Austerity policies imposed by governments throughout Eastern Europe are provoking social convulsions in one country after another. In a short span of time we have seen mass opposition arising in Hungary, Slovenia (where a public sector general strike paralysed the country on January 23), Croatia, the Czech Republic, Romania and elsewhere. Mass protests have erupted also in Bulgaria. On Tuesday, February 19, a demonstration in Sofia against austerity measures and high energy prices escalated in clashes after harsh police intervention, resulting in 25 people injured.
“We are an absolute island of stability”
(Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, Financial Times, December 5, 2012)
Over the past years we have constantly stressed the idea that under the present conditions of capitalist crisis any attempt by the ruling classes to re-establish economic stability will inevitably provoke social convulsions and political instability. This is particularly true for weaker capitalist countries like Bulgaria whose government was praised for following a path of austerity measures in spite of having the lowest public debt in the Eurozone (just 20% of the GDP). The government crisis in Bulgaria is only the latest development that confirms this forecast.
It is ironic in the present situation that just a couple of months ago Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev was declaring to the Financial Times that “We are an absolute island of stability” (FT Special Report on Bulgaria, December 5, 2012). This declaration may seem completely delusional with today's eyes, but was based on the assumption that the Bulgarian masses would persist in their state of political apathy and passivity indefinitely. That assumption – and the same could be said for any other country – proved to be profoundly wrong.
Boiko Borisov, leader of the GERB centre-right party (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) resigned on Wednesday, February 20th, from his premiership, after 3 years in office. This move comes as a surprise after Borisov had just 24 hours earlier ruled out the possibility that he would resign and promised that electricity bills would be cut by 8 percent. The declared motivation for this decision “I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people,” as reported by the Guardian, could possibly be part of a desperate attempt to shuffle cards and recover support for forthcoming early elections probably due in April. However, whichever manoeuvres Borisov is resorting to, the triumph in the 2009 general elections when GERB won with a landslide, scoring 39.7% of the votes, seems long gone.
A Mood against the System
At the beginning of February Bulgarian households received shockingly high electricity and gas bills, increased by 50 to 100% over previous peak levels in a situation where abnormal ratios of these bills to average salaries and pensions have been a problem for years. The amounts charged were exceeding the monthly income of many people, especially of elderly people on lower pensions which can be as low as 150 Euros per month.
A spontaneous protest movement spread like wildfire with thousands of people blocking roads and burning their utility bills in front of the offices of the privatised electricity distribution companies (particularly the Czech-owned CEZ), often ending up in attempts to break into these offices and the inevitable clashes with the police. During the first two weeks of February major demonstrations and protests were held in 35 cities.
What may have forced the government resignation is that the wave of discontent is not affecting just the poorest layer, but even small business people and the middle layers who represented the main social base of support for GERB are taking part in the demonstrations as they feel threatened by impoverishment.
Symptoms of desperation expressed the general mood when two men set themselves on fire in two different events of self-immolation – a 30 years old man set himself on fire in front of the municipality of Varna and another died after doing the same in a central street of Veliko Tarnovo.
The sacking on Monday by Borisov of finance minister Simeon Djankov, the architect of fiscal austerity measures such as pension and wage freezes over the past three years, far from achieving a truce with the protesters, further encouraged them.
However, it would be wrong to ascribe the cause of the present movement just to the event which triggered it, that of the rising utility bills. In spite of the promises of future prosperity, corruption at the highest level is endemic while most people live with a fraction of the average income of other EU countries (living standards are equivalent to 45% of the EU average) and with wages averaging about 400 Euros a month and pensions about half that. What this movement shows is a deep and profound discontent accumulated over the years towards the whole system.
Al Jazeera carried the following interesting comment by Bulgarian journalist Mariya Petkova:
“Bulgarians started comparing the protests with the wave of demonstrations in 1997, which escalated to the point where protesters stormed the parliament and forcefully toppled the BSP government. The country back then was in a severe financial crisis, and unemployment and high cost of living had mobilised the population.
“However, the main difference between the two waves is that the one in 1997 had a very clear partisan aspect, while today's protesters have made a very clear effort to prevent political parties from taking advantage of their mobilisation.
“The most popular chant of demonstrators has been 'Mafia! Mafia!' - it might sound bizarre to an outside observer, but not to a Bulgarian, as it is full of meaning. Mafia refers to the three electricity companies which through illegal practices inflate bills. Mafia refers to the people in the state and political institutions who are aware of the problem, but financially co-opted to prevent investigation.
“Mafia refers to the network of businessmen, mediators and politicians who privatised the utility companies, along with thousands of other state enterprises, profiting in the process and setting up schemes to exploit the Bulgarian people even more.
“In short, the 'democratic' process in Bulgaria has allowed illegality and legality to merge into one. The electoral mechanism of changing political parties in power every four years has failed completely to put a check on corrupt behaviour of politicians. Hence, it doesn't matter which party is in power - whether GERB (Borisov's party), or BSP, or MRL or UDF. The problem is not personal behaviour of politicians, it is systemic.”
The global capitalist crisis and the particular crisis of the Eurozone has had an important impact on Bulgaria's economy, with unemployment shooting up from 5 to 12.3% and youth unemployment from 13 to around 30% over the last three years. According to the European Commission, Bulgaria tops the list of countries with highest share of population subject to severe material deprivation. It was 30% in 2008 but had risen to 44% in 2011 and the situation has definitely not improved since then, quite the contrary.
The one safety valve to the mounting internal crisis has been until now emigration which severely affected whole areas with hundreds of thousands of youth leaving the country, but this safety valve may be obstructed by the threatened introduction in the EU of tougher immigration constraints and limitations to the free circulation of people coming from the poorest Eastern European countries.
Renationalise what had been privatised
The most significant feature of this wave of protests is represented by the demands raised by the demonstrators. Again, Al Jazeera reports:
“On the economic side, the demands are: scrapping of contracts with the electricity companies and nationalising them; putting those who signed them on trial; revision of electricity bills with citizen participation; declassification of the contracts for all privatisation deals in the last 24 years; revision of all concession contracts for the past 24 years; and ceasing privatisation processes.
“On the political side, demands have gone even further to seek an overhaul of the political system in Bulgaria. They have made clear that the system has to be changed in such a way that when the next party comes to power, it can no longer behave the way all governments in Bulgaria have for the past 24 years. There have to be checks on political power and mechanisms to prevent collusion between politicians, private economic interests and organised crime.
“Protesters are currently calling for a Constituent Assembly to be formed to change the constitution and develop mechanisms of direct involvement of citizens in government matters. There have been proposals of specific measures to be taken such as: cutting the number of members of parliament to 240; stripping them of immunity; establishing procedures for early dismissal; establishing 50 percent citizens' controlling quota in state institutions.”
It is highly significant that in a country like Bulgaria, 24 years after the transition to capitalism and the market economy, a mass movement is demanding the stopping of privatisation altogether, the renationalisation of what has been privatised and the establishment of some forms of democratic control by the masses themselves over the economy and that the idea of recalling public officials is becoming part of the political debate among the mass of the population.
Although it is still early days in this process of radicalisation and political awakening of the Bulgarian workers and youth, we can see here the germs for a programme for the overthrow of the corrupt crony-capitalist and criminal elements who dominate the Bulgarian state, but the main question that will arise is: which social forces within society will have the power to implement the aspirations of the masses? Promises of auto-reform carried out by those who represent the backbone of corrupt Bulgarian capitalism will inevitably be put forward as a means of introducing cosmetic changes in order not to change the mechanism that allowed a minority to profit whilst the majority is locked into permanent poverty.
It is possible that similar attempts will buy some time for the Bulgarian ruling elite, but will not solve the fundamental contradictions.
The root cause of this crisis is not simply the corruption of the ruling elite. Corruption is not purely a Bulgarian phenomenon, but is endemic to one extent or another in all capitalist societies. Even an ideal society freed of corruption (which is not possible under capitalism), as long as it is based on capitalism, it would have to face the stringent laws of capitalist exploitation and competition which are the root causes for the present crisis of overproduction, poverty and mass unemployment. Productive investments are sinking and speculation of all sorts is rising. The reason for this lies in the fact that the capitalists are conscious that they will not get a return on investments aimed at increasing the productive capacity for the foreseeable future within the context of stagnating world markets.
The present crisis of capitalism is exacting a heavy toll from the already impoverished masses of Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. Blow after blow, austerity measure after austerity measure, mean that the mass of the population, through their own experiences, is coming to the conclusion that the transition to capitalism after all these years has brought nothing more than a temporary improvement in their living conditions and now austerity measures, privatisations and cuts are rapidly eating away all the concessions made, while a minority is profiting enormously from the process. Corruption and crony capitalism is endemic at all levels of society, while Western European, US and Russian corporations have piled up huge profits by gaining access to natural resources, a cheap labour force and markets.
It is the end of a dream – the dream of reaching the standards of living of Western European workers through the introduction of capitalism. Capitalism in these countries is failing the mass of the population and the social and political consequences of this very fact will inevitably push the workers and youth of Eastern Europe towards rediscovering and giving a new life to their powerful revolutionary traditions of class struggle.
Update 25 February
Tens of thousands of people again took to the streets yesterday (Sunday, February 24) in more than 40 cities and towns across Bulgaria. This is a remarkable development because it's happening in spite of the government resignations accepted by Parliament on Thursday. As we explain in the article (which was written on Friday), the character these demonstrations are taking is increasingly anti-systemic. From the point of view of the protesters, the government’s resignation means little if the prospect is one of yet another rotten government led by one of the mainstream political parties. They want their demands to be addressed now.
The main slogans of these demonstrations were again against the monopolies and privatisations and echoed the widespread mood of outrage for how the country's assets have been sold out to a criminal gang of crony local capitalists and foreign monopolies. As a result of this crisis, the need to renationalise what has been privatised and to build mechanisms of popular control over the state, have become central in the debate among the mass of the Bulgarian population.
However, the points of strength of the movement – its breadth, spontaneous character and broad popular support – risk turning into weak points when the question of what alternative to the present system can emerge from the protests is posed. As we explained, any attempt at self-reform of the system – which seems like the path entered by president Rosen Plevneliev – will maybe buy some time for the ruling elite, but will definitely not address or solve any of the real problems at the centre of the present upheaval.
But what can Plevneliev promise, other than cosmetic changes? Whatever promise is made, if those who are to implement the changes are going to be the same social forces and "mafia" responsible for the present mess, it will not (and never could) fulfil the needs and expectations of the mass of the population.
The whole situation seems to be heading towards a deadlock unless the Bulgarian workers and youth take the initiative and structure the movement setting up protest committees in every school, university, workplace and village or neighbourhood and coordinate them at a local level and nationally. The movement needs a democratic leadership and the situation requires the step to build a strong alternative to the establishment, starting from enforcing a ban on utility bill payments.
Workers in the privatised companies should reclaim control of all trade union organisations and organise themselves on the shop floor and take over control from their managements. They should be those assessing what the real position is and open the books to public scrutiny, preparing the ground for workers' control after nationalisation. Energy supplies and heating should be guaranteed to all households. All measures should be coordinated with workers' committees in the public sector and with the neighbourhood committees. Delegates should be elected with the right of recall. Unless the power of the working class is organised, even the strongest movement cannot pose but an episodic threat to the system.