At their core, Bulgarians are secularists and believe in democracy

© Julia Lazarova

Three paradoxes notably stand out in the canopy of values held by contemporary Bulgarians, registered in the fifth wave of the European Values Study:

- Bulgarians are becoming increasingly religious, while getting more attached to secular values;

- They progressively insulate themselves inside their families and private lives, but also overcome their historical hostility toward neighboring countries;

- They are critical of government institutions, but have a growing trust in the democratic system;

Religious, but ever more secular

In the now distant year of 1991, in the first European Values survey held in Bulgaria, barely 20% to 30% of Bulgarians described themselves as believers. The remaining two-thirds categorically declared not only that they are not believers, but that religion has no place in their lives.

In early 2018, this proportion has been radically reversed - two-thirds describe themselves as believers, and over half claim that religion is very important to them.

At the same time, issues such as abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and homosexuality, on which institutionalized religion holds an unambiguously negative view, are seen by contemporary Bulgarian society in a manner that completely disregards the Church's recommendations.

The rate of complete disapproval of abortion has dropped from 25% to 20%, of divorce from 29% to 13%, of euthanasia from 47% to 38%, there is even a decrease in the rate of disapproval of homosexuality, from 80% to 57%.

It turns out that Bulgarians believe they are becoming more religious, while they simultaneously stand by some important liberal and secular values. In their everyday and personal life, they staunchly defend their individual rights, while their perception of community reflects a resurrected Christian denomination.

To this, we should add two important frameworks that shape traditional beliefs with regard to foreigners and the elites - the sharp rise in declarative patriotism in the last decade, and the increasing social distance.

The growth of these three indicators attests to the fact that the rise of identity politics in Europe over the last few years, in which religion and nationalism play an important role, has found fertile ground in Bulgarian society, even though the country is yet to be ruled by a Eurosceptic government. The result, however, is similar, and just as risky.

My house - my castle, but with fewer enemies at the gates

In the last ten years, Bulgarians have increasingly moved further away from public life, retreating further into private life. The significance of all things that form personal space - family, work, leisure time - has grown. Simultaneously, mistrust toward everyone that might threaten that small personal world - people from other races or nationalities, refugees - has grown as well.

Just like ten years ago, 80% of people now believe that you generally cannot trust others. Extensive research points to the fact that this goes hand in hand with a lack of trust in institutions, politicians, even the possibility of change. In such a cynical world, people rarely believe in the power of the given word, the unwritten law of common decency. In it, it is harder and more expensive to do business, defend causes, fight for reforms, because it is infinitely easy to make people believe everyone is a crook.

This field, however, is not devoid of paradoxes. If Bulgarians are becoming more resistant to foreign cultures, the hostility and suspiciousness toward neighboring peoples accumulated over the centuries have melted almost completely - something inconceivable only 10-15 years ago. The 70% approval rate that the survey recorded for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, is, in terms of values, the antipode of regional segregation and historical pretensions of uniqueness.

Openness to the world and a thirst for national sovereignty are the two values between which today's Bulgarian is wavering. Bulgarians want to be part of the wide world and enjoy its advantages, but nostalgia for the small society, the community with clearly delineated boundaries, is ever stronger. Solidarity turned from something that expands one's horizons to something that encloses territory and protects the immediate local community. Neighbors and individual mobility within their circle are precisely the comprehended and close horizon of shared solidarity. The step beyond it proves to be difficult (at least for now).

Inadequate institutions do not undermine the desire for democracy

One of the most pronounced paradoxes in the value survey is the growing mistrust toward most government institutions, NGOs, and grassroots movements, on one hand, and the increasing support for a democratic form of government (from 64% to 82%), on the other. After 30 years of experience and making comparisons to countries with different regimes, Bulgarians have become convinced that democracy may have no viable alternative, but citizens can have legitimate demands about the way politicians and institutions conduct their business.

This understanding lays at the foundation of one of the most discussed sociological paradoxes - why is it that in spite of the highly critical attitude toward the functioning of government and institutions, the potential for protest is still absent from Bulgarian society?

Based on the survey, we could say that even though this may seem paradoxical at first sight, the widespread lack of trust does not catalyze protests. To the contrary - it stifles them. Every form of protest requires a form of community, a degree of trust among people for the achievement of a mutual goal. After the end of communism and its forced collectives, where everyone feared being eavesdropped, followed, or reported on, however, the pendulum swung to the other extreme - individualism and the seclusion inside the closest personal circle - the family, one's kin. At the same time, with some small exceptions, the transition did not restore Bulgarians' faith in collective action. They opted for individual salvation, through internal or external migration. It is only in recent times that local communities and the defense of common interests within them have started to revitalize. Bulgarians are beginning to pay more and more attention to the environment they live in, and it is not a coincidence that most genuine protests in the last several years were enacted by local communities with a particular cause - a park, road, playground, nature, clean air, etc. In that sense, we have every reason to believe that politics, and political alliances or protests respectively, will progressively occur on a local level. Which could probably mean that the individualism and traditionalism of Bulgarians might find a comfortable way to coexist peacefully.

Boriana Dimitrova is CEO of Alpha Research polling agency

Three paradoxes notably stand out in the canopy of values held by contemporary Bulgarians, registered in the fifth wave of the European Values Study:

- Bulgarians are becoming increasingly religious, while getting more attached to secular values;

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