Organizing the Public in East-Central Europe
NGOs devoted to public works paradoxically became part of the wave of privatization that swept the region.
Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
The transformations of 1989 began in the streets as people protested their governments in Leipzig, Prague, Bucharest, and Sofia. The agents of change were popular movements like Solidarity, Civic Forum, and the Union of Democratic Forces. Gradually the protests receded, and these popular movements turned themselves into parties. Many activists, however, didn’t want to join formal politics. And so was born the new era of the NGO in East-Central Europe.
Non-governmental organizations proliferated throughout the region in the 1990s as part of the institutionalization of civil society. They often received support from foundations and governments in Western Europe and the United States. Exchange programs brought staff for training sessions in Washington and London and Paris. NGOs became increasingly important in addressing social issues – poverty, inter-ethnic tensions, trafficking – as the governments in the region downsized. In this way, NGOs devoted to public works were paradoxically part of the wave of privatization that swept the region. What governments no longer had the money to do, private organizations stepped in to help out.
In the early days, NGOs enjoyed a rather high reputation in part because of the legacy of “anti-politics” from the earlier period. Newly enfranchised citizens viewed government and the official political realm with a degree of suspicion just as they dismissed the communist governments as the playthings of the nomenklatura.
Today, however, NGOs don’t meet with such universal acclaim. “Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region,” Mariana Milosheva-Krushe explained to me over coffee at the Archaeological Museum café in Sofia back in September. “So, who do they blame? NGOs.” NGOs are often perceived as well-funded entities that don’t in the end produce anything of enduring value. Although some NGOs certainly fit this description, others have achieved sustainable results with relatively modest means.
Mariana Milosheva-Krushe has been working with NGOs in Bulgaria and throughout the region for more than two decades. She first encountered community organizing in the United States in 1993 and was impressed with this grassroots approach to political and economic development. She brought that spirit back to Bulgaria to democratize the NGO sector. Deeply involved in this sector, she is nonetheless critical of the bad habits of civic organizations.
“Change depends on people in the community,” she told me. “I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, ‘Pave the street over there too.’ I said, ‘Come on, it’s your street.’ And he said, ‘It’s your project!’ And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture.”
In addition to the evolution of NGO culture, we talked about working on Roma issues in Bulgaria, the rebirth of the chitalishte cultural centers, and political polarization.
Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were doing and how you reacted?
Yes. I was having a sandwich and walking to the office I was working for here in Sofia. I just dropped the sandwich. I couldn’t believe it. I was just stunned. So, this is a very vivid memory.
Where were you working at the time?
At the Institute of Modern History. It was very boring, very politicized. I couldn’t find a job as an ancient historian, as an archaeologist. I had to do something.
Did you think about the implications for Bulgaria? Or was it just an event happening on a distant planet?
Of course, something was going to happen. You had a feeling that everything was changing.
When perestroika started in the Soviet Union, at some point we began looking for Russian magazines to see what was happening. I had three exams in Russian/Soviet history and I knew nothing about it, only the official things we were studying. So, it was a real exciting time. These magazines were not easy to find: they were too alternative for us here. The Soviet Union was moving faster than us, which has not always been the case. So, It was already in the air that we might see some changes in our lifetime.
Was there a specific moment in your life in Bulgaria when you realized, ah, something is changing?
Yes: when I saw the completely stunned face of Todor Zhivkov. He just couldn’t believe that he had to go. That was the visual moment I remember.
For me, personally, probably the most exciting thing was to meet people who survived from the old political establishment, like Dr. Petar Dertliev and Dr. Atanas Moskov, who were Social Democrats. Meeting them was a great opportunity for me to see that not only can the system change, but there are ways to change it. I worked with them. This was the best school for me in terms of participation, elections, campaigns. I was the director of their foundation, the Yanko Sakazov Foundation at the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. I started as a secretary then became director.
Do you remember in 1990 the conflict between groups that were willing to have some political compromise with the former Communist Party and those who weren’t, like the people in the City of Truth?
Yes, the City of Truth took place right over there. It was very exciting. We all were enthusiastic that things could change. But others were also denying everything. If you cook under pressure and you try to open the pot too fast, it can explode. I guess these different trends were trying to keep from exploding.
When my daughter was very little, I would walk her in the park. There was one column of people walking and screaming UDF (Union of Democratic Forces), and the other column walking and screaming BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). It was too polarized. Maybe that’s normal. But it was also generational: in most cases, the older generation, the people who were called the “red grannies,” supported the status quo because they were afraid of change. So in a way complete denial was not the best, but neither was compromise. Change was very much needed.
Do you think there was a point at which this political polarization disappeared? Or has an element of that initial polarization continued?
I don’t know. Right now, I don’t see very much passion and polarization. We don’t have a real opposition. We have the ruling party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria). It calls itself a citizens’ movement, but it’s really a party. There’s the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Unfortunately the UDF lost, and that’s kind of sad.
This development has taken place over the last 10-12 years since King Simeon came here. This was for me the first sign that populism — in our sense, not in the American sense – had overwhelmed politics. People just wanted immediate benefits. They were frustrated with the slowness of change, and they couldn’t see any direct benefit to their income or wellbeing. The king’s slogan was: Trust me. People voted for that! Without anything more concrete. But perhaps that’s normal.
I’m worried that whenever frustration grows like this, it always touches on the ethnic issue, especially Roma, and that’s really bad. I like talking with taxi drivers: they’re my focus group. Whenever you mention Roma, they say, “They’re dirty, they cheat, they do nothing, they have no potential.” Sometimes the sentiment is against the Turks, the Muslims. This is our supposedly tolerant Bulgaria! Sometimes I wonder what we’ve done for the last 20 years, with all our preaching about human rights and equal opportunities for people. I still don’t see enough mixed schools or different colors on television. Bulgaria is monochromatic.
Do you remember the campaign against the ethnic Turks in 1988-89? What was your impression of that? How did your circle of friends react?
I was at home on maternity leave. My daughter, who was born in 1987, was very little. I was living near the Palace of Culture. There were these orchestrated demonstrations against the eksursianti – that’s what they called them, people who go on excursions. None of my friends supported this. “What if they rename me?” they worried, “Or tell me where to live?” This was the stupidest thing that communists did. This is what gave birth to all the anti-regime groups, this and the environmental movement, like the Club of Mothers in Russe.
It also gave birth to the Movement for Rights and Freedom. It generated a lot of controversy. Number one, the constitution said you couldn’t have a party based on religion. Number two, Ahmed Dogan was a very controversial figure. And number three, it was the third largest party, so it played a major pivotal role in determining coalitions.
It continues to do that.
I’m curious about your analysis of the MRF and its evolution.
The idea was good, because you need a certain self-organization. No matter what, when people say that Turks were represented in other parties, they weren’t. However, like all parties, the MRF was copying the old totalitarian model of party organizing, especially Dogan. He’s very smart, an amazing politician, but he’s really totalitarian in my book. But they also had some good people in that party. They had systematic strategy for growth in their cadre. And the whole idea was based not on ethnic principle but to defend all rights and movements. This should have cut across the platforms of all parties, but it didn’t happen that way.
So there hasn’t been any attempt by BSP, the UDF, the king’s party, or GERB to to address issues of ethnic Turks?
There have been some attempts, usually around elections, with all parties buying the votes of Roma and ethnic Turks. It’s ugly. I don’t think the parties consciously care about those issues. Individual politicians, yes, but these issues were missing from the party platforms. That’s why I decided to work for civil society. It’s not enough to have elections and demonstrate that you care about the issue by buying votes or supporting the issue the day before elections. What’s important is what you do in between elections.
But I’m afraid that the political culture here was not consciously integrating the necessity of rights. That includes the MRF. We were doing community projects in the Rhodope Mountains, and ethnic Turks talked about being suppressed by their own party members. Using fear, threats to the family – the MRF was not practicing what they were established to do. Individuals within the party, yes, but not the party itself.
You worked in community development organizations in Baltimore and North Carolina.
I had an internship there for six weeks in 1993. I had several different opportunities to go to the United States on internships to learn about civic organizing, non-profit management, community foundations and the evaluation process. The first time I was in the United States was in 1991 or 1992, on an exchange. People were laughing at me in the States because I was saying, “Ah, this is the model!” And they said, “There is no model. You have to adapt whatever model you find.” I am so grateful to all the people, all the community organizers I met. I learned so much.
You started out in ancient history and archaeology. What motivated you to turn to community development?
I was bored with history. I couldn’t find work, and it was boring to dig under the ground. We were creating history! That’s why I joined the Yanko Sakazov Foundation in 1990, because it was so exciting to organize elections. I’m not an extreme person. I’m always trying to be moderate, to find the balance. I think I was closer to the Social Democrats. But unfortunately that party doesn’t exist any more. The BSP absorbed all the rhetoric, but not the actual principles.
I was working at the national level, assisting fundraising for people to do campaigns locally. But campaigns don’t resolve issues. They need to be ongoing. That’s why I decided to continue in civil society. First we created the Access association. I had a passion was for community organizing, especially in ethnically mixed communities. I was responsible for the program for community change. If you can do community organizing in a Roma neighborhood where there’s extreme poverty, then it can happen anywhere. At the same time, there’s something lost in other communities, such as the bonds between the extended family.
I was also a technical organizer of an Anne Frank exhibition. We wanted to link the messages of the exhibition to the current situation, so we included an exhibition on Roma in Bulgaria. I was shocked by the reaction of the young students coming to the exhibition. They could understand the messages of Anne Frank, what had happened in the past, and they were open to different tolerant thinking. But whenever they saw pictures of Roma, it was immediately a very negative reaction.
I talked to a Roma poet. She said that the problem was not with the beggar children sniffing glue: it’s with poverty and growing economic issues. “You should go to learn from the communities,” she said. So, I just learned from going to the Roma neighborhoods and talking to people. I’d been excited by what I saw in Baltimore, in Washington, DC, where I saw some direct work in housing projects in poor neighborhoods. As a result, in 1995 we created CEGA – Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives — which developed effective community development projects and grassroots alternative.
What surprised you the most from your experiences in Roma communities?
It’s a completely different culture. And if you don’t understand it and respect it, you’re just lost. This was the biggest problem of most “projects” of different donors: they remained projects. In many cases they had a kind of “drive-through” approach. You need to work with people inside the community so that they start self-organizing. The big word “empowerment” means for me that individuals open their eyes, then they open up the eyes of other people, and they get together to do things. Nobody can do it from the outside.
We did a great job, I think. We worked with more than 40 organizations in different parts of the country. I still maintain contact. I do evaluations. But we are far from resolving the issues, right? We were trying to do things, to cultivate people, and at the same time, the situation was changing completely. Economically there was no opportunity. This was the biggest mistake: no one did anything for income generation. Generations of people never worked; generations of people did not study very much. It went very deep. A lot of good people who were activists got burned out. That’s normal. If you live in the neighborhood, you work 24 hours a day: if you’re real and you’re not just working for the money. You do it because you care
Some people had an opportunity to go abroad, and they said, “No, I’ll stay here.” They were committed. Some of them succeeded in really bringing Roma kids back to school. For instance, in Lom, at the Roma Lom foundation, 10 years ago they had only one or two students at university. Now they have over 25. That’s amazing!
Can you give an example of community development that has worked in Bulgaria, a flagship example so to speak?
There are different flags: one flag does not fit all. One of the examples is the Roma organization in Lom, but of course it’s not just Lom.
Another example is the chitalishte. I was evaluating a program done by UNDP, and the woman working there was so excited about these chitalishte, these cultural centers established in the 19th century as a vehicle for national revival. They were in every community: more than 3,000 all over the country. During communism, they were nationalized and became a controlling structure in the system of culture. The UNDP program decided to revive them and restore their real meaning. They did a great job. But they needed to develop assisting organizations for these chitalishte. That’s what Agora (Active Communities for Development Alternatives) does, funded by the America for Bulgaria foundation. This is community development. It’s out of the project culture. It’s just getting people involved on the issues they care about. It’s making people into active citizens.
Change depends on people in the community. I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, “Pave the street over there too.” I said, “Come on, it’s your street.” And he said, “It’s your project!” And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture.
There were some great donors who were open to supporting crazy ideas. I love this spelling mistake my colleague in Romania made — these “democrazy projects,” she called them. In such projects, there’s space to grow so-called ownership. I hate these words already. They’ve become buzzwords. But still, people must own the ideas. It’s a different pace from the project pace. Projects are rhythmic: you have to spend on time and report on time. Otherwise you’re in trouble. But sometimes community development — activating people, linking them together — might go at a different pace. The biggest lesson is the pace of change. When I read all these announcements of “fast-track projects,” it sounds like McDonald’s! It doesn’t work this way. It might take years, and the development might not be linear.
What makes me pessimistic is that it was our dream to join Europe. But European Union membership came with a certain spice. It’s completely blocking community development and civic participation and democracy culture. EU funding is not accessible to small groups because of the very heavy technical requirements. And the bureaucracy in Brussels is then retranslated through our bureaucracy. This money is supposed to help municipalities and civil society. But I haven’t seen this happen.
I visited the Mercy Corps office in Tuzla in Bosnia. To get EU funding, Bosnian organizations had to partner with EU members. Many small organizations decided not even to try to get EU funding because of the reporting requirements. But the Mercy Corps office in Tuzla was extremely well organized. They had a wall full of boxes filled with the reports. And I thought: you have to be a very special organization to work the European system to get that money.
I know the European programming well. Sometimes it’s so rigid. But the intentions are good. I advise colleagues who apply to keep focused on what their organization is for, no matter what. If necessary, hire someone to do the reporting, but continue to focus on working with people. There are some good organizations doing this. But something is wrong with this system, and these bureaucrats don’t care.
One option is to reform the European system. That’s a pretty ambitious goal, and Bulgaria is a pretty small country. What other options are there? What about developing a national system that supports small organizations and community foundations?
There have been some attempts to do this, in Romania, for instance. But it’s being done by alternative donors, not the EU. The Civil Society Development Foundation gives giving small grants, supported by the Trust for Civil Society and the Romanian-American Foundation.
We’re lucky here in Bulgaria to have a colleague from the NGO community on the structural fund. He’s great. And some other people work in this system. NGOs make many suggestions about changes, but it depends on effective advocacy at the national level and the EU level. We have members in the European Parliament, and they should put forward changes to some of the ridiculous rules.
At the same time, I’m optimistic because of the involvement of young people. It’s outside the NGO community. It’s through Facebook or through humanitarian initiatives. They are acting in their own way. My daughter is 25. She grew up traveling with me to visit civic projects in the Roma community. But she decided to study business administration, and most of her friends are in the business community. Some of them say, “We want to do something else. We want to be involved in something that gives us social meaning.” That’s a good sign.
The Bulgarian Donors Fund is developing a platform for emerging donors. They are trying to stimulate a new culture of giving. We need to develop more philanthropy, more involvement of people who are donating. The Charles Steward Mott foundation did a lot on this. It applied a matching approach — if you raise this money, we’ll match it. If all the grants were like this, everyone would think about raising support. Yes, it’s very difficult, especially for minority issues, but it’s not impossible.
What is the future of informal initiatives in Bulgaria? Has the NGO experience in Bulgaria reached a certain limit in terms of its effectiveness, reach, attractiveness to young generation?
It depends on the NGO and the way it works. I can’t generalize. Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region. So, who do they blame? NGOs. Also, the donors needed boxes into which to invest money, and the NGOs were those boxes. Again, it was a kind of McDonald’s approach. The trick is not to serve your own self-interest. My computer used to be very creative in spelling, giving me suggestions while I was typing. When I was typing NGO, it was suggesting EGO. If you get beyond the EGO, the NGO is more broader based.
Are NGOs over? I don’t know. You need a form of self-organization, and sometimes you need well-structured forms. Governments will not listen only to informal movements. At the European level, you need a platform, you need to mirror the existing bureaucracy because bureaucracy talks to bureaucracy or organized structures.
Sometimes networking is “notworking”. I’d like to see more linkages and joint work among organizations. The National Children’s Network here in Bulgaria is very good. It brings together 80 organizations from all over the country. They have a platform, they go to the government, and they are listened to. They are lucky to have the support of a Swiss foundation and UNICEF. It’s also very active on Facebook. NGOs need to keep pace with what’s happening. They need to use new technologies to attract young people.
The environmental movement also gets people excited. Some issues excite people. With other issues, like rights and diversity, it’s more difficult. Everyone here is brought up with more or less prejudice. It’s much easier to mobilize against something, however, like racism. The new social media also can serve for negative mobilization, something that triggers your frustration, rather than positive issues.
Let me ask about the organizing on the other side of the political spectrum: the populist xenophobic rightwing movements here in Bulgaria like Ataka
What a shame that they have a TV channel! What’s shocking is that it’s supported by well-educated people.
Why has this become so much more popular in Bulgaria? Is it simply because of the economic crisis and the need to blame it on another group?
When people are frustrated and unhappy, when they have an inferiority complex, it’s easy to manipulate them. They need something to feel like they are someone. Here in Sofia, some people say, “All these newcomers come here because they can’t do anything in the communities they come from.” You can mobilize this type of inferiority complex into a platform. That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s: lumpenization.
We need to activate educated people too. We need civic education classes all over the country. If people are not growing up with these ideas, it’s very difficult for them to get it from just reading a newspaper or seeing a campaign clip on TV. It has to be part of the curriculum. There have been lots of attempts: the Step by Step program, the Debates Program of the Open Society Institute.
People are very busy with their families. They have to survive. My daughter works from 9 am to 9 pm. That’s how it is in the business world. In the NGO community, it’s 24 hours. Because of all these busy people, children grow up without this supportive system within the family. When they’re with their parents, they absorb their negative sentiments, their frustrations with life. But it’s not only here. It’s all over Europe. You can see this type of xenophobic, nationalist attitudes in Holland, in Germany.
The paradox is, the German economy is doing quite well. They’ve dealt with the financial crisis quite successfully. They’re a creditor nation. And yet still there’s this xenophobia.
The perception there is that these foreigners are coming and taking their jobs.
Even though these are jobs that Germans generally don’t want.
It doesn’t matter. It’s the same in Holland: it’s a prosperous country yet people feel vulnerable and are becoming protectionist. It’s the same in the States. No one likes immigrants flooding into their country.
Having civic education throughout the system would be useful. An improvement in the overall economy would be useful. Anything else that would be useful in terms of overcoming this xenophobia?
Investing in individuals is great: individuals from those groups that are being scapegoated. Equal opportunities can bring out the best, no matter your origin. This is what’s missing in the region. We talk it, we don’t walk it. Roma should be more visible – in the media, working in the banking system. So that people see them and say, “Hey, they’re the same person as me.” In Lom, one of the kids there who studied in London is now working in parliament. People in Lom know this and say, “Wow, it can happen, he was my neighbor!”
In Hungary, Roma journalists were working on many different shows, not just shows on Roma issues. There were Roma in government: brilliant people, spoke English, came from the NGO community. Unfortunately the new government fired most of them. But still the investment in those individuals is worth it, because they are now working in different sectors, or at the European level, or they go to other countries. When you have examples in communities, people try to follow it. It might take generations, but it’s worth it.
The investment in people is worth it. But that leads me to the topic of the brain drain. A lot of people, especially young people, have left Bulgaria. Do you think that might be coming to an end?
First, it’s not a brain drain because not all the smart ones left the country. Some of the smart ones decided to stay, me included! I could have left. Since 1992, I had opportunities to do so, and I know other people in the same situation. My daughter’s generation, many of them very good English speakers, they’ve decided to stay here. She studied in Holland for a year for her master’s degree. She said, “No, I want to be here. If we all leave, who will make things happen?”
It’s freedom of movement, and I love it. Because I couldn’t travel before. Come on, it’s not feudal times or communism, when we had to be registered in particular places.
There’s a perception that the Bulgarian government is backtracking on liberal principles. Obviously we’ve seen it more intensely with Viktor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary. I’m curious about your impression of the general trajectory of the current government in Bulgaria?
It’s a joke. But I still vote, otherwise I can’t bitch. If I have to be honest, there are a lot of professionals in this government. But it’s such populism. People like it. The government is popular.
Why is it popular?
Because the prime minister speaks a simple language. People get it. He’s doing some stuff, like repairing roads. He’s responding to the popular culture. People don’t want to hear intellectual talk.
Is that why the UDF has failed?
I think there are many reasons. The leadership is responsible. They had many supporters. Most of the people working for change supported the UDF. But it was incapable of fighting corruption. It couldn’t demonstrate that it was an alternative. It became arrogant too.
I’m afraid of what happened a couple years ago with Ataka. If there’s something positive about GERB, it’s that they took some of the more moderate supporters of Ataka and absorbed them into a more civilized alternative. Eventually there will be new movements more oriented toward what we all strive for: greater democracy.
Have you seen actual policies based on the rhetoric of Ataka or the cleaned-up version in the current government? Or has it stayed in the realm of the rhetoric?
We have anti-discrimination legislation. We have all the tools to control this negative trend. But the traditional NGOs are needed to shine the lamp on this implementation. If we don’t have strong local organizations, municipalities can do whatever they want. All parties were buying minority votes. There were cases of threats and beating people. This should be exposed. This should be in the media. But these accusations are only used by one party against another. Active citizens can be troublesome, but it’s much better than having manipulated citizens.
Have you seen any successful anti-corruption initiatives here in Bulgaria?
There were big projects on this, and some of them were good. However, I think that corruption depends on the individual level. I would never give a bribe. When they ask me, I say no. If everybody says no, then… Back in the past, you had to pay under the table to get anything done. But there are new generations now, and the generation of my daughter won’t give. They think, ”Hey it’s your job, and you’re supposed to do it.”
I was recently stopped for speeding. He didn’t ask me for a bribe. He just wrote me a ticket. He did not even hint at it. Is that a good sign? A friend said, “Maybe they knew who they were talking with.” But I just look like a normal driver. It’s not written across my forehead that I’m an anti-corruption activist.
The government tried to arrest people, but of course they were just small fish.
As you look ahead, in your work evaluating civic groups, what excites you the most?
I’m excited that I’ll be working with the organization Amalipe for half a year on organizational development. Amalipe is a Roma NGO in Bulgaria. They work all over the country. It’s a small project but it’s exciting because we’re finding the best way for them to develop as an organization. Sometimes it can be very depressing doing evaluation: just assessing and not saying how you think things should done.
Just a couple last quantitative questions. When you think about the changes that have taken place since 1989, how would you evaluate them on a scale of one to 10, with one being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed?
Same scale, same period of time: how do you feel about your own life?
Looking forward into the near future, how optimistic are you?
6. I should also tell you my favorite joke. The optimist and the pessimist are talking. The pessimist says “It can’t be worse,” and the optimist says, “It can happen.”
Sofia, September 25, 2012