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Bulgaria/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Diana Andreeva in cooperation with Bilyana Tomova

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the climate for culture was constructed of values and goals towards self-affirmation, harmonisation with European culture, openness to foreign cultural influences, enlightenment and, to some extent, emulation. Cultural institutions were regarded as a means to boost the self-confidence of the nation and assert the values of European culture. Sofia, St George Rotunda

This atmosphere changed when the Communist regime took over in 1948. During 45 years of communist rule, cultural policy was characterised by:

  • total centralisation of cultural processes within the state administration;
  • ideological monopoly over the promotion of cultural values; and
  • the extensive development of totalitarian cultural institutions.

The arts were regarded as a means of education and enlightenment rather than as entertainment and therefore responsibility for the arts and culture was declared as the exclusive domain of the state. Totalitarian cultural institutions were created covering all spheres of cultural life. The social system consistently advocated and practised political and cultural protectionism from the perspective of communist ideology.

The regime change marked the end of any form or participation of private enterprise in the dissemination of cultural values and works of art. For example, a Cinefication and Cinema Industry Act, passed in early 1948, eliminated private enterprise in filmmaking and film import and distribution became a state monopoly. Nationalisation of private printing houses began in 1947 and most were closed down in May 1948. A new Book Printing Act was passed in 1949, which effected changes similar to those in the film industry. The creation of a Committee for Science, Art and Culture in 1948 replacing the former National Culture Chamber was the final move to establish a centralised system of cultural administration, which imposed total control over all spheres of cultural life and de facto turned culture into an instrument to achieve non-cultural - i.e. political, ideological, social and propaganda - objectives of the state.

The creative unions (tvorcheski suyuzi) became a transmitter of the state monopoly on culture and controlled the entire process of creation and dissemination of works of art, virtually eliminating individual expression. Artists, who were closely connected with the state even before the establishment of totalitarian rule, now became wholly dependent on the Communist Party-State and de facto turned into civil servants.

By the early 1950s, the system of state cultural institutions was fully established and running smoothly. Each element of this system was hierarchically subordinated and subject to dual - State and Communist Party - control. The cultural policies pursued at the time were ideologically orthodox, and any form of dissent from the official line was penalised.

It was only after 1956 that the echo of Khrushchev's reforms brought about a certain thaw in the ideological climate, trumpeted by the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party as its "April Policy", which was promptly abandoned after the "Prague Spring" in August 1968. The subsequent period of stagnation was extolled as a period of "flowering socialist art".

In the early 1970s there was a move to introduce the so-called "public-cum-state principle" in the administration of culture, which presupposed the involvement of all governing bodies and a radically extended range of people, in decision-making processes. The Bureau and the Presidium of the Committee for Culture were elected bodies, but their heads and members could not take office without the approval of the National Assembly and the State Council. Public participation in cultural debates soon turned into a ritual designed to provide legitimacy to decisions already taken. The promotion of "the public-cum-state principle" as a democratic achievement of Bulgarian cultural policy proved to be a demagogic propaganda campaign: despite the proclaimed participation of governing bodies in culture, the real decision making took place in the Communist Party.

Nevertheless, Bulgarian artists as a whole had won a significant amount of creative independence by the end of the totalitarian period. State control over creative unions loosened and they became a kind of safe haven for members. Instead of brutally suppressing criticism, the creative unions began granting certain privileges and financial security to a selected few. Under the influence of Soviet perestroika in the mid-1980s, some of the creative unions turned into opposition associations of intellectuals and their 1989 congresses became forums for attacks against the communist system.

Bulgaria's new cultural policy model after 1989

Culture was one of the spheres worst affected by the economic and spiritual crisis during the course of transition. At the same time, the ongoing reforms in society have had a particularly positive impact on culture.

During the transition period, cultural development in Bulgaria was searching for the best way forward. Concepts frequently changed. Few activities of the different levels of government were followed up. There was little coordination between different levels of the administration. Main responsibilities for financing culture were decentralised and then recentralised. The private business sector had little interest in supporting cultural activities.

Over the last few years, things are starting to clear up. New regulations are being implemented which clearly define the responsibilities of the different administrative levels of government. Considerable steps forward are being taken by civil society. The third sector is consolidating and the business sector is starting to show signs that they are willing to adopt a new attitude of partnership.

Bulgaria's new cultural policy model is still developing, but its most important elements are already in place:

  • the ideological dependence of artists and cultural institutions and censorship have been abolished;
  • cultural institutions have become a mediator between artists and the public;
  • the local authorities are increasingly independent to pursue their own cultural policies, as well as to take decisions on their co-financing and development;
  • new actors have emerged on the cultural scene: foundations, private cultural institutions, new professional associations, etc.;
  • minority groups can now participate in the general cultural process without having their identity threatened;
  • the goals for accession of Bulgaria to the European Union have been. In 1993 Bulgaria became candidate for EU membership which entailed substantial legal and administrative reforms towards decetralisation, democratisation, improvement of access, promotion of cultural diversity, protection of copyrights, internationalisation and facilitation of the artists' mobility, protection and development of cultural heritage and its sustainable use etc.; and
  • Bulgaria started its pro-active participation in the work of the key intergovernmental institutions (Council of Europe, UNESCO, CEI etc.) and became an equal player at international scale.

Chapter published: 20-01-2011

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