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Bulgarian youth in the maelstrom of political struggles

Note from the LeftEast editors: this article has been published in collaboration with the Balkan web-portal The publication in Serbo-Croatian is to be found here.

georgi-medarovIn Bulgaria there is a (neo)liberal hegemony over student politics that hasn’t been challenged up until last year’s university occupation. This process, however, is not that clear cut, the situation gets more complicated with the deepening of the fierce debate over the meaning of the occupation. The stakes are extremely high: the Right needs its monopoly over the “youth” to condemn alternatives as backward-looking and nostalgic for the socialist past.

The anti-communists in the 1990s posed their politics in generational terms: the young against the old and thus the future against the past. Indeed a number of young activists, especially university students in Sofia, became part of the anti-communist movement. Even after February 1997, a moment when the heterogeneous anti-communist student groups consolidated around a clearly rightist political project, this image of the (neo)liberal, pro-western youth against the nostalgic elder generation reproduced itself.

The association between youth, anti-communism and neo-liberalism was not questioned as there were practically no alternative youth-based political mobilizations. Throughout the 1990s there were a number of anti-communist student protests, including university occupations. The Liberal Right was able to establish a cultural hegemony among mainstream acadеmia,  especially humanities, as well as in the arts in Sofia, which was never challenged by alternative progressive initiatives. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for any alternative youth politics to gain media visibility and is thus marginalized even more.

This was predominantly the case up until few years ago. The first shift was with the rise of the environmentalist movement after 2007, when more and more youth activists started to challenge various aspects of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession, mostly privatization of natural parks. At the same time, various small groups of young anarchist, post-Left, New Left, sometimes inspired by the alter-globalization movement were emerging and gained a momentum with the global protest year of 2011. After 2007 there were some left student activists who tried to mobilize in universities against fees hikes, sometimes with limited success, however nothing large emerged. Student activism remained embedded in neoliberal considerations about efficiency, pragmatization, and higher education’s orientation towards business’ demands.

Last year, however, some rightist intellectuals felt their hegemony over the “youth” was endangered by the student occupation. In the end of 2013 students occupied the main building of Sofia University for 23 days. Initially, it was seen as a direct continuation of the liberal protests called #DANSwithme from the summer of 2013, which tried to revive 1990s anti-communism.

The occupation happened when the protests were diminishing and was seen as a remedy not only for the protests, but as an aid in reproducing the image of the liberal pro-EU educated youth against old and conservative (ex)communists. There were, of course, students in the occupation who fitted such description.

The anti-communist image of the occupation was strengthened by some left-wing students, who radically opposed it, even physically attacked it along with an MP from Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Here it is key to realize BSP, which headed the ruling coalition at the time, had fully succumbed to neoliberal technocracy. The problem for those leftist was not defending BSP, but that they saw the occupation as yet another instance of neoliberal hegemony over students’ politics, demanding more of the same. They even spread conspiracy theories, asserting the U.S. embassy is somehow pulling the strings. This shift is linked to a wider feeling of powerlessness among the Left, leading some to go for naive realpolitik, supporting anything that could vaguely be seen as “anti-western”, and ending up opposing mass politics altogether. The image of the occupation as supporters of the liberal Right and #DANSwithme, was solidified by media coverage. This is not to be seen necessarily as a deliberate manipulation, because, as I explained, the idea of a struggle between liberal pro-European youth against the elder generation, nostalgic for socialism, is the main recourse to think about youth politics.

Photo credit: Velko Balabanov
Photo credit: Velko Balabanov, Natfiz Occupy

All this, nevertheless, misses some key developments. The students who started the occupation were inspired by the Croatian students, particularly by the documentary Blokada. The main declaration of the occupation called for a new political order “in the interest of the people” against “the self-referential elite”. The students rejected all political parties and prided themselves of their direct democratic and horizontalist organization. Students formulated demands for reforms in higher education, opposing the current pragmatization and reduction of public universities to business training centres, funded by public money. Moreover, Ivaylo Dinev, the charismatic leader of the occupation – inspired by left thinkers such as Yasuo Kobayashi, who was in Sofia at the time and met with the students (invited by the Bulgarian radical philosopher Boyan Manchev) – just published a book, entitled “It’s Our Turn!”, where he named the occupation “a student republic”. He described it as an “Event” (in the sense of Alain Badiou), aimed against the “corrupt elite”, demanding the elite to “take its Transition back”, rejecting parties, political representation and so forth. Dinev stated the occupation “can only be compared to recent global protests against elites that fight for more direct democracy”. There were also left students, activists and intellectuals who supported the occupation and took formative part in internal debates.

On the 10th of November 2013, a date marking the 24th anniversary of the fall of state socialism in Bulgaria, the students organized a large demonstration. They called it “The March of Justice” and their call-out had no anti-communist slogans. In fact, in contrast to #DANSwithme, the students put forward social demands such as “We don’t recognize your Transition! We don’t recognize your authority! We don’t recognize your property!”. Media coverage again completely ignored that dimension and framed it as another celebration of liberal democracy by the ever young anti-communist spirit. Such framing, forgetting all “uncomfortable” peculiarities, was pushed not only by anti-communists, but also by BSP.

The occupation was surely not left-wing; its politics lacked systematic articulation and simply did not fit into left-right categories. It was akin to the global post-ideological activism that has animated many of the explosive movements of the last several years, problematic in its own right, as it attacks representative democracy from a horizontalist perspective, but ends up withdrawing from politics. Nevertheless, the persistent refusal of students to be submerged within the Right made anti-communists uneasy.

For example, for the first public debate about the Dinev’s book, organized by the publishing house in October 2014, some prominent rightists were invited. The conservative Christian philosopher Kalin Yanakiev scolded Dinev for his rejection of the Transition. Georgi Bliznashki, appointed as caretaker Prime Minister from August to November 2014, was also invited and he told students they already won and there is now nothing to protest against.

These examples illustrate how seriously the Right is taking the struggle over the memory of the occupation. Dinev’s stances made some liberal intellectuals feel he posed a danger to their hegemony. Some even attacked left activists for manipulating the students and thus corrupting the youth. They need the students in order to claim a monopoly over the youth, but students ought to remain silent for that to be possible.

Ruzha Smilova, a political scientist who supported the occupation last year, also scolded Dinev’s attempts to distinguish the occupation from #DANSwithme. He insists on its specific demands, the enthusiastic “construction of a new republic” at the University, the students’ attempt to add a more open meaning to #DANSwithme: a critique aimed at every government, regardless of color. Smilova stated this occupation could not have happened outside the #DANSwithme context and its demands did not substantially differ from the summer protests’.

Regardless of the achievements of the Occupation, it did nothing more than to cause a little discomfort. There are plenty of examples of youth politics that are completely neoliberal. Nevertheless, they lack alternative visions and uncritically identify with pro-EU liberal technocracy and patriotic cliches to the point of parody. An example would be the new student website Banitza. The positions articulated there are impotent and driven either by mere careerism or simply feebleness of ideas. They cannot have wider mobilizational efficiency in the long run. Thus, liberals may soon forget their praisa for the youth and enter into the moral panic regarding the alleged mass “post-communist nostalgia” among those born after 1989.

Monopoly over the image of the “youth” and its association with the “future” is fundamental for sustaining one’s hegemony. This is precisely why liberal activists and intellectuals take the struggle to frame the student occupation from 2013 so seriously. This is why the Left cannot stay aside in such conflicts and enjoy a position of a moral high-ground from which to condemn inconsistencies and contradictions of everyday practical politics.


One reply on “Bulgarian youth in the maelstrom of political struggles”

My name is Nikolay Nikolov and I am the founder of the online magazine Banitza mentioned in this article. I would like to mention that firstly, the author has misspelled the name; secondly, to argue that there is feebleness or careerism in the articles we publish (in Bulgarian or in English) shows, among other things, a limited and biased read by the author. I am disappointed that the editors of this magazine have included such unsubstantiated criticism within this article.

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