Public debates on key civic interests provide citizens with the opportunity to influence political processes and are therefore crucial for the formation of active citizenship, which in turn enhances democracy. However, in the countries of the CEE region, there tends to be a lack of public space for civic debates on topics of key interests to citizens. With this problem in mind, the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate (a project of Gulliver Clearing House) was created to provide a stage for debates where different opinions and orientations can meet and argue about their benefit for the country. The Red House is positioned in the centre of Sofia and organises and presents socio-political, artistic and cultural as well as socially engaged and educational programs. Their activities include stimulation of political and social debates as well as the development of dialogue between various communities.
In 2009 the Red House for Culture and debate spread their idea by initiating Bulgarian Networks for Civil Dialogue, which is a national project of 8 independent cultural organisations from different cities in Bulgaria. The network was created as an effort to meet the need for open public spaces where civil, not fully expert, debate and discussion may take place; where debating may be practiced on topics of key interest; and which can serve as ‘laboratories for civil participation’ that address the feeling of remoteness some citizens get from policy and decision-makers. The initiative aims to create space for debate and discussions in different cities, to promote lively debates on topics of key civic interest. The project has initiated various debates on the concept of left and right; pro-Russia and pro-Western orientation; the communist past and its influence on the country’s current development. These discussions provide opportunities to get a closer look at value-based positions and disagreements related to geopolitical orientation; they explain the meaning of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-Russia’ and show how their understanding can be related to ‘key policy dilemma’ and issues important for Bulgarian society. In this project, both right and left activists and experts provide rational arguments and talk in various facilitated discussions with the public.
Examples of such debates are: ‘Should Inequalities be Settled and How?’ with the participation of Vania Grigorova (Solidarity Bulgaria — a modern leftist movement) and Georgi Ganev (CLS); ‘Railway Transport: State or Private?’ with the participation of Veselin Kirev (Citizen Initiative for Public and Railway Transport) and Peter Ganev (Institute for Market Economy). Left-wing and right-wing perspectives toward memories of communism with the participation of: Michael Gruev (historian) and George Medarov (sociologist). The success of these debates may be due partially to the fact that they are held in the Red House, a sight popular for organising events and a variety of discussions. The events were promoted not only through its website and its Facebook page but directly to the visitors of all the events. The Red House is supported by media partners who disseminate its information (http://www.redhouse-sofia.org/Content.aspx?id=26). The participants in the above debates have maintained and provided arguments for their positions and created a useful model of a political debate of opposing positions. In this way, they help to release the tension between contrary positions and concentrate on the issues rather than on the opposition itself.