Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.In the same way that the New Left in the United States distanced itself in the 1960s from the old-style Communist Party and its fellow travelers, this new left in Eastern Europe has taken pains to distinguish itself from the Communist Party politics of the Cold War era.
Partly this is a generational shift. Young people who did not live through the era of Todor Zhivkov and Wojciech Jaruzelski don’t automatically associate socialism with massive human rights abuses and failed economic planning. Partly too it’s a thorough disenchantment with what liberalism has brought – austerity economics, a widening gap between rich and poor, hollow democratic institutions, a disregard for environmental issues. Many people in the region have come up against these shortcomings of liberalism and veered right, into nationalism. Another group has struck off in the opposite direction to create a new kind of progressive politics.
Georgi Medarov, soft-spoken and pony-tailed, is part of this new generation of activists. He works at an environmental NGO in Sofia and also participates in a group called New Left Perspectives. “We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don’t think it’s enough,” he says. “We don’t accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept.”
Medarov joined the movement in Bulgaria against the U.S. war in Iraq, though he and his cohort made sure to distinguish themselves from the hard-line communists and hard-line nationalists that also came out for the demonstrations. The wars of the Bush era have faded into the background. The new left’s critique of austerity, however, has proven perhaps more enduring, as the economic crisis itself has stubbornly remained front and center. Here, the experience of East-Central Europe is cautionary and could provide lessons for other movements resisting austerity measures.
Similar austerity measures, Medarov points out, “were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism.”
The economic hardship that so many people are experiencing in Bulgaria, and elsewhere in the region, has produced a certain nostalgia for the old days. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria, that nostalgia conceals a soft spot for authoritarian rule. “In the group I’m part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we’re quite critical of it,” Medarov explains. “This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It’s not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they’re not nostalgic about that.”
Unlike the Leninists of old and the Putinists of today, the new left has no illusions about authoritarianism. It has embraced many aspects of the social movement politics of the 1960s and 1970s: civil rights, feminism, LGBT activism. With a few exceptions, such as the Palikot movement in Poland, the new left in East-Central Europe has not registered yet in the electoral realm. In Bulgaria, the new right and the old left continue to dominate the political realm. But in the environmental protests that recently mobilized thousands of people against unrestrained economic development or the annual Pride marches that have gained in numbers and visibility, a new political sensibility is taking shape in Bulgaria. It shares many of the same perspectives as other new left groups in the region, such as Krytyka Polityczna in Poland or the organizers of the Subversive Festival in Croatia.
But as Georgi Medarov explained to me one night in October in the loud, crowded café attached to Sofia’s Archaeological Museum, Bulgaria’s new left has a sensibility all its own. My conversation with him is an important reminder that if I restricted my interviews only to the people that I talked to 22 years ago, I would miss many critical aspects of the current East-Central European reality.
Do you remember when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I remember when I was in first grade in 1989: we had to change the way we were calling our first grade teacher from “comrade” to “mister” and “missus.” I found this strange. Throughout the 1990s, I don’t have proper political memories. I remember the 1997 political mobilizations but as something distant.
Do you remember when you became politically conscious?
In the latter part of high school, during the war against Serbia. It was a negative experience that my country was involved even indirectly in this war. I thought that this was an unjust war. It doesn’t mean that I had a proper reflection on this. Some bombs even fell by accident in Bulgaria, on Sofia, and I found this stressful.
Perhaps when I was 20 I started to become involved in the environmental movement, and I was going to environmental protests. I was also involved in some small initiatives – especially after the invasion of Iraq, we were doing Food Not Bombs in Sofia in 2004-5. We were doing this initiative with an environmental organization. We were going to anti-war demos in Sofia as a separate bloc of people because we didn’t really agree with everyone at the demo. Part of the protesters were hardline communists and some were hardline nationalists – so we had a separate bloc together with the anarchists.
Much later I started thinking about the Berlin Wall. The impressions I got from my family were quite contradictory. My parents are very apolitical; they look at both systems quite ironically and are negatively disposed to both. My sister, ten years older, was involved in the political movement of the 1990s. My grandparents were communists of various types. So there was this contradictory thing between my sister and my grandparents. But I had no opinion.
I suppose I’m on the left now, whatever this means. I have had a very ambivalent position toward the past. Personally, my parents were lucky enough that I never experienced extreme poverty in the 1990s. They were educated in Sofia and were able to adapt. For most of the people, it was a loss. There’s not much to lament about the past from my perspective. But many people are quite nostalgic about state socialism because they lost everything.
In the group I’m part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we’re quite critical of it. This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It’s not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they’re not nostalgic about that.
There’s a displacement in people’s memories. Their nostalgia for social achievements has been displaced by a nostalgia for a strong authoritarian state.
But this nostalgia comes not because of some kind of totalitarian mentality. It’s a reaction to the last 20 years. In 1989, everyone was excited – both the people who were on the left and those in the democratic movements. Both social movements were enthusiastic. No one was happy about what was happening in the 1980s. But no one really expected what happened in the end.
Can you describe this new left here in Bulgaria?
We use this term to try to carve out space between the old left — what we call the hardline communist left, which is nostalgic about socialism in a conservative, nationalist way, because the socialists became nationalist and kicked 300,000 people out of the country for basically racist reasons — and the Social Democratic party, which became quite neoliberal and quite conservative at the same time. So, we are trying to distinguish ourselves from this hard-line left and the social democratic one.
But at the same time we try to distinguish ourselves from liberals. We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don’t think it’s enough. We don’t accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept. We were thinking in the beginning that if we offend too many people, everyone would hate us. It’s a very negative way of identifying ourselves. But it turns out that many people are open to us. They come to our events and engage in discussions. There is a social need for this stance.
In the last couple years it’s happening not only in Bulgaria, but in Eastern Europe. There has been a rise of new left groups, with various levels of radicalism. It’s particularly strong in Croatia. The Subversive Festival is attended by a thousand people! They invite mainstream radical and left intellectuals, and they hold discussions throughout the day. It’s not only the festival. There are lots of publications, demonstrations. It’s a mainstream thing, and it gets mainstream media attention. There was a summer school that some people from my group were involved in in Budapest in July: the idea was to gather critical activist groups that are more academic-oriented. We want to make something similar in Sofia.
What is being experienced throughout Europe in terms of austerity measures are perceived as something unique. But actually they were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism. We had a general strike in 1997 that was organized by trade unions but which undermined trade union organizing in the long term. They basically lost their membership.
Is there much cooperation between NGOs and social movements east and west? Is there still an imbalance of power between the two?
Cooperation between eastern and western European NGOs is rather difficult even on the NGO level. It’s partly for financial reasons: we don’t have the resources to travel to western forums. But there are various other reasons.
Sometimes bigger NGOs, for example, they impose ready-made schema on the Bulgarian context. The Greens – which were formed here after 2007 –was very promising in the way it grew out of civil society. It was an honest initiative. But there was also an unequal exchange of ideas between west and east. The way they organized their grievances was to import ready-made policies, which were sometimes neo-liberal understandings of what policy should be, especially in realms not connected to the environment, like education. It doesn’t mean that the members really endorse this. But they see politics as a technocratic endeavor, that there are good policies and bad policies, and we should just adopt the best policies of the West and everything will be okay. But it’s more complicated than this. Many people feel that they don’t have to reflect, they just have to copy what western Europe is doing.
The NGO I work for, an environmental organization called Za Zemiata (For the Earth), is funded mostly by the European Commission. I would not call it “left,” but it definitely is quite critical and it is very open to progressive social movements and groups. The EC requires cofunding where you have to raise 20-30 percent locally. But it’s more difficult here than in western Europe. We don’t have vast memberships with fees. We’re very pressed in financial terms. So, it’s difficult to reflect and think because you don’t have time. I see this problem in western Europe too, but here’s it’s more extreme. Because we don’t have public funding here, we’re dependent on western donors.
Some of the more critical NGOs in the west are interested to see the eastern European experience of neoliberalism because they think this experience will be useful to understand what’s happening in the west. But it’s also a critical tool to use against certain trade agreements. We in Za Zemiata wrote a report on water liberalization in Bulgaria that was used as part of the international and European water movement. They need examples to see what will happen, since water privatization is now an issue in western Europe. But it was something we experienced in the 1990s.
Za Zemiata was established in 1994. Before it was more grassroots and more radical as well, but now it has become more of an expert policy organization working with the government. It tries to work on both levels. For instance, we wrote two textbooks on ecological education that were approved by the government and adopted by the school system. But we still have grassroots activities. Every year there is a clean-up of the mountains org annually. It’s very volunteer; no one funds it.
We also take part in movements like the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement. Six years ago, the Bulgarian government tried to liberalize the legislation connected to GMO food production. Za Zemiata and other NGOs managed to stop this through a protest movement. Then two years ago, the current government tried to liberalize it once again. But there was an even stronger movement against this, with support at every level of society, and once again, there was success. The movement was quite varied, involving many types of groups, such as those raising health issues. At Za Zemiata, we tried to complement this activity by focusing on other related problems, such as patents and intellectual property rights. We invited Canadian farmer (and anti-GMO activist) Percy Schmeiser to Bulgaria to meet with farmers and university students.
How do Bulgarians feels about NGOs these days?
The profile of NGOs has fallen dramatically. NGOs supported the most neoliberal measures and still do — even the Open Society foundation in Bulgaria. It’s a different kind of organization in the United States, more progressive and not as right wing as it is here. It’s not conservative in terms of being racist but in supporting economic policies and foreign policies that most people radically disagree with. But the problem is that Bulgarians don’t have a language to express this disagreement. So you get a lot of conspiracy theories about the Open Society foundation that are anti-Semitic, anti-American.
There is a hatred of NGOs here, but the way it’s formulated is horrible. There is a reason for this hate, however stupid it is. In that sense, there is a lack of belief in NGOs. People tend to believe that if you’re an NGO you just want to take money from the west, you don’t care about real social issues. They think it’s a really easy job and you get paid a lot of money, which is a misunderstanding of course. But in the public imagination, that’s the way NGO-type language sounds.
My personal opinion is that it’s impossible to make social change as I imagine it, in a more critical way, as a professional activist in an NGO. The simple reason is funding. Za Zemiata works with the European Commission, which is quite conservative, but still we can do things, there is no direct limitation on what you can say or do. But in general, you have to adopt Euro-bureaucratic language and this bureaucratic mentality. And especially if one does not have any other language, another way to see the world, one ends up accepting the Euro-technocratic ideology for one’s own. That’s the reason that it’s impossible to have something more radical. So, grassroots mobilization is the way forward, though these movements have to work closely with NGOs.
But what’s left out are intellectuals. Both NGOs and the grassroots often disregard the importance of serious analysis that exists in universities, in Bulgaria as well. The cooperation between these NGOs, grassroots movements, and intellectuals is really important.
I am involved in an initiative called New Left Perspectives, comprised mostly of Ph.D. students. It’s a project for political education, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – they would never tell us what to do and it’s easier than with the NGO job. Together with most of the same people from that project we are engaged in running a social center in Sofia, where Za Zemiata also participates. We don’t have a long-term vision. We think mostly a year or two ahead. Our long-term plan would be how to make a publication, like a monthly publication, or to develop our website, which would be a year or two ahead.
Can you tell me about LGBT organizing here in Bulgaria?
There’s been a Pride march every year since 2008. Each year there are attacks. The first year was the harshest when skinheads threw Molotov cocktails. But the government decided to defend the march. There was a heavy police presence. That’s why no one dares to attack now.
The first year was about 200 marchers and maybe 100 far-right skinheads and some representatives of religious organizations. Now there are 2,000 marchers. In this sense, the event is quite accepted. I’m not saying that people are tolerant in general, but they are tolerant about this type of march.
However, after every march, someone is attacked on the way home. These militant far–right groups attack not only gay people but leftwing activists, asylum seekers, Roma, Black people living here. There is a lot of this type of violence. There was recently a march in commemoration of a boy killed four years ago in Sofia. The murderers said that they killed him because they thought he was gay. This was their defense! So, they admitted the crime, but they have not been charged, even though it took place already four years ago.
The government deploys the police for the Pride march, but it charges the movement. LGBT activists have no critique of this, they accept this as normal: “They provide us security and we pay for it, and that’s okay.” But this is ridiculous. LGBT people pay taxes.
There is also an artistic Queer Forum, organized as a part of the New Left Perspectives project I mentioned, that is going to take place at the end of November, where we want to push a left understanding of the queer movement.
How would you evaluate the level of extreme nationalism in Bulgaria? The political party Ataka, for instance, has lost a lot of its support.
Ataka disintegrated for personal reasons. This sentiment still exists, though the political spectrum is very divided. There are many parties and groups on the far right. Four years ago or less, Ataka gave its full support to the ruling party. Two years ago, it still had this cooperation when supporters of Ataka attacked a mosque here in Sofia in 2011. People asked the ruling government – what about this coalition with Ataka? “Oh, this isn’t a coalition, it’s just cooperation,” the government said. But if Ataka or a similar party gets 10-15 percent of the votes in the next election, the ruling party will have to make a decision about forming a coalition with them again.
In 1990, the far-right movement split from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on the decision to return Turkish names to ethnic Turks here in Bulgaria. The BSP managed to integrate them afterwards. But the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) also had a far-right dimension. UDF people say, “Oh, we didn’t know that Volen Siderov [the leader of Ataka] had these ideas when he was editor of the UDF newspaper Demokratsia.” But Demokratsia was very involved in historical revisionism that said that there was no fascism in Bulgaria, that denied Bulgarian participation in Holocaust. The opposition worked on Turkish rights because it was against communism. But they also engaged in whitewashing Bulgarian history. And the anti-communist coalition included a group formed by former legionnaires, who were involved in pogroms in Jewish neighborhoods during World War II. These democratic forces were not totally innocent.
So, in a sense, Ataka is not a surprise. It’s not just Siderov. Many other members were ex-members of the democratic forces, such as Rumen Vodenicharov. Usually the far-right is presented as an attempt to restore totalitarianism. It is not seen as an outgrowth of the anti-communist movement.
A year ago, there were neo-Nazi riots all over the country after the case in the village of Katunitsa. There was a guy there, a gangster, a Roma oligarch basically who had been doing extremely illegal stuff for last 20 years, like producing illegal alcohol. The local villagers hated him. He had an argument with a Bulgarian family, the family of the ex-mayor I think, and he threatened the son of the woman. A year later, the son was killed. The villagers protested against him. Initially it was not a racist riot, but it was provoked by the fact that he was an oligarch and could do whatever he wanted, that he was on good terms with all political parties over the last 20 years.
But then some football fans and various far-right youth groups saw this protest on television. They went to this village, along with some bikers, and they burned down one of this guy’s houses. The reason behind this attack was completely racist. It was because he was Roma and nothing else. The police allowed them to burn the house. It looked like a pogrom. Many far-right groups got very excited about it. In every city there was a racist march, and there many attacks against Roma. Some young kids, as young as 12 years old, were chanting, “Kill the Roma.” This type of extreme nationalism was not possible 20 years ago. I think this type of sentiment is increasing. The government is afraid to do anything against this.
The ability of these sentiments to mobilize people is much stronger these days. It’s not just the 15-20 percent always voting for far-right parties. They have managed to poison the discourse of all political parties. The parties have all adopted racist language at all levels. The BSP has campaigned together with the far-right party in support of nuclear energy. Rank-and-file members of the BSP have accepted these far-right movements. In this way these far-right arguments become mainstream.
It is quite clear what is happening. There are many examples of political parties cooperating with the far right. For example, some members of the democratic parties proposed to replace street names with the names of Nazis from the inter-war period. The most extreme propositions like this don’t go through. But it’s become normal for municipal member to make such proposals.
What about the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF)?
The sentiments against the MRF have become very extreme. People say, “We are not against the Turks, but we are against their party.” This is still racist, because it’s against the political organization of the Turks. Yes, this party is corrupt, just as corrupt as the other parties. But the attacks against the MRF, shared by democratic parties as well, are very extreme. These attacks were started by far-right groups, but they have been adopted even by some people who consider themselves anti-racist or liberal.
You mentioned groups here working on refugee issues. I’m curious whether there has been any effort to link the experience of refugees and immigrants here in Bulgaria with the experience of Bulgarians emigrating to other countries?
There are NGO groups that are engaged in refugee rights, but they would never make the connection between Bulgarian migration abroad in the 1990s and the migration inwards, like with refugee seekers. I don’t know if it’s possible to build solidarity on this basis. It’s not attempted at a mainstream level.
But there are some small, more grassroots-oriented groups working on refugee rights activism. They work with the NGOs, but they also try to make this connection. There was a project, for instance, called Repositions. In the first part of the project, they took pictures of houses squatted by undocumented refugee seekers. These were then screened in various parts of Sofia. It was a Bulgarian-German project. In the next part, they will do the same thing with Bulgarian migrants in Germany. They are trying to bring forward this argument, understanding migration through the perspective of Bulgarian migrants abroad.
There were other attempts as well. There were a few events connected to solidarity, with Konstanina Kuneva, a Bulgarian syndicalist in Athens who was attacked with acid in 2008 because of her trade union work. Some people in Bulgaria were trying to bring forward her case, speak about it. There was also recently one event at the Red House where they screened an interview with her, and compared environmental activism in Bulgaria with other places, such as the Greek protests and the U.S. Occupy movement.