In Greece, a place all too familiar with poverty and the results of “austerity”, Bulgaria is reknowned for starvation wages (although the cost of living is far cheaper), the host country for Greek companies looking for cheap labour and as the site of dangerous nuclear power plants.
“You do not want to become like Bulgaria” has been the cry of the Greek’s mainstream politicians and media acolytes - although recently the most “adventurous” of the Greek politicians and capitalists have been flirting with the idea of the Greek minimum wage and workers’ rights sinking to Bulgarian standards.
Then the Bulgarian working-class stormed into the news with their militancy and defiance in overthrowing the right-wing government of Boyko Borisov on 20 Feburary. Borisov had pushed through austerity measurements and privatised all the country’s resources condemning the majority of the population to extreme poverty and destitution.
For over ten days last month Bulgaria was saturated with demonstrations in all of Bulgaria’s cities.
In the last twenty years successive neoliberal governments in Bulgaria have privatised all the country’s utility companies — water, energy, power, communications, banks, hospitals, transport, roads, airports, ports and even a part of social insurance, has been handed over for peanuts into the hands of private companies, a majority based in Germany.
In July 2012 the three private companies monopolising Bulgaria’s electricity network, the Czech CEZ and the Austrian Energo Pro and EVN, announced increases of 13% in electricity bills. The average Bulgarian would have to fork out 25% of his/her wages to pay for electricity.
Youth and workers began to organise against the eincreases with massive protests holding placards with slogans like “We will not pay”. The movement grew rapidly and the protesters’ demands started to include the elimination of all hikes and regressive taxes.
From 10 February the government was faced with a series of demonstrations of thousands and sometimes tens of thousands all demanding the government’s resignation.
On Sunday 17 February, 100,000 protesters flooded the centre of Sofia while tens of thousands marched in Blagoevgrad, Varna, Plovdiv and other major cities.
On the same day thousands of protesters attempted to occupy the central offices of the Power Company.
On Monday 18 February tens of thousands took to the streets of Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna again, this time seeking nationalisations of all Bulgaria’s utility companies. The next day Borisov sacked his Finance Minister and hinted that he would reduce the electricity prices. He even pledged to revoke the licences of the three electricity companies.
But that evening tens of thousands of protesters demanded the downfall of the government and clashes with riot police took place in the centre of Sofia near the parliament. Eleven were arrested and dozens were injured. Borisov resigned on Wednesday afternoon.
This ten-day nationwide protest was enough for the government of Borisov — who wanted to become a pragmatist Putin of the Balkans — to collapse. “Another victim of austerity” wrote the German magazine Der Spiegel!
“The most important aspect of those days was that people no longer fear to challenge state power,” said sociologist Haral Alexandrov.
“When the refrigerator overpowers TV”. This was the phrase used by a Bulgarian journalist and aptly describes the social explosion that struck Bulgaria. On the one hand, a government that implements a rigid austerity plan fixated by fiscal numbers. On the other hand, the masses of youths, workers, and pensioners who are “opening their fridge” to see their stocks being depleted day-by-day.
The 53-year old Borisov tried to portray himself as a hero, saying that he was forced to resign because “I could not participate in a government, where citizens are beaten by police and threats of demonstrations replace the political debate”.
The truth is very different. As revealed by news agency Focus, Borisov, resigned on the recommendation of the US embassy in Sofia and to defuse the popular explosion. Ultimately, It was the wrath of Bulgarian voters, the momentum and militancy shown by the movement against the increases in the electricity prices, that led to the resignation of Borisov.
At the heart of the government was the “centre-right” party GKERMP (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria. GKERMP literally means “crown”). It was created in 2006 by Boyko Borisov when he was Mayor of Sofia.
Borisov’s CV is as follows. A karate athlete in his youth, he was the bodyguard of Stalinist dictator Zivkov in the 80s. He became an arms dealer and founder of a “Sports Club” (companies of “security”/bodyguards), taking advantage of a 1996 bankruptcy to establish himself as a “businessman”.
Borisov was in charge of the “protection” of former king of Bulgaria Simeon Saxe Coburg Gotha, who when he became prime minister in 2001 assigned Borisov to the Interior Ministry.
In 2005 Borisov broke with Simeon and became the Mayor of Sofia, winning the council elections under the agenda of “Law and Order” and plenty of doses of racism against Roma and Turkic speaking minorities. He founded GKERMP and won the election in 2009. As a prime minister Borisov comes from the classical neo-liberal right which emerged from the countries of the former Eastern bloc. Initially he was very popular. In parliament he is supported by the fascist party Ataka (“Attack National League”).
During his time in government, Borisov fully served American interests in the region (blocking the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline in full collaboration with George Papandreou), but also tightening Bulgaria’s link with Germany.
The huge hikes in electricity prices were brought in by the three large private companies, with full government consent. Needless to say, this demonstrated clearly to the Greek people what the “miracle” of the purported release of electricity and the sale of DEH had in store for us!
With his resignation, Borisov wanted to buy time, but also to leave the opposition unprepared for the election battle ahead. The elections, scheduled for July, will now take place in late April. But the economic situation is bleak and it would be difficult for Borisov to regain the support of his voters. The harsh austerity imposed by his right wing government, has balanced the budget, drastically reduced the deficit (1.5%) and public debt at 19.6% of GDP in 2012. But unemployment reached 11.9% and the average family monthly income does not exceed 400 euros.
The Bulgarian government has been a role model for and the most obedient student of the IMF and EU. They have faithfully fully executed the orders of Brussels and Washington, causing jubilation to both political leaders and technocrats in the two imperialist organizations. Privatization? Excellent performance — the country’s electrification has not only been given over to private companies, but these companies are foreign!
The Bulgarian economy has some of the “best” indicators in Europe. It has the third lowest debt in the EU; inflation is at 1.61%; the national currency has been “locked” into a fixed parity, 2:1 (approximately) with the euro, and it is expected to be the next country to join t,he Eurozone.
This is all in stark contrast to Greece who, so say EU and IMF propaganda, have not applied correctly and quickly enough the Troika’s orders.
But Bulgaria is still the poorest country in the EU. The minimum wage has long been just €380 per month, the vast majority of Bulgarian workers take home no more than €500 and the average pension is around €150 per month. Bulgaria is bottom of the EU league table for per capita income. Degrading and slashed down salaries for the workers and hunger pensions for the elderly, while all the country’s resources and wealth — the water services, electricity, telecommunications, etc — are fully privatised.
But that the Bulgarian people overthrew an unpopular, ultra neo-liberal, EU-US biased government should be food for thought for the European and the Greek left in particular. In politics we need to take up the slogan “We should all become Bulgarians!” The victory of the Bulgarian working class/people was the result of the large, continuous, and united mobilisations of the people.
When working class people and popular strata are united and determined, then no government, no troika, no media acolytes, no monied interests, no repression can stop them.
The protests in Bulgaria were organised by social media following in the footsteps of Spain’s indignants. Thousands of Bulgarians are still in the streets.
From the struggle of the workers in Bulgaria we can draw the following rough conclusions:
1. It has emphatically demolished the stereotype of “the defeated and inactive workers of the former Eastern bloc”. The resistance movements in Romania, Slovenia and now in Bulgaria, demonstrate that the emergence of new anti-capitalist left organisations is at a preliminary stage but on the agenda.
2. It has emphatically demolished the stereotype that “we can not do anything” and “austerity is unbeatable.” Our working class brothers and sisters in these countries, where the anti-capitalist left is in its infancy and with no prior historical experience, where trade unionism is almost forbidden and where the working class have experienced the full exploitation of capitalism, are showing us the path of resistance.
3. It highlights the influence of instinctive internationalist class solidarity and the inter-linkage of movements from country to country. From Bahrain to New York, the working class is resisting the barbarity of capitalism.
4. It exposes in all its “glory” the result of the memorandum/austerity programmes: selling off public utilities and public services, the causaliation of labour relations, the abolition of collective bargaining agreements, tax breaks on capital, reductions in wages and pensions, and increases in direct and indirect taxation for the working class. These things have one sole aim — the impoverishment of the working people in order to enrich and preserve the profits of a handful of local and foreign capitalists.
The only solution lies with independent working-class organisations — trade unions and political struggles. The Bulgarian workers need political representation — their own political entity ready to clash with the vested interests of the ruling class, with a revolutionary and ecological programme that gives perspective and goals to their struggles and ties these with the struggles of other workers in nearby countries.
Stable and permanent solutions cannot be achieved at an isolated national level. For this, the ultimate goal of the Bulgarian working class and popular strata can only be the struggle against the EU of capital and multinationals and for socialism in the Balkans as part of a socialist federation of a democratic, equal and voluntary Europe.
Anti-capitalism in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria there have long been active, but small anti-capitalist groups; they have had major weaknesses and lacked connections to the working class.
The unions have been crushed by the successive right-wing governments of 1997-2005. Individual contracts were signed and trade unionism was almost illegal, regarded as an activity punishable by dismissal. Some small organisations of the revolutionary left and the anarchist milieu were oriented towards the ecology and social rights movements.
But in December 2008 Bulgarian anti-capitalist groups protested outside the Greek Embassy in solidarity with the December 2008 uprising in Greece.
Channels of communication were opened between the Bulgarian anti-capitalist activists and the left-wing anti-capitalist and anarchist organisations in the north of Greece.
From 2010, industrial and ecological/social movement struggles have erupted in Bulgaria. There have been mobilisations against landfills and a squatters movement.
There has been a long term strike at the Litex plant against decreases in wages, a hospital workers' strike against the privatisation of health and starvation wages for hospital workers.
More recently there has been a major railway workers' strike against the privatisation of the railways.
Bulgarian protesters care unemployed and precarious workers, educated youth who are "looking forward" to having to leave Bulgaria, discredited industrial workers with starvation wages, doctors and teachers who are daily experiencing the plundering of their public infrastructure, sweatshop workers of multinationals without rights and starvation wages, and pensioners.
The neo-Nazi party Ataka tried to intervene in the protests, as did the nationalist VMRO.
Ataka adopted the demand for the nationalisation of the electricity grid, as Borisov promised to renegotiate the contracts to exploit the energy market in the country!
A similar view was also expressed by the VMRO, stating that it is seeking to prosecute and expel the foreign companies from the region of Pirin Macedonia.
VMRO did not specify if the goal is to nationalise the local network, or to hand it over to local private Macedonian capitalists.