Ivan Krastev – Stretched Between Two Worlds

by Mariya Tsaneva & Elena Skuleva

For Ivan Krastev, the meaning of home, mobility, democracy, and demography are all wrapped up with the current pandemic. They set the stage for our conversation with the Bulgarian political scientist and public intellectual who divides his time between Vienna and his other home in Sofia.

“One of the most interesting things about a person who lives outside of his country is that he lives always stretched out [between them] and comparing.” As a political scientist who has spent most of his life in Bulgaria, this identity is very important to him, and many of the things he thinks and writes are a “result of what I have learned for 45 years in Bulgaria,” he explained.

Krastev is a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. He is a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the global advisory board of the Open Society Foundations, and a member of the advisory council of the Center for European Policy Analysis and the European Cultural Foundation. Krastev has also held fellowships at St. Antony’s College (Oxford); the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (Washington, D.C.); the Institute of Federalism at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), and in 2019, he got a Mercator Senior Fellowship. Foreign Policy and Prospects has listed him as one of the 100 most influential intellectuals in the world.

Krastev moved to Vienna with his family 10 years ago, and since then, they have been constantly traveling between the two countries. His wife, Dessy Gavrilova is a cultural manager who co-founded the Vienna Humanities Festival as well as the European Network of Houses for Debate,Time to Talk (TTT).

In Bulgaria, she is well known as the founding Director of The Red House Center for Culture and Debate in Sofia. The family tries to spend two-three months of the year in Bulgaria as they think it is important that their children have choices while growing up. “Speaking two languages is not enough. It is very important to have different environments, to have children of the same age with whom you can discuss things that interest you”. Vienna, he said, is a city that grows on you, “where the longer you live in it, the more you start to like it.”Perhaps most important is the feeling of history. “We often live with the idea that the world was born yesterday and will die tomorrow,” he said. “Walking through Vienna, you can choose in which century you would like to live.”

The second thing are the manners, “a kind of alienated politeness in people which makes living here somehow easy.” Even though Krastev has lived in Vienna for 10 years, he prefers to communicate in English. Living in a foreign city means being in contact with people from a small environment, he explained, mainly colleagues. “When you live in Bulgaria, your knowledge of the society is much deeper.” For him, this comes from the broad connection with family and friends with whom you grow up. “And you have a sense of depth.” In Vienna, he admits, he has no sense of depth.

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, permanent fellow at the IWM (Institute of Human Sciences) in Vienna./(C) Stephan Röhl

Demography & Optimism

Metropole’s “Home is Where the Herz is” project celebrates the cultural variety in Vienna and the large Bulgarian community here. But at the same time, the fact of the diaspora is very sensitive for the Eastern European Countries.

“The demographic collapse in Bulgaria is the biggest in history in the absence of war or some cruel natural disaster,” Krastev said. In the last 30 years, Bulgaria has lost more than 2 million of its population. Austria for the same period, grew by almost the same number. Demographic changes are also influencing the economy. “In Europe, it is often discussed that money goes from West to East; but the people do not always realize that, with every one of us who left Bulgaria, all the money that was invested in our education goes from East to West,” he said. “It is a big paradox that the investment in a good education turns against these countries.”

The opening of the borders created many opportunities to choose where to study or work. However, Bulgaria is also a small country with an aging population. For Krastev, this creates tension between the younger generation who raise their children in a non-mother tongue environment and their relatives in Bulgaria, a tension that separates them over the language barrier. “Suddenly, the feeling of society as a social contract between those who lived before us and those who will live after us is shattered.” Additionally, Krastev points out that the success of the people who have significant achievements in Bulgaria is very often devalued by the fact that all their friends went away, as “much of the success is that it be shared with the people you value.”

Is It Tomorrow Yet?

Krastev explains that when the pandemic started, the general appeal to the people was to stay at home. Many of them were not “at home” in the cities where they were working. Others had temporary work, which immediately disappeared with the crisis. And the third group, he points out, were the students: “One of the peculiarities of COVID-19 is that it brought children and parents together in a way that was surprising for both sides.” For his family to stay at home meant to go back to Bulgaria. “During a crisis, to be surrounded by a language you know was very important,” Krastev explained, and then added, laughing: “Here, the hospitals are better, but in Bulgaria, we know the doctors.”

His family intentionally decided to spend the first 80 days of the pandemic in the Bulgarian countryside, close to the grandparents. “You are there, you do not see them, but the very fact that you are in the same place psychologically acts in a completely different way.” In a time of crisis, home is where your closest people are.

Krastev’s thoughts about the political aspects of the coronavirus situation are gathered in his book Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic, available in every major book store in Vienna.

Right now, Krastev is working on a book planned for publication in the autumn, which explores the problem of demography and democracy. The inspiration for the book came from the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht, The Decision. In it, Brecht says that now, “we understand that the government is very dissatisfied with the people. In this situation, isn’t it easier for the government to dismiss the people and elect new ones?” In democracy, “people choose the government, but the government also chooses its people by deciding its migration and electoral laws, and issues of citizenship,” Krastev explained.

“What I’m interested in,” Krastev said, “is how governments choose their people.