Cultural Policies in Bulgaria:
An Attempt at Systematization
Comprehending cultural policies in the last ten years or so is a rather ambitious task: after several attempts to clarify the principles, motives and forms of state interference, after several central debates and plenty of conferences and discussions it seems that Bulgarian citizens do not share any views on cultural policy besides mere criticism. The attempted international unification of the efforts to clarify cultural policies, initiated by the European Cultural Foundation and the ECUMEST Association opened a new possibility that brought quite a few observations. That prompted me to take the liberty to approach the matter from three different perspectives: first as a cultural historian, or shall I use the currently accepted (in Bulgaria) term culturologist; then as an administrator of culture and finally as a representative of the civic sector.
Maybe it's worth starting with the fundamental question "Do we really need cultural policy on a state level?" as the answer is hardly obvious on a global scale. The two possible replies fit into two typical and quite specific positions of the so-called 'old democracies'. The American point of view postulates that the need to create and consume cultural values is individual and respectively groups of individuals can organize themselves in the name of their shared interest in creating or consuming cultural products. These individuals and groups can create institutions, lobby for support and if they are representative enough, they can put actions or even legislative measures on the agendas of their political representatives (on a county, state and only rarely on a federal level). The state, however, cannot and should not interfere with the regulations of those activities, nor should it favor specific cultural subjects on taxpayers' money. The natural emanation of this point of view is the doctrine of multiculturalism - the free coexistence and interaction of equally treated cultures with no privileges on part of the state.
The second stance, best exemplified by the French point of view, insists that culture and equal access to culture are one of the fundamental democratic achievements; that culture creates the spiritual community that joins individuals in shared meaningful activities and therefore the state must guarantee its preservation and the citizens' access to its products. This is the national point of view where minority cultures have a right to expression and support, but they come second precisely because they reflect the interests of smaller (minority) groups of people.
Cultural issues in the documents of the European Union were treated in an attempt to merge those two points of view. The European Cultural Convention, reinforced by the Declaration on Cultural Objectives and voted by the ministers of culture of the European Community, was passed as early as 1954, but generally member-states maintain that culture is a priority of every individual state, but not of the European Union as a whole. Consequently there are no obligatory documents; the Treaty Establishing the European Union states only that The Community shall take cultural aspects into account in its action under other provisions of this Treaty (Article 128, Paragraph 4, Title IX). On the other hand, recognizing the significance of culture as one of the basic languages of modern society, the European Commission and the Council of Europe have formulated and applied a number of proposals and declarations defining the areas of agreement on important issues and shared principles. They announce programs for supporting culture, which are built on a competitive principle but are simultaneously inscribed in specific, often tacit quotas. As almost anybody involved in culture in Bulgaria knows, the only part of Acquis communautaire referring to culture is the Chapter 'Culture and Audiovisual Policy', which was successfully closed in Bulgaria as it does not require the meeting of any mass standards but merely the adoption of some basic legislatively settled principles.
Bulgarian cultural politics works in the context of this philosophico-political and institutional framework. Yet among the external factors complicating the background of decision-making are certain more general problems of Bulgarian society on its way to joining the EU: i.e. the requirement for a functioning market economy and its perspectives for surviving in the competitive environment of the European Union. According to that philosophy the subjects of the market field cannot receive any preferential treatments such as tax exemptions, as this puts them in a privileged position and breaks the principles of free competition. A certain concession is allowing lower VAT stakes for specified cultural products as well as the possible state support, which would not 'impede competitiveness'. Another important circumstance is the criticism (on part of the European Union) to Bulgarian policy towards minorities that are not only discriminated against but also hardly culturally integrated at all.
If the external factors for the formation of cultural policies are well known to the administration and irrelevant for the artists and the audience, the internal circumstances are fatally familiar and therefore I will merely mention them en route to my central argument. For the centenary period of its modern existence Bulgarian society has taken culture to be a value per se, always presumed to be under the protection of the state. The construction of the national state after 1878 inevitably relies on culture to produce national identity. In their efforts to build (or criticize the building of) the state, Bulgarian intellectuals have used the whole palette of artistic creation. All important existential debates of Bulgarian society are lead less in parliament than in the cultural sphere and that of the media. The state undertakes an intensive cultural construction - creating or adopting institutions that legitimize it as a modern European state after the example of France, Belgium and Germany. Using the same ideological approach the socialist state assimilates the language of culture and respectively takes up cultural development that cannot be left to mere civic subjects, even if such existed. As a result in the years of socialism Bulgaria has a 'strong' and 'clear' cultural policy: the state pays and dictates. Leaving aside the ideological arguments what created this model is the situation where both 'the artists' and 'the people' share the firm belief that the state can and must take care of culture.
The first crisis of the interactions between culture and the state (again leaving aside the ideological clashes and the anguish of artists and intellectuals in the transition period) came in the earliest stages of democracy when the breaking of the economic crisis made it painfully clear that state finances are very insufficient and the existing means should go to things like salaries, medical service, unemployment relief and pensions. The budget quickly abandoned culture in favor of the social and economic spheres and the realization that culture is not a state priority gradually turned into a tangible reality. After the introduction of the currency board and with the loss of part of the national financial sovereignty the situation was publicly articulated and institutionalized. The truth is that creditors have no sympathy for debtors who insist on spending other people's money for supporting luxury activities such as art and culture.
As a whole Bulgaria is in the following stalemate situation: on one hand, the country is governed by a currency board supervised by the International Monetary Fund - an organization not only biased towards monetarism but also the powerful Anglo-Saxon or rather American political philosophy of neoliberalism standing on the three whales of liberalism, privatization and deregulation. The fiscal policy of the country and through it the whole executive power, including budgeting and governing the various departments, more or less follows that model. In this situation the cultural sector must prove its usefulness and hardiness in an environment of total freedom, which is also freedom from privileges.
On the other hand the dominating attitude among the audience, the artists and even some of the administrators of culture is the French etatist model, which considers the state to be a key player on the cultural arena. In the last decade the first administrations of the Ministry of Culture faced the realities of cultural production in a time of deficiency, and from 1997 - with the solidified version of 'cultural policy in the time of the currency board'. The truth is that they did not and still do not have a good move that would help us have our cake and eat it too, unless the cake is substituted with a somewhat more nutritive metaphor. That is why cultural policy-makers hesitated between several possibilities = painful reforms to make cultural institutions more effective; attempts (most often fruitless) make the government soften its approach (by relief measures or tax concessions for sponsorship, redistribution of the incomes from gambling, retirement conditions, etc.) and rare successes in getting financial backup for activities considered to be urgently needed.
As a whole besides certain steps backwards, left and right, Bulgarian cultural policy is moving in a more or less clear direction, based on clear principles - a fight to preserve the regional network of cultural institutions with strict evaluation of their needs and qualities; attempts to prune the dead branches through mergings, new forms, introduction of internal hierarchies; decentralization; introduction of competition in the distribution of funds, etc. I will not comment how this policy is applied as this is not the subject of this analysis. The Protection and Development of Culture Act, despite the recent criticism it inspired, fully confirms the Roman maxim Dura lex, sed lex - it became the text that first attempted to 'write down' cultural policy in rules as part of the social contract.
Here I will take the liberty to jot down a few directions which I think should channel the efforts of the partners - provided, of course, that there is a will for partnership in the two elements of the phrase 'cultural policy'. The cultural players - artists, managers, etc., bear the great responsibility and the hard task to convince themselves and society that culture is not valuable in itself, that it is not a white elephant marching on our dirty streets but a tool for developing the individual and society, part of quality of life and therefore is worth the care and attention of decision-makers. Cultural personae must build their own policy and the coalitions to protect it.
The duties of the state are different. In the first place, cultural policy consists in the creation of a suitable environment - a legislative framework with clear acts defining the rules of the game. The involvement of a wide and representative circle of cultural personae (professional communities, NGOs, etc.) in the formulation and public discussion stages is an absolute must in the preparation of those laws. The bylaws - regulations, normative acts, rules, etc. - must be absolutely and necessarily public, accessible by everybody they concern.
In the second place, cultural administration on a national as well as regional and local level is obliged to provide financing. I am convinced that in a country like Bulgaria where state support for culture is part of cultural expectations, it is the state and not culture that must undertake some changes. Obviously the Bulgarian tradition fits in the European model we are following anyway. In this sphere the state bears the primary responsibility to protect the national cultural capital in the form of cultural heritage, monuments, ethnographic heritage, folklore, literary tradition, national cultural institutes, institutions like community centers, etc. Cultural capital is a resource belonging to the whole civic community and the state (represented by the concrete administration) is but its temporary keeper who should take care it is not waste it.
In respect to living culture and creativity in a situation of money shortage and a currency board, my belief is that we must apply systematically and thoroughly the clear principles of meritocracy and competitiveness. The money for financing might be plenty or little (the latter being more probable) and the state is obviously one of the agents which will have to teach the Bulgarian artist how to survive. The cultural administration should mobilize its forces not in distribution but in fundraising where possible: replenishing the National Culture Fund, of the still rare municipal Culture funds (or something similar) through fighting for non-governmental cultural organizations, percentages from privatization (as in Slovakia), from tax payments (as in Hungary), from gambling (as was proposed but voted down), from the state lottery (as is currently the case in Bulgaria). The state must stand out for the timely payment of membership fees that give us access to EU programs, for the joining of organizations that distribute subsidies, for renegotiations of more advantageous clauses, for concluding bilateral agreements, for courting and providing private non-governmental or corporate donors.
The Ministry of Culture - the institution charged with state cultural policy - will stay the punching bag of all who feel dissatisfied (and their number will not diminish soon). Its only line of defence must be total transparency, dialogue and visible efforts to keep its position of a lobbyist of culture, not of the heavy hand of the state.
Rayna Gavrilova, Ph.D. has graduated in history at the "St. Kliment Ochridski" Sofia University. She is a professor of History of Bulgarian Culture (XV - XIX century) at the Cathedre of History and Theory of Culture to the Faculty of Philosofy of the Sofia University. Since April 2000 till June 2001 she is a Vice Minister of Culture. Since October 2001 she works as the executive director of the "Open Society Foundation" Sofia.