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“Eastern Europe’s extraordinary 30-year revival.” A Bulgarian immigrant’s anecdotal response

The Fall of the Berlin Wall. Courtesy to

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a video of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov circulated by a Bulgarian Facebook group. The video began with an excerpt of a speech by the Prime Minister delivered to his party at the beginning of the year. In it, pondering the falling popularity of his government, he proceeded to outline the many achievements of his party, GERB – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria. In a typically arrogant and condescending manner he asked aloud ‘What’s the reason?’, giving the supposed counter argument himself: ‘The income has increased, the infrastructure has increased, the education has increased, everything has increased. Record levels in the history of Bulgaria. Record levels of GDP.’

At this point in his speech, the Facebook video abruptly cut to a montage of Borisov’s public appearances with a pop-folk song playing in the background whose singer sang: ‘You are the liar, the most famous liar in the world.’

Anyone who follows Bulgarian politics to any extent, will know that Borisov can always be relied upon to make the claims that the country is soaring upwards; that the good life, which people were promised as a result of the transition from communism to capitalism, is already here and that the progress toward societal prosperity continues at full speed. Such talk of the Prime Minister is to be expected after all GERB’s entire legitimacy rests upon the official propaganda that they allegedly offer a break with the ignominious rule of corruption and oligarchy that has become synonymous with the transition period in Bulgaria.

Yet, it was surprising to discover that the latest article (at the time of this response) in The Guardian’s The Upside series presents very similar arguments. It is predictable of The Economist to describe what has transpired in Easter Europe during the transition era as ‘a time of marvels’. So too, is its casual and belittling dismissal of the polling data, which shows that only 32% of Bulgarians think their standards of living have improved since 1989, as simply Bulgarians having a ‘gloomy view’ on the matter and not being part of the other people of the region who ‘know’ that their standards of living have supposedly ‘vastly improved’. This is The Economist’s ideological leanings at full display. However, for a newspaper of The Guardian’s stature, which claims a progressive mantle, to be peddling similar arguments and further to be presenting them as a well-researched piece of journalism was indeed astonishing.

The Upside?

Titled This is the golden age’: eastern Europe’s extraordinary 30-year revival and penned by Shaun Walker, the article’s sub-heading summarises the main point of the text: ‘Not everything is perfect – as reflected in political flux – but the region is wealthier and healthier than ever before.’

Focusing primarily on Poland and Hungary but certainly including in its analysis the rest of the EU members from Central and Eastern Europe, Walker uses GDP growth, an increase in life expectancy and the Gini coefficient of the former Eastern bloc countries to argue that ‘People live longer healthier lives. Air quality is better, and individuals are on average twice as wealthy.’

To be sure, Walker acknowledges the many problems that Eastern Europe has faced in its post-communist era. He mentions the rapidly declining populations in the region (the result of mass migration, an ageing population and low birth rates), the widespread decay of industry and infrastructure in rural areas and smaller cities, the sense of being ‘second tier’ members of Europe that many people from the region feel due to the submissive position of the Eastern Europe countries in their relationship with those of the West and he even admits that ‘The uneven progress from communism to capitalism is believed to have sowed the seeds of populism’.

However, the emphasis of the article is that despite these setbacks, in Walker’s own words, ‘a range of metrics demonstrate that the transition from communism to capitalism has been a remarkable success.’ Apart from the statistical evidence, we are told the transition has seen the birth of a prosperous class of entrepreneurs while managing to avoid the oligarchical politics of Ukraine and Russia.

The article concludes that ‘as the economic gap between the east and the west of the continent continues to narrow’ the migrants who have fled their countries en masse will most likely return since, thanks to Ryanair, a flight back is just 20 Euros away. Sure, maybe some extra government investment into innovation and new technology along with a check here and there to the neoliberal model might be needed, but overall the situation is hopeful: things are improving and will only continue to improve.

This sentiment is reaffirmed by the very fact that the article was posted as part of The Upside; a series meant to offer an ‘antidote’ to the endless cycle of bad news by highlighting ‘possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems’ and thus proving ‘that there is plenty of hope’.

Stories from life in the so called ‘Golden Age’

This narrative of present success and a glimmering future simply does not reflect the reality that most ordinary people of the region face. The few lazily thrown up statistics and the glaring lack of follow up research fail to conceal the morbid ruins that Bulgaria has been transformed into in the past 30 years of transition. No number of superfluous phrases will change that.

My response will be rooted in anecdotes from Bulgaria and the broader Bulgarian diaspora. It does not intend to argue against Walker’s conclusions. It will simply tell some of the stories of ordinary people from one of the countries discussed.

In Bulgaria, most of the people I know from my generation (the first generation to be born after the fall of communism) are living through the never-ending transition period with a shared sense of societal and national rot. This is not the result of feeling left behind, as The Guardian article argues, but rather the cold product of the material reality they find themselves in: one of soul-sucking and exploitative jobs, a prospect-less future and severe societal fracturing overseen by an oligarchy whose appetite for money and power seem unsatisfiable.

Unemployment stands at 5.3% with youth unemployment (those between 15 and 24) at 8.7%. Both figures are among the lowest recorded for Bulgaria since 1989. However, these statistics tell us nothing about the deterioration of working conditions and increased exploitation that these new levels of employment have brought with them.

Talking to Ivaylo a 26-year-old man from Yambol, a city in south-east Bulgaria, reveals as much. He used to work night shifts as a gas station attendant. Recounting the day he signed his work contract, Ivaylo tells me that he went into the manager’s office to sign the eight hours per night, five nights a week contract. After having signed it, the manager casually told him that he expects him to work from six in the afternoon to six in the morning, five nights a week. It’s just the way things were at this gas station, Ivaylo was told. Naturally, there was no discussion of the overtime hours ever being paid. If he didn’t agree with it, he could go find work someplace else.

The problem is that the other jobs for unskilled labour in the city are hardly any better. After deciding to quit from the gas station, Ivaylo found a job delivering newspapers in bulk to stores around the city and the surrounding area. The work contract was for ten hours per day and this time his new manager agreed to pay up to two hours overtime each day if required. The catch this time, was that in addition to his delivering duties he also had to sort the thousands of newspapers into different categories at the depot beforehand. A task normally reserved for a separate employee but one the company decided could be done by the driver. This led to his work shifts bloating up to 14 or even 15 hours each day, leaving him barely enough time to go home, eat and sleep before having to be at work again.

This practice of workers having to work overtime often with no overtime pay is common not just in a smaller city like Yambol. In Burgas, Manol a man of 28, works in a warehouse ten hours a day even though his contract requires him to work only eight. At his workplace, there are rumours among the workers that anyone who complains of these mandatory and yet unpaid extra hours is taken to the manager’s head office where behind closed doors corporal punishment is enacted upon them.

The alternative to such jobs is often months long unemployment, as was the case for Stanislav in Plovdiv. He refused to agree to similar contracts and as a result was jobless for months. Finally, he found a job as a telephone customer service operative for an American company which has an office based in Plovdiv (presumably because hiring someone for 500 Euros a month is cheaper than the American equivalent).

The future looks as bleak as these working conditions for too many. The two main trade unions in Bulgaria, KSNB and Podkrepa, who are supposed to fight this workplace injustice are terribly unfit for the task.

KSNB, the reformed heir to the former communist state’s trade union, and Podkrepa, founded in 1989 as a dissident organisation in opposition of the communist regime, have both seen their numbers decline in recent years. According to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), since 2004 ‘the main reasons for decline have been the privatisation of state companies, and the fact that more than 90% of companies are SMEs, which unions face challenges organising within.’ The companies whose practices are described in the anecdotes above are precisely the SMEs referred to by the Eurofound: Small-to-medium enterprises where trade unions have little to no influence and the workforce is left largely to fend for itself.

Moreover, thanks to draconian anti-trade union amendments to the Labour Code (passed in 2012 and in 2016), KSNB and Podkrepa are the only two trade unions who have been granted representative status and are thus allowed a seat on the numerous tripartite national bodies.

This is not purely coincidental, both KSNB and Podkrepa have a long history of being more interested in political intrigues, shady deals with bosses and organisational corruption rather than standing up for workers’ rights. Their most recent records are hardly more inspiring. The KSNB’s initial hostility and subsequent attempts at dulling the edge of the nation-wide nurses strikes that have been unfolding since March of this year are not only shameful but revealing of where the largest Bulgarian union’s priorities truly lie.

Education is seen as a dead end too. Once more, if we take certain statistics superficially, we might be fooled into thinking that this development in Bulgaria has been a resounding success. According to Eurostat’s analysis, 85% of Bulgarian graduates in 2019 have found a job upon completing their studies. However, even a job secured with a degree can lead to financial precarity and exploitation. For instance, Bulgarian teachers are among the worst paid in Europe. Indeed, this low level of pay has been responsible for a serious shortage of teachers in the country which is only expected to increase in the following years.

Another prognosis, coming from the government’s own social ministry, predicts that in 15 years the Bulgarian economy will not have the capacity to provide graduates with jobs reflective of their education. Around 38,000 graduates will have to content with working as cashiers and shop assistants. To put this into perspective, the 85% of graduates who entered the labour market this year amounted to around 46,000 people.

It is no surprise then, that in the face of this reality life is seen either as a matter of simple survival, getting by from one day to another and making sure you have enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month, or a reckless, self-destructive and more often than not drug-fuelled hedonism.

Something that Ivaylo from Yambol said drove the point home: ‘You know, once you make it past 30, you’ll make it till the end.’ Life in Bulgaria had been reduced to a matter of making it. It’s either that or migration.

A diaspora of economic refugees, not greedy adventurers

Faced with this choice (or rather lack of it), many have turned to migration. Both migration from the countryside and smaller cities to bigger ones, but also to a destination abroad. According to the government’s National Statistical Institute (NSI), a total of 172,594 Bulgarian people in 2018 decided to migrate from their homes. Out of those, 33,225 or 23.84%, chose to settle out of the country with the rest mostly converging into the bigger cities. This was reflected the year before as well which recorded that out of all the regions in Bulgaria only six had a positive net migration rate: Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Pernik and Kardzali. The numbers provided by the NSI also claim however, that 29,559 Bulgarians returned from abroad in 2018. Even if we were to consult only these numbers the conclusion would still be a negative one, as Bulgaria’s overall net migration rate would still be a minus of 3,666 people.

More importantly, the statistics of the NSI do not tell the full story as they take no account of people whose permanent address remains in Bulgaria (and have therefore not technically migrated) but who make their living working abroad. Such is the case of Krasimir a 24-year-old man from the Yambol countryside. Krasimir’s home remains in the village of Bezmer but he earns a living by travelling abroad and working as a seasonal farmer in Ireland. Before that he spent years working in a furniture factory in Yambol where among other things the management maintained a heavy surveillance over its workforce and penalised them with fines for being even a minute late to their work shifts.

The Guardian’s article highlights the fact that since the fall of communism the former Eastern bloc countries have suffered from steep population decline. The mass exodus has been most severe for Latvia, which has lost one quarter of its population and for Bulgaria and Romania, whom have each seen one fifth of their populations leave.

And yet it largely dismisses these statistics as the result of ‘higher salaries a short and easy flight away’, marking the process as ‘inevitable’. Furthermore, it is quick to point out that ‘this has provided opportunities and experiences that were unimaginable to the previous generation who were stuck behind the Iron Curtain.’

This is one side of the truth. The freedom of movement that the EU has facilitated has certainly been a great development. True is also the point that experiencing life in a different country with a different culture can be among the most personally enriching experiences one can hope to have. The opportunity to study and work abroad has offered precisely that to many young people.

However, for the majority of people that I have interacted with from among the Bulgarian diaspora, migration is a decision not driven by a simple desire to earn more money or an adventurous spirit. It is instead the product of economic necessity and a feeling that they have to get away from a failed state, a feeling often accompanied by the belief that in Bulgaria they cannot give their children a decent life.

It has to be noted that many experience severe downward mobility through migration with high-skilled workers and people with university degrees working low-paid, low-skilled and dangerous jobs in Western countries: construction work, work on conveyor belts in warehouses, picking fruits in farms or scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets. Often, they live in accommodations where they have to share a room with at least one other person in overcrowded houses.

More importantly, Walker fails to appreciate just how difficult it is to uproot yourself completely from your own community and make yourself adapt to another country, in which, at times, you will be the target of hostile anti-immigrant sentiment. The spike in hate crimes towards members of Eastern European communities post the Brexit vote has been well documented by The Guardian and indeed by other platforms with self-described progressive views. While certainly true that Brexit has caused an increase in the frequency and vileness of these crimes, we should be careful not to coat them in pre-Brexit nostalgia and paint them as a product solely of the referendum. This anti-immigrant hostility is something that most Eastern Europeans have experienced in one form or another even prior to the vote; it’s just that now that hostility has taken on a more violent and public form.

Therefore, the stark reality is that the vast majority of Bulgarian immigrants in the West are not greedy adventurers, they are economic refugees, fleeing an economically, politically and socially broken country. 

In August of this year, Boyko Borisov claimed that: ‘The Bulgarians are returning from abroad because of the high salaries, because Bulgaria is a wonderful place to live in.’ His comments rang hollow and were met largely with mockery. I’m afraid that if The Guardian’s article was translated and circulated in Bulgaria it would be met with similar ridicule, for the success story they are looking for is phoney as far as Bulgaria is concerned.

The only people who would receive it positively are the very people who stuff their pockets and rob the country bare while the people suffer: the oligarchy in charge. Indeed, I would not be surprised if in the coming months Borisov or one of his stooges brings up Walker’s piece (or the one in The Economist) as Western vindication of all the supposed hard work that his government is carrying out.

And this brings us to a final question. What purpose does Shaun Walker’s article and others like it serve? They certainly do not paint a truthful picture of the transition period in Eastern Europe and the miseries it has inflicted upon the people of the former communist countries. No, instead people like Shaun Walker knowingly or unknowingly help prop up a vicious oligarchy and aid it in perpetuating its thievery and destruction by lending its propaganda an air of journalistic legitimacy.

A.T. Georgiev is an MA student in Contemporary History and Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. His research focuses on the Popular Front governments of Eastern and Central Europe in the mid and late 1940s. His other interests are historical and contemporary movements of political and social change, contemporary Middle Eastern politics and the recent climate change activism.