The New Bulgarian Left

A major change that has taken place in East-Central Europe in the last few years is the emergence of a new left. In the same way that the New Left in the United States distanced itself in the 1960s from the old-style Communist Party and its fellow travelers, this new left in Eastern Europe has taken pains to distinguish itself from the Communist Party politics of the Cold War era.

Partly this is a generational shift. Young people who did not live through the era of Todor Zhivkov and Wojciech Jaruzelski don't automatically associate socialism with massive human rights abuses and failed economic planning. Partly too it's a thorough disenchantment with what liberalism has brought -- austerity economics, a widening gap between rich and poor, hollow democratic institutions, a disregard for environmental issues. Many people in the region have come up against these shortcomings of liberalism and veered right, into nationalism. Another group has struck off in the opposite direction to create a new kind of progressive politics.

Georgi Medarov, soft-spoken and pony-tailed, is part of this new generation of activists. He works at an environmental NGO in Sofia and also participates in a group called New Left Perspectives. "We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don't think it's enough," he says. "We don't accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept."

Medarov joined the movement in Bulgaria against the U.S. war in Iraq, though he and his cohort made sure to distinguish themselves from the hard-line communists and hard-line nationalists that also came out for the demonstrations. The wars of the Bush era have faded into the background. The new left's critique of austerity, however, has proven perhaps more enduring, as the economic crisis itself has stubbornly remained front and center. Here, the experience of East-Central Europe is cautionary and could provide lessons for other movements resisting austerity measures.

Similar austerity measures, Medarov points out, "were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism."

The economic hardship that so many people are experiencing in Bulgaria, and elsewhere in the region, has produced a certain nostalgia for the old days. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria, that nostalgia conceals a soft spot for authoritarian rule. "In the group I'm part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we're quite critical of it," Medarov explains. "This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It's not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they're not nostalgic about that."

Unlike the Leninists of old and the Putinists of today, the new left has no illusions about authoritarianism. It has embraced many aspects of the social movement politics of the 1960s and 1970s: civil rights, feminism, LGBT activism. With a few exceptions, such as the Palikot movement in Poland, the new left in East-Central Europe has not registered yet in the electoral realm. In Bulgaria, the new right and the old left continue to dominate the political realm. But in the environmental protests that recently mobilized thousands of people against unrestrained economic development or the annual Pride marches that have gained in numbers and visibility, a new political sensibility is taking shape in Bulgaria. It shares many of the same perspectives as other new left groups in the region, such as Krytyka Polityczna in Poland or the organizers of the Subversive Festival in Croatia.

But as Georgi Medarov explained to me one night in October in the loud, crowded café attached to Sofia's Archaeological Museum, Bulgaria's new left has a sensibility all its own. My conversation with him is an important reminder that if I restricted my interviews only to the people that I talked to 22 years ago, I would miss many critical aspects of the current East-Central European reality.

Interview

Can you describe this new left here in Bulgaria?

We use this term to try to carve out space between the old left -- what we call the hardline communist left, which is nostalgic about socialism in a conservative, nationalist way, because the socialists became nationalist and kicked 300,000 people out of the country for basically racist reasons -- and the Social Democratic party, which became quite neoliberal and quite conservative at the same time. So, we are trying to distinguish ourselves from this hard-line left and the social democratic one.

But at the same time we try to distinguish ourselves from liberals. We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don't think it's enough. We don't accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept. We were thinking in the beginning that if we offend too many people, everyone would hate us. It's a very negative way of identifying ourselves. But it turns out that many people are open to us. They come to our events and engage in discussions. There is a social need for this stance.

In the last couple years it's happening not only in Bulgaria, but in Eastern Europe. There has been a rise of new left groups, with various levels of radicalism. It's particularly strong in Croatia. The Subversive Festival is attended by a thousand people! They invite mainstream radical and left intellectuals, and they hold discussions throughout the day. It's not only the festival. There are lots of publications, demonstrations. It's a mainstream thing, and it gets mainstream media attention. There was a summer school that some people from my group were involved in in Budapest in July: the idea was to gather critical activist groups that are more academic-oriented. We want to make something similar in Sofia.

What is being experienced throughout Europe in terms of austerity measures are perceived as something unique. But actually they were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism. We had a general strike in 1997 that was organized by trade unions but which undermined trade union organizing in the long term. They basically lost their membership.

For the rest of the interview, click here.