Electricity prices trigger revolt against system
25 February was the sixteenth day of mobilisations of a powerful mass movement in Bulgaria that already done away with one government. Only a few months ago, Bulgaria was being touted as an “island of stability” (in the words of President, Plevneliev) in an otherwise increasingly unstable region. Its leaders boast the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio (16%) in the EU, and a budget deficit which meets the European institutions’ “stability” requirements. But despite this rosy picture, beneath the figures lies the poorest nation in the EU. This is an important contrast, at a time when the capitalist class across Europe are bleeding workers, youth and unemployed dry in the name of deficit and debt reduction, with the promise of a brighter future on this basis. However, as Bulgaria shows, on the basis of capitalism, such a rosy economic position for capitalism is not translated into a better, more stable life for the majority.
The majority of Bulgarians live in misery, with an average income of €360 per month, and state pensions as low as €75, per month. Official figures show that 49% of the population are judged to be in immediate risk of poverty, with one fifth currently living below the poverty line. Over one million predominantly young people have fled the country out of a population of 7.2 million. The contradiction between this reality, and the decades of false promises of “progress” and “modernisation” since the collapse of Stalinism in 1989, especially following the country’s entry to the EU in 2007, is among the essential ingredients for the recent social explosion. The rapid development of this movement and the dramatic impact it has had, along with the far-reaching mass demands it has thrown up, shows how quickly and devastatingly such contradictions can be unravelled when the ‘levee breaks’.
Electricity prices trigger revolt
The trigger for the movement, as has been reported in the international media, was the soaring, unbearable prices for energy and electricity. Electricity monopolies, mostly Austrian and Czech multinationals, have taken advantage of legal loopholes to dramatically hike up electricity “network charges” in the last months. This is an intolerable burden for millions of workers, young people, and pensioners. It was around this issue that mass protests first developed at the beginning of February, initially demanding relief of energy prices, and in many cases, the re-nationalisation of the electricity monopolies. The first days of protest action saw the mass storming of the headquarters of energy companies. The Czech multinational, CEZ, was the main target and its offices were spontaneously attacked and set alight by angry crowds. Main roads were blocked off, paralysing traffic.
These protests, which also embraced wide sections of the middle class and small business-owners – the traditional base of the former ruling GERB party – shocked the Bulgarian establishment, and immediately put Prime Minister Borissov on the back foot. In response brutal police repression was combined with conciliatory gestures to try to abate the mass movement. Borissov dismissed the Finance Minister, Simeon Dankov, as a scapegoat and sacrificial offering to the masses on Monday 18 February. When protests continued with renewed force the following day, Borissov announced an offer to bring down energy prices by 8%, with immediate effect. However, by this time, the masses had different ideas, and continued with their movement, forcing the withdrawal of Borissov and his entire cabinet. A caretaker ‘technocrat’ government is now in power until new elections are called.
Riot police lay down shields in solidarity with protesters
However, even the government’s resignation has not stopped the tide of radicalisation and struggle. Protesters, correctly expecting nothing from a re-composed government of the discredited political elite, continued with their demonstrations and blockades in the days following the fall of the government. A massive national day of protest – under the slogan “Let us burn the monopolies” – was held on Sunday 24 Feburary, when tens of thousands took to the streets in cities across the country. In contrast to the violent police repression during previous protests, 24th February saw an unprecedented development when riot police lined up in front of protesters and laid down their shields in solidarity! Upon his cowardly resignation, Borissov pathetically tried to claim he was resigning to defend the people from police violence, claiming he could not bear to “see the police attack the people”. However, the actions of the riot police when faced with such a powerful movement, shows that even these state forces can be drawn towards it, creating important breaches in the capitalist state apparatus. The police have shown that the capitalist class will not so easily be able to rely on them for their dirty work in the future. These divisions in the state machine must be further widened by the mass movement, by supporting the right of police officers to to protest, unionise and strike.
Socialist demands to the fore
While protests in towns and cities throughout Bulgaria country regularly gathered many tens of thousands, the widespread social support for the movement was tangible. Opinion polls consistently showed between 85% and 92% in support. This ferment, along with the militant character of the protests, and refusal to be contented with the government’s puny peace offerings, attests to the general anger behind the movement, which stretches far beyond the issue of soaring energy prices. Slogans and demands on the demonstrations also to testify to this. Protesters began to put forward evermore far-reaching demands, policies and proposals that challenge the fundamental basis of the current suffering in the country; the decades of robbery and looting by capitalists and oligarchs, benefiting from the privatisation orgy which accompanied the collapse of the Stalinism and the state-controlled, nationalised economy.
The nationalisation of the energy and utility companies, in some cases extended to the key sectors of the economy, as a whole, are widely embraced demands of the movement. Protesters also call for those guilty of robbing the country’s resources to be tried and imprisoned. At the same time, powerful democratic demands have come to the fore; for a new national assembly, for the breaking of the monopoly of the main parties, for the right to recall deputies etc. These demands testifying to how mass consciousness is radicalised and pushed to the left under the impact of events. They arose in the heat of struggle despite the glaring absence of a strong left and workers’ political force. Such a socialist alternative could participate in the movement, helping to popularise socialist demands and policies and a broad socialist perspective, such as the call for the nationalisation of the banks and commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class.
Another key feature of the protests was the complete failure of mainstream opposition parties, all tied to the confines of the system, to have any significant impact. The leaders of Bulgaria’s main trade unions were also conspicuously absent from the leadership of the movement, although many union militants and the national students’ union played a role in organising protests. The movement must develop democratic structures, with local and workplace assemblies organised and democratically coordinated on a national level, to decide on a plan and programme for the movement. The development of a fighting democratic trade union movement, and of a mass, democratic political party of the workers and youth, which can give an expression to these demands, as part of a rounded-out programme for the socialist transformation of society, is an essential task. A strong mass movement armed with democratic, independent and fighting trade unions, and a mass political party with a clear understanding of the necessary programme to break from the misery of capitalism, could sweep away not only governments of Borissov’s ilk, but the system itself, which generates the contradictions and inequalities which provoked the movement. A socialist Bulgaria, based on a democratically planned economy, would send shockwaves throughout this devastated region, and beyond into Western Europe, where masses of workers and youth are searching for a way out of capitalist chaos and crisis.