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Eastern Europe: Mass protests topple Bulgarian government, zombie uprising in Slovenia

Mass protest in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, February 17, 2013.

March 15, 2013 -- Left Unity, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- In the last week of February 2013, after days of protests across the country, the Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borisov resigned. Mariya Ivancheva looks at how it happened and what comes next.

From the beginning of February, Bulgarians in most big cities have been out in the streets, protesting against increased electricity and heating bills. While the increase has happened gradually throughout 2012, in January 2013 the bills were considerably bigger than they would normally get. The price formation was transparently written down on the bill, but what angered many is that a significant amount of money was charged not for energy per se but for various taxes and tariffs.

A wave of contention spread throughout the country, resulting in blockades of roads, barricades, increasing popular rage and police violence. Three men died having set fire to themselves in protest at the bills and the subservience of the state to economic interests. One old man cut his veins out of sheer desperation over his electricity bill. The protesters were mostly rank-and-file Bulgarians: middle-aged men and women, young couples with children and students all went out on the streets to voice their concerns over high energy costs, mediocre living standards and perceived corruption. The protests were also joined and partly hijacked by a number of extreme-right groups, who were ready to exploit the situation for harassment and looting.

The solution offered by many intellectuals, politicians from throughout the political spectrum and the media, was –- surprise, surprise -– the end of monopolies and further privatisation and liberalisation of the energy market.

This posture disappointed many, as the whole process is actually a showcase example of how privatised entities function poorly outside state control. The national power distribution companies were privatised in 2005 and then sold out to foreign companies under very favourable conditions. This move made the state -– i.e. taxpayers -– indebted to the private companies, which held prices high with a cartel agreement.

Yet, it was not the monopoly in general that was a problem: the issue was eclipsed by the amnesia of 23 years of transition to a market economy. It was the monopoly in the hands of uncontrollable private companies within a free market economy with no state regulation or protection that has left the population totally vulnerable to price hikes. The clamour around the energy bills also eclipsed some contradictory actions of the Borisov government. To calm down grain producers who also threatened nation-wide protests, populist Borisov promised new subsidies. Consequently, days before his resignation, Borisov pressed finance minister Dyankov to issue government bonds for 800 mio lev (€409). Thanks to the unexpected shock for the national economy, and to the surprise of the international markets, the country’s bond yields started to rise and the value of the Bulgarian debt went down. But it was mostly Bulgarian banks who bought most (over 80%) of the bonds, raising suspicions of a deal to help Borisov’s reelection.

Crisis becomes political

Bills and bonds aside, the crisis of political representation had started. After a few nights of running battles between police and protesters, the government made an attempt to offer some blatantly unsustainable concessions: a significant decrease of energy prices and transparency of the energy sector.

A few “protesters” coming from circles close to the government called for the protests to stop, to little effect. The people demanded Borisov’s resignation. After a night of violent clashes with the police, Borisov filed his resignation, saying he could not tolerate blood on his hands. The resignation was almost unanimously approved by parliament.

President Rossen Plevneliev launched “public consultations” to find a way out of the political crisis and form a new government. In his office, along with representatives of the protesters, he invited neoliberal think-tank experts and members of oligarchic and commercial organisations. The protesters soon walked out. Plevneliev offered the mandate only to the three parties that had previously proposed to form a government: Borisov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), social-democratic Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Turkish ethnic Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (DPS) -– all refused. This meant the dissolution of the Parliament, the calling of new elections in May and the appointment by the President of an interim “expert” government.

This outcome didn’t satisfy the protesters, who saw it as a convenient way for the current government to gain time to erase their record of corruption and avoid investigation or persecution. And this government shows no intention of reforming electoral laws ahead of the elections, when the current electoral code makes it exceptionally difficult for small parties to run for office.

People did not leave the streets. Demands for the electricity bills to be lowered were soon followed by more radical claims: a new Constitutive Assembly, elections by majority vote with no parties, only individual candidates, and the revision of all privatisation deals and concessions of the last 20 years.

The price to pay

While discontent with the capitalist system barely surfaced, the shouted slogans have expressed a wide exasperation with economic impoverishment and the alienation from the political process experienced by most Bulgarians. Within a rising global economic crisis, many Bulgarians realise that the crisis has never left the country.

Since 1989 whole sectors and service industries have been privatised. Cheap concessions were given to the client firms of a succession of governments and secret treaties were signed, always at the expense of the public. Unemployment engulfed the entire nation and exiled 2 million Bulgarian citizens as economic migrants abroad. Whole families were destroyed, villages deserted and adults and children left without care. When the crisis affected host countries in the West, the income of transnational families severely decreased. Negative campaigns were staged in the Netherlands and the UK against Bulgarian and Romanian workers, and a few EU countries -– most importantly Germany -– declared they would block the entry of Bulgaria into the Schengen space. So, although these riots make no direct anti-capitalist claims, they do express a rage against the effects of neoliberalism and second-class EU citizenship.

Anti-capitalism?

Why, then, hasn’t anti-capitalist rhetoric been more present on the squares and streets and Bulgaria? The answer to this question goes beyond party politics.

Alienation and impoverishment have not only happened in the economic sense. Since the abolition of the hegemonic one-party state in 1989, politics in Bulgaria have become more plural only in terms of their formal respect for free elections. A consolidated political class has formed and shifted however was necessary to stay in power throughout the transition. The openly neoliberal BSP created a monopoly over the whole political left, and all the others were happy to call themselves “anti-communist” to justify the same political and economic programme as the BSP had espoused: western liberal democracy, free markets, privatisation, economic austerity, and an attempt to enter the rich kids’ club – aka the EU.

During the transition, and under the impulse of Bulgarian and western European think tanks and NGOs, politics were replaced by “policy” and “expertise”. Alternatives were presented as unthinkable: the road was clear ahead, and it was the only one. Whoever dared to disagree was condemned as a “communist”, a “spy”, declared “uncultured”, “uneducated” and not living up to “European values”.

Today these same experts are at a loss to explain what is happening. They have expressed publicly their moral panic and frank indignation with the people in the streets -– who dared to protest without a clear political program and no financial and symbolic resources. The people came out with the pure wrath of a mob that can neither be contained, nor reduced to the transition slogan of “civil society”. And yes, the statements of the people on the streets were often chaotic, often internally and mutually contradictory, politically incorrect, homophobic, sexist and racist at times. Protesters voiced scary demands against the construction of a second mosque in Sofia, for mandatory Orthodoxy classes in schools, or to exclude Roma and pensioners from voting. The abundant presence of football hooligans, who mobilised around the annual neo-Nazi Lukovmarsh in February, was also symptomatic of this chaos.

But still, the moral indignation of the intellectual and expert class was hypocritical to say the least. In their attempts to cement the neoliberal consensus, they have contributed to the systematic lack of adequate and pluralist political education and debate throughout the transition. People were no longer deceived by the fat concoction of liberal values of western capitalism, consumerism, free market and liberal democracy. But initially they had nothing with which to replace these deceptions.

Demands from within, inspiration from abroad

In recent years Bulgarians have gradually gained more exposure to news about (and for some first-hand experience with) anti-austerity protests.

Beyond the Occupy movement, the Spanish Indignados and the Arab Spring, they became aware of geographically close events, such as the Hungarian political crisis since 2006, the Greek anti-austerity campaign after 2008 and the Romanian winter of 2012. Protests have also happened in Bulgaria since 2007. Teachers, miners, environmentalists, students and academics, workers and citizens against the privatisation of the National Railroad Company and the Sopot Machine plant, and against the ACTA treaty: their protests were testimonies of a growing protest culture that is gaining confidence in its demands and its repertoire.

Caught in the vortex of increasing popular discontent, the Bulgarian political class and Borisov’s government have mostly responded with quick-fix solutions to quell the people’s anger. They privatised state-owned enterprises but kept collective contracts. They made concessions on contradictory bills to only then change other laws in favour of big business. They exhausted the treasury to pay rents to shut down further protest. The only thing they did not change was the general direction of the austerity and privatisation reforms.

More importantly, this time the people in the square came up with two key demands previously absent from the media and public space: “revision of the transition” and “change of the system”.

The first slogan presents a belated request to the political class: they were to make public the documents around the privatisation and concession deals, and to declassify secret contracts and transactions between the state and private companies during the transition period. For some of the protesters, 1989 didn’t represent the start of the democratic transition, but the moment when Bulgaria went down the wrong track. (Of course, whether this is the correct date is questioned even inside the movement: some say it could also be in the 1970s, when socialist countries began to live on credit from western countries and international financial organisations; or in the 1980s, when the first chaotic privatisations began). For the first time, Bulgarian citizens demanded transparency and control.

The second claim to "change the system" sounds altogether too vague, but it is also crucial. People in the square now see the problem not in our incorrect following of the European model, or our “oriental” capitalism. The problem is the model itself. The problem is capitalism.

A long winter?

Parliamentary elections having been moved to the relatively imminent date of May 11, the resignation of the government was no news. Borisov’s political game was no longer convincing.

By resigning he deserted the sinking ship trying to save his face, and secure reelection. The fact that the parliamentary-represented parties offered the chance to form a government refused also reeks of a lack of responsibility and a badly concealed political deal. With or without an interim government, the lack of an alternative political actor makes the electoral perspectives rather bleak.

The old political parties are discredited, and people in the streets have already produced a few potential leaders, but have been neither willing, nor able to start a party that would run in May. One could predict a new coalition government formed by Borisov’s GERB and some of its former political contenders, leading -- unless they change their politics significantly – to new waves of contention next winter.

Still, what is certain is that the camel’s back has been broken in Bulgaria. Bulgarians have joined larger processes that shook the region -– Romania last winter, Slovenia, Hungary, Macedonia and Kosovo this season. Slogans of the Occupy, Indignados and Greek anti-austerity movements now fill the streets. People are less willing to trust traditional representative democracy, and they are starting to organise themselves in working groups to discuss organisational alternatives and propose new legislative measures. They speak of new mechanisms and forms of political, economic and social participation.

Solidarity and international diffusion of protest strategies and forms of organising are now needed more than ever. And while the anti-capitalist and anti-privatisation vocabulary and alternative economic solutions are still at a rudimentary stage of development, one thing is clear: the Bulgarian winter isn’t over yet.

[This is an updated version of an article that was published on February 20, 2013, in CriticAtac under the title “The Bulgarian winter: between the devil and the deep blue sea”.]

Slovenia hit by 'zombie' uprising against austerity

By Brigita Gracner

March 13, 2013 -- CounterFire via Green Left Weekly -- The central European nation of Slovenia is being shaken by the first huge uprising since it became an independent country in 1991. The protests are directed against all political elites, austerity measures, and the capitalist system as a whole.

Since November, there have been 42 protests in all major Slovenian cities, with more than 110,000 participants altogether. The protests are mostly peaceful and decentralised, but a few hundred people have been arrested and many injured.

The protests started in November in Maribor as a response to corrupt actions of Maribor Mayor Franc Kangler in a dispute over the placement of new traffic enforcement cameras. The cameras were cited by the Municipality of Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest local authority, as a public-private partnership with a Slovenian firm.

The project was believed to be corrupt and lacking transparency after Kangler had allowed a private company to set up cameras all over the city and collect money from speeding tickets instead of directing it to the city budget.

The protests started with small demonstrations in front of Maribor's city hall in October, and escalated on November 21 into the first big protest. The protesters demanded Kangler’s resignation, chanting “He’s finished!” in the Slovenian Styrian dialect (“Gotof je!”).

This would become the most popular slogan for all the protests. Kangler was accused of corruption by the official Commission for the Prevention of Corruption of the Republic of Slovenia and eventually resigned at the end of last year.

The protests spread throughout the country during November. On December 21, the first “All Slovenian People’s Uprising” took place in the capital, Ljubljana. This was followed by another on January 11.

One of the most important reasons the protests spread to other cities was a report by the anti-corruption commission that accused Prime Minister Janez Jansa and leader of the largest opposition party, Zoran Jankovic, of corruption.

Neither could explain the source of some of their income in recent years. Jansa is also suspected of being involved in a corruption scandal involving the supply of Finnish armoured vehicles.

On February 8, two rallies took place in Ljubljana. The pro-government “Assembly for the Republic” organised a protest in support of Jansa, at which about 5000 people gathered. In the afternoon, however, more than 20,000 people took part, in the same place, in the third All-Slovenian People’s Uprising to protest against the ruling political elite.

This was the biggest anti-government gathering since the protests began.

Protest organisation

From the outset, the protests were organised with the help of social networks — mostly through Facebook. Later, a coordination committee was formed, but did not act as an organiser. None of the protests had been reported to the police in advance, as is legally required.

Apart from All-Slovenian People's Uprisings, the Coordination Committee of Culture of Slovenia, which combines the organisations of Slovenian cultural workers, also organised “Protestivals” with a cultural program in protest against government cuts in the funding of culture.

The movement is very diverse and consists of many social groups and initiatives: there are students and lecturers, trade unions, precarious workers, pensioners, anarchists, ecologists, socialists, and others, all demanding deep social changes.

Among the new groups the most prominent are the General Assembly of the All-Slovenian People’s Uprising, the Committee for Social Justice and Solidarity, the Coordination Committee of Slovenian Culture, the Committee for Direct Democracy, the Movement of the Responsible, and Today is a New Day.

There are also groups and parties that were active before the protest wave, such as the Federation for Anarchist Organisation, the Workers and Punks’ University, the student association Iskra, the Invisible Workers of the World, The Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia, the Pirate Party, and the Party for Sustainable Development.

Among these groups, the Workers and Punks’ University has been prominent: it is a collective of students and activists who organise an annual series of public lectures and regularly intervene in the social struggles with their theoretical analyses and political statements.

Austerity and severe recession

Although the protests started as a response to local problems, the protesters soon started demanding the resignation of all political and economic elites regardless of their political affiliations.

But the protesters are also targeting the austerity measures, and some the capitalist system as a whole. Slovenia is experiencing the second-sharpest drop in GDP of any European Union member as a result of the economic crisis.

Jansa and Slovenian President Borut Pahor have meticulously followed the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They have imposed harsh reforms which cost many jobs and social rights, leaving people (especially the young) with no hope for a secure future.

The government has already imposed a reform that raises the retirement age, and wants to reform the labour market with the intention of reducing protections against layoffs. Public sector wage cuts are also being planned.

Moreover, the Constitutional Court found a potential referendum on a law setting up a so-called “bad bank” and a sovereign holding company to be unconstitutional. In effect, the Court banned a popular vote on the matter.

The government also proposed a constitutional amendment that would reduce the chances of submitting a request for a referendum and reduce the potential to resort to this instrument of direct democracy.

The official response

The government, particularly Jansa's leading party, and their media supporters failed in criminalising the movement by describing the protesters as “communist zombies” led by “the uncles in the background”.

This evoked creative reactions at the second uprising, at which many of the protesters wore zombie masks.

During the protests, however, the word “communist” grew from a definition of former officials and the presumed “uncles” to a label for any opponent to the austerity measures.

Moreover, at the protest of the pro-government Assembly for the Republic, a speech by Jansa recorded in Brussels was broadcasted in which the prime minister drew an analogy between the methods of his opponents and those of Nazis at the beginning of the Holocaust. Jansa called the protesters “left fascists”.

Regardless of Jansa’s abuse of historical events and misuse of terms, it is the first time in 25 years that some of the media and groups taking part in the movement have spoken of socialism in a positive way.

Jansa’s attempts to criminalise and discredit the movement are logical, since his two junior coalition partners left the government because of the corruption scandals. This deprived Jansa of a majority and may bring about early elections.

On February 22, the pensioners’ party quit the government, reducing Jansa’s coalition to just 36 of 90 parliamentary seats. The opposition is now trying to agree on a new prime minister, but no official candidate has been proposed so far.

Despite the fact that the situation will probably lead to a provisional government, or to early elections which would postpone some reforms, the protests in Slovenia will continue.

The fourth All-Slovenian People’s Uprising took place on March 9 in Ljubljana.

Challenges

In a way, the situation is reminiscent of the one in 2011, when the so-called 15 October movement (15O) organised similar protests as a response to austerity measures. The movement occupied the platform in front of the Slovenian stock exchange for a few months as a sign of protest against the worldwide financial crisis.

The government had fallen a few months before, and the public was looked to the 15O protesters to produce an alternative.

However, it failed in the end to offer any concrete solutions, and at the same time refused any kind of institutionalisation in more formal political structures. Hence, although 15O gained great support from the public at the start, it was overshadowed by elections held in December 2011.

Despite the new government, the political elite continued austerity measures, with the only party that opposed the neoliberal reforms in its program completely defeated in the elections.

As there will probably be early elections this year, it will be essential to consider new forms of organisation. Although the movement seems stronger than the one in 2011, there lies a heavy task in front of it.

It appears that some parts of the movement will attempt to form parties, but since the movement consists of many groups with different positions, it will be essential for the socialist left to argue for its positions within this process.

This will give Slovenia the chance to prevent a forming of a government that would continue with the planned reforms.

[From CounterFire. Brigita Gracner is from the Workers' and Punks' University, Ljubljana. ]

 

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