Over the past three weeks, I have been “socially isolated” at my country house—that is, the house I inherited from my grandfather in the village of Mindya, which is the last village as you drive into the mountains from the medieval capital of Veliko Tarnovo. The two-storey house was built around 1885 in the vernacular architectural tradition that stretches all the way from here to Armenia. Thankfully, I have a couple of acres of garden and the river is very close by; I am not stuck, immobile, in a small city flat. Nor do we have, here in the villages, the draconian measures that have blocked entry into and exit from the regional cities. I move around, spending hours outside in the sun and air; when the fish in the river are in a good mood, we even have fish for dinner (I evacuated my ageing mother and sister over here with me).
I left Sofia before any kind of “emergency” measures were introduced. Indeed, the government was specifically saying that it would not shut Sofia down. I have, however, spent too many years living under dictatorships and in captured states to be taken in by this. I knew they were lying and escaped just in time.
What strikes me about this “emergency” is that it has seemingly nothing to do with medical considerations. It seems entirely political, even at the expense of basic common sense.
I spend most of my time out of doors. But in the cities, people are banned from being in public parks and green spaces. Medicine tells us that being in the sun and air is the best thing for strengthening your immune system and that being stuck indoors plays havoc with it, exposing you to danger. Yet the government obviously thinks that the opposite is true. It even closed off a whole mountain, Mount Vitosha near Sofia, so that Sofians are unable to reach it. The fine for anyone trying to get to some place green are 2.500 Euro; 800 were imposed last weekend alone.
At the same time, Sofia municipality has cut down on public transport, thus ensuring that buses and trams, now few and far between, are jam-packed with people. Being inside a bus with 60 others is better for your health, in times of epidemic, than being alone and out in the mountains? What kind of logic is that? It is, of course, a specific kind of political logic, typical of certain kinds of regimes.
The government has, naturally, banned criticism, so for the first time in three decades I find myself virtually voiceless, media-wise. Protests and public demonstrations are outlawed.
Eastern Europe was already sliding into authoritarianism before the crisis. In most of these countries, regimes were already in place, following successful state capture. Now, these regimes are using the situation to tighten their grip on the public and, of course, on the public’s purse. It is not a “power grab”, as some Western media have written. It is a consolidation of power that had already been grabbed.
The “states of emergency” over here are not for the sake of public health. They have nothing to do with helping businesses and enterprises: a good 1,5 million middle-class and entrepreneurial taxpayers were recently labeled “marginal” by the finance minister and told to survive as they see fit. A neighbor of mine, engaged in the ancient and noble trade of carpentry, has already closed his firm.
These states of emergency are about politics and, more specifically, repression.
All of which is very familiar to someone who spent the first 30 years of his life under communism. This time, compared to back then, history is being repeated as farce, providing amusement rather than instilling fear. But, then again, unlike last time, these days I even make my own electricity…
Evgenii Dainov is Professor of Political Science and Head of BA and MA Programmes at New Bulgarian University. In November 2019 he was a Guest at the IWM.