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The unfolding of the Bulgarian political crisis of 2013

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

georgi-medarovThe upcoming EP elections will be a test for all major parties in Bulgaria, after a year of constant protests aiming to challenge the status quo. In February 2013 there were massive and spontаnеous nation-wide anti-austerity demonstrations, triggered by electricity price hikes. They finally resulted in bringing down the center-right government of the time, led by Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (abbreviated GERB in Bulgarian). These protests came as a surprise to the elite, shattering what was before taken as a “common sense”: namely the sanctity of private property, as they called for nationalization of foreign-owned electricity distribution companies.

The populist, in the positive sense, movement marked a rupture with all previous mass mobilizations for several reasons. Apart from demanding nationalization, it brought together people from various backgrounds from all over Bulgaria. For instance, thousands of Roma, who arguably occupy the most marginal social positions and tend to be politically passive, took to the streets. It also combined social grievances with discontent from the “lack” of “real” democracy. But all this does not mean it was socialist. The spontaneous eruption remained apolitical on many levels, shifting its economic demands to generalized anger with all parties and even political representation as such. In this sense it bore certain resemblances with Occupy or the Indignados. It not only rejected “ideologies” but also projected antagonism onto the “political class”. Thus, it remained unable to formulate social and/or class divisions, and ultimately its position vis-a-vis capital. Nevertheless, the ruling elite had to somehow adapt.

The need to adapt was even stronger when new center-left coalition government, led by the ex-communist-turned-neoliberal Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), was elected in May. The government presented itself as technocrats able to respond to the imperatives of the international markets. Protests started again in June owing to the appointment of a media mogul as head of the national security agency; now anger was directed against the transformation of economic into political power. However, protesters failed to place what was going on in a wider global context; instead they saw a “corruption scandal”, another symptom of what was seen as “a plot by a shadow elite” coming to haunt us from the socialist past.

The ruling coalition, and especially BSP, saw the new protest movement, which came to be extremely persistent even when its numbers dwindled after a few months of daily demonstrations, as a possibility to regain legitimacy. What aided the government was that a number of the participants in the Summer protests were prolific in distancing themselves from the February protest. They claimed that in February it was the “the poor” demanding “unjust benefits from the state”, whereas now the “well-off”, “rensponsible”, “middle class”, able “pay their bills” who were “marching for morality”. The Right tried to revive aggressive anti-communism from the 1990s, claiming that the current government has a secret plan to leave the EU and seek closer integration with Russia. Even more absurd is that the Right presents Putin as a communist, and Russia’s attempts for regional economic integration as a restoration of USSR. Particularly smaller right-wing parties were on this track, threatening Bulgaria with a “Ukrainian scenario” and even a “civil war”.

All this despite the fact that the Bulgarian government did not support the referendum in Crimea and called for economic sanctions against Russia. More importantly, the government did not question the EU neoliberal-austerity consensus on a national level either. For example, they pushed for further privatization in the public sector, lower taxes, budget discipline, etc. Needless to say, these issues were not challenged by the Right, who insisted BSP is “restoring totalitarianism”. In other words, BSP did not have to reform its actual stance, but simply point towards rightists chanting BSP are “communists”. Thus, paradoxically, BSP succeeded in extracting legitimacy from the very protests that aimed to challenge the government they headed. The Right cannot challenge the current government for its neoliberal policies as that would mean identifying it as virtually the same. Hence, it is trapped into claiming the country is ran by communists in disguise, despite the lack of virtually anything that could be deemed as remotely social-democratic, let alone socialist, anti-capitalist or radical.

Still, BSP had to do some maneuvers in order to reclaim its “left” identity for the EP elections. BSP decided to run candidates supposedly representing the “New Left” tendency in their lists. One of them is Alexander Simov, a journalist from BSP. At a recent public meeting organized by BSP, he claimed we are seeing “New Left intellectuals” taking over BSP. Ironically, he spoke sitting next to another BSP prominent member and one of the key Bulgarian capitalists. Apart from his justifications of Russian imperialism, Simov is among the most vocal and uncritical supporters of the current government.

The label “New Left” was initially used by smaller political groups, such as “New Left Perspectives” or “Solidary Bulgaria”. Such initiatives were among the few that articulated (yet marginal) challenge to BSP from the Left. Here “New Left” was used in order for these activists to distance themselves simultaneously from the (neo)liberal mainstream, and the traditional left entrapped by nostalgia for socialism and thus open for appropriation by both BSP as well as commercialized market niches for nostalgic commodities. Vania Grigorova, an activist from “Solidary Bulgaria”, wrote that under “the sign of radical left” BSP is now trying to sweep more extreme neoliberal measures under the carpet. Certainly this is true, but even more interesting are the social mechanisms that make such a sign efficient. And I think we cannot separate this from the political deadlock I have described: on the one hand, the Right that is legitimizng BSP by calling them “communists”, and on the other, the lack of a serious challange to BSP from the Left.

The gap that is opened by the missing left is currently being filled also by a new political project, supported by big capital, called Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC). BWC is lead by Nikolay Barekov, a mainstream journalist who was famous for his close links with GERB during their government. However, during the protests in 2013 he rapidly shifted and became one of their critics. Barekov hosted a show called “Bulgaria Without Censorship”, after which he named his party. The show consisted of big public debates in the squares of dozens of cities where all kinds of dispossessed and marginalized groups came to share their truly heartbreaking stories of misfortune and suffering. Barekov was joined by Angel Slavchev who started his political career as an activist for a small radical left party called the Bulgarian Left and later became one of the leaders of the February protests. Slavchev, although he liked to call himself “Che” while he was still part of the Left, always claimed left/right distinctions are a thing of the past and now it is a time for national unity against foreign dangers. Barekov is into a similar line, arguing simultanеously that what is needed is “capitalism with a human face” or that “wild capitalism should be left only in the history textbooks”, but at the same time calling for the support of big business. Polls show permanent upward trend in the support for BWC, now over 5.5 %, hence very possibly they will have at least one MEP elected. Neshka Robeva, an ex-gymnast and currently the choreographer of a series of grandiose nationalist-volkish dance spectacles and one of Barekov’s supporters, at one point claimed what she enjoyed about BWC is it is “not political, but an artistic project”. What could be more literal reminder of Benjamin’s famous claim that fascism gives to the “masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves”. Surely fascism is too strong qualifications, but BWC already adopted extreme right positions against Syrian refugees and entered into a coalition with a smaller far=right party.

Тhe constant reshuffling of the elite in order to keep the dominant position of capital recallsLampedusa’s famous quote from Il Gattopardo – “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Only a radical left alternative could break this vicious cycle. However, the formation of a radical left party cannot be done by decree or voluntaristic choice. For instance, the only such an attempt now is the Bulgarian Left, but in the 2013 elections they got a mere 0.167%. This is not to blame the party itself as it is faced with tremendous challenges. Being left they cannot enjoy the backing of big business, unlike BSP, BWC and the rest of the mainstream. They had minimal access to the mass media, but more importantly, remained cut off from popular mobilizations. Only engagement with concrete struggles, for instance against water privatization, might build up the needed coalitions for a potential representative politics. Moreover, this is the only way to create concrete and not abstract solidarities, based on blank statements without any power to mobilize. One last thing to add is that radical left ideas are not just hanging in the air waiting to be grabbed. The boring work for their articulation could be only embedded in concrete social practices challenging the liberal hegemony and providing the needed tools for political intervention in the current historical conjuncture.