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19th Apr 2021

Bulgaria's burgeoning tech sector finds voice at election

  • Up for grabs. The National Assembly building in Sofia, where the parliament sits (Photo: Wikipedia)

Bulgaria's burgeoning information technology sector is becoming a voice of change – and parties are starting to take notice, as the country votes for a new parliament on Sunday (4 April).

The IT community's economic clout is empowering interest associations, forcing digital issues onto party agendas and encouraging anti-government protests.

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But it is also emblematic of a yawning socio-economic gap between the capital, Sofia, and the rest of the country.

Once the Soviet Union's 'Silicon Valley', Bulgaria boasts 38,000 IT workers, contributes four percent of GDP and is growing 10 percent year-on-year.

Its workers are overwhelmingly young, educated, wealthy and liberal, living predominantly in Bulgaria's largest cities of Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna.

"I think no one can allow themselves to ignore [the sector] in the long-term," says Radan Kanev, an MEP who is part of the liberal centre-right coalition Democratic Bulgaria.

"Parties will need a significant transformation to appeal to these voters, because after years in government, they have a number of failures in e-government and in many other spheres".

Manifestos

Technology features heavily in the 2021 party manifestos. The ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, leading in the polls on 27 percent, proposes policies spanning media literacy to digital innovation hubs.

The main opposition party and former communists, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) calls for "high-technology centres".

The "Yes, Bulgaria!" party take some credit for this. A member of the liberal Democratic Bulgaria coalition, they say party membership is soaring, and attracting metropolitan IT sector voters.

"We opened our [2019] local election campaign in Sofia with the 'Digital Sofia' agenda," says Bozhidar Bozhanov, the candidate for central Sophia and a software engineer himself. "All others followed with superficial understandings of the issue, but we set the trend."

But Vessela Kalacheva, CEO of the Bulgarian Association of Information Technologies, which counts 99 member IT-companies, argues "election promises are not so important. Much more important are the actual actions after the campaign".

Besides digital policy, Bulgaria's IT community increasingly demand anti-corruption reforms to boost foreign investment and lower income taxes to incentivise well-paid jobs. Perceptions of corruption in Bulgaria were the worst in Europe in 2020, according to Transparency International.

"Anti-corruption is always at the top of the list," says Mila Gencheva, a Sofia-based IT worker, stressing the sector's growing frustration at the idea taxes are funnelled into politicians' pockets. "It's robbery in broad daylight".

The community also calls for increased attention to STEM education in schools, with only 53 percent Bulgarian students are scientifically-literate, compared with 78 percent average for OECD countries.

Dobroslav Dimitrov, the chairman of BASSCOM board, an IT industry association, highlights progress, saying the minister of education recently consulted him on targeted STEM funding for 200 schools.

Others say much is to be done, and they still feel unrepresented by politicians. "The tech community is both the most vocal and least influential in the industry," says IT entrepreneur and CEO Pasko Paskov.

"The government is largely focused on more populist, short-term issues," he says, emphasising how trade associations can still be excluded from government roundtables. Politicians are also broadly perceived to lack understanding in the digital sphere.

Capital vs Countryside

The IT sector is split on more forceful political avenues for change. Many working in outsourcing for global companies are disillusioned with government but stay apolitical. But some start-up entrepreneurs are more active.

Alongside students, the IT community was a driving force in last year's anti-corruption protests as well as those of 2013.

"What we saw was a very particular social group going out on the streets," says "Yes, Bulgaria"'s Bozhardov. "It was exactly this newly established middle class, closely related to the prosperous IT branch in Bulgaria".

"Most of them were business-causal dressed and almost everyone wearing their laptop backpack during the protests."

Some political movements, such as the 'Rise up! Thugs out!' coalition of NGOs and former politicians, emerged from last summer's protests and include IT workers.

Their demands include restoring a fair electoral process, which they claim GERB has diluted by politicising local election boards.

But Georgi Tabakov, candidate for the movement and former deputy economy minister in the 1990s, recognises the coalition faces a steep climb. "Unfortunately, there is a lot of fear still, in small towns," he says, claiming some parties pressurise and bribe rural Bulgarians for votes.

In other ways, IT workers symbolise the sharpening urban-rural divide in Bulgaria.A "Sofia mindset" has become an insult for those outside the capital, with workers perceived as disconnected from the values and difficulties of rural Bulgarians, still the EU's poorest country – and one scoring lowest in EU's Digital Economy and Society Index.

But there is some room for optimism, says MEP Radan Kadev, as long as the IT sector keeps growing and pressuring parties for positive reform. "A real internal change in the main parties could eventually lead to natural political consensus".

Author bio

Victor Jack is associate editor with Varsity UK and has been published in Politico and SciDev.Net.

Analysis

What's behind the sudden political unrest in Bulgaria?

Demonstrators are demanding prime minister Boyko Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev resign, following a raid on the president's office. President Rumen Radev has been a vocal critic of the government and its record on graft.

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