Elections in an exhausted Bulgaria: another challenge on the European front

source: New Left Pesrpectives
source: Boyko Borissov's facebook page
source: Boyko Borissov’s facebook page

The pre-term elections in Bulgaria scheduled to take place in October come in the midst of a deep political crisis and social disarray. Bulgaria’s right oriented vote in the past two decades has cost the country low budget redistribution, non-existent public services and social destabilization. Thousands of Bulgarian workers commence on a journey to Germany’s slaughter houses or Poland’s agricultural fields as they cannot secure employment in Bulgaria. In this respect, the unfolding enmity towards the working poor on a European scale, and as expressed in the openly declared battle against migrant labor coming from the East, may cost Bulgaria the anyways shaky social peace. Bulgaria needs to immediately address social inequalities.

In February 2013, Bulgaria erupted in the most massive protests to come after the early 90s. The wave of disarray was provoked by extremely high electricity and heating bills often exceeding one’s monthly salary. As barricades, self-immolations, daily street presence and police violence intensified the government at the time, the center right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) resigned. The situation in the country brought to power the neoliberal Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) in coalition with the liberal Movements for Rights and Freedom (DPS) which selected the independent Plamen Oresharski for a prime minister. The silence on the streets did not last for long when the infamous oligarch Delyan Peevski, was appointed head of the state agency for national security.  Despite 400 days of protest, BSP only resigned when the political and economic crisis escalated beyond proportion. A severe loss of votes to its coalition partner DPS and its rival GERB cracked the coalition. An acute banking crisis emptied out the little legitimacy that the financier PM had left to lose.

The Bulgarian year of turmoil, 2013, did not see solely fierce opposition to the ruling parties of GERB and then to the Socialists.An acute societal division along class lines surfaced. As the protests in the summer of 2013 erupted, the participants were quick to distinguish themselves from the outcry that shook the country just a few months earlier. In February, people were united around demanding nationalization of the foreign owned energy industry. In contrast, the summer protests were mostly confined to pro-EU and pro-free market demands.  The so-called “summer protesters,” the self-proclaimed “creative and capable of paying bills class,” quickly pronounced themselves the only legitimate strata competent of “real” change. They declared the working poor to be guilty of the failed Transition and internalized the western attitude towards Bulgaria of a backwards country that is incapable of embracing the true culture of democracy and free markets. The political environment in Bulgaria, however, does not show any signs of even slight desire for building up alternatives to the main model followed in the past 18 years.

The country’s political map is like the little equivalent of the one of the European Parliament. The only difference is that what could be a representative of the European Left Party cannot be even detected on the horizon of the near future. With no serious opposition from the left, the BSP’s course remains in the right spectrum. When it comes to substantial politics, as looked through the prism of European politics, the main political parties in the country, BSP and GERB, are only in a seeming opposition. The Party of European Socialists (PES)’s rightist direction is well felt in Bulgaria as its leader, Sergey Stanishev was until recently also a leader of the Bulgarian socialists. The newly elected head of the socialist party, Mikov is only a protégé of the previous headship of BSP.  BSP is responsible for pushing through some of the most neoliberal policies such as stiff liberalization of the public sector, lowering of the corporate tax and the introduction of the flat tax for private persons. And even though BSP’s election campaign is organized under the motto “BSP – Bulgaria of the Left,” the cosmetic changes in the leadership of the party do not suggest substantial change. Non-conformist left is absent in Bulgaria.

Against this background, as the country is getting ready to vote in early October, Bulgaria is run by the President Plevneliev’ assigned expert government. Collapsing energy sector, health care system in a disarray, unemployment still on the grow, budget balance in the negative, and a potential banking crisis are the status quo of today. The main deeds of the current governments however, are expressed in cobbling the road for GERB’s coming home and preparing the country for withdrawing a brand new loan. Boyko Borisov, GERB’s leader has stated that he would only run the country under the condition of GERB getting an absolute majority.

GERB’s utmost devotion to EPP in general and Merkel’s political leadership in particular, in combination with BSP’s continuous support for rightist reforms, leaves no chances for a platform that seeks social change in the poorest EU country. GERB’s formula of governance, as declared by Borisov on August 31 and expressed in the formula GERB + Germany can only result in a perilous war against the working poor.

And it is they who pose the biggest challenge for Bulgaria’s next government on both the national and international arena. The unemployment rate in the country is growing proportionally to the raising prices and the devastation of economies throughout. In April 2014, the largest trade union in Bulgaria published a report according to which 20% live under the poverty line and 80% of the households live with a total income which is under the normal living standard. The campaign “Clean clothes” recently found that the employed in the garment industry, one of the strongest industries in the country in terms of employment and export, receive salaries comparable or under the ones received by sweatshop workers in China and Indonesia. The largest export markets to this industry are Italy and Germany.  And if people in Bulgaria expect more socially oriented policies expressed in lessening of unemployment and firm measures against growing poverty, what the northern wind brings to us can be described as not even close to the above.  The latter is well exemplified by the overall attitude of the EU towards the social collapse in Bulgaria as seen for example in the recent measures against Bulgaria’s labor migrants in the EU. As emigration has been Bulgaria’s faithful companion throughout the so-called Transition, the phenomena has been the country’s barometer for both its internal politics but also for the overall relation between the EU and Bulgaria. As a rather telling instance, the relations between Bulgaria and Germany – the strongest EU economy and most desired partner for the Bulgarian government – have been precipitating over the issue of labor migration.

In the past two years, little by little we witnessed both on national and supra-national level, how one of the main principles of the EU – freedom of movement – underwent qualitative change in its meaning. From being considered a right to strive for and one of the liberals’ main strongholds against Socialist regimes, freedom of movement came to be associated more so with its potentiality to enable abuse of nation-states’ social security systems. The attack on the principle of freedom of movement is, in its essence, an attack on countless of working poor.

January 1, 2014, marked the opening of the labor markets of all EU states to Bulgarian labor. In March 2013 David Cameron was firm that the U.K will not be able to sustain the “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians.” In the next year and a half, the UK continuously showed how miffed they are over the fact that “freedom of movement needs to be less free” but nobody takes such propositions seriously.  Heinz Fischer recommented in 2013 that the poor Bulgarians need to be restricted from movement for a year or two after their deportation. Despite the political turmoil that took place in early 2013 in Bulgaria, Tsvetan Tsvetnov,  Bulgaria’s Minister of Interior at the time assured the western elite that Bulgaria will undertake measures to prevent the “social benefit tourism.”

Brussels responded. In early January 2014, Viviane Reding taunted the UK government in spreading anti-immigrant sentiments.  Earlier on, in October 2013, Laszlo Andor quarreled with David Cameron over allegations that EU migrants (to be read Bulgarian) are abusing U.K.’s social system. Andor’s spokesperson, Jonathan Todd assured the public that in fact the “immigrants” are contributing to the welfare system and “pay more in tax and social security contributions than they receive in benefits.” On January 13, 2014, the European Commission (re)published a guide that is supposed to direct nation states in their handling of EU immigrants and to place the boundaries around habitual residence. When introducing the guide, Andor was clear that discriminatory remarks need to be halted but EU principles cannot stimulate welfare abuse either.

On January 1 2014, all EU labor markets opened doors to labor coming from Bulgaria. The attack on Bulgarian citizens, which invoked images of empty social security garners and waves of desperate “poverty migrants” was soon to give results. And as political commentators compared the attack to the one that took place in 2004 after Poland’s joining the Union, two significant differences are detected. The very tangible possibility this time around restrictions to be placed on freedom of movement within the EU on the one hand and the continuous application of austerity measures as found in the aftermath of 2008 on the other. The wealthier states’ hostility towards migrant labor can be read in Germany’s newly adopted 139-pages report called “Legal issues and challenges before the abuse of the social security system by members of the EU.”  The purpose of the report is to introduce legislative possibilities for halting movement for EU citizens if it is somehow linked to abuse of welfare.

What is locked in Germany’s proposition is the result of a two-year-battle against flexible and subcontracted migrant labor. Before 2014, many relied on the so-called self-employment as acquiring working permit could take up to six months, if at all such permit was to be granted. But flipping from the category of self-employed, hence regular, to fake self-employed, hence irregular, is quite easy as the former pertains to an unobservable amount of bureaucracy. Germany’s report holds propositions for reentry bans in cases of fraud and abuse of freedom of movement; limits to the time available for seeking employment; limits to child benefits; measures against the so-called “faked self-employed,” etc. If these take hold, countless of people will have to go back home. Not much has changed after January 1 as many still have to rely on self-employment in order to access the labor market.

Germany is not the only EU actor with similar requisitions. The U.K., the Netherlands and France are to immediately follow suit if the Federal Republic succeeds in its endeavor. Such measures do not have to be pushed on the national level but have to only pass municipal orders in major EU cities in order for thousands to be affected. And as much as freedom of movement has enabled extreme levels of migrant labor exploitation within core countries in the Union, the abandoning of it, in combination with ever melting socio-economic situation in countries such as Bulgaria, is a ticking bomb.

At the very least, freedom of movement provides for an escape, and hence some sort of safety net for many who fell victim of the so-called Transition. Emigration, unfortunately, might be the only possible escape for the hundreds of the victims in one of the largest social disasters taking place in the entire country as of right now. Namely, the floods which lasted the whole summer and left numerous people homeless, with flooded provisions and agricultural lands under water.

Bulgaria, more than ever, needs an emergency plan. Such plan cannot be locked in propositions for more austerity measures or turning the whole country to an exporter of easily exploitative labor. Such plan instead has to provide for radical rupture from the gross social inequalities.  The alliances between political elites in Europe, e.g. between Borisov and Merkel, need to be broken as soon as possible if we are not to enter even more scandalous failures as compared to the ones since 2008. Neo-liberal parties such as PES and its representative in Bulgaria BSP need to be superseded by a new political force that represents precisely those who have been and continue to be framed as benefit abusers. Contrary to what the summer protesters cry out for, if we are to take an exit out of the crisis, this exit cannot be defined through what the EU offers us at the moment. Bulgaria has to adequately debate instead the past 25 years in light of the right turn it took and reconsider the politics that brought about unseen inequality: denationalization, the flat tax, destruction in the public sector.

uf-picRaya Apostolova is from Sofia and a Ph.D. student at the Central European University, Budapest.

By Raia Apostolova

Raia Apostolova is from Sofia and a Ph.D. student at the Central European University, Budapest.