22 March, 2023
(photo: Pixabay, CC0)

A view of the social forces in Bulgaria and Romania, forming within transition’s depths and hoping to correct its deviations through humanisation of politics

Vladimir Mitev

This article is going to be published in the next issue of the Bulgarian left-wing theoretical magazine “New Times” – issue 9-10 (September-October 2019), which will come out in the end of October 2019. 

Do transitions ever end? What about the end of history? Is the realisation that history has no end a sign that each phase does even in its “non-transitory” contradictions new relations, new ideas and new communities come into being?

I try to make sense of transition in Bulgaria and, to an extent, in Romania by looking at its negation – which I call “post-transition” or post-post-communism”.

Transition was dominated by the negation of the previous period – socialism, through the ideology of anticommunism. It created a layer of wealthy individuals, who often obtained their social status by usage and parasitism of socialism’s resources In social sense transition it was a blow to society as it eroded the social and family bonds. It was a inhuman process and even dehumanised all its participants – both the winners and the losers.

In a way it was coded in transition’s DNA to exploit the socialism’s heritage as the new, post-communist society was being built. This process inevitably reaches to a saturation. The resources, which can be exploited, the communal bonds, which can be directed to private interest tend to get fewer. That is how at least two groups of people are formed – those who have gained strength in transition’s times, and the many, who have been put by transition in a weaker position in the new conditions. The contradictions between these two groups gives birth to a new logic, which I consider “post-transitional”.

First of all, post-transition is an attempt to correct the transition and to recover the destroyed balances. It is normal that the first people who enter in it will be those who have been placed in a socially deprived role by transition’s results. They’re not looking for an impossinle return to the times before 1989. Their project is to improve what can be improved in the presence and the future. Their intellectuals and leaders are not proposing revolutionary solutions – rather gradual change. Often the representatives of post-transition have access to technocratic knowledge – e.g. the European rules in various domains, but what differentiates them from transition’s elites is that they are sensitive to the problems of their compatriots. This predetermines their critical positions with regard to the status quo on national and European level.

Transition was dominated by the market ideology, which unites two dimensions of the right – the liberal and the conservative. That is why it is logical that the first people, who formulate a post-transitional identity will have a left-wing orientation. We see this in Bulgaria and Romania.

In Bulgaria “Solidary Bulgaria” and the independent candidate for member of the European parliament Vanya Grigorova are examples of post-transition. At the European elections she got 0,5%, but influenced the overall political discourse, which became more social after the vote. Her message represented an union of action, words and essence: ”People before profits!”.

In Romania in the last years there is a new small social democratic party – “Demos”, which has gathered in its ranks a large number of professional economists and experts on social issues.

The messages of “Solidary Bulgaria”, Vanya Grigorova and “Demos” are first of all modern. They deal with labour rights. They protect socially weak categories of citizens from the aggressive neoliberal state, which believes that social care is a waste of money. They support the recovery of the caring state to the detriment of corporations, the cynical businessmen and oligarchs. They support a tax system, which leaves more money in the pockets of the common people. They organise protests. They communicate well with media. They unite youth, charisma and character in their relations with the transition’s elites.

Solidary Bulgaria” has been opposing most categorically the free trade agreements between the EU and the USA (TTIP) and the EU and Canada (CETA). “Demos” has also issued posts critical of the creation of supranational tribunals, which have already led to the condemnation of the Romanian state. In its turn Demos has attracted among its activists some of the most famous Romanian feminists, so topics such as gender violence and equality of genders are important for this party. “Solidary Bulgaria” supports the legalisation of marijuana for medical needs.

In their essence these are positions, which try to save the human and social tissue, to give hope, to support the people in need. If transitions have been dominated by the thirst for domination and accumulation of power to the detriment of community, post-transition is the phase in which we realise that life has other relations, apart from power relations – e.g. the relations based on care for the other. This realisation doesn’t abolish the need for the communities and leaders of post-transition to fight in society with the representatives of the past, who hold power. But in post-transition, social confrontation is not the clash of one ego with another, but represent the reappearance of the human spirit, which has been preserved in the last decades and its opposition to the lack of spirit, the soullessness.

How many ways there are to exit transition?

In Romania (Unlike Bulgaria) there is a clearly articulated discourse about the so-called “new and old parties”. What it says is that the parties, who have ruled in the times of transition are corrupt, clientelist, have given power to dubious businessmen and are ethically bankrupt. At the same time the new parties, which have been created after it was permitted that only three founding members can establish a party, carry another ethics, they are clean, honest and will rule competently.

“Demos” is among the new parties in Romania. But the requirement of 200 000 signature to be allowed to participate in elections proved an impossible bar to its participation in either the European elections of May 2019 or the presidential elections of November 2019.

The classical new party in Romania is the Save Romania Union. It represents to the greatest extent the interests of transition’s winners – of the urban middle class, of people from younger generations, who works as IT specialists, or have creative professions – well educated and well connected with the western world and especially to Europe. It is not coincidental that the Union “Save Romania” is called “the party of the young”. It empowers generations, which have grown in the times of transition and feel representatives of a new culture in comparison with the older generations, which have internalised so well the rules (and the presumed “cynicism”) of the older times.

But to what extent is the Union “Save Romania” a party of post-transition? Its main slogan is the replacement of transition’s elites with new, uncorrupted ones. But its ideology is a combination of the two main ideologies of transition – anti-communism and anti-corruption. Both have peaked after Romania’s entrance in the EU and have formed its elites. It seems to me however that both ideologies lose more and more their sense and purpose. Romanian society today is ever more market-oriented, while the scarecrow of communism, the Social Democratic Party, has lost a big part of its influence not least with its leaders sent to prison. Anti-corruption reached enormous heights before being stopped in the period 2017-2019, when the judicial reforms came along with the dismissal of the renowned chief prosecutor of the anti-corruption prosecution Laura Kovesi, whose rule led to deep division in Romanian society. The political elites in Romania will be ever more renewed and the process of their replacement cannot be stopped, given that the expected winner in the presidential election in November 2019 will be either Klaus Iohannis or his main opponent the leader of Union “Save Romania” Dan Barna.

All that means that the Union “Save Romania” is a party of winners in Romanian transitions, even though it is looking for a renovation of the political system. In this sense its rhetoric could be “revolutionary”, but the more strength it gains, the more conservative this party will probably become. In the conditions of a victorious post-transition the Union “Save Romania” will probably be a leading force, but change will come from somewhere else – from those for whom transition remains a trauma. This is the electorate, which represents interest for “Demos”.

In the spring and summer of 2019 there were a few strikes in foreign companies in Romania, and in some cases the workers managed to obtain concessions from their employers. “Demos” demonstrated solidarity with the protesters and even in some cases – e.g. in Targovishte, participated in workers’ protests. ”Demos” has attracted it is ranks some of the greatest experts in Romania on social and labour issues.

Apart from ”Demos” some of its former member have established The Institute for Social Solidarity, which aims to write publications on civic education and poverty in Romania. This development is a sign that the circles of the new left in Romania are not limited only to the supporters of ”Demos”.

One main problem for “Demos, however, is the difficult ideological heritage of transition, which has given a stigma to the left. The party’s various attempts to challenge the “consensus” of transitions are often met with irony, hate or lack of understanding. This makes life more difficult for the public faces of “Demos”, because they have to select their words very carefully and in the end it is inevitable that some of their actions or statements are misinterpreted.

Demos” is in complex relations with the other left party of similar type – the Romanian socialist party, which as a whole unites the elder generations and is less technologically-savvy with obsolete messages, expressing nostalgia for the times of Ceausescu and for the many factories, which were closed in the times of transition. It is however more determined on international issues and more critical towards the activities of today’s western capitalist state with regard to countries such as Venezuela. “Demos” is criticised that it is too influenced by western, American concepts with regard to gender and this limits its capability to reach larger circles of populations. In its turn the Romanian Socialist Party cannot win a lot of the young people with its rhetoric from the times of socialism – using words such as imperialism or reactionary.

The exit from transition in Bulgaria

The constant contradiction between the non-elected institutions – such as the secret services, and the political parties (whose greatest representative is the Social Democratic Party) is characteristic of the Romanian political system. This tension has led to a lot of protests, mobilisation of people, contradictions, which create the feeling that the Romanian society is politically alive.

At the same time the period after Bulgaria’s entrance in the EU is dominated by stability of the political system with one leading party – GERB. The political system, which is created in Bulgaria, creates security for a number of the social groups, but puts others to test. In Bulgaria there are also contradiction between the so-called new and old formations and faces. But it is more diluted, because Bulgarian politics in principle is mixed and contradictory. GERB has its russophile current, while the left conservatism of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, just like the one of Romanian social democrats, brings both left-wing formations closer and is apparent answer to the rise of Donald Trump and similar political forces on the international scene. In a similar way the young and the old coexist in the same political parties.

“Democratic Bulgaria” could have a young leader in the face of Radan Kanev, but it is known that the strong man there is the former prime minister Ivan Kostov. “Yes, Bulgaria” is considered by some the Bulgarian equivalent to the Union “Save Romania”, but the Yes Bulgarians have no problem to be in coalition with a party of the transition such as “Democratic Bulgaria”. In its turn BSP has young faces, which speak about the need for replacement of the political elites, who are inherited in the times of transition.

In this mixed and contradictory context the Bulgarian new left deserves special interest, because, in my view, they carry the potential for change. A proof in this sense is the civic initiative for fiscal reform, called ”Let us stop the machine of inequality”. It aims at introduction of untaxed minimum of income for the physical persons and introduction of lower levels of VAT of 9% (which exist for tourism) for water, basic and child food, basic medicaments, manuals and books. The initiative is supported by Confederation of Labour ”Support”, Bulgarian anti-poverty network, society ”Solidary Bulgaria”, Collective for Public Interventions, Autonomous Labour Syndicate, Discussion Club for Social Local Policy, magazine dVERSIA, analytical portal ”The Barricade” and the electronic site Dokumentalni.com. The initiative was further supported by members of the European parliament, economists, jurists, enterpreneurs with social sensitivity. It managed to gather 30 000 signatures and was introduced in Parliament, but couldn’t provoke change. However, after the European elections even in the National Assembly the supoprt for the fiscal changes in the sense of the initiative got higher.

The new left’s success will not be a result of the heroism of single persons, but will be a function of the growing social movements and communities. The challenge before the new left is the determination of various chauvinisms – of the different discourses, which aim to accuse and punish the weaker. New left oppose in various formats the Welfare Abuse campaign which stygmatised the people with disabilities. In spite of overall social apathy the new left supports an increase in the payment for night labour.

All those and other positions create a long front, at which the new left challenges the consensus of transition, which has many faces. The most important of them is the weak are to blame for their condition and they have to suffer additionally. This understanding reflects the lack of heart and soul, which dominates the thinking of a lot of people and institutions.

The post-transition is not revolutionary

Bulgarian new left tries to create social sensitivity on issues, where miracles are not possible. The introduction of untaxed minimum will leave a few tens of leva more to the people. The rise of payment for night labour will increase the remunerations without making the people richer. But all these measures could shift the balances of transition, which leads to suppression of the vital energy of people.

The winners of transition will continues to be winners. But the losers will have their dignity and even greater security. This is the essence of posttransition, which is not revolution, but a slow and methodical increase of the space, in which everyone can manoeuvre in his life. This is the cure for the trauma of transition, which continues to haunt the Bulgarian worker, the man with disabilities, the young and the old.

In the Bulgarian society, which is dominated by archaic ideas, many justify their lack of action with the fact that “it must become worse, before it gets better” and that “only revolution” can change the things. But in a market society of consmption in the EU and in the West the revolutions of the type of the Bolshevik in Russia and the Islamic in Iran are not possible. Those who wait for revolution have just found a convenient alibi for not doing anything. Instead, there is an apparent need for a wave of humanisation of institutions and society.

This is what both Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Melenchon have understood. Corbyn was marginalized for decades. But one thing the British understood and admired was his integrity – in continuing to stand up for what he believed in. In a world of deceit, that honesty stood out. Totally against the odds, he emerged and has energised a whole new constituency not only of young people but of those who had given up on politics…

What change does Bulgaria need? Many people would say that the problem is cultural – the Istanbul Convention, the Strategy for Children, Soros, liberalism, genderism. But cultural wars can’t change the economic base of society. The Bulgarian family would be much stronger and fertility higher, if the common man had security in his life and economic space for maneuvers. This is the big challenge for post-transitions. Society needs change, development and renewal. Life, not profit or power, is the fundamental value of every attempt for change.

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