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Home / Resources / News / Debating the commons in post-socialist Bulgaria

Debating the commons in post-socialist Bulgaria

Photo: Transeuropa Festival 2012 Rome, Teatro Valle.

Article by Mariya Ivancheva

This article touches on key ssues which will be further explored during the Forum Europe, Crisis, Democracy: Central and Eastern European Social Movements, organised by European Alternatives in Bucharest on the 26 and 27 October.
The concept of “the commons” – basic goods and services that are managed by and serve the interest of the community that produces them – has suddenly attracted the attention of various European theorists and activists alike. A European Charter of “the commons” was drafted in early 2012 at the International University College in Turin. Italy has recently experienced a successful process of reclaiming “the commons”. After the successful referendum that stopped the privatization of water services and repealed regulations on tariffs on water tax, Italian progressive movements also reclaimed cultural goods as a common resource. Numerous sustained occupations of public theatres around the country – pioneered by Teatro Valle, Rome’s first public theatre – gave example of horizontally organized shared management. In other European countries solidarity was built around the question of water (Austria, Germany) and shelter (Spain, France). A pan-European campaign was staged against the ACTA agreement in order to guard intellectual rights. Last but not least, European Alternatives staged a number of transnational forums, discussing successes and challenges to different campaigns reclaiming the commons in Western and Eastern Europe.
All these campaigns signalled that the banner of “the commons” could bring together vastly disparate sectors of the population. However, the example of the recent protests against the privatization of protected land in Bulgaria indicates some crosscurrents not only in the theoretical approach but also in practically dealing with “the commons”.
In the last half-decade Bulgaria – arguably the most passive country in Southeast Europe – has witnessed a persistent wave of protests. These mobilizations, mainly carried out in the capital city Sofia, erupted in 2007 and were triggered by the increasing privatization of and construction on protected land. This process was accelerated by two laws. The 1999 Law of Property transferred the ownership of state land to municipalities who then eagerly started selling it to entrepreneurs. The 2005 Law on Property and Use of Agricultural Lands allowed citizens of the EU to buy land in Bulgaria and triggered a massive wave of unregulated construction that turned water sources, soils, and natural habitats into concrete wastelands. In 2007, 34.3% of Bulgaria’s territory became protected under the Natura2000 network of the European Commission, supervised by the Directives of Birds and of Habitat. Subsequently the Commission prosecuted Bulgaria for breaching all these agreements.
While subsequent Bulgarian governments were manoeuvring between lobby group interests and EU incentives, protests emerged. Networks of environmental activists mobilized against the destruction of protected land in 2007. Later they joined other protests. The debates in Parliament on the law on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), shale-gas fracking, and the secretive subscription of Bulgaria to the ACTA agreement were paralleled by protests and spontaneous flash-mobs around Sofia. As a result, the National Assembly voted against shale-gas fracking and the production, trade, and research of GMO products. After Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s tongue-in-cheek promise that ACTA would not be applied the decision on the agreement was remitted to the European Parliament.
In 2012 participants in previous protests and further citizens joined the mass demonstration against the Forestry Act. The latter was amended in favour of the private interest of Tseko Minev, the head of First Investment Bank. His company 'Yulen ltd' which owns a number of lucrative ski-tourism installations in Pirin built on protected land, wanted to expand its activities to further  restricted areas. The Act was approved in Parliament on June 13. The same evening thousands of people gathered in the streets of Sofia demanding that the President veto the Act. The next day PM Boyko Borissov met representatives of environmental organizations, and promised a moratorium on construction in protected territories. He put pressure on President Rossen Plevneliev who immediately vetoed the law. The Forestry Act was passed by the Bulgarian Parliament, this time without the controversial clauses.
Many ecological activists heralded the protests as a success. Yet, can we say that this phenomenon spells good news for the resurgence of the struggle for “the commons” and a debate on alternatives to neoliberal capitalism? Is it a sign that a sense of social (if not socialist) solidarity has been preserved despite the brutal privatization in the region since 1989?

Drawings by Dan Perjovski at Transeuropa Festival 2012. Teatro Valle, Rome.
The Forestry Act protesters in Sofia adopted “cool” protest repertoires inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and other anti-austerity campaigns. However, while a few anti-capitalist slogans appeared at the protests, the majority of protesters refused to see the Forest Act as a component of a wider process of capitalist accumulation. The main slogan: “Tseko off Aleko!”, demanded that the oligarch keeps his hands off the Aleko peak, overseeing Sofia. Yet no claims were made against other oligarchic practices in other sectors, or against the government that allowed these. Capitalism was only seen as problematic in its local – allegedly “oriental” or “Balkan”, and thus wrong –pversion. The opinions voiced in the squares and in online forums were mostly concerned with the intrusion against the consumption and leisure of the well-deserving hard-working middle class. The first days of spontaneous protests had no official permission. Once representatives of the environmental movement met Boyko Borissov, they widely advised protesters against street occupations. Instead, protesters were asked to bring ski equipment and identify themselves as skiers. In a country where one-day hire of a rope-line at a ski-resort, costs over 25 euros and the minimum monthly wage is set at 145 Euro, ski has become a sport prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population. Yet the “skiers” made no claims for cheaper and accessible ski or recreation services. At the same time, people living in the protected mountainous regions took a stand against the “skiers”. For many of these people, the possibility of selling their land and the promise of getting a job promised by regional developers was the only alternative to a poverty-ridden existence. The response of the protesters against the Forestry Act to these concerns: “They will understand us. They also love the forest”.
This hardly comes as a surprise. From the start of their movements, the environmental activists showed no concern about the privatization beyond protected lands. In 2007, months after the ecological protests, thousands of teachers went on two-months-long strike. Without the support from other networks they only achieved a humiliating 18% increase in salaries. Subsequent protests by miners and railroad workers received certain concessions, but not the solidarity of big town middle class youngsters – the typical environmental activists. Most striking was the lack of reaction of the environmentalists to the increase of the price of electricity by 13%, which coincided with the mobilization against the Forestry Act. In Bulgaria 2.2 million out of a total population of 7.7 million, are pensioners – each earning around 75 Euros per month. This increase meant that electricity bills could exceed half the monthly pension. While days before this increase thousands of Bulgarians went onto the streets to demand the preservation of the forest, the increase in electricity prices did not receive support from environmental campaigners. Protests staged within these activist silos brought to the streets around 10-20 people.
The protests in Bulgaria show that for most people who grew up imbued with neoliberal ideology nurtured by anti-communist and anti-communal narratives – a hegemonic public discourse in Eastern Europe since 1989 – the idea of “the commons” does not make much sense. Many prefer an opt-in and opt-out strategy: they stand against the privatization of nature and for the privatization of industry and services; against the pollution of water and soil, but for the private property and “management” thereof; against the cutting of funds in the education sector, but for “efficiency” and individual survival by competition within the labour market. The debates in the public forums surrounding the anti-Forestry Act protests proudly boasted with the elite public they attracted, that claimed a universal entitlement to upper social and significant geographical mobility. As the author of one manifesto that became famous among protesters claimed, “We are against the limitation of the possibilities of development”.
The use of the concept of the commons in the post-socialist world introduces another level of complexity. In his recent piece Joan Subirats argues: “When we talk about “the commons”, we must invariably refer to the community and the relationships that sustain and run it…” Walter Mignolo claims that when moving out of the European context, the appropriate category is not “the commons”, but instead “the communal” as local populations share forms of communal living and resource management, that resist both capitalism and occidentalism. This approach is, however, inappropriate for East-central Europe, where endogenous forms of communal management and resistance have long disappeared, thanks to paternalistic state socialism and the subsequent brutal privatization of every sphere of economic life. To speak of “communal” property and management of resources in contemporary Bulgaria – and arguably in other post-socialist countries – is slightly embarrassing. In Bulgarian the term “community” does not translate and is only used in policy documents of Western developmentalist agencies. It is also their endorsement of “proper” capitalist development, investment, and management within the frame of free market competition which both farmers and middle class Sofians have been fighting for. As one of the members of the coalition “For Vitosha” claimed at a public debate on “the commons”: “You cannot leave the ski-lift to the people from the village below the ski-track – this is non-sense. Only a private owner will develop it well under healthy competition”.
The Bulgarian case is also alarming for another, more dangerous reason. The rising extreme right has successfully jeopardized the discussion of “the commons”. In an article published in an online publication of the extreme-right party Ataka, which has held seats in the Bulgarian parliament since 2005, the Bolivian water wars of 1999-2000 were discussed as a bright example for reclaiming common goods on behalf of indigenous ethnic populations. The other significant party on the extreme right, VMRO, has started a campaign in support of Bulgarian families whose electricity or water supply was cut off by the now-private owners of what were before nationally owned and managed services. The latter party has recently proposed a grass-roots referendum against the management of water resources by French monopolist Veolia Ltd. In all these instances, the extreme right has been claiming “the commons” not on behalf of all people, but for the sake of “ethnically pure” Bulgarians. They have been blaming Roma, Turkish and migrant minorities for the concessions the state makes to them at the expense of Bulgarians. This highly distorted version of reality has entered the mainstream media and has been adopted by circles much broader than the electorate of the extremists.
This reframing of “the commons” by neo-nationalists signals a deeper crisis of both theory and practice. We still live in a world in which resources and primary goods are abundant mostly at places where local populations live with extremely little and labour to provide countries with few locally abundant basic “commons” of their own, with excessive consumption goods. When speaking of European primary goods such as food, oil, and services, we cannot forget that they often come from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Thus, while the reclamation of “the universal commons” remains a highly colonialist practice. Against this background, the overall problem of whether “the commons” are national, local, regional or universal remains central to the debate. In recent years the question of national sovereignty over basic resources is pushed off the political agenda with an air of superiority typical both of the liberal and the Left’s cosmopolitan pretence to universal entitlement. Their discourses remain strikingly short-sighted, focusing too often on access to “the commons” in order to provide consumption and leisure for elites and not wider redistribution of goods and services.
Thus, in contexts where “the communal” is not to be found in recent layers of history it urgently needs to be manufactured anew, avoiding both the nationalist, and the colonial trap.