*according to lots of Bulgarians
One of the most common conversation tropes that one encounters when talking to Bulgarians is the idea that Bulgaria is worse in every way than some country. It was literally the first conversation I had in Bulgaria. Minutes after our plane landed in Sofia for the first time, we spoke with a woman at customs who saw that we were American. The conversation quickly turned into her wondering why we would move here, particularly since everything is more expensive in Bulgaria (untrue). When Huelo pointed out that tomatoes cost the equivalent of 10 or 11 leva a kilo in the States (and taste like cardboard), versus 2 leva a kilo in Sofia during the off-season, the woman quickly conceded that, okay, tomatoes were cheaper in Sofia, but everything besides the cost of that specific fruit is worse.
The same goes for healthcare. Getting signed up for the national health service or private insurance (as we currently are) leads to a lot of conversations about how much better the situation was under Communism. Unfortunately, capitalism has provided a structural incentive to abandon people to die, which is how the American system works. Everything to do with Bulgaria’s healthcare system is cheaper and easier by orders of magnitude than the American system, which is extraordinarily cruel and objectively the worst in the industrialized world. Doesn’t matter, though, Bulgaria’s system is terrible, according to Bulgarians.
This is such a common trope that it just popped up in the New York Times. The story was concerning the recent collapse of the South Stream pipeline, a Russian energy project that would pump Russian hydrocarbons under the Black Sea and into Europe through Bulgaria. The Times has a very typical New York Times-y approach to the story, discussing Russian statecraft with the sort of overwrought, conspiratorial tone that the Times shares with the John Birch Society. In one of the opening grafs, the typical Bulgarian lament pops up:
While Bulgaria’s Energy Ministry ostensibly wrote the legislation, documents reveal the hidden hand of the Kremlin: Not only did much of the language come from a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, but Mr. Putin’s energy minister was directly involved.
“If this happens in the U.S., the whole government would resign,” said Martin Dimitrov, a minister of Parliament from Bulgaria’s Reformist Bloc. “Not in Bulgaria, apparently.”
Dimitrov, like most Bulgarians, doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the government. Bulgarians routinely list themselves as some of the unhappiest people in Europe, and at the root of a lot of it is a state that’s openly corrupt. The political situation even led to a spate of self-immolations in 2013–the most desperate and extreme public statement a human being can make.
As usual, though, the idea that this is impossible in the US, rather than exactly the same, is a very Bulgarian attitude. Despite Dimitrov’s naïve and ahistoric view that this would cause the government to fall, American legislation is entirely written by the interested private parties who will benefit from it. The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), for instance, was written by a health care industry lobbyist, and is a multi-trillion dollar gift to the private insurance industry. That’s how all American legislation works: it’s why a recent study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities found the US was a functioning oligarchy, which Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen–the person in charge of all the money—tacitly confirmed. The government didn’t fall.
Similarly, the last time the Bulgarian government came under question, it had to do with the appointment of an oligarch’s cretinous son to head the Bulgarian equivalent of the NSA. That action, perceived by tens of thousands as an unforgivable affront to democracy, did cause mass resignations. In America, no amount of revelations about the NSA, whether it’s a similar instance of public-private cronyism or revelations of mass spying, have ever caused so much as one substantive improvement in American political life.
We’ve come to Bulgaria with foreign eyes and can see how much it has going for it. Unlike America, Bulgaria has great fresh food, a healthy work-life balance, and a health care system that’s more functional and less a blight on the civilized world. Also, everyone complains, but simultaneously has 3 houses. Talk to most people, and they have an apartment, their parent’s house outside of town, and Baba’s house in the village, all of which they can live in and will inherit someday. Bulgarians may see a lot of problems here, but their country would benefit from correctly perceiving their problems in relation to those of others. They definitely wouldn’t be the most depressed people in Europe if they did.