With a proliferation of new cultural projects and vacillating feelings about its EU membership, Bulgaria’s social and political landscape is rapidly evolving. Sceptics feel Bulgaria’s new dawn as part of the EU is losing its lustre; meanwhile accusations of political corruption grumble on. But among young people, there’s plenty of reason to feel optimistic about modern Bulgaria.

Growing Pains

Accession to the EU in 2007 was a crowning achievement for post-communist Bulgaria. But years later, Bulgarians regard their progress with a thoughtful eye. In 2015 Bulgaria had the lowest GDP in the EU, and an International Day of Happiness survey found Bulgarians with Europe’s lowest levels of contentment. High fuel prices – which formed part of the bitter groundswell of protests that toppled Boyko Borisov’s first term as prime minister in 2013 – continue to hinder small businesses.

Along with Romania, Bulgaria’s first few years of EU membership were subject to migration controls. These were lifted in 2014, allowing Bulgarians to work permit-free across the EU. But after years of being held at arm’s length by longer-term EU members, the country now finds itself wrestling with the thorny topic of migration into Bulgaria. An 80km wire fence was built along the Bulgaria–Turkey border in 2016, a crude attempt to curb illegal migration; at the time of writing, there were plans for a fence along the Greek border, too.

Freedom of movement has turned out to be a double-edged sword. Young Bulgarians thrive on their new-found mobility, many choosing to work abroad in Spain, Germany, Italy and beyond. The older generation are increasingly unnerved by the trend, some claiming they are unable to find young Bulgarians to work in small businesses at home. Others blame Bulgarian gloom on the fragmentation of families, a by-product of ambitious Bulgarians roving elsewhere to earn money.

Positive effects in recent years mustn’t be overlooked. An injection of EU funding for cultural treasures, Sofia's expanded metro system, Plovdiv being crowned European Capital of Culture 2019, the smoking ban in restaurants and bars – the victories are considerable. Accusations of corruption still bubble beneath the surface though, and EU membership has not proved the silver bullet Bulgarians were hoping for. More change is coming now that Bulgaria has met requirements to join the Schengen Zone. Meanwhile economic instability has prompted a deceleration of the process to adopt the euro as currency. Bulgaria’s 21st-century rebirth was never going to be easy.

Heritage Renaissance

Bulgaria’s cultural treasures have experienced a rough ride, and the fight for their preservation isn’t over. Under Ottoman rule, churches were sacked and Bulgarian language quashed. After being wrested from Ottoman oppression, art and architecture flourished under the National Revival period, but the rise and fall of communism made the country’s cultural life stagnate.

Many National Revival–era buildings languished in paperwork limbo after the fall of communism. Archaeological discoveries around this time, such as a string of tombs discovered in the 1990s in Kazanlâk’s Valley of Thracian Kings, suffered from a lack of funding and publicity. Limited investment in safeguarding cultural heritage, combined with a hunger from private collectors, resulted in thieves seizing priceless treasures, with Roman coins and Thracian masks especially prone to disappearing from museums.

But over the last few years, green shoots have sprouted for Bulgaria’s cultural treasures. A rare Thracian-Roman silver mask-helmet, stolen in 1995, was recovered in 2015 and redisplayed in Plovdiv’s Museum of Archaeology. Roman ruins uncovered during the construction of Sofia’s metro system, the Ancient Serdica Complex, opened to great excitement in 2016. Historic neighbourhoods have been spruced up, such as Plovdiv’s Kapana area, where young artists were incentivised to move into faded properties and transform them into galleries and cafes. Archaeological finds in recent years have reignited excitement in Bulgarian history, too: excavation of the country’s largest Thracian burial mound, Maltepe, and further digs at Ruse’s Roman city Sexaginta Prista were among 2016’s highlights.

An uphill battle remains for Bulgaria’s historic riches. For every site restored with a little help from the EU piggy bank, others lie waiting their turn. Meanwhile, historians despair that tourist revenue never seems to convert back into investment for further archaeological endeavours. Still, though progress is slow and frustrations abound, the road ahead for Bulgaria’s heritage is brighter than it has ever been.