Bulgaria - A Future Deferred?

When we think of the Third World, we usually think of a country in the Southern hemisphere or in the "east", notably Asia. On the other hand, when we think of Europe we are seduced by words related to "prosperity" and "modernity". Little do we realize that parts of Europe also make up the Third World. And out of the Third World countries of Europe, Bulgaria is one of the furthest removed from the "European ideal", usually exemplified by countries such as Germany, France, and the UK.

It is no secret that Eastern Europe is still struggling under the burden of its transition from communism. In a way, Internet usage is a reflection of the pace of change and the attitudes that people have toward this change. In the case of Bulgaria, the prospects don't look so promising. Many tend to approach the problems they face by insisting at the outset that the situation is hopeless. This overriding apathy permeates throughout society, which partly explains why the Internet has made very little impact. People live basically from day to day and most of their plans are short-term at best. They are wary of trying anything new unless financial rewards are high and immediate.

In Eastern Europe, there appears to be a correlation between Internet usage, anti-establishment attitudes, and economic development. This may help to explain the apathy that exists toward the Internet: there's not much of an anti-establishment youth culture. In the West, Internet activity is viewed by many as an anti-establishment response. This is fine when a society is sufficiently developed in order to be able to tolerate -- and to a certain extent accommodate -- anti-establishment attitudes and activities. However, in the developing democracies, these attitudes are noticeably absent since Eastern European societies are still within a period of transition (i.e. from past to present; dictatorship to "democracy").

For this reason, it can be seen why Bulgaria lags behind not only Western countries, but other devloping democracies; it's one of the most undeveloped, with the exception of Albania. Therefore, people are devoting most of their time and energy to being part of the establishment in order to attain a certain amount of economic security and social mobility rather than developing an anti-establishment, "telematic culture".

Paul Swider, a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, is one individual trying to combat and reverse this situation. Hoping to eventually create a computer lab that would function as a community information network of sorts, he is finding out like most Westerners that problems are not just restricted to hardware. At the same time, however, unless material resources are available, he realizes that it will be hard to demonstrate the potential benefits of the new media. It's a vicious circle.

The foremost problem that Swider and others like him face is that knowledge of the Internet is at a very elementary level. Where it is used, it is relied upon mainly to cull information; meanwhile, the skills needed to exploit the information at hand is lacking. As Swider points out: "one of the things I am working on [is] teaching the people where I work how to make use of the wealth of information available."

Like most underdeveloped nations, knowledge of the Internet is based more on hearsay rather than the "revolutionary change" people are experiencing in the way they communicate or procure goods and services. As Swider notes, "the information revolution is only something about which they hear through the media." Thus, the ideas that Western Europe and North America (not to mention Australia and New Zealand) play around with -virtual shopping, commerce, distance and flexible education, and so forth - are ideas that are remote to the general public. Even out of the few who are most likely to benefit from the Internet, knowledge of what is going on in the world outside is passing them by. "There are many more who could afford it but do not know yet what it means to have it and what it can do for them," says Swider.

But for those who do make the effort, connectivity makes Internet access a daunting task. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, phone lines are scarce and where they do exist they are unreliable. Although the region is doing its best to upgrade its telecom infrastructure, in Bulgaria work has been among the slowest. People still wait years for a phone to be put in and most of the analog networks haven't been changed yet. Although the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTC) has plans to replace existing analog switches and lines with digital fiber optic ones, it has been estimated that it will take them at least a decade to do so. For those living in rural areas, which comprises of a significant proportion of the total population, the wait could be even longer, for BTC plans to start with the big cities first before moving out toward the countryside.

In spite of all these difficulties, some people still do connect. In fact, some prime material and information can be had from Bulgarian sites. At the American University of Bulgaria, for instance, an extensive selection of hypertext fonts and graphics are available. Unfortunately, this is what comprises the majority of sites in Bulgaria: academic institutions and foreign businesses. Part of the reason for such a limited user profile is because of the continuing brain drain from the country to greener pastures, not necessarily to Western Europe, but to other areas of Eastern Europe such as Hungary and the Czech Republic. As Swider confirms, "those with the knowledge and the application understanding do not seem to stay."

Aside from Bulgaria's brain drain syndrome, what is of concern to most involved with developing Bulgaria's telematic infrastructure is the attitude of BTC. Being a state monopoly, BTC is most afraid of change. This is to only be expected, in a way, for the mentality among those in any position of authority - from school principals to politicians - is one of control. Allegiance, or even respect, is demanded (usually to the point of using force) and not earned. Thus, competitive telecom services, which is important not only for end users to be able to shop around to get the best service available, but also as one of the requirements of the EU's liberalization of telecom markets, is being stifled.

Then there is the question of corruption. For those unfamilar with Eastern Europe, the rampant bribery and backroom dealing that goes on comes as a shock. Unfortunately, it is considered by many to be the modus operandi for business. "Conflict of interest" and "anti-competition" are terms that are unheard of, no less ones with which you could seek legal recourse. Thus, for those attempting to set up any kind of operations in Bulgaria, getting proper service is not not only time consuming but can be quite expensive as well.

Nevertheless, there are a number of projects aimed at trying to improve the telematics infrastructure of the country. The EC's Telematics Programme, the Soros Foundation's Open Society Programs, and the Peace Corps, are some of the major names that have offered assistance. However, due to shrinking budgets, negative economic prospects, and the problems of dealing with the Bulgarian bureaucracy and administration, much of this help has been limited and low-key compared to other Eastern European countries.

Apart from the lukewarm high-level response at trying to bring Bulgaria up to speed on the "infobahn", much is being done on the community level. Aside from Swider's project to stimulate an information network in Dobrich, Linux systems have been developed in Stara Zagora that, in the words of Patrick L. McClung, a former Peace Corps volunteer to Bulgaria, is designed to be "contagiously replicable". Meanwhile, AUBG has been organizing conferences and workshops, demonstrating their system and teaching others how build similar systems. Also, in addition to providing essential Internet skills to its students, AUBG has taken steps to become an ISP and has begun work in the field of distance and flexible education, working together with another university from the same town, South West University.

Yet, there is still a long way to go much left to be done. Although individuals like Paul Swider have the enthusiasm and have so far been able to put up with the harsh realities of living in a country like Bulgaria, resources are still hard to come by. Searching for donations of about two dozen 386 machines with which to run Windows, as well as a server, modem, and demo Internet account, he is hopeful that if he can get the equipment he needs, then somehow he might be able to break the circle of apathy - at least in his small corner of Bulgaria. In this way, he would be able to say with a certain amount of satisfaction that his work was wothwhile and made a difference. In the words of Swider: "the fastest way for this society to become the free market and democratic, civil society the West says it wants to cultivate is to allow the people easy access to information and the tools and understanding of how to use it. I can provide the understanding - I need some tools, just a few, which are but a drop in the world bucket."

For further information or donations, please contact:

Paul Swider

Chamber of Commerce and Industry

PO Box 182

Dobrich 9300

Bulgaria

Tel: +359-58-22065

Fax: +359-58-22103

E-Mail: paul@dobrich.uspc.bg (John Horvath)