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Debating “the commons” in post-socialist Bulgaria

The absence of solidarity with other causes and the persistence of neoliberalism in Bulgarian protests against the Forestry Act underline the need to adapt our understanding of "the commons" to new contexts. Neoliberal discourse and developmentalist ideology still control the imaginations of the majority of people from across the class spectrum.

Mariya Ivancheva
6 August 2012

The concept of “the commons” –  here defined as goods and services that are managed by and serve the interest of the community that produces them – has suddenly attracted the attention of European left-wing movements. Various theorists and scientists have revisited this concept, which culminated in the drafting of A European Charter of “the commons”earlier this year at the International University College in Turin, Italy. Italy has recently experienced what seems to be a successful process of reclaiming “the commons”. After voting for a referendum that stopped the privatization of water services and repealed regulations on tariffs on water tax, it was Italians again who reclaimed cultural goods as a common resource. A number of sustained occupations of public theatres around the country – pioneered by Teatro Valle, Rome’s first public theatre – gave hopeful signs of the potential impact of horizontally organized shared management. In other European countries solidarity was built around the question of water (Austria, Germany) and shelter (Spain, France), and a pan-European campaign was staged against the ACTA agreement in order to guard intellectual rights.

All these campaigns signaled that the banner of “the commons” could bring together vastly disparate sectors of the population. However, the example of Bulgaria indicates some crosscurrents not only in the theoretical approach but also in practically dealing with “the commons”. The recent protests against the privatization of protected land, and other campaigns which I detail below, suggest ample potential for the concept of “the commons” to carry weight elsewhere in eastern Europe. Yet the Bulgarian story also manifests some contradictions that might also be detected in countries with a geopolitical position and history similar to that of Bulgaria. It warns us against a simple copy-paste of the “commons” frame from western Europe to the east. 

While neighbouring countries like Greece and Romania protested against austerity measures, Bulgaria has hardly featured in the world’s news. However, in the last half-decade this post-socialist country in southeast Europe - arguably the most passive of the region - 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.The process of privatization and construction was accelerated by two laws: the 1999 Law of Property that transferred the ownership of state land to municipalities who then eagerly tried to sell it to entrepreneurs, and the 2005 Law on Property and Use of Agricultural Lands, which allowed citizens of the EU to buy land in Bulgaria. A massive wave of often semi-legal and unregulated construction followed, turning many spots of natural significance into concrete wastelands and destroying water sources, soils, and natural habitats. But in 2007, 34.3% of Bulgaria’s territory became protected under the Natura2000 network operated by the European Commission and supervised by the Directives of Birds and of Habitat. The Commission started prosecuting Bulgaria for breaching these agreements by allowing in edifices that have destroyed acres of protected land.

While subsequent Bulgarian governments were looking for a way to maneuver between lobby group interests and requirements for European integration on the issue of land use, they received further pressure from the public. The networks of environmental activists who started protesting against illegal construction and the destruction of nature in 2007 joined other protests in subsequent years. 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 of those protests, shale-gas fracking and the production and trade of GMO products for all uses, scientific or otherwise, was prohibited, and the ACTA agreement has been remitted to the European Parliament accompanied by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s tongue-in-cheek promise that it would not be applied if it were passed. In 2012 all these people, who already knew each other from previous protests and flash-mobs joined a new wave of protests. Demonstrations erupted against the Forestry Act, amended in such a way as to advance the private interest of Tseko Minev, the head of First Investment Bank. His company 'Yulen ltd.' owns a number of lucrative ski-tourism installations in Pirin built on protected land, and wanted to expand its activities to further restricted areas. The Act was approved in Parliament on June 13, and the same evening thousands of people gathered in the streets of Sofia demanding that the President veto the Act. As a result, 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 vetoed the law the next morning, despite it being a Saturday. The Forestry Act was voted on anew by the Bulgarian Parliament, and this time without the controversial clauses.

Many ecological activists heralded these protests as a success. Yet on closer observation, can we say that this phenomenon spells good news for Bulgarian social movements? Is it evidence of a resurgence of the struggle for “the commons”, increasingly foregrounded in debates about crisis-born alternatives to neoliberal capitalism by the European left? Is it a sign that a sense of social (if not socialist) solidarity and community has been preserved despite the brutal privatization that has swept the region?

The Forestry Act protesters in Sofia used cool branding and slogans inspired by those popularized by Occupy Wall Street and other anti-austerity protests. Yet despite the fact that a number of anti-capitalist slogans appeared at the protests, the majority of protesters shied away from discussing the Forest Act as a component of capitalist accumulation. The main slogan: “Tseko off Aleko!”, demanded that the oligarchs keep their hands off Bulgaria’s symbolic peak of Aleko that overlooks 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 if it operated through corruption and reproduced a local - allegedly 'oriental' - and wrong version of itself. Many of the opinions voiced in the squares and in online forums identified the problem as an intrusion against the consumption and leisure of the well-deserving hard-working middle class. The first days of spontaneous protests had no permission. Once they managed to obtain a concession from Boyko Borissov, environmental activists widely advised protesters against street occupation. Instead, protesters were asked to bring ski equipment and identify themselves as skiers. One-day hire of a rope-line at Bansko, a ski-resort dominated by Tseko Minev’s company “Yulen” Ltd.”, costs over 25 euros. With the minimum monthly wage set at 145 Euro, the rising prices of ski-equipment, hotel rooms, and transport have made the sport prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population. Yet the “skiers” made no claims for cheaper ski services.

Neither Forestry Act protesters, nor protesters against the Forest Act, shale-gasfracking,  ACTA, and GMOs showed solidarity with others acting against the privatization of common goods and services. Since this protest wave started in 2007, many more discrete protests have taken place in Bulgaria against the privatization of industries and the cutting of jobs and services in the public sector, as well as for the increase of salaries and the betterment of working conditions. A two-months-long teachers’ strike gathered thousands of teachers in the streets in the winter of 2007, but without support from other networks it only achieved a humiliating 18% increase in salaries. Subsequent protests by miners and railroad workers demanded and received certain concessions, but middle class youngsters from the capital city - the typical participants of environmental protests - still didn’t offer any solidarity. The protests in June 2012 coincided with the increase of the price of electricity by 13%. In a country where 2.2 million out of a total population of 7.7 million, are pensioners - each earning around 75 Euros per month - this increase means that electricity bills could exceed half the monthly pension. Despite the fact that days before this increase thousands of Bulgarians went onto the streets to demand the preservation of nature and forest, the increase in electricity prices did not in itself prompt any public objections or receive support from environmental campaigners. Protests staged within these activist silos brought to the streets around 10-20 people. Not only has solidarity been dramatically lacking, but small land-holders and people living in the protected mountainous and sea regions have even taken a stand against environmental activists from Sofia. For many of these small-landowners the possibility of selling their land and the promise of getting a job offered by local investment strategies was the only light at the end of the tunnel of a long poverty-ridden existence, only intensified by the crisis of 2008. The protesters against the Forestry Act had no satisfying response to these concerns, offering only the blunt, “We are sure you will understand us, because we also love the forest”.

Such developments can prompt reflection in a number of directions.

Firstly, the protests in Bulgaria show that if we are to take the concept of “the commons” on board for left-wing struggles, we need to determine in very practical terms how broad a definition of “the commons” we can operate with, and which are the basic elements of “the commons”. For the majority of people who grew up imbued with neoliberal ideology nurtured by anti-communist and anti-communal narratives – hegemonic public discourse in east-central 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 educational and job sector. At the same time, the debates in the public forums surrounding the anti-Forestry Act protests made clear the elite-driven public they attracted. The discourse is centered on preserving individual liberty and urges people to choose their struggles selectively (even when undergoing urgent political developments). This became even more problematic once you added in the manifest feeling of entitlement that people with upper social and significant geographical mobility demonstrated. As the author of one manifesto that became famous among protesters claimed, “We are against the limitation of the possibilities of development”.

This question also introduces another level of complexity into the post-socialist, former “second world”. As Joan Subirats has argued in his recent piece for openDemocracy: “When we talk about “the commons”, we must invariably refer to the community and the relationships that sustain and run it... to relationships, social values, conventions, processes of involvement and/or mobilisation, and norms that help to organise this resource and the social derivatives that collective use and governance demand.”  Taking an example from Bolivia, Walter Mignolo has argued that when moving out of the European context, the appropriate category is not “the commons”, but instead “the communal”. In these contexts, the forms of communal living and management of shared resources are or were once endemic to local populations, and these need to be rediscovered and saved from capitalism and occidentalism. This approach is, however, inappropriate for semi-peripheral regions like east-central Europe, where endogenous forms of communal management and resistance have long disappeared without trace, thanks to paternalistic state socialism and the brutal privatization of every sphere of economic life following it.

Nevertheless, the socialist regime that offered significant benefits and securities might have offered the foundation on which to build certain practices of communal living and sharing. We might want to rejuvenate them with redemptive historical work, cutting against the grain of post-communist anti-communism. Of course, with its centralized party-state, top-down management, and repressive state apparatus, the socialist state did not leave much space for self-management or spontaneous communal organizing. To speak of “communal” property and management of resources in contemporary Bulgaria – and arguably in other post-socialist countries – is slightly embarrassing: in these highly atomized societies the term “community” does not exist on the ground and is hard to operationalize in any meaningful sense. Besides, neoliberal discourse and developmentalist ideology still control the imaginations of the majority of people from across the class spectrum. In the recent Bulgarian protest wave, both farmers and middle class Sofians expressed interest in “proper” capitalist development, investment, and management, all operating within the frame of free market competition. 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”.

Last but not least, while the tiny extra-parliamentary new left in Bulgaria has proved too weak discursively to reframe the problem, extreme right activism has demonstrated the ability to twist and jeopardize the protest against the Forest Act and, more surprisingly, 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 struggles of 1999-2000 were given as a bright example for claiming common goods on behalf of indigenous ethnic populations. At the same time, the other significant party on the extreme right, VMRO, has started a campaign in support of Bulgarian families whose electricity or water supply has been cut off by the now-private owners of what were before nationally owned and managed services. The latter party has also been increasingly active on the issue of rapid rises in the prices of electricity and water, and is currently registering support for a grass-roots referendum against the management of water resources by French monopolist Veolia Ltd.

In its fight to reframe the issue at stake, the extreme right is claiming “the commons” on behalf of ethnically pure Bulgarians and blaming Roma, Turkish and increasingly, migrant minorities, for the concessions the state makes to them at the expense of Bulgarians. This highly distorted version of reality has now entered the press mainstream and has been adopted by circles much broader than the electorate of the extremists.

This reframing of “the commons” against the background of the rise of neo-nationalists also signals a deeper crisis of “the commons”. The post-socialist periphery of Europe demonstrates that national territory still has highly-contested symbolic and material elements. While the reclamation of "the universal commons" is driven by core countries in the world system on behalf of populations that lack basic resources on their territory, it maintains a highly colonialist dimension. 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, the extra consumption goods they require. 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.

The overall problem of whether “the commons” are national, local, regional or universal remains still very much central to the debate. Despite this, 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 political correctness and of the European Left’s cosmopolitan pretense to universal entitlement. At the same time, liberal discourses are often strikingly shortsighted, focusing too often on access to “the commons” in order to provide leisure for elites and not the wider redistribution of access to 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.

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