A New Pro-Russian Bulgarian President, Socialist Nostalgia and the Role of Refugees

Protests in Bulgaria in 2013; Georgi C - flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

Yesterday Bulgarian citizens elected a new president – Rumen Radev: a pro-Russian independent candidate, who has studied in the USA, served in the army for three decades and has no political experience. Many consider the outcome to be a sign of protest against the ruling party GERB and, at least in part, as a protest against the EU. Radev welcomes the presidency of Trump and sees new opportunities for the peacemaking process in Syria and a more moderate exchange of interests with Russia, especially by abolishing the sanctions against the country. EU-skepticism, anger towards refugees and resentment about corruption have surely fueled the outcome of the elections, but this vote is surely not an anti-establishment statement by the public, it’s the result of ruthless neoliberal policies, lack of support by the European partners and incredibly poor domestic institutions in politics and administration. Let me explain in detail what I mean, many aspects are applicable to the majority of the former Socialist countries.

Yes, there is an anti-immigration sentiment, people are deeply disappointed by the EU and it’s not that difficult to understand why. Just watch these two short documentaries one after the other (or scroll down, I’ll get to that, but I really recommend the two videos):

In 2013, I was working In Bulgaria when protests sparked. The energy prices in the winter rose to an unbearable extent. People were literally sitting in the dark and cold. The Balkan country is still one of the poorest in the EU and struggled with the financial crisis. While the EU institutions expected Bulgaria to keep public deficit on the low (it actually functioned), they neglected that investment cuts would worsen the situation. Additionally – and this is the crucial point – Bulgaria has been struggling with severe corruption for more than two decades. Every party, including the neoliberal party GERB with their charismatic leader Boyko Borissov have somehow managed to swallow great amounts of the money provided by the EU. Every single party since the collapse of the Socialist system has taken advantage of their power, regardless if they were Socialist, liberal, conservative. And now imagine, you were too poor to heat your apartment and the government resigns due to self-immolations and mass protests. You see a possibility to change, but elect the same government which had just resigned a couple of months later and hope they’d learned their lesson. Of course, nothing changes.

One of the most important reasons for the emergence of corrupt business men and the so-called “mafia” is the poorly organized “transition period” in Eastern European countries. In the early 1990s, most people were hopeful, they wanted the regime change. They had high hopes in the EU and the US, which implemented the capitalist order with support of the IMF and the World Bank. People sought prosperity, freedom and opportunity. However, a power vacuum for a phase just long enough for informal structures to form, still takes its toll. Both the ruthless economic measures and the new corrupt government didn’t succeed in developing ideas how to stimulate growth and competitive economic branches within the country. Bulgarian citizens experienced poverty, inflation and unemployment – brain drain began.

This has been the mode in Bulgaria until now. People are tired, disappointed that prosperity didn’t emerge out of the broken system. In 2013, right after the mass protests had taken place, several thousand refugees crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Within several months, the refugee shelters – rotten, old buildings – were packed. Bulgaria never faced similar immigration in its history and has no experience in this regard. After noticing the tragic conditions in the shelters, the EU supported Bulgaria financially to upgrade the housing for refugees and de facto tolerated that a fence had been built on the Turkish border. Cutting off borders is against EU legislation, but after EU Commissioners criticized the measure, nobody really cared. Bear in mind that the Bulgarian citizens are highly tense at this moment – poverty, high energy prices, a corrupt government and economic difficulties for two decades. In the perception of many Bulgarians, the EU didn’t really care about anything – they expected austerity measures to be fulfilled and this squeezed the citizens. Therefore many citizens were irritated after seeing that money was transferred to rebuild the rotten refugee shelters. Yes, social envy and xenophobia go hand in hand in this case. Now, civil militias without a public mandate have formed and attempt to “protect” the Bulgarian border. If they eventually meet refugees, they threaten them and ask them to return. There have been as well reports on violent attacks.

The accumulation of negative experiences with the international community, the EU, IMF and World Bank triggered a new Socialist nostalgia. Note that Eastern European Socialsm always included subliminal elements of nationalism. The notion that “back then” economy was stable, the pensions were safe and everyone could afford basic necessities has become a popular view, especially among the elderly (read one of my detailed pieces on this topic here). „We were a respected country“, I often hear people say. Additionally, a twisted memory of Slavic and Socialist brotherhood to Russia goes along with this nostalgia. Nobody cares if the demand was artificial or that the lack of civil freedoms bothered many citizens. Now, apparently, citizens were fed up with GERB and wanted a change. Frankly, they chose a candidate which was supported by the Socialist party – a party which still embodies the old political class of the late 1980s and which citizens have forced to resign in the past. Nope, this was obviously not an anti-establishment vote. People actually voted with a desire for old-fashioned patterns for a false sentiment of stability. Supposedly, a military general and pilot like Radev is the strongman Bulgarians were hoping for in order to protect them and force Western countries to realize that Bulgaria is still struggling. Radev is a black box without a clear line – to some he embodies a „red ommunist, to others an agent from Washington“ as he said himself.

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