It’s no secret that Eastern Europe is still struggling under the burden of its transition from communism. Internet usage reflects both the pace of change and the attitudes toward it. And particularly in Bulgaria, the prospects don’t look promising.
Many Bulgarians tend to approach their problems by insisting at the outset that the situation is hopeless. This overriding apathy permeates society, which partly explains why the Internet has so far made very little impact here. People live basically from day to day. Most of their plans are short-term at best. They’re wary of trying anything new unless financial rewards are high and immediate. In the West, Internet activity is viewed by many as vaguely anti- establishment. This is fine when a society’s development is sufficient to tolerate — and even accommodate — anti-establishment attitudes and activities. However, in the developing democracies, still within a period of transition (i.e., from past to present; dictatorship to "democracy"), these attitudes are noticeably absent. But Bulgaria not only lags behind Western countries, but other developing democracies: With the exception of Albania, it’s one of the most undeveloped. As a result, rather than developing an anti- establishment "telematic culture" (one that uses telecommunications and information technology), people devote most of their energy to being part of the establishment in hopes of attaining a certain amount of economic security and social mobility.
Paul Swider, a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, is trying to combat and reverse this situation. Hoping to eventually create a computer lab that would function as a community information network, he’s discovered that his problems are not just restricted to hardware. Yet, without material resources, it will be hard to demonstrate the potential benefits of the new media. It’s a vicious circle.
The main problem that Swider and others face is that knowledge of the Internet is at a very elementary level. Where used, it’s relied upon mainly to cull information; meanwhile, the skills needed to exploit the information 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." In Bulgaria and most underdeveloped nations, knowledge of the Internet is based more on hearsay rather than a "revolutionary" change in the way people 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 remote to the general public. Even for the few who are most likely to benefit from the Internet, knowledge of what’s going on in the outside world is passing them by.
For those who do make the effort, connectivity makes Internet access a daunting task. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, phone lines are scarce and unreliable. Although the region is trying to upgrade its telecom infrastructure, progress is slow. People still wait years for a phone, and most of the analog networks haven’t been changed yet. Although the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTC) plans to replace existing analog switches and lines with digital fiber optic ones, it could take at least a decade. For those in rural areas — a significant proportion of the population — the wait could be even longer.
In spite of these difficulties, some people do connect. In fact, some prime material and information can be had from Bulgarian sites. At the American University of Bulgaria (AUBG; URL: http://www.aubg.bg), for instance, an extensive selection of hypertext fonts and graphics are available. Unfortunately, the majority of sites are linked to academic institutions and foreign businesses. Part of the reason for this limited user profile is the continuing brain drain, not necessarily to Western Europe, but other areas of Eastern Europe such as Hungary and the Czech Republic. Aside from this, what concerns most of those involved with developing Bulgaria’s telematic infrastructure is the attitude of BTC, a state monopoly afraid of change. Competitive telecom services, which are important not only for end users but also as one of the requirements of the EU’s liberalization of telecom markets, is being stifled.
There’s also the question of corruption. For those unfamiliar with Eastern Europe, the rampant bribery and backroom dealing comes as a shock. Unfortunately, for many it’s the modus operandi for business. "Conflict of interest" and "anti-competition" are unfamiliar terms, not ones with which you could seek legal recourse. Thus, for those attempting to set up operations in Bulgaria, arranging proper service isn’t only time consuming but potentially expensive. Nevertheless, a number of projects are trying to improve the country’s telematics infrastructure. The EC’s Telematics Programme, the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Programs, and the Peace Corps have all offered assistance. However, due to shrinking budgets, negative economic prospects, and problems dealing with Bulgaria’s bureaucracy and administration, much of this help has been limited and low-key compared to other Eastern European countries.
Despite the lukewarm high-level response, 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; in the words of Patrick L. McClung, a former Peace Corps volunteer to Bulgaria, the goal is to be "contagiously replicable." Meanwhile, AUBG has been organizing conferences and workshops, demonstrating their system, and teaching others how build them. AUBG also has taken steps to become an ISP, and has begun work in the field of distance and flexible education, working with South West University.
There’s still a long way to go and resources are hard to come by. Yet, Swider is hopeful that, with the equipment he needs, he might be able to break the circle of apathy. "The fastest way for this society to become the free market and democratic, civil society the West says it wants," he notes, "is to allow the people easy access to information and the tools and understanding of how to use it."
John Horvath is a regular TF contributor.