interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

On media obfuscation, eating sterlet and the importance of visiting Belene

Georgi Lozanov_0.jpg

Arguably Bulgaria's most prominent intellectual, Georgi Lozanov – a philosopher, professor of mass communications in several universities and the current chief of the Electronic Media Council – has always been an outspoken critic of the system, any system. Some compare him to Noam Chomsky – but with a strong dash of the Wildean penchant for bons mots – no matter whether he is talking about the legacy of Communism, organised crime, the games played in the Bulgarian media or the best restaurants in Sofia. But Georgi Lozanov is a lot more than the Chomsky-Wilde cliché. A gentleman of almost Victorian proportions, he is equally at ease when he discusses Freud and Nietzsche or the subtle mechanisms governing Bulgarian society; when he plays cards, or explores the outer reaches of his country. Speaking with Georgi Lozanov on the lawn of his hacienda-style ranch on the outskirts of Sofia is a memorable experience in itself; one you wouldn't have thought could happen in the philistine Bulgaria of the 2010s.

If you have to describe this country in 60 seconds, how would you go about it?

There are two scenarios. One is to start complaining. The other is related to the sense of belonging. erhaps in contrast to other people, I haven't lost my sense of belonging. I think of Bulgaria mostly in terms of my lawn, my home and my family, rather than the concept of a state or its history. So my relationship with Bulgaria is private, not public.

The first thing I am going to tell a foreigner coming to Bulgaria will be that this country is a land of many temptations. Probably because we are in the Balkans, the climate here seems to be specifically designed to be enjoyed. The carnival is going on – I am referring to the pageant which started on 10 November 1989, when a set of values was rejected but a new one was not installed. The good thing about carnivals is that you are allowed to do anything. The bad thing is that anything can happen to you.

So, the second thing I am going to tell a foreigner is to take care.

Take care about what?

The greatest danger – and not only for foreigners but for the Bulgarians as well – is the weakness of the rules. In this sense life here resembles life itself: you play a game whose rules you don't know and you have to learn them as you go along. I suppose this will be a severe shock for someone from the West where societies are a lot better organised. We live in an earthquake zone and we are used to earthquakes. That means that a weaker earthquake will probably go unnoticed. However, if someone comes from firm land, they will have the feeling that the roof can cave in any minute.

There are many reasons for the constantly changing rules in Bulgaria, the most important of which is that the Bulgarian society failed to modernise itself. Personal relations here are more important than any procedure, and democracy is a procedure – which explains why democracy in Bulgaria is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Looking more positively, can you name a few temptations that visitors to this country will likely be confronted with?

The greatest temptation is that very soon anyone in Bulgaria will find out that all kinds of relations will come down to the personal level. Even if you camе here as an investor – with all the paperwork in order, with a proper business plan and so on and so forth – you are likely to find yourself during the third week, or sometimes at the third hour, in a personal relationship with some local people sitting at some table. It is very tempting to go along on this level, which is not necessarily bad because the meaning of life, after all, is to establish personal relationships.

With wife Galya

With wife Galya

There is no doubt that this is an ongoing conflict of interests. It may be charming, it may be sentimentalised, but that's what we are living through permanently.

Eroticism plays an important role in this. In Bulgaria, eroticism adds value to the social aspect. Life is more sexual here – another temptation.

Then Bulgaria is an exotic place which finds itself in Europe. It is exotic in terms of interpersonal relations, exotic in that it has failed to modernise itself. You get the feeling of a frontier, yet you are in Europe. In the postmodern world, this is important as it determines your way of thinking: a self-styled Frontier Theme in Bulgarian dimensions.

Yet another temptation shared by the local people in the Balkans is to start digging: for treasure troves, for historical artefacts – through some kind of archaeology. I am talking metaphorically: the wealth of the Underworld. In all European cultures since the Enlightenment the Underworld is associated with fear, darkness and death. In the Balkans, the Underworld is paradise. Everyone expects to find their happiness well hidden in the Underworld. Wherever I travel in the Balkans, people keep stopping me and asking me, what have you been digging for?

Digging in the Underworld indicates the sense of hopelessness and the lack of anything to look forward to in the real world. This applies to Bulgarian history, the Bulgarian kings, to any "saint," Christian or otherwise, who might have happened to walk these lands.

An Indiana Jones syndrome?

Can be awoken in anyone, provided they've had the right amount of rakiya with their Bulgarian hosts.

Let's go back to the world above. Where would you take your foreign guests to visit?

I would take them to he Danube River, anywhere on the Danube, though Ruse is obviously the most spectacular. Let's go to the Danube and eat sterlet. Sterlet is not very popular in Bulgaria, but you can still find it along the Danube. The Danube is an important cultural phenomenon in Bulgaria. All fashion trends came flowing down the Danube. Once we've had sterlet, we will definitely go to Belene.

Belene is the site of a former Communist concentration camp. It is also the site of a failed nuclear power plant. To Bulgarians it is known mainly for the huge amount of mosquitoes in the summertime. What would visitors do in a place like Belene?

In Belene you can see everything that we are trying to run away from in our history. You can see the remnants of the concentration camp, the huge site of the projected but cancelled nuclear power plant, now a ruin; you can see the dilapidated Communist-era housing estates – all in bits and pieces, all at the same time. Belene is like a David Hockney picture – it all happens in your head.

I would also take my friends to the northern stretches of the Black Sea coast. The area is not as popular as the southern Black Sea coast, where Post-Communism has played out its mutri and chalga culture. Sadly, the south now looks like the system itself with all its prestige indicators. Going north is like being a dissenter in Post-Communism.

And then I will take them to Plovdiv. Under Communism, the Revival Period part of Plovdiv was maintained by the state. It epitomised the great art being produced in Plovdiv by a handful of painters, all of them now dead. Of course, you should go and see, but I prefer another part of town: Kapana, or the Mousetrap. It's the closest you get in Bulgaria to a Balkan carsi. Emir Kusturica shot some of his Underground film there.

We have had many letters from readers who speak some Bulgarian and look at some of the Bulgarian media, but cannot understand what's going on. During the past several months a variety of media watchdogs have criticised Bulgaria for failing to protect free speech and independent media. The issues are many and varied: nebulous ownership of the media, including distribution; too much centralisation; monopolies; open and covert conflicts of interest; political pressures; direct and indirect censorship. In fact Bulgaria is at the bottom of the freedom-of-speech scale in the EU.

Declining freedom of speech is not something we've observed during the past few months, but during the past few years. Ironically, it started after Bulgaria was accepted in the EU. The we were 30th in the world in terms of freedom of speech, now we are sub-70.

There are three periods in the Bulgarian media post-1989. First was the Big Boom of the 1990s, when the Bulgarians thought that freedom of speech was their constitutional right. Finally, Bulgarians knew that there were many parties and ideologies to choose from. That was the the time of overeating on media communications after the long hunger of Communism.

The second period was the media's professionalisation. It started at the end of the 1990s with the entry of foreign investors in the media market: Westdeutsche Allgemaine Zeitung, or WAZ; Greek entrepreneur Minos Kiriakou; Rupert Murdoch and a few others. They brought their own software and they installed it on the local hardware. In itself, this was very valuable because the media became a lot more professional.

Now we are in the third period, which brought to light the illusions of the former two periods. Neither the law, nor the market can guarantee freedom of speech. Of course, both are prerequisites, but they are not enough. The third period started when the big investors began to leave. Kiriakou was the first to leave, then Murdoch, then WAZ. All of them sensed that the economic crisis, which was just coming to Bulgaria, would make their businesses a lot more difficult to run, and decided to sell.

Now these businesses are Bulgarianised, and we can see what significant guarantor to freedom of speech those foreign investors were, with all their faults.

At present, Bulgaria is in a deep crisis. Sadly, the first victims of the new economic realities were the more professional media and media formats. They were the first to fall. The mass circulation press as well as the reality TV shows hold out.

Yet another major problem is the lack of useful legislation in tact with the new situation. We only have the Broadcasting Act, which was created in the epoch of analogue, and which is now obsolete.

Is there censorship in Bulgaria?

Censorship is a concept that belongs to the modern age. Things are a lot more complicated now we are in postmodernity.What makes things worse, is that the whole situation is censoring. Therefore, we need new rules to guarantee that if you stay within certain limits no one will touch you and you won't have to worry about censoring yourself. To make this possible you need consensus among the media themselves and then between the media and the government. None of those is easy to achieve.

Did Bulgaria manage to get rid of Communism?

No. Bulgaria is the only former East bloc country that has no museum of Communism. A museum of Communism is not important as a tourist attraction, but as a platform to signify that Communism has gone away. Whether Communism was good or bad is beside the point.

What we have now is a return to the language of Communism. Anti-Communism was slowly but surely played down. Then came the re-socialisation of people deemed to be odious in the aftermath of Communism's collapse: former leader Todor Zhivkov, the State Security agents.

One of the most detestable players in this was the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which – as it turned out – has a lot more to do with State Security than with Christianity.

The peculiar Bulgarian way of being nostalgic, except for digging in the Underworld, is related to the extreme difficulties that any democratic idea now meets. Look at the mess the rightwing parties are in at the moment. Even within the BSP, which is the heir to the erstwhile Communist Party, the attempts at modernisation have halted.

Sadly, unlike most Europeans the Bulgarians are rarely able to move on. They would rather look down.


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