The Smith Fellowship, one of the many programs of Atlas Network’s Leadership Academy, brings up-and-coming leaders from around the world to Washington D.C., where they receive varied training in marketing, fundraising, management, and other relevant skills.
The first alumnus of the Smith Fellowship, Stoyan Panchev, is the founder and chairperson of Bulgarian Libertarian Society (BLS), an Atlas Network partner organization based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Atlas Network’s associate director of training, Tarun Vats, recently caught up with Stoyan to discuss the challenges in Bulgaria, the ‘War on Cash,’ and how the Smith Fellowship has created new opportunities to help Stoyan in his work.
Tarun Vats: What are the biggest challenges that Bulgaria is facing?
Stoyan Panchev: A major challenge that we are currently facing in Bulgaria is the constant pressure exerted by government over the finances of households and businesses through increases in social security payments, new burdensome financial regulations, and legislation that leaves ample space for bureaucratic extortion. Politicians are trying to get quick fixes without taking into account the long-term consequences of their actions – fiscal instability and dismantling of the rule of law.
How does BLS' work help in addressing those challenges?
We campaign aggressively against any dangerous idea that surfaces, and we take on big policy issues that are just so problematic that their mere existence can lead to further bad policy from the state. A good example for the latter would be the pension system, which creates very large annual deficits that are always "fixed" through legislation that takes liberty away from individuals – be it through tax increases, attempted nationalizations, or populist mega-projects.
We have had successful short-term campaigns to overturn compulsory voting and cash payment restrictions. Also, we are engaged in long multi-year campaigns to legalize medical cannabis and privatize the pension system.
Can you tell us about the ongoing "war on cash" in Bulgaria?
As in many places around Europe, the “war on cash” is picking up in Bulgaria. Last year, the government twice attempted to lower the cash payment limit that currently stands at 10,000 Bulgarian lev to just 1,000 lev (equivalent to about 500 euros). This would have meant that almost all transactions outside of grocery shopping would require going through a bank, under the constant supervision of authorities, while forcing consumers to pay ever increasing banking fees. BLS organized our staff and activists to lead a massive social media campaign along with street protests to show the parliamentary opposition that this bill should be defeated – leading to all opposition parties along with the junior ruling coalition partner voting against the threshold decrease. Surprisingly, there was a second attempt to lower the threshold just three months later – we repeated the campaign and we were victorious again.
Our success in fighting against cash payment restrictions has allowed retirees (who avoid and distrust Bulgarian banks) and people in rural communities to continue living their lives – buying, selling, and saving without having to go through retail banks which can sometimes be hard to distinguish from government bureaucracies.
What more can you me about your work for pension reform?
BLS recently launched a campaign called #PensionReformForTheYoung, which aims to reform the current failing pay-as-you-go pension scheme and move us towards private personal voluntary pension accounts. We began with showing a short 10-minute film explaining our message. We received coverage from almost all TV stations in the country, leading to several appearances in prime time national television: I debated the architect of the current system on Bulgarian National Television and my colleague Georgia Vuldzhev appeared on bTV, one of the two largest private channels.
Our work on the potential membership of Bulgaria in the Eurozone has also received a lot of attention from Bulgarian media. We were featured in a piece by the German newspaper Die Welt, who interviewed me through our policy arm EKIP as a principled opponent of "ascending" to the euro.
How has the Smith Fellowship been useful for your organization's work?
As with any other entrepreneurial activity, starting a think tank differs from place to place and occasion to occasion. For example, fundraising in Bulgaria is very different from that in the United States. But many of the underlying principles that work can be copied and implemented with a local twist. Moreover, the Smith Fellowship provides a foundation, a boost of professionalism that is extremely difficult to find outside of societies that have experienced centuries of free enterprise. BLS benefited immensely from combining the American policy/think tank expertise with our Eastern European grassroots spirit.
The Smith Fellowship allowed us to move from an organization that relied purely on volunteer work to a professional outfit that fundraises, grows, and establishes a presence in the world of policy and ideas. We started working directly in policy, we learned how to plan multi-year efforts, and we built capacities in activism, research, development, and education.