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“Bulgaria has still not reached the bottom”. An interview with Mariya Ivancheva.

Source: Sofia Globe

This interview was taken by Ioanna Drosou from the Greek newspaper Epohi and the original version in Greek is available here.

How would you comment on the result of the elections?

The results of the election are no big surprise for anyone. As some political commentators, myself included, predicted already in February 2013, when Boyko Borissov and GERB’s cabinet resigned, he was resigning in order to secure his return. His resignation occurred after days of violent protests caused by an increase of electricity prices, which resulted in the self-immolation of seven Bulgarians in the winter of 2013 (almost double by now), and many more casualties due to indebtedness and hopelessness among a growing number of the population. Back then, Borissov saved his political career. He did not want to propose reforms unpopular with the local and transnational capitalist class that benefited from the increase of electricity charges, but was also not willing to pay the price of losing popularity among the population. The government that came to power in the aftermath of his demise had to pay the price of Borissov’s and the previous government’s neoliberal reforms that privatized industries, services, and agrarian land, cut social expenditure in order to imitate economic growth, and pushed over a million Bulgarians to labor migration to Europe and beyond. The government of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), headed by Plamen Oresharski, was seen by some as a chance for the BSP to come back to its social democratic principles. Yet, even with the very choice of liberal financier Plamen Oresharski to lead the government, the BSP showed once again that the party is not even mildly social democratic. Its concessions to big business and problematic appointments became all too blatant during the “Triple coalition” government headed by the BSP and Sergey Stanishev (2005-2009). They were reaffirmed already in the first weeks of the Oresharski government, causing an extended protest wave. Yet, while the protests continued for over a year, even in their culmination when 50.000 people marched in the streets of Sofia, the leading voices remained those of Sofia-based relatively well-off, right-wing liberals, who came back to the old refrains of the 1990s for law, order, and free market capitalism. These voices never had significant reverberations in the rest of the population, for whom bread-and-butter issues of everyday survival amidst rampant recession – a quest to which neither the existing parties, nor the extra-parliamentary political actors involved in protests responded – were still a pressing priority. Thus, it was not months of protest that put an end to the Oresharski government, but the results of the European elections, in which the second party in the ruling coalition – the Movement for Rights and Liberties (DPS), representing the Turkish ethnic minority – came too close to the result of BSP. Their new confidence, and the effective bankruptcy of one of the biggest banks in Bulgaria, led to the new election. Given the neurotic split of the ruling coalition, and within BSP itself, BSP could not take advantage of the difficulty of the liberal right to unite around the Reformers’ Block, and the last moment regroupings in the far right. Boyko Borissov and GERB’s comeback was galvanized by all these processes. It was both predictable and alarming. It spoke of the failure of street politics to engender not only new political parties. They also fell short of articulating even a new thinking of politics or new requirements for the old political parties to deepen the democratic process and come up with a new social contract. And whereas until now no government or party has come to power for two subsequent mandates, the return to GERB is no “lesser evil”. It is just a signal of hopelessness, desperation, the emptiness of political imagination, which twenty five years of hard-core neoliberal capitalism have engendered, and a sad warning that Bulgaria has still not reached the bottom. Grave times are still ahead of us.

GERB didn’t manage to elect government. What are the scenarios about that?

Electoral Results Bulgaria 2014
The results of the general election in Bulgaria on the 5th of October: source Central Electoral Commission, Bulgaria.

Over the electoral campaign already GERB’s victory was clear, but it was also clear that they will not be able to gain full majority. This made them stage a number of conversations with parties on the right. None of these conversations seemed to lead anywhere as there was a lot of mutual black PR and blackmail, and attempts of GERB to split allies in other coalitions and parties. What was not clear was that eight parties would enter parliament, and five of them with results between 4-9%. So, with its roughly 33%, GERB needed not just one but two parties to coalesce with, were it to rule with a majority in Parliament. A coalition that would have made some sense – but not the necessary 50% – would have been GERB joining the Reformers Block (RB). The RB is a coalition a number of right-wing more or less liberal and very anti-communist and anti-BSP parties, recognized by big-town, educated, right-liberal supporters, as those who were protesting against Oresharski’s government. Yet, some of the RB politicians, and most of its voters, were turned off by Borissov and GERB. Thus, RB asked GERB not to put forward Boyko Borissov as Prime Ministers: a condition that precipitated the coalition talks. What is more, to have the full 50%, GERB (32,7%) and the RB (8,9%) would still need a third party to join in. Only the right-extreme Patriotic Block (PB) led by the National Front of Bulgarian Salvation (NFSB) had the sufficient 7,3% to join. Yet, to form the Patriotic Block, NFSB has joined ultra-right, irredentist, and white-supremacist party VMRO and they have been pushing anti-Turkish/Roma/refugee rhetoric and campaigns, making a coalition difficult, especially under the European eye. Thankfully, the combined vote between the two far right parties NFSB and ATAKA does not allow them to gather the necessary 17% to complete GERB. So, what seems the most probable solution at present is a minority government of GERB, which had been the case in their last mandate. DPS and NFSB seem to be the possible “tacit supporters” of this government. It might sound like a huge paradox to have a party representing an ethnic minority to stand by a government supported by a party consciously campaigning against this minority, but we have been this happening in the Oresharski Government where Ataka’s Volen Siderov secured the quorum of the minority coalition in Parliament. What is an even more cynical solution at present – but one mentioned tongue-in-cheek by GERB politicians these days – would be a coalition between GERB and BSP. This might be a political suicide for either BSP or GERB, but the fact that it is discussed as a viable proposal might also show the arrogance and impunity of the two parties. This coalition would not be a contradiction in terms: GERB and BSP have anyway stood up for similar Right-wing, neoliberal capitalist policies, and have represented different lobbies within the same political-cum-business elite. Their coalition will also be pretty much in line with the development on the international political front where the difference between Center-Right and social democratic parties has become negligible and their coalitions have been seen as viable solutions, as is the case with Angela Merkel’s Germany. In the 1990s and early 2000s we were thinking that the confusion between Left and Right in Eastern Europe was an anomaly – with Left-wing parties standing for big capital, and Right-wing ones retaining some moderate social-democratic policies, and all of them embracing free market reforms. What has happened in the meantime is that Eastern Europe did not progress toward the classical categories of Left and Right. Rather, politics in the West has moved closer to that of Eastern Europe in which both Left and Right stand for a similar set of policies, and political alternatives are only to be sought in more radical political formations or in street-level policies.

In two years you had 5 elections. How is the political situation?

This is not untypical for Bulgaria – since 1989 only three out of fourteen governments have completed their mandate. Now, as bad as this is for political stability, it is a sad irony that these three governments (Ivan Kostov 1997-2001, Simeon Sakskoburgotski 2001-2005, and Sergey Stanishev 2005-2009) have managed to cause most harm to the country. They have all followed policies of rampant privatization of industries, agrarian and reservation land, and services, serving the political and economic elite, an aggressive pro-NATO and pro-EU policy benefiting global invasionist armies and global and local capitalist corporations, blatant corruption and uncontrolled organized crime.  These unidirectional reforms, done under the rhetoric of no-choice-but-capitalism, have jeopardized the life and wellbeing of the rank-and-file Bulgarian. The last government Boyko Borissov (2009-2013), which was half a year short of full mandate, has also mostly followed these lines, and it did not seem the BSP/Oresharski government or the interim government that came after it had anything else to offer either. Sadly, the use of rotation for political prevention to at least not allow power to be concentrated in the hands of one and the same elite is not working in Bulgaria either. With or without a rapid rotation of parties in power, more or less the same people have benefited from government reforms since 2001. Just the most obvious case: Delyan Peevski, the notorious media mogul, former privatizer of the Varna port, whose appointment as a Head of the State Agency of National Security started the long wave of protests in 2013, has emerged out of this situation wealthier and more powerful. Not only did he remain an MP of DPS, and a main stakeholder of a huge proportion of the private media sector and of the privatized tobacco industry. He has also been the alleged beneficiary of credits given out by the rapidly bankrupting big Bulgarian bank Cooperative Trade Bank (KTB). His recent purchase of the privatized printing company, which makes him the owner of the two biggest printing companies in the country, has totally cemented his power, showing that in Bulgaria everything goes.

What about the left parties? We saw that the Communist Party had a coalition with the Socialist Party (BSP)? Why was that? What about the Bulgarian Left (Bulgarskata levitsa)? We also see that the ideas of the Left are gaining the trust of more and more people in Europe. Is the Bulgarian people still skeptical towards the Left due to the experience of the previous decades? What is the role of the social movements?

The Left has come out of the political crisis and the economic recession weaker rather than stronger. And here we need to be careful: the economic crisis of 2008 did not have such a deep and immediate impact on Bulgaria where alleged economic growth and a decreased public debt have happened at the expense of austerity and a decrease of social expenditure, financial deregulation, currency board and borrowing from international financial institutions, privatization and effective dismantlement of industries and liberalization of agricultural policies. Still, a decrease of the GDP per capita and growing unemployment have been felt since 2008, but that has not brought a significant Left-wing alternative. The weakness of the Left in Bulgaria is due to a combination of reasons: the discrediting of the old socialist/social democratic BSP parties because of its implementation of neoliberal policies and serving of the old nomenklatura and new business elites, the adoption by the Right-extreme of populist anti-neoliberal rhetoric, and the extra difficulty of having to articulate Left-wing ideas in an extremely anti-communist environment. BSP have retained the label “Left” and made it their own brand. Parties such as the Bulgarian Communist Party have been there all along, opposed to BSP, but with crypto-nostalgic, alarmingly nationalist, and deeply uncritical rhetoric toward state socialism, shady links with the former national and international socialist nomenklatura, and little to offer beyond that in terms of political and economic alternatives. By the end of the BSP’s last mandate in 2009 in a coalition government, this disguise was quite exhausted. That is roughly when the Bulgarian Left party was formed. Yet, by now, despite its membership in the European Left and a number of progressive statements, it has mostly fallen back to the rhetoric of the cryptic Left, with unrealistic wishful economic programs more suitable for the German rather than the Bulgarian context, and a redundant Cold War rhetoric that serves state-capitalist establishments as Putin’s Russia. Not being able to gain any prominence in a period of intense protests of social issues, the Bulgarian Left has significantly fallen behind in the most recent protests. Despite them winning almost 0.5% in the European election in May, a split within the party and the decision to join the early transition Green Party, has not brought any benefits. The combined result of the Bulgarian Left and the Green is now 0.2% – several times lower than the results of either party in the European Parliament elections and a clear sign that the Bulgarian Left party is in deep crisis and needs to rethink its strategy. Beyond the Bulgarian Left, the end of the BSP’s mandate in 2009 was also when further dissenters started splitting from the BSP and articulating alternatives in terms of pressure from the civic sector, and issue-based campaigns around fracking, labor rights, the TTIP etc. The anarchist movement had also recuperated and became more visible in the early 2000s, though it was still marginal and split around issues of strategy and engagement with the “Left” label. The entry of Bulgaria to the EU, that allowed mobility and studies abroad, has also generated a number of new initiatives and articulations on the Left. Established often by students in the social sciences and humanities, who started articulating a Left critical revision of the socialist past and critique of capitalism in the present, these initiatives have become more visible as an alternative to the BSP, but mostly in academic and liberal environments. While this was slowly happening, the BSP split with former President Georgi Parvanov’s Alternative for a Bulgarian Renaissance (ABV) gaining seats in Parliament. Both BSP and ABV have managed to parasitize on the anti-communist sentiment of the protests against the Oresharski government. ABV’s political agenda and future is still unclear and depends on how the new party will manage to differentiate itself from its own leader Parvanov and the BSP past. In the meantime, in a last attempt to save its face, the BSP came up with the label “BSP-Left Party”. So, parties such as the Communist Party have been invited to join in to reaffirm this image, and the fact they did shows how helpless and hopeless they have been in emancipating themselves against BSP. Still, BSP was helped in this initiative by a number of intellectuals with roots in the former nomenklatura who entered the electoral lists or simply the campaign, claiming that the BSP – one of the most neoliberal oligarchic parties in Europe – was “an anti-neoliberal” or “anti-capitalist” alternative. This move of people who were considered voices of the new Left, back to the BSP orbit, and the need of the new Left formations to take position vis-a-vis the openly anti-communist (though, technically anti-BSP) protests in summer 2013, has really fragmented and soured the dialogue on the Left. Other social movements in Bulgaria have also not been an easy target for the Left: the green movement or the groups which became active in the protests against the electricity prices have most often chosen other allegiances. They have often espoused anti-communist and eclectic and intrinsically contradictory pro-market values, mixed – among certain more marginal fractions – with conspiracy theories and crypto-fascist tendencies, which are difficult for the new Left to stomach. These days an initiative against TTIP/CETA/TISA is taking shape that is being guided by the new Left. It will test anew the extent to which the Left can come out of the thick shadow of the BSP and establish a distinct hegemonic voice within the plethora of movements with eclectic ideologies.

In Europe we see the neo-fascism to rise. Is this phenomenon obvious to Bulgaria?

The phenomenon is very obvious in Bulgaria and has been so since 2005 when nationalist, anti-Roma/anti-Turkish/anti-semitic and homophobic, right-extreme party ATAKA entered Parliament. Since then the right-extreme has quadrupled, bringing in new actors, such as the National Front of Liberation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and the VMRO-DPMNE, and an openly neo-Nazi white supremacist and skinhead Bulgarian Nationalist Party. The latter did not manage to garner electoral support, but its future is difficult to predict. What is really alarming about the extreme right in Bulgaria is a combination of two factors. On the one hand, while it is clear that they emerge at times of crisis and articulate themselves as alternative to the status quo, it is also evident that they have deep links with the traditional party actors and significant economic backing. A very clear case in point: the quorum in Parliament that voted the BSP and DPS’s minority government with PM Plamen Oresharski, was secured by the presence of the one decisive vote – that of Volen Siderov, the leader of ATAKA. Joining an alleged Left party like the BSP, and one which is supported by the Turkish ethnic minority, to which right-wing anti-Turkish ATAKA is so averse, Siderov seemed like a tragic figure committing political suicide. Yet, he clearly benefited by this deal: he has been able to stage a million-strong campaign with huge billboard with his face and a new TV station with a national broadcast. His party secured a result in Parliament despite the challenge by the Patriotic Front (NFSB and VMRO), making the combined result of the extreme right one of over 13%. This is extremely alarming, especially since for the time being the right extreme has been successful in articulating a rhetoric remotely resembling Latin American Left populism. It claims common good, services, jobs, and symbolic dignity for ethnically pure Bulgarians, presented as plagued ethnic minorities, and transnational flows of capital and humans. Inspected in depth, of course, the alternative they offer is not progressive – neither in the political liberties for minorities, nor economically, as the proposed nationalization of big industries seems to only go as far as suggesting a state capitalist model of development.  Yet, combined with a rhetoric of victimization of the Bulgarians in our past as an Ottoman colony, and the anti-immigrant, anti-Turkish, and anti-Roma sentiment, this rhetoric is successful in targeting working poor and unemployed Bulgarians. Thus, the extreme right has proved much more able – and financially enabled – to stage campaigns in small-town Bulgaria and poor neighborhoods in big cities where a lot of the electorate disenfranchised by the neoliberal reforms is residing. Addressing this electorate and winning a hegemony over the discourse of class solidarity among all marginalized groups in Bulgaria, is what social movements and a potential left-wing alternative needs to do, in order to cut across growing interethnic tensions. And in the current Parliamentary constellation in which extreme right parties will most probably gain significant concessions as tacit supporters of GERB’s minority government, this task is all the more urgent and pressing for social movements and the tiny Left to engage with.


Mariya Ivancheva is a post-doctoral research fellow at the School of Social Justice, University College Dublin and a member of the editorial board of LeftEast.