Working locally to promote understanding and tolerance
A quick historical kaleidoscope could reveal the Romans, Slavs, and Bulgars sequentially dominating Southeast Europe, or the Ottoman Turks’ five century-long rule, or Tsarist Russia’s reign, followed by the Soviets. The epic sweep of centuries left a rich heritage in Bulgaria but also seeded ongoing conflicts.
“After the fall of the communist regime, Bulgaria faced a long and difficult transition period,” writes Kristina Kostadinova. “Hyperinflation, economic, and financial crises marked the first ten years of democracy. My generation was raised in times where food was scarce and rarely available, where protests were daily events, where war was a few kilometers away in Serbia.”
Kristina was born in Varna, a Black Sea maritime hub along a coastline that was known as the “Red Riviera” during the Soviet era. Her working class single mother raised her, and, fortunately, the family was able to cover Kristina’s basic needs during her childhood. “A typical Christmas gift was a book or a pair of gloves—useful things that probably I would not have received otherwise.”
Her family encouraged her, and academic success came easily. She won academic competitions, especially in math, but upon graduation, she wanted to leave Bulgaria and study abroad. Her grandfather came to her rescue and managed to sell a piece of the family’s land to help fund her education at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid as a political science major. “Of course,” she says, “I was very mindful of how I spent my money and also worked part-time.”
In Madrid, Kristina served as a data entry operator, an English teacher, and a junior research technician. She made time to volunteer for the Red Cross, educating children. Over the summer of 2015, she served as a compliance intern at an airport back in Varna.
Returning to Madrid in the fall, Kristina became a diplomatic and consular assistant at the Bulgarian Embassy. She did PR work and prioritized incoming information for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the consular department, she worked directly with the Bulgarian citizens, preparing documents and clarifying laws and administrative processes. During elections, she worked with the Vice President of the Electoral College to insure smooth and lawful elections.
Over the next school term, Kristina began work on a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy and International Relations and Affairs at the Diplomatic School of Spain, specializing in geostrategy. One of her main activities involved her with AIESEC, a youth leadership movement aimed at implementing sustainable development goals. Kristina targeted education.
In the final spring semester, the All Ladies League she’d joined named her the Madrid Vice Chairperson. The group supported civil rights and social action. She also participated in two Model European Unions (MEUs) in Brussels and Strasbourg, France.
When it came time to write her thesis, Kristina decided on Bulgaria’s post-communist political and social evolution, in part, to qualify the notion repeated by Bulgarian politicians that the country has been and still is a peace factor among the Balkans. “Yes, it is true that we were not part of the Yugoslav wars,” she says. “But we faced (and still do) other kind of conflicts.”
According to Kristina, “Even now, as part of the European Union, Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU and has one of the highest corruption and lowest social justice indexes in the European Community. More than a third of the population faces severe material deprivation, and more than half of the elderly people live at risk of social exclusion.” The country’s social tensions often simmer on the verge of chaos because of risks posed by serious levels of inequality. “We have the lowest rate of social cohesion and non-discrimination in the EU according to recent studies.”
Kristina moved back to Bulgaria, she says, “to try and tackle those problems, working for a more accepting society, and trying to raise awareness on the need of empathy in our everyday life.”
Over the summer, she volunteered on an ongoing basis as Content Officer for the international organization, BETA (Bringing Europeans Together Association,) which promotes college-level participation in MEUs and High School European Councils as an introduction in the world of legislative simulations and European studies.
“I had the pleasure of being a Content Officer in MEU Sofia,” Kristina says, preparing a legal text for debate on the European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD). During the debates, she defended the Commissioner’s position and gave feedback for possible amendments.
At an international conference on the topic of problems that refugees face in Europe, Kristina’s team presented proposals, held discussions, and drafted conclusions. Addressing people with clashing opinions is challenging, she says, “but reaching a common ground and collaborating towards shared purpose is what matters for me.”
Working with young people, she sees hate speech every day. “They do not have the filters adults have and express quite accurately the general feel of the community.” She describes a high school student who freely admitted he is racist. “I was shocked by the ease with which he was saying that,” because he was from a good family and attended a prestigious high school. A toxic combination of politicians and the media have made it “normal to think that gypsies are inferior and do not want to work. It is typical to say that refugees are coming to take advantage of our resources.” It’s inevitable that hate and inequality lead to conflicts, Kristina says, so she keeps focusing on empathy, tolerance, understanding, and empowering people to be able to achieve peaceful compromises.
She became a certified observer through the ODIHR* division of OSCE.** The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security (politico-military, economic, environmental, and cultural) includes the ODIHR’s actions regarding such democratic processes as election observation, insuring the respect of human rights, and the rule of law.
In November, 2017, ASEM (Asia-Europe Foundation) held an informal seminar aimed at human rights and children, hosted in Sofia, Bulgaria. Kristina found this to be “one of the most interesting and all-inclusive” of the international events she’d attended, meeting representatives from Asia, Australia and Europe. The document that emerged reflected the knowledge and experience of people facing diverse challenges to their common goal: globally improving conditions for children.
Promoting such formats at local levels became a new goal for Kristina, for example, promoting understanding and tolerance among ethnic Bulgarians, gypsies, refugees, and other people with clashing ideologies. “I believe in small changes,” she says, “local improvements, targeted grassroots initiatives, and working within the community, but also exchanging the best practices and thoughts with people from all over the world.”
After ASEM, Kristina spent a week in Valetta, Malta for training in the prevention of violent radicalization. She returned to Varna in time for the excitement of her home town hosting the European Youth Capital where she was a volunteer. The event focused on the development of social entrepreneurship as a tool for creating participation and sustainable employment for young people with over 140 projects getting funded.
“Thanks to the butterfly effect,” Kristina says, “an improvement in Varna, for example, can inspire people in Latin America. We are all connected.”