Tag Archives: communist

Impressions of Central/Eastern Europe’s Former Communist Countries

I’ve now traveled through 8 of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Although I’ve written about most of them individually, I’ve recognized some things they share that I think are interesting:

  • Capitalism has been enthusiastically adopted in these countries.  Foreign companies are welcome.  There is advertising everywhere.  There are lots of small entrepreneurs working hard.
  • There is a lost generation of older people who grew up during the 45 years of communism.  Many have had a very hard time adapting to capitalism.  They lack the necessary skills or work ethic, and as a result, are a drag on the economy.  This has results in a huge generation gap, as younger people are driving the economy that supports the older ones.
  • Some people still look fondly to the Communist days.  They liked that everyone was provided with free, though basic, social services such as health care, welfare, pensions, etc. Now the people have to pay for these services.  They also didn’t have to work as hard or be responsible for themselves to the same degree that they do now.
  • Under communism, there was no personal property.  People were assigned housing by the government, with Communist party members normally receiving the better accommodations.  After the fall of communism, people had to apply to gain ownership of their existing homes.  They did not have to pay for them.  Communist party members generally retained their superior housing.  Citizens also had the opportunity to buy other state-owned assets like land and businesses, but most didn’t have the money, so many of these became the property of former communist leaders, who had amassed wealth under communism or who pilfered state funds, or of thugs (mafia, gangs, etc.)
  • There is still a problem with corruption in some of these countries at many levels.  The EU continues to reprimand those members with corruption problems.  A campground owner that I spoke with in Bulgaria told me of his ongoing challenges with local authorities seeking bribes for things like building permits, erecting street signs, etc.
  • Almost all of these countries are now members of the European Union, although some don’t use the Euro yet.  With the recent Euro problems, it might seem like they wouldn’t be anxious to switch.  In reality, some of their governments continue to spend wildly, and therefore don’t meet the fiscal criteria to switch to the Euro (criteria that are only likely to be tightened given the recent problems in Greece, Ireland, etc.).
  • As poorer members, countries like Romania and Bulgaria are recipients of considerable funding from the EU.  It is used to migrate to EU standards in many areas of government, business, and society (e.g. health care, military, signage, etc.) and to upgrade infrastructure.
  • With the fall of communism, many people’s communist era pensions lost value, so many seniors now exist on a small amount of income.  As prices rise towards the levels of Western Europe, inflation is making it very difficult for those who live on fixed incomes.
  • With inflation, those who own property are seeing significant increases in its value.  Those who don’t are becoming locked out of the real estate market due to the high prices (kind of like Vancouver).
  • Throughout these countries we’ve noticed a lot of abandoned buildings.  Many are government facilities no longer required (e.g. border crossings between Schengen countries that now share a common customs and immigration boundary), businesses found to be unsustainable in a free market economy, or homes abandoned as people moved to take advantage of new opportunities).
  • Despite the daily rain showers which remind us of Vancouver, we enjoyed our travels through the formerly communist countries of Central/Eastern Europe.  In most places (except for a few popular cities like Prague and Budapest) the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.  The roads, facilities, and services are more variable, but definitely adequate, and these countries all have rich and interesting histories that most Westerners know little about.

Impressions of Bulgaria

Bulgaria is the last of the formerly communist countries that we plan to visit this trip.  We continue to head south to warmer and hopefully drier weather.  We enjoyed our relatively short visit to Bulgaria.  Here are some things about Bulgaria that I think are interesting:

  • Bulgaria is a former communist country in Central/Eastern Europe.  Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has successfully transitioned to capitalism and it joined the European Union in 2007.
Ruined castle on hilltop surrounded by green trees.  Single flagpole with raised Bulgarian flag.

Bulgarian Flag atop Tsarevets Castle in Veliko Turnovo

  • Bulgaria doesn’t use the Euro yet.  Its currency is the Leva (worth about 66 cents Canadian), each of which is broken down into 100 stotinky (sometimes called ‘stinkies’ by travellers).
  • Bulgaria is very green at this time of year.  May is its rainiest month and the countryside is beautiful.
Diane beside a walking path with lush green grass and trees and a cliff in the distance

Diane walking in the Bulgarian countryside near Ivanovo

  • Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  It was developed in the 9th Century in the land that later became Bulgaria.  The Cyrillic alphabet makes reading menus and most signs here almost impossible.  It has extra letters (30 in total) and several false friends (letters that look the same as our Latin letters, but are pronounced differently) (e.g. ‘p’ is pronounced as ‘r’ in restaurant).
Two black and white signs pointing to Bulgaria's capital city Sohpia, the top one in Cryrillic and the bottom one in Latin charactes

Both signs point the way to Bulgaria’s capital city Sophia. Both are pronouced the same way, but the top one uses the Cyrillic alphabaet.

  • Thankfully, almost all young people in Bulgaria speak some English.  If we need assistance, we ask a teenager.
  • Hoping to annex Macedonia, Bulgaria sided with Germany in World War II, but refused to turn over its Jews to the Nazis, saving at least 50,000 people from the genocide
  • Bulgaria adopted communism more wholeheartedly than other Warsaw Pact countries after World War II.  They were very subservient to ‘Mother Russia’ and in 1973 even proposed that they join the Soviet Union.
  • Under communism, Bulgaria was well known for its wrestlers and weight lifters who were national sports heroes.  Afterwards they often became bodyguards for the countries leaders.
  • With the fall of communism, many of the communist leaders and their bodyguards successfully transitioned to capitalism, and now lead many of the major companies here.  This was almost certainly done with some mafia-style strong arming.  Bulgarians say, “The music changes, but the musicians stay the same”.
  • The vast majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christian (almost 90%), a quick turnaround from Communist days when religion was not allowed.
  • Corruption is more widespread in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe.  Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it is monitored and often rebuked by the EU for problems with fraud.
  • Because it is cheaper than most other European countries, Bulgaria is becoming popular as a tourist destination for Europeans but it is rarely visited by North Americans.  Most of the Europeans who come here come for cheap skiing or for beach destinations on the Black Sea coast.
  • There are a growing number of British ex-pats here who can buy homes and live less expensively and with better weather than in the UK.
  • Traditional Bulgarian food is grilled meat and vegetables, stews, roasted peppers, feta cheese, and yoghurt.
  • Bulgaria is the cheapest of the European countries we’ve traveled to.  Last night we had a huge meal, 2 appetizers, 2 large and fancy meat entrees, and 4 beers for about $21.
Hot circular metal pan covered with grilled pork, onions, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.

Grilled meat with onions, tomatoes, and peppers