Quelques jours de silence pour préparer un essai pour un travail d’école. Comme je trouvais le sujet vraiment intéressant, étant donné que ça parle de blocs dans Sofia, la capitale de la Bulgarie, je le publie ici. Le sujet était au choix, et je voulais en profiter pour en découvrir plus sur cette ville où j’ai été, mais sans vraiment pouvoir visiter, puisque c’était surtout un lieu de départ et d’arrivée. Le texte est en anglais, avec des notes de bas de page visuellement un peu gossantes, mais au courant du mois je vais reparler des points en français. Mais voilà en attendant ça donne un avant goût des effets de la chute du communisme sur l’apparence de la ville!

How Did the Fall of Communism Affect the Urban Landscape of the City of Sofia, Bulgaria?

Introduction

A traveler visiting Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, has many sights and activities to choose from. If he is looking for adventure, he might climb Mt. Vitosha, the snow-covered mountain that dominates the southern view of the city. If he wants to shop, he can head to the famous pedestrian crowded street that bears the same name. If he is interested in history, he can visit a few of the many museums, or simply take a walk from the city center to the outskirts, to witness the changes the city underwent in the last century or so. The general landscape will offer a mix of grand buildings, traditional Bulgarian tiled-roof houses, groups of tall brutalist apartment blocks, up until the gated houses at the foothill of the mountain. This will lead to the observation that, architecturally speaking, Sofia is a city of contrasts, and the historical events it went through can be witnessed in the different styles and in the four rings that constitute the city[1]. The inner ring, the city center, presents the buildings built after the independence of the country in 1879 and during the first part of the 20th century. Around is found the compact city, where there are the medium-height buildings from the beginning of the Communist period when the industrialization of the city accelerated. Then follows the socialist housing estates where, between the 1960s and the 1980s, prefabricated apartment blocks were erected to house as many people as possible. At the time, they delimited the end of the city. The fourth ring appeared in the 1990s, as the privatization process brought by the end of the socialist system created a suburban periphery.

The years following the fall of the Communist era, and the economic and political consequences, have played a predominant role in the modifications of the urban landscape, but its state in 1989 was also the result of changes, mainly instilled by a constantly growing population.

Sofia became the capital of Bulgaria in 1879, a year after the country gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. At that time, the city housed around 12 000 people[2]. The opportunities of a capital city attracted citizens in the subsequent years, and it continued to grow, swallowing surrounding villages[3]. When the Communist Party took over in 1944, the population had reached 366 000[4]. State-ownership was introduced based on the Soviet model and the land was nationalized[5]. Encouraged by the socialist ideology of industrialization and modernization, the Bulgarian population, still mostly agrarian at that time, was encouraged to migrate to the cities to contribute as workers. Sofia’s population continued to grow with this influx of people and peaked at 1 192 558 in 1986[6] by the end of the Communist period.

One major impact of this massive growth are the housing units, in the form of tall apartment blocks, built to accommodate the newcomers. A housing crisis quickly followed, as it was not possible to build dwellings at the speed needed to meet the demand[7]. As a result, the available flats were distributed unevenly, and the quality of the construction was questionable[8]. This housing shortage, that plagued cities all over Eastern Europe, might be considered as a failure on the part of the Communist Party and their city planning, but the numerous apartment towers built still stand today as a legacy of the Communist years and way of life. They were added on the then-outskirts of the city center and became fully integrated in Sofia. Parts of the city such as Lyulin or Mladost[9] are known as “socialist districts” because of the large number of such blocks that they contain.

The Communist years, and the architectural projects that they entailed, marked an unprecedented shift in the general look of the city landscape. After the Ottoman rule, most of its distinctive Turkish architecture, such as mosques, minarets or traditional houses, had been destroyed in order to support a Bulgarian nationalist revival[10]. A few decades later, the landscape of the outskirts of the city was again modified by the brutalist modernist style of the prefabricated apartment blocks. At the core, changes were also happening. While most of the existing housing stock remained, quite literally, untouched[11], as refurbishment was not an option in a context where all of the resources served the industrialization and expansion plans, some government projects aiming at showcasing the grandeur of socialism[12] were completed, such as the impressive National Palace of Culture (NDK)[13].

Palais National de la Culture

These socialist-planned developments left Sofia in 1989 with districts of apartment blocks on the outskirts, a city center almost intact, and traditional houses in villages outside of the delimitations of the city. This paper will explore what happened in the fifteen years after the fall of Communism, deemed in the following as the transition years, and how it affected the urban landscape. First, it was apparent in the shift from state ownership to private ownership and brough investment opportunities. Second, the transition years brought a visual change in the landscape through the modification of existing areas, and through new constructions that created an urban sprawl. The newfound freedom, coupled with blurred regulations, enabled people to build their home where they wanted to. Third, this possibility of choosing where to live, in addition to an enduring socialist segregation, produced a post-socialist segregation. Wealthy people moved to gated communities in pleasant areas, while poorer people stayed in the city center, and the Roma population was secluded. Thus, the fall of Communism, but mostly the political changes that it brought, the economic opportunities and the consequences on the society, marked Sofia’s urban landscape through ownerships, new constructions, and the exacerbating of a segregation. These years were as significant in terms of the urban changes as the socialist years were, and profoundly transformed the appearance of Sofia.

The shift from state to private ownership

The opening of the Bulgarian market to the capitalist system could have marked the return to private ownership, which was the norm before the state nationalized the lands. This reemergence occurred in many former socialist states, such as in Romania, where, as of 2008, 95% of the flats became privately owned instead of state owned[14]. The former renters could buy them at a symbolically low price. However, in Bulgaria, a form of private ownership remained during the Communist period. The return to a liberal market thus had a different signification.

As mentioned previously, the growing numbers of migrants coming to Sofia during the socialist years created a housing shortage. The state was not able to meet the demand for dwellings and decided in the 1970s to introduce a controlled private ownership[15]. The state would still own the plots, but individuals, or cooperatives, in the case of apartment blocks, could then buy them and complete the building of their future housing. This would relieve the state of the pressure of providing and being responsible for delivering all of the dwellings. In the last years of the Communist period, almost 50% of them were privately owned[16].

What thus changed after 1989 was that the land was no longer the property of the state. The privatization process revolved around the selling of the housing stock that was still owned by the state, and around the empty and available land, where no housing had been built yet. This concerned mainly the agricultural land on the outskirts of the city. Through a restitution program that lasted from 1992 to 1995[17], families that had pre-communist properties could apply and regain their plots[18]. By October 1992, 51 000 applications were received[19]. When former owners could not be found, the plots were sold. Land had now acquired property value and entered the market.

This created investment opportunities that had been denied during the socialist period. The beginning and mid-1990s witnessed an economic decline[20], where low-scale land investment concerned mainly residents of Sofia. Bulgarians could make a profit out of plots, invest in constructions, and choose their place of living. As will be discussed in the next section, the possibility of selling and buying plots led to new constructions, decentralization and sprawling. By the end of the 1990s, the economy had stabilized to a steady growth, as did the housing demand, which accelerated the rate of bigger construction projects on the periphery of Sofia[21]. Privatization thus enabled Bulgaria to present a competitive liberal market in the housing sector, and it had a direct consequence on the shape of the city.

Privatization and restitution brought a financial opportunity for individuals regarding the existing stock of housing as well. Becoming the owner of one’s dwelling meant that it could be used to generate profits. In the problematic economic context of the transition, becoming a landlord and renting out a flat was an interesting solution. In fact, in the mid-1990s, 75% of the landlords were deemed “incidental”[22] and had bought new dwellings or used their own in order to get an additional income.

Changing landscape

The privatization process generated modifications and additions to the urban landscape of Sofia. The concept of property meant that the existing housing stock could be adapted. In the city center, buildings were converted into shops, restaurants and services that lacked during the communist period. The available space also served for commercial constructions. Similarly, in socialist districts, the first floor of apartment blocks was turned into the services needed for a concentration of people, that was not be included in the areas at the time of the construction because the resources were focused on the housing demand[23]. Sofia thus became more commercialized, and luminous and colorful signs garnished the streets.

Boulevard Vitosha, et vue au fond sur le mont Vitosha

As mentioned previously, the quality of the construction of the socialist apartment blocks was neglected. Their refurbishment has been stated as a government goal but was not a priority in the context of the transition years. Dwellers, as owners, could decide to renovate by themselves. As individual initiatives, instead of coordinated ones, this has led to visible changes on the facades: new windows, different material colors, added layers of isolation now decorated the prefabricated blocks[24].

The concept of the privatization of the space also opened the possibility of adding to or modifying the properties. Garages were annexed to houses, or improvised businesses like car repair shops bloomed on the previously unused space in-between buildings[25]. The maximization of the available space created a mix of application, styles and heights, ranging from brutalist grey blocks, to new houses built in the Bulgarian traditional style, to modern cafes[26].

The periphery of the city was the most impacted by the privatization of the land. It became available to invest for new constructions and for relocation. The decentralization that characterized socialist cities, where people mostly resided in blocks on the edge of the city[27], was pushed further in a suburbanization, or a residential decentralization. As people could now buy land or houses built in suburban areas, the ones that could afford it moved to more desirable parts of the city, where privacy, green spaces, fresh air and quietness attracted families. The preferred area was the southern edge, located at the foot of Mt. Vitosha, and was composed, before the new investments, of village houses and week-end houses of the Communist upper class. The reasons for moving out of Sofia’s center were thus either practical, when people already owned a property there, or out of search for a better quality of life[28]. This had been reinforced by the developed conception that prefabricated blocks in socialist estates were low grade housing[29]. The northern edge of the city also presented interesting options for lower-income families, as the land there was of cheaper property value, especially after 2001[30].

Numbers demonstrate how quickly the southern districts of Sofia grew during the transition years. From 1984 to 1992, the population growth rate was of 17,42 %, from 1992 to 2001, it continued with 16,10%, and until 2011, it witnessed the largest growth rate of 26,32%. In comparison, the northern districts had a growth rate of -13,92% in the transition years from 1992 to 2001, and were slowly growing at a rate of 3,65% between 2001 and 2011[31]. From an aerial point of view, it can be noticed that Sofia is expanding, and its suburbs are sprawling in the available space. At the same time, the metropolitan population has declined by 1%[32], which shows the trend of moving out of the city’s core districts.

This urban sprawl is characterized by a low density in the use of the space[33], especially when compared to the socialist districts that house thousands of people in apartment blocks. It is also a mix of different architecture styles, as new modern villas stand alongside decades-old farmhouses, which illustrates that the new development of the space was not regulated in the transition years and was constituted of individual projects. The next section will address the societal effects of this suburbanization.

The privatization of land also had negative outcomes on the existing urban areas. As the urban planning regulations were unclear during the transition years while the state loosened its control in the housing sphere, any land that did not have a building on it could be restituted or sold. This meant that parks or children playgrounds were demolished in order to sell the land and build housing or parking lots to accommodate the influx of people. This effect has been criticized by residents of Sofia as green spaces and leisure spaces disappeared to maximize the profitable space[34]. It transformed the existing urban look.

In the expanding districts of southern Sofia, a similar situation formed, as the green space that made the area desirable in the first place was shrinking[35]. The available space is exploited, constructions are blooming in-between the old week-end houses and traditional houses that constituted the former villages surrounding Sofia. Not only do these new constructions expand the size of the city from an aerial point of view, but they are also changing the essence of the districts where people chose to move to in order to escape the crowded city center and socialist districts[36].

At a much smaller scale, the privatization process had its effect on the streets of Sofia’s city center. Now that shops were no longer owned by the state, people could start their own businesses. A logical yet peculiar location to establish them were basements of buildings. The space was either already owned or could be bought at a low price since the windows were at the street level. It proved to be a good investment and source of income, since the “squat shops” (from the world klek in Bulgarian, meaning “knee”) boomed in Sofia and other Bulgarian cities such as Plovdiv or Stara Zagora. Indeed, in order to buy goods from these convenience stores, the clients had to squat down to interact with the sellers. Even though the economic situation has changed, the squat shops still exist today and offer various products (food, drinks, shoes, souvenirs)[37] because their originality is attractive, especially for tourists. But beyond the amusement, they are also a vivid representation of how people adapted to the privatization and economic context of the transition years[38]. These small businesses changed the look and the use of the sidewalks in Sofia’s city center.

Image prise sur le site Amusing Planet

Post-socialist segregation

The privatization process led to two consequences in the distribution of the population of Sofia, which in turn affected the urban composition and look. Groups of people were displaced within the city, and other people chose to settle in the attractive southern edge. These movements created a socio-spatial segregation that is manifesting in the landscape of the city.

The opening to a liberal market and the commercialization brought shops in residential buildings. As the city center became denser with services, people of lower income, who could not resist this effect of densification[39], were evicted and had to relocated to the outskirts of the city, in socialist districts where the prices of apartments were lower. As an example, fifteen years after the fall of Communism, the socialist district of Lyulin in Sofia registered the lowest price of residential property in Bulgaria[40]. These districts were deemed less desirable and, because of their low prices, housed people of lower income in their apartment blocks. This was not always the case, as, during the socialist period, the state sought to eradicate the divisions between social classes. Families from different background resided in the same blocks[41], according to the flat that had been assigned to them by the state. During the transition period, the gap between social classes thus widened, as different incomes led to different buying opportunities.

Blocs dans le district de Mladost

The Roma population has been particularly affected by this reality. While it is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the tensions between Bulgarians and Roma, the latter have been geographically marginalized since the Communist period. Even though at that time the state had plans to integrate them into the larger population by relocating them in socialist flats[42], they were mostly attributed dwellings in blocks built on top of their previously destroyed housing since, as the city expanded, the space where Roma communities lived was turned into socialist districts. With the housing shortage, many of them were simply left in their precarious housing. The desegregation project was thus unsuccessful, and, from the end of the 1950s, Roma were displaced from the city center to the outskirts[43] in an attempt to hide this state’s failure.

In the 1980s, Bulgaria underwent a process of assimilation of the Turkish minority, which targeted the Roma population as well. In order to quiet their nationalism and in appearance present a homogeneous Bulgaria, Roma neighborhoods were walled and Roma migrants to the cities could only settle into them[44]. Their spatial segregation was aggravated.

After the fall of Communism, these measures were dropped, along with the control of the state in urban planning during the transition period. As other citizens did in the city, Roma modified their housing and built new houses. But as land’s value grew with the privatization process, the Roma settlements were seen as standing on lands targeted by real estate developments, which could justify evictions[45]. Their houses were deemed “illegal”, and people could be relocated[46]. This reinforced the post-communist segregation of marginalized communities, as they were either living in gated neighborhoods, or had to relocate further on the edge of the cities.

By the mid-2000s, a program (National Program for the Improvement of Housing of Roma[47]) was initiated in order to address the precarity of their housing. Some Roma have taken steps to try to legalize their properties now that regulations are in place after a blurred transition period. But even today, more than 30 years after the fall of Communism, a segregation still geographically secludes the Roma from the urban population. They are mostly living in precarious housing on the edge of Sofia and other Bulgarian cities. This is revealed in mediatic events such as demands to remove a Roma neighborhood by Bulgarian nationalists[48], or the lockdown imposed on specific neighborhoods during the COVID-19 pandemic[49].

In contrast, another visible sign of socio-spatial segregation started to happen on the southern periphery of Sofia. As discussed earlier, this area is the most desirable part of the city because it offers better living conditions. It comprises Bulgarian houses from the villages that were annexed when Sofia was expanding during the industrialization, villas built by the Communist elite, and houses built during the transition period, when post-communist planning regulations were still not defined. The investment opportunities and privatization of land has additionally led to the phenomenon of gated communities.

From the mid-1990s, wealthy families bought available plots and started to build groups of modern houses and services, such as the Mountain View Village[50]. These developments were intended for people with higher income who could afford living in expensive secluded places[51] and longed for the privacy missing in the dense city. These gated communities, surrounded by brick walls and guarded by dogs, cameras and security guards[52] are easily recognizable and appear incongruous next to the old village houses among which they are established. The clash also appears in-between residents. Newcomers are generally wealthy educated young people with high salaries[53], while the pre-existing residents of the area are older, receive pensions or are predominantly unskilled workers[54] that seized the investment opportunities at the beginning of the transition period. The decentralization and urban sprawling are changing the borders of the city while creating a mix of social backgrounds on the periphery and deepening the gap between low-income and high-income citizens who took advantage of the privatization of land.

Conclusion

The study of the consequences of the fall of Communism on the urban landscape of Sofia reveals that the engendered privatization process of land and housing modified the distribution of the population within the city, visually transformed its inner and outer districts, and exacerbated the socio-spatial segregation.

As the state loosened its grip on the housing stock and construction, dwellings and plots were privatized, and land gained value, which created investment opportunities. People could use their flat to generate an income or could build new houses. They could also adapt the existing buildings to the new liberal market, which translated into a change of the look of the city. The center and the socialist districts became more commercialized, with shops and services installed in former residential buildings or on the first floor of apartment blocks. Squat shops are an example of how people adapted to the reality of the transition years by exploiting the available space. Development projects also took advantage of the availability of land and of the fact that regulations in urban planning had not been determined yet. Individuals could fill the empty spaces in the urban area with shops or garages, could renovate their dwellings, or could buy a plot in more attractive areas, such as the southern edge of the city at the foot of Mt. Vitosha. New constructions were added to the urban landscape, and the city sprawled as the periphery developed.

The real estate market created by the privatization also had its downsides. The green spaces in and around the city shrunk, since the land was exploited for housing projects. As people now had the freedom to choose where to settle according to their means, it generated a migration within the city, while enforcing the existing segregation. The Roma population, marginalized during the Communist years, suffered from evictions because they were settled on exploitable land, and were regrouped in neighborhoods on the edge of the city that are still secluded today. At the other end of the spectrum of social classes, gated communities designed for high-income residents are blooming on the southern periphery of Sofia. Further discussions could assess the measures and steps taken in the fifteen years following the fall of Communism concerning the restitution program, the urban planning, the new constructions and the socio-spatial segregation.

The city center, the socialist districts and the edge of the city were all altered, physically and in their composition, by the effects of the fall of Communism and the subsequent privatization process. The urban landscape of Sofia was marked by individual initiatives, larger development projects, and the migration within the city that it generated.

Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. It would be interesting to discuss how the accession has impacted the real estate market and the possibilities for foreign investments. It was expected that the prices would align with the Western European market[55]. The addition of this new factor could further transform Sofia’s landscape. Regulations overseeing new developments and inclusion programs targeting the marginalized populations could also contribute to a possible cohesion that would bring together the blend of architectural styles, dense spaces, vibrant commercial streets, and quiet suburban areas that shape Sofia.

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[1] Sonia Hirt and Kiril Stanilov, “The perils of post-socialist transformation: Residential development in Sofia,” in The Post-Socialist City Urban Form and Space Transformations in Central and Eastern Europe after Socialism, ed. Kiril Stanilov (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2007), 215.

[2] Isolde Brade, Christian Smigiel, and Zoltán Kovács, “Suburban Residential Development in Post-Socialist Urban Regions: The Case of Moscow, Sofia, and Budapest,” German Annual of Spatial Research and Policy 2009 (2009): 89.

[3] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 217.

[4] Brade, Smigiel, and Kovács, “Suburban Residential Development in Post-Socialist Urban Regions,” 90.

[5] Leland Rhett Miller, “Land Restitution in Post-Communist Bulgaria,” Post-communist economies 15, no. 1 (2003): 77.

[6] “Sofia Population,” https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/sofia-population, consulted on November 27th, 2021.

[7] Mariya Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal: Roma Housing in (Post-)Socialist Sofia,” Intersections 1, no. 4 (2015): 46.

[8] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 231.

[9] Sonia Hirt, “Post-Socialist Urban Forms: Notes From Sofia,” Urban geography 27, no. 5 (2006): 471.

[10] Hirt, “Post-Socialist Urban Forms,” 480.

[11] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 222-223.

[12] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 222-223.

[13]“История.” https://www.ndk.bg/About+Us/History-58EN.html, consulted on November 27th, 2021.

[14] Pasztor Gyongyi and Peter Laszlo, “Urban Housing Problem in Romania: The Legacy of Communist Block of Flats,” (Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai Sociologia, October 2008), 84.

[15] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 218-219.

[16] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 219.

[17] Miller, “Land Restitution in Post-Communist Bulgaria,” 75.

[18] Stuart Lowe, “A Tale of Two Cities – Rental Housing in Budapest and Sofia in the 1990s,” Journal of housing and the built environment 15, no. 3 (2000): 252.

[19] Miller, “Land Restitution in Post-Communist Bulgaria,” 77.

[20] Sonia Hirt, “Suburbanizing Sofia: Characteristics of Post-Socialist Peri-Urban Change,” Urban geography 28, no. 8 (2007): 758.

[21] Brade, Smigiel, and Kovács, “Suburban Residential Development in Post-Socialist Urban Regions,” 92.

[22] Lowe, “A Tale of Two Cities,” 261.

[23] Hirt, “Post-Socialist Urban Forms,” 476.

[24] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 233-234.

[25] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 231.

[26] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 232.

[27] Hirt, “Post-Socialist Urban Forms,” 465.

[28] Diliana Daskalova, “Diversity in the Suburbs: Socio-Spatial Segregation and Mix in Post-Socialist Sofia,” Habitat international 50 (2015): 47.

[29] Ivan Nikiforov and Aleksandar D. Slaev, “Factors of Urban Sprawl in Bulgaria,” Spatium International Review, no. 29 (July 2013): 26.

[30] Daskalova, “Diversity in the Suburbs,” 47.

[31] Daskalova, “Diversity in the Suburbs,” 44.

[32] Hirt, “Suburbanizing Sofia,” 760.

[33] Nikiforov and D. Slaev, “Factors of Urban Sprawl in Bulgaria,” 23.

[34] Hirt, “Post-Socialist Urban Forms,” 475.

[35] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 228.

[36] Hirt, “Suburbanizing Sofia,” 769.

[37] Maria Angelova, “The Story Behind Sofia’s Basement Shops,” The culture trip, May 4, 2017. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/bulgaria/articles/the-story-behind-sofias-basement-shops/

[38] Jeroen Beekmans, “Sofia’s Basement Shops,” Popup city, November 2012. https://popupcity.net/observations/sofias-basement-shops/

[39] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 223.

[40] Bulgaria: Sofia Housing Prices Plummet,” Balkan Insight, May 28, 2009. https://balkaninsight.com/2009/05/28/bulgaria-sofia-housing-prices-plummet/

[41] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 231.

[42] Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal,” 42.

[43] Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal,” 42.

[44] Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal,” 49.

[45] Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal,” 51.

[46] Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal,” 39.

[47] Ivancheva, “From Informal to Illegal,” 43.

[48] Boryana Dzhambazova, “Far Right Targets Roma Ghetto in Bulgaria,” Balkan Insight, January 19, 2011. https://balkaninsight.com/2011/01/19/roma-ghetto-in-bulgaria-under-threat/

[49] Svetoslav Todorov, “Bulgaria’s Marginalised Roma Feel Singled Out in Pandemic,” Balkan Insight, April 22, 2020. https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/22/bulgarias-marginalised-roma-feel-singled-out-in-pandemic/

[50] Christian Smigiel, “The Production of Segregated Urban Landscapes: A Critical Analysis of Gated Communities in Sofia,” Cities 35 (2013): 129-130.

[51] Smigiel, “The Production of Segregated Urban Landscapes,” 130.

[52] Smigiel, “The Production of Segregated Urban Landscapes,” 130.

[53] Daskalova, “Diversity in the Suburbs,” 47.

[54] Daskalova, “Diversity in the Suburbs,” 47.

[55] Hirt and Stanilov. “The perils of post-socialist transformation,” 220.

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