The several days spent in the atmosphere of the Sofia political protests predictably led me to compare them to the Russian experience of 2011-2012. Despite the significant contextual differences, these two movements could be seen as part of а single—but to an even greater degree—a potential East European protest wave. As such, its analysis and the strategy based on it become major questions for the radical left.
One of the characteristics of the protest movements in both Russia and Bulgaria is their sudden birth in the absence of a preceding tradition of mass street politics. In societies, which until recently seemed inert, which carried the traumas of the market transitions of the 1990s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of citizens abruptly announce their desire to participate in political life and change the status quo of their country. Yet this overcoming of the political passivity of previous years not only fails to help their search of social identity but rather, turns into reality the constructs developed by the liberal mainstream. People flock to the streets so that they could express distrust in the political elite and finally speak in their own name—but do so in the language successfully inculcated by this very elite.
In both Moscow and Sofia, the protesters describe themselves as “the middle class” rising up against the unbreakable paternalistic coalition between the oligarchs and the lower orders. Thus, the myth of “two Russias”—the first creative and Western-oriented—and second, backward and parasitic upon high oil prices—was among the most popular motifs of the spokesmen of the Moscow protests. By describing the protestors as a minority, and thus, depriving them of a claim to a broader, all-Russian agenda, such accounts cemented their inner class solidarity. This debilitating binary stood in the way of strategic efforts to create a broader social coalition, replacing them with an ethical feeling based on individual moral satisfaction from protest participation.
On its part, the governing elite gladly supported such configuration of forces. Thus, Vladimir Putin’s electoral campaign in February 2012 was largely based on a populist representation of “the silent majority,” preoccupied with life in dark provincial towns and villages and not ready to part with its “stability” for the sake of the spurious claims of idlers from the capital. From what I gathered, the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has also used such social conservative rhetoric.
We must also note that the authorities’ reliance on “the majority” in the context of a global austerity politics has little long-term basis. For example, in Russia, after an election campaign loaded with talk of “people of labor,” Putin’s government immediately took to the realization of neoliberal pension reform, to yet another assault on state education, and also to completing the process of the country’s entry into WTO.
In this circumstance, the ruling elite’s main tool becomes a certain version of cultural wars in which “the silent majority” becomes united not so much through mirages of social stability as with the help of traditional morality, religion, and discipline.
This line of replacement of politics with ethics, as mentioned earlier, receives the full support of the protestors. This orientation towards “values” enables the intersection of generations: in both Russia and Bulgaria the protestors are young, educated people as well as veteran “democrats” from the 1990s, who join the movement with their preset political culture and geopolitical orientation. The chaos in the heads of “the democratic intelligentsia,” which was solidified in the process of the market transition (which destroyed the intelligentsia itself as a distinct social stratum) is once again replaced by an orderly image of the world in which the few “decent people” challenge the whole communist totalitarianism.
In this context, the left is the one force capable of breaking through this futile confrontation. Questions of the real social composition of the movement, of the conditionality of “this middle class” and the necessity of a genuine social agenda become key for the political perspectives of the movement as a whole. We, of course, can’t dismiss the slogans against corruption and in defense of democracy as mere “false consciousness” to be replaced by anti-capitalist demands. On the contrary, we must show that in the model of capitalism practiced in this part of the world, corruption is not a defect but a decisive structural element. In the same way, the free market doesn’t rhyme with political freedoms but in fact precludes their realization.
All of these recommendations are, of course, difficult to put into practice. Today, in both Bulgaria and Russia, the radical left is isolated from society and its resources and capacities remain severely limited. The famous “pessimism of the intellect” dictates a certain caution and restraint from unnecessary emotions and hasty judgments. Nevertheless, the current politicization of broad sections of society is precisely one such opportunity to overcome our isolation not to be trifled away.