximately 2-3 kg of nuclear waste had been deposited into our soils. That’s a scary thought too.
BG was eventually the 5th most contaminated place in the world (beside the directly affected countries). And the consequences are surely felt here severely even today. We’re among the leaders in terms of nuclear-caused illnesses like cancer and leukemia. And the main responsibility for the heavy consequences during the first days after the fallout belongs to the communist government at the time, who didn’t say a word about it and kept us in the dark, letting us shop foods like usual while the elite were secretly storing imported supplies. Then May 1 came, and the traditional street parades took place under the pouring rain, the people as usual applauding our dear communist leaders who cared so much for the country. Yes, under the radioactive rain. Needless to say, the leaders were under the safety of their umbrellas and the roof of Dimitrov’s Mausoleum.
No surprise that, while in Poland it was the shipyard workers’ unions who triggered the collapse of the regime, in Bulgaria it was largely caused by the environmental organizations (well, the trigger was a trans-border chemical leak from Romania into our town of Ruse, but the Chernobyl event had already contributed to the formation and establishment of such influential dissident structures, whose main goal was holding the rulers accountable for their crimes against our environment and health).
But back to Chernobyl’86… Some modern estimates show that there had been radioactive contamination as early as Easter. But the worst part was around St. George’s Day (May 6), when people spend the whole day outdoors, BBQ’ing and baking lambs around the country’s lush lawns and forests, and enjoying the “fresh” air.
Despite the heavy consequences from Chernobyl and the even fresher memory of Fukushima, our politicians have now been entertaining the thought of building a second nuclear power plant. Which will be an addition to our already existing old one in Kozlodui, which saw half of its blocks being closed prematurely as a condition for an EU entry – relinquishing our position as a main energy center and mejor electricity exporter in the region was the price we had to pay for being “accepted” into EU, thus proving that there are powerful economic interests at play here. The second plant is planned to be built in Belene, again beside the Danube river (a proven seismic zone btw). And, though the EU (mainly France) had been pushing for the closing of half of our Kozlodui nuclear plant in the 90’s, now they have to deal with the facts: it’ll be again Russia who’d build the new plant, if ever. How ironic…
Obviously, the powerful nuclear lobby still doesn’t care about taking any such things into account as safety arguments – it seems as indifferent to the pleas of the ordinary sheeple people as it was back then, during that Chernobyl episode.
There are occasionally protests going on these days around here too, again organized by ecological organizations, but those are only a shadow of what they used to be back at the time when they contributed hugely for the collapse of the communist regime. Now they’re just seen as “those pesky tree-huggers” and nothing more. People have other serious issues to deal with, like unemployment, the economic crisis and the all-encompassing spiritual misery that comes along with the above. They just don’t seem to care that much. But Chernobyl has shown that these are serious things that should be investigated very very thoroughly, and people need to be informed about these decisions which are otherwise being taken behind their back, only to possibly have direct effects in the long-term for everybody, while those elites who pull the strings would just sit back somewhere in their yachts on the Riviere, smoking cigars and counting their Swiss (or Panamanian) bank accounts, while clicking compassionately with their tongues at the sight of the TV reports from this or that country which is suffering the consequences of their neglect and incompetence. And would then simply change the channel.
After all, the experts never missed to point out that the real effects of Chernobyl would only begin to manifest 25-30 years after the incident. Well, that time has come now.
In a couple of weeks we will mark 27 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. No doubt November 10 is a very symbolic day for my society. On that day, 27 years ago, democracy “exploded” here in Bulgaria. Well, maybe not exactly. But it felt like it at the time, at least for a while. One thing is for sure, though. Things haven’t been the same ever since. Even if only prompted by events abroad, we did do our best attempt to erase and forget the past, sometimes with more success, sometimes with less. But the idea was there. However, one’d think that some things just can’t go away like that. You’d think it would take several generations for a society to completely shake off the legacy of the past, especially if that system had been instilled into the brains of people for decades, ultimately distorting the very culture of said society, and the mentality of its people. No, good things don’t just happen overnight.
Really, we’ve gone through all sorts of hardships for the last couple decades and a half, all sorts of transformations, and we’ve experienced what it’s like to learn the lessons of history within a very compressed period, and catch up with what the rest have achieved in many decades, but learn it all the hard way. We saw the ugly face of “wild capitalism”, while we were kicking out the memory of communism. We saw the Al Capone era being played out right in front of our eyes. We saw what hyper-inflation means, what queueing for bread with food coupons means, what “baseball-bat business” is, what Thug-o-Baroque architecture, lifestyle and mentality looks like – we’ve seen it all. But, at the end of the day it was all worth it. Hell, it really was!
And probably all that remains now to remind us of that “Time Long, Long Ago”, is the various memorabilia remaining from the commie times, which are gathering more dust as the time passes, only to fuel the feeling of nostalgia among the fading older generation. And of course the awesome anecdotes from the time of the “Sotz” (as we used to call socialism), which were being whispered under the breath; the sharply humorous and penetrating caricatures of the Sotz leaders that were being spread around like apocrypha; and the stinging lyrics of Vysotsky, the genius “Bard of Freedom”.
Now, 27 years later, most of the young generation have largely forgotten a past they never lived in, in the first place. Twenty-five years after the democratic changes started here, the collective memory about the Socialist times is fading away fast, and knowledge of that period is disappearing. Maybe because of shame from what we did to ourselves, and what sort of society we allowed ourselves to become. But the past shouldn’t be forgotten, lest its mistakes be repeated again.
Forgetting the past is a natural thing, though. I can’t blame the youth for 94% of our people aged between 16 and 30 not knowing almost anything of that period, which wasn’t that far back in time. A recent research (.doc) shows that 40% of them can’t say if communism fell after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the Moscow Wall, or the Sofia or Chinese Wall. 92% of them don’t know which countries the communist bloc consisted of. Their knowledge about the communist epoch boils down to impressions obtained from conversations with older people. The number of people who could name a single book (10%) or movie, or publicist TV show (16%), or school or university (10%) from that time, is minuscule.
The lack of debate on that topic in the media and the public space, and the abdication of the cultural and education institutions from the issues of that period, are depriving the new generations of knowledge about the ideological and political nature of the communist regime, its scope and impact, and the reasons for its collapse. Thus, socialism and communism is getting fast forgotten, and the hardships of the post-communist, quasi-democratic period are being unnecessarily mythologized and ideologized.
For a significant part of the Bulgarian citizens, the prominent political names and events from the late 90s, like Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, are now being pushed aside by the everyday problems like making ends meet – and that’s normal. Now, in the mid 2010s, our society is wandering between the idealization of the years “when we were young”, the times “when there was work for everybody”, free health-care, and the scattered memories about the “manifestations” (highly politicized, compulsory official parades on special occasions), the deficit of essential goods at the grocery, the travel restrictions beyond the Iron Curtain, the lack of freedom, and the repressions against free-thinkers.
The attitudes to these things are entirely determined by one’s ideological convictions and political affiliations, which is why they remain extremely polarized. So, leftist-leaning people would inevitably see mostly tranquility, predictability, social immobility, security, free health-care, excellent free education and extensive industrialization in that period. While right-leaning people would emphasize on the oppressive, Big-Brother-style regime restricting basic human rights, a period of dystopian pseudo-utopia, state paranoia, mass brainwashing, ridiculous political slogans, and literally fatal deceit. And, while the leftist approach would fail to see any stain on socialism, the rightist one would acknowledge some social achievements which we can only dream of now: like high-quality, universally accessible health-care, remarkable heights in education, science and sports, almost non-existent unemployment, amazing safety, etc.
Solely left at the mercy of personal impressions, third-hand memories and the fading nostalgia for the lost security, and the waning knowledge of its dark sides, the assessment of the communist epoch is gradually losing its political overtones, while continuing to fuel old worn-out myths while creating new, distorted ones.
There were high expectations among my compatriots in the years after those memorable moments in 1990: about opening the borders and freedom to travel, about improved incomes and well-being, about the development of a free-market economy and new opportunities for work, about more human rights and freedoms, restoration of private property, free election of representatives. All things that are taken for granted in the West, but had to be earned and learned the hard way here. Now, most of these expectations have been realized to one extent or another: we’re a EU and NATO member, those of us who can afford it, could travel freely, private property has been restored, and we have a multi-party system (even a bit too “multi” party if you ask me). But the general subjective perception remains that the realization of some of the initial expectations that came with the “explosion” of democracy has been half-assed, to put it mildly: only 2% of the polled believe that the expectation for the primacy of law has been fulfilled, 5% believe that democratic institutions have been fully established, 10% believe they have a real choice to freely elect their representatives in open, transparent and honest democratic elections.
If the attitudes to communism still remain polarized and strongly affected by people’s individual background and their political orientation, the assessment of the so called “Transition period” is mostly realistic-to-cynical, with strong negative overtones. But that’s another story. My story here is about communism itself, or rather, the attitudes to it.
So here are 25 socialist things that some people miss, and I don’t.
1. Sofia citizenship. People younger than 25-30 years here don’t remeber what that means. The reason is that this is something almost no one talks about these days, because it was the reason for many sad and comic marriages, where people would marry only to obtain the coveted Sofia citizenship, which granted some extra citizen privileges – the same way many people marry abroad today, to get foreign citizenship. I’m sure there are lots of parents out there who wouldn’t like to tell these stories to their grown-up kids. Indeed, the restriction on your choice of residence within your own country is a major restriction of a basic individual right. Moreover, the desperate attempts to bypass this restriction would often lead to absurd results like forging documents, even fictitious marriages. The only possible positive result was the temporary prevention of the country’s capital city from succumbing to the so called “Mexican model”, where a huge chunk of the country’s population is crowded in and around the capital district, while the rest of its territory begins lagging behind and even slipping into desolation. Of course, an artificial administrative measure like that would only postpone that outcome. On the other hand though, the removal of that restriction does not necessarily automatically remove the effect. The economic and demographic desolation in the rural areas continues to this very day. Even cities like mine, Plovdiv which is the country’s 2nd city, has suffered from administrative stupidity, where the borders of its municipality were shaped in such a way that the city itself was squeezed between two artificially created surrounding municipalities – and the result was that Plovdiv became the most densely built and populated city on the Balkans.
2. Exit visa. Today, Bulgarians can travel everywhere. Until about a decade ago though, they had enormous difficulties entering most other countries. And until a quarter of a century ago, they weren’t even allowed to exit their own country (with the exception of several hundred thousand BG citizens who were, on the other hand, being insistantly urged to leave – for political reasons). Of course, it’s a stupid thing, evil even, to stop people from moving around freely. This only fueled the myths and legends about the magical life beyond the Iron Curtain. In reality, the practical lagging behind the West happened as late as the 80s. Here the reason for these restrictions is rather a servile attempt to be more liked by the USSR, and fear of using the Yugoslav model (our western neighbors and fellow South-Slavic cousins did find the middle ground between capitalism and communism, for which they were being secretly praised and envied by everybody here under their breath). The result of all this became immediately visible with the fall of the border restrictions. People who were absolutely unprepared for the cultural shock, found themselves standing like cattle at the open barriers, while the rest rushed into the brave broad world, never to return again. 2 million out of 9 million of my compatriots fled abroad that way, arguably the cream of the nation. That’s probably the grandest brain-leak in Europe for the last half a century.
3. Fleeing across the border. Well, it wasn’t as deadly as trying to jump over the Berlin Wall, I’ll give you that. But if someone traveled abroad and didn’t come back in time, chances are they’d be considered a fugitive. Their relatives couldn’t leave abroad to join the fugitive, and the fugitive was no longer allowed to retrurn home even if they wanted to. They were considered a criminal, an alien. What an incredibly stupid way to create unnecessary foes both at home and abroad, and ignite discontent. The other option would’ve been much more pragmatic: my country could’ve benefited from exchanging experience and know-how with the West, like Yugoslavia did. The saddest thing is, we did all this even without being asked by the Soviets. That’s what awesome ass-lickers we were!
4. 100% voter turnout without even having compulsory voting. Sure, technically, voting on elections wasn’t compulsory. But 98-99% of all voters went to the polls anyway. The polling stations competed among themselves which would wrap up their ballot boxes first. And everyone was jubilant, and music was everywhere, and people were queuing with sparkle in the eye, praising the Mother Party! There was no tension, no suspense, and no unpredictability about the election results. Because the Mother Party always won 99% of the vote, and the fictitious “opposition” Fatherland Front (a mere extension of the Communist Party itself) would win the rest. There was no vote fraud like now, no corporate vote, no ethnic vote. Just fear and utmost respect for the State (capital S) and the party (capital P).
5. Holiday subscription vouchers. For today’s equivalent of 10-15 euros, one would get a holiday/excursion voucher. Each (state-owned) enterprise had its own collection of hotels and holiday spots that its employees would use at ridiculously cheap prices. They’d spend a couple of weeks with their colleagues and their entire families. Sunbathing or skiing. And of course, surrounded by over-zealous staff who’d do their best to observe the proper behavior and appropriate conversations between the holiday-goers. And if, God forbid, one applied or was sent on a business trip abroad, the explanations that were required about the reasons for that trip could amount to many pages. Yes, in written form. And just you dare behave inappropriately at the holiday resort! You dare tell a political joke or two, or drop some skeptical commentary about the advancement of socialism. Sure, the more innocent cases tended to be overlooked by the authorities, but there were people who’d end up in the labor camps if they were considered “system offenders”. In any case, most people had a political dossier that the State Security services used to keep and maintain, thanks to their extensive network of loyal informers. Yep, even your best friend could turn out to be an agent reporting on you. Many friendships and families were broken that way, after the dossiers were (only partially, and often selectively) declassified in the 90s.
6. News of the harvest. For some reason, the first pages of the newspapers and the news broadcast on the radio and TV used to constantly inform the public about the progress of the harvest collection, the seeding and deep ploughing campaign. It’s as if nothing else was happening, and everything was sooo allright! There were no droughts, no floods, no wildfires, no diseases on the crops and the livestock. And certainly nothing new was happening on the political scene, what with all those 99%-majority elections. Sure, collecting the crops is important! Much more important than meaningless celebrity gossip, the results of the latest Big Brother or TV-karaoke-show nomination, or the dramatic clash between the football fans at some backstreet, or the Survivor camp in Thailand… or the tons of criminal crap we’re getting served these days. It is important, in case there are any crops. Because nowadays there’s almost no agricultural production here, most foods are imported. And we used to be the bread-basket and vegetable and fruit garden of the Eastern bloc. I suppose the reason for the popularity of those agricultural programs was that most people were still rural by origin if not by identity back then. I dunno. It just looks weird from today’s standpoint.
7. American movies for Easter, and imported citrus fruits for New Year. That was the only time you could queue for hours and buy a couple of kilos of bananas and oranges (Cuban production, of course). As for those movies, whoever tells you they were being repressed for not being allowed to go to a church, is bullshitting you. One of the most intriguing sources of entertainment no doubt was the American movies, which would be broadcast until late at night around Easter time, and thus distract people from the traditional midnight church mass on Easter Eve. Neat trick, eh? On normal days, the TV program would abruptly end sometime shortly before midnight with a Russian movie (about the war, naturally), and some news (about the harvest, of course). Not on Easter, though! The crafty TV gurus would trick the folk into ignoring the religious festivities, lest they miss the only American movie they could watch throughout the year. But then again, if people would prefer a movie, be it a western or action movie, over visiting God’s house on the greatest church holiday of all, then they mustn’t have been too devout in the first place, no? Besides, with the shy but gradual introduction of VHS, one could still record those American movies while being away from home, and watch them later. My home was full to the top with video cassettes, I kid you not!
8. Concrete residential blocks, or as they were called here, “panelki”. That was a very popular means of construction at the time. Easy and fast to build, nothing special in terms of technical requirement. And it was a natural continuation of the older “communist realism” style in architecture from the time of Stalin (heavy grey mastodons of a building that were being raised to last for centuries, and mar the beautiful face of mother Earth for generations). For many years, most buildings and factories were constructed out of concrete panels, so that the happy proletariat could merrily live and work in them. There are over 700 thousand “panelki” apartments still habitable across the country today, and no one friggin’ knows what to do with them. Of course, that type of construction wasn’t invented here. I’m being told the first prototype came from Britain, and was then fully embraced by the USSR. A huge chunk of today’s Bulgarians were born and raised in such apartments that we call “little boxes”. That these blocks are miserable, lacking green areas, have crumbling facades, and are covered in graffiti, is our own doing, not that of the apparatchiks at the Politburo of the Communist Party. It’s useless to blame someone else for our own misdoings. Then again, there was the compulsory “Lenin’s Saturdays“, where residents were “invited” to come clean the spaces around their blocks, wash the staircases, get rid of their garbage, and all in all, behave like responsible citizens at least for half a day.
9. Gift packages. An interesting way of twisting the customer’s arms by the simple economic principle about supply and demand. For example, if you wanted to buy high-quality plum brandy (“rakia”), or red wine that comes from the duty-free shelves that are meant for export (i.e. unusually good quality), you’d be offered a book with short stories about the Partisans who were fighting the good fight against Hitler, or a flasket of rose oil. All of this would be wrapped inside a nice paper package, saying “gift package”. After all, planned economy deemed it very important that no goods remained unsold, including books by not-very-successful authors. You can forget about free market choice.
10. House (or rather, block) managers. The chairman of the “cooperative residence block” was the only official in the country who was truly freely elected by their peers. Believe it or not, that was considered a genuine job. House-manager. They’d deal with the paperwork, repairs, utility bills, residents’ records. They’d even maintain a dossier for all residents. You better hope they wrote some nice words about you, or else. There was also the frequent “Exemplary Home” plate that the best blocks and houses would be awarded. That was the utmost pride for any resident! Most of these house-managers either had close dealings with the State Security, or were recruited to become their agents at some point. Best way of keeping things under control. Many of them were being re-elected for many terms in a row, since most people can’t be bothered to deal with all that organizational crap anyway. The upside of their function was that they maintained order, ensured the regular payment of maintenance expenses, presided over residents’ general meetings, planned and supervised the repairs on the common parts, introduced improvements – all in all, they were a useful bolt in the flawless machinery of the People’s Republic.
11. Active Fighters Against Fascism and Capitalism. That was a special status that was granted to people with certain background (my grandfather provided logistics for the Partisans during WW2, for which he was given a couple of medals, and an “Active Fighter” status, which gave him a small extra stipend and some minor privileges). The most precious of the bonuses that came with the title was that you’d be given a certain bonus score when applying for a university or a top-ranking language school, thus increasing your chances of ending up in a high-quality education institution. And people were OK with that, since hey, these are guys who’ve done something good for the People’s Republic! Thing is, after the communist coup at the end of 1944, the number of former Partisans and other Active Fighters exceeded the size of the regular army somewhat – and today, the number of faux “dissidents” who are beating their chests, claiming how they actively fought against the communist regime, by far exceeds that of our present regular NATO-member army (which definitely ain’t as big as it used to be in commie times, anyway).
12. The game of marbles. That was the way most boys would spend half of their spare time – at least until the age where they figured that girls could offer them something far more interesting (in turn, the girls would play a version of “dodgeball” somewhere until that age). That was a cool game, and will always remain cool, no matter how many iPhones and Playstations you’d brainwash your kids with. Sure, the game of marbles is probably many centuries older than communism, and will certainly outlive it, despite the Xboxes and iPads. It’s got nothing to do with socialism, but since the time of its peak happens to coincide with that epoch around these latitudes, I couldn’t help including it here.
13. Russian tourist groups. If Bulgarians couldn’t travel abroad (read: beyond the Iron Curtain), then Russians not only couldn’t, they found it almost absolutely impossible. Granted, they’d only occasionally visit Bulgaria in groups, usually formed along the lines of their membership in various Central-Asia-based Kolkhoz workgroups. In other words, they were “Russian” only nominally. These quasi-Russian groups were subject to constant ridicule, and sometimes pity, due to their apparent backwardness. A Bulgarian tour guide once lined up 120 Russian seaside tourists who were seeing a paper tea bag with a thread at its end for the first time. They asked how this thing was used, and he got tempted to tell them that they should put the tea bag in their mouth, while the thread should remain sticking out, and then drink hot water. You should hold the water in your mouth until it became tea, then swallow it. So the 120 Russian tourists duly got the tea bags in their mouths, they dropped the threads out of their lips, and started sipping hot water. The tour guide eventually lost his job for the prank, but later on, he used to gleefully say that the sight had been worth it.
Dunno how true that story is, but what I know is, many local baywatch guards (called “glarusi” [seagulls]) spent lots of wild nights with cute naive Russian girls looking for adventure at the seaside, and even some curious Russo-Bulgarian offspring got born out of it. I suppose the guide’s story was true, as was the other one about those Russian tourists who’d carefully jump over the tram rails in Sofia so that they wouldn’t be electrocuted. There are lots of Russian tourists here nowadays, too. Actually we’re very dependent on their money – just as we were until 25 years ago. They’ll be missed if they somehow went away. Thank goodness that many are now fleeing here to live permanently, to get away from all that bullshit back home (their own words). And that says a lot about this place – at least it’s not as crappy as Russia, although I can’t quite wrap my mind around how that’s possible. Meanwhile, the hungry sex predators are still roaming our beaches, looking for fresh flesh.
14. The Corecom. That was a special sort of shop, which very much resembles those horrible duty-free shops around the airports. That was the place where one could buy whisky, Western tobacco and cheap German candy. Of course, with dollars. How the hell you’d get your hands on some dollars, is an entirely different story. The most prominent item at the Corecom was the so called “Corecom egg” (read: chocolate egg with a toy inside).
15. Yugoslav TV. Or, let’s face it, Serbian TV. See, Yugoslavia was considered a “Western” country here, even if it wasn’t. Everything looked to be “freer” over there, at least from this side of the border. The TV spewed Serbian pop-folk 24/7 – how much freer could it get? Living in the Western Bulgarian border regions, despite sucking in every other way, had this one advantage: you could watch Serbian TV. There were two types of people in those regions: those who had a TV antenna catching the Serbian TV, and those poor inferior folks who didn’t. Indeed, the Serbs were watching dozens of channels on cable TV long before us. They remained an open society throughout most of the socialist epoch. Nothing else to say here. Their TV and their music was their best export to us, while we were exporting cucumbers and brandy for them. Their products would enter our black market illegally, the video and audiocassettes with Serbian music were the top item here, and an indicator of “freeness”. Scantily-clad Lepa Brena and Saban Saulic were superstars in Bulgaria as much as they were in Yugoslavia, and probably even more. And look where that has brought us now, crappy “chalga” culture permeating our very existence at every possible level.
16. Shortwave radio. That was the “deep underground” realm where you could catch all sorts of forbidden radio stations. Ones that would play The Beatles, rock-n-roll, or, *gasp* speak of nasty things like democracy! VOA Europe, Deutsche Welle… I remember my grandpa locking himself up in his cabinet, listening to those under the blanket so that the neighbors couldn’t hear (remember, thy neighbor could be thy bane). The shortwave range still exists to this day, but it seems no one is paying any attention to it any more.
17. Radio Free Europe. That one deserves special attention, along with VOA and BBC Bulgaria (broadcast from a studio somewhere in London, with genuine Bulgarian dissidents living in the UK). The weirdest of all was Radio Luxembourg (or rather, “Laxemberg”), which didn’t really speak of politics at all. In fact no one ever spoke on it; it had a far more subtle and sinister way of recruiting us for the evil capitalist cause: pop music! People were no longer just divided into those who had a TV antenna with Serbian TV and those who didn’t, but also those who listened to Radio Laxemberg and those who didn’t. Today, the children of the former tend to vote for the Democrats or the Center-Right; while those of the latter, for the Socialists. Like I said, some things tend not to change overnight.
Btw, I still keep much of my grandpa’s VHS cassette collection. Part of it was seized during a Militsiya raid at his home one day in the late 80s. It must’ve been after some report from a neighbor or something. Fortunately, my grandpa didn’t disappear like his father did back in 1944 (his sin had been that he was an evil “bourgeois”, i.e. a craftsman who had his own business). Anyway, long story.
18. Confectioneries. That was a special kind of institution, where one could have some pastry, boza and lemonade. Sorry, no coffee. That’s a decadent capitalist beverage. But you could always have a banitsa with boza. The latter is said to boost boob size. Heh.
20. Beer pubs. Another specific institution. You’d often have a pint while standing upright on the sidewalk. Nothing original or specifically “socialist” there, right. But behold the special evolved version thereof: the HoReMag! That was a combination of Hotel, Restaurant and Shop simultaneously (“Hotel / Restorant / Magazin”). Most villages still have those nowadays, they’re the focal point of any small community, where the local drunkards and pensioners could gather over a bottle of rakia, play some backgammon, and discuss politics and sports. You know how it is.
21. State Councils. Another hugely important institution, fashioned after the infamous Soviets (“soviet” or its derivatives means “council” in most Slavic languages). No one really knew what the State Council’s job was – just like with most other state institutions of that sort. But the State Council building was always the most imposing and impressive Stalin-style building in every town center, no doubt.
22. “Udarnik“. I don’t even know how to translate this. In fact, “udar” means “hit”. But “udarnik” was a special breed of work hero, an excellent worker who was like the worker’s version of Superman. In other words: Superworker! The Udarnik was the one who could operate two looms, pour twice as much concrete as their more “ordinary” counterparts; all in all, work like a robot. They were the guys who’d constantly receive medals on the TV, and flash their honorable ribbons on street parades (“manifestations”), and entire schools and universities would constantly blabber with reverence about their working heroism. Given today’s unemployment levels, we could argue that anyone who works at all, is eligible for such an honorable ribbon. We could use the encouragement and stimulus, no doubt. I don’t know, it’s not my place to say how contagious or stimulating the Udarnik’s example must have been. I guess we’ll have to ask the older folk.
23. Committee on Prices. Ironically, it was dissolved in 1988, and the regime collapsed just a year later. But that’s normal for a planned economy. Some say that institution managed to contain lots of financial crises and prevent a number of inflation situations. The fact is though, that Bulgaria was the only country to default 4 times during the communist era (and twice before that). Says a lot really.
24. Education Program. Every day on the radio, at some special Soviet wavelength which doesn’t exist any more, there was a two-hour Education Program. There were lectures in physics, chemistry, geography and whatnot. There weren’t many humanitarian subjects, so the program wasn’t too ideologized. Hundreds of thousands listened to all sort of curious stuff about CO2, procariote cells and the Mariana Trench. I loved geography, so I was cool with that. Most kids were very well educated and informed overall, highly literate (almost 99%), knew how to write a composite sentence without messing up with the punctuation, even knew more than a dozen poems by heart; let alone about the world’s geography. Indeed, that was what our education was about, back then (and traces of that are still visible today): developing universal non-specialist general-knowledge know-it-alls whose brains were full with factoids learned by heart and readily parroted at any given moment. Meanwhile, they were well trained in practical stuff like changing a light-bulb or patching their socks. Today, most of the kiddos can’t tell a donkey from a horse, believe that the EU is a continent, and find difficulties spelling their full name. They probably wouldn’t survive for more than two days in the wilderness without internet access on their mobile, where they could google how to light a fire. Oh, but they do know everything about the latest underwear of the most famous pop-folk superstars, or the newest tattoo on their fave footballer’s butt. And they can send a Tweet on their iPhone, written in “monkey Latin alphabet” that only looks like Cyrillic, and full of at least a dozen errors.
25. Cinema newsreel. Yep, there was that. Before every movie in the cinema. It lasted for a quarter of an hour, and usually informed the audience about… well, the harvest, the latest work heroics of the Udarniks who were now operating three looms at a time, or pouring thrice as much concrete as their mortal counterparts. Then there was a small pause, and then the actual movie would begin. The cinema tickets costed mere cents. There were an incredible number of cinemas everywhere, and always well maintained. After all, wasn’t it comrade Lenin who once said, “Cinema is the most important art”? And also: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification”. But that’s another story.
…I could add the Labor Troops (Construction Forces) to the list, the lowest of the lower levels of the military (conscription was universal and compulsory, btw), dominated by minorities (mainly Gypsies) who’d work the hardest of hard labor over the toughest construction sites around the country – and hell, were there tough projects at the time! Much in the same league is the “Work Brigades”, compulsory time that every student would spend in summer working at the crop fields or in a factory. You know, just to get a “taste” of what real life looks like. Curiously, and much Stockholm-syndrom-ey, my parents used to insist that those were the best times of their life. Bending your back picking peppers under the scorching sun can and should be fun, as long as you do that alongside your best friends, no? Oh, did I mention that all of that labor was for free?