Since 1989, Bulgarian politics has offered a bleak landscape for the Left. With all mainstream parties united by the same neoliberal dogmas, the only difference lies in their greater or lesser embrace of reactionary cultural prejudices. The current government is a coalition between the center-right GERB (“Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”) and three far-right parties. While GERB stands for austerity, its far-right coalition partners stand for austerity and open racism.
The main opposition, the nominally center-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), is hardly any better. Successor to the old Communist Party, in government in the 2000s it established a flat 10 percent income tax rate — mostly benefiting the winners of post-1989 privatization. Promising more of the same in this month’s European elections, the BSP has withdrawn backing for its only remaining left-wing member of the European Parliament (MEP). Its candidates do however include a private investment fund specialist and a nationalist politician and TV presenter.
This is grimly typical of Bulgaria’s main parties, led by hereditary elites who shuffle through the revolving door between corporate life and public office. The country has no meaningful left-wing opposition, and voices for policies like a fairer distribution of wealth and environmental protection are silenced.
But for workers’ rights activist Vanya Grigorova, things don’t have to be like this. Unlike Bulgaria’s political elites, she grew up in a working-class family, working first as a janitor at a public school and later at McDonald’s before going to university. Today one of the best-known trade unionists in Bulgaria, she is active in Podkrepa, the country’s second largest union confederation, which has over 80,000 members. Grigorova was at the forefront of key progressive mobilizations in recent years, like the movements against TTIP and CETA, as well as “Let’s Stop the Engine of Inequality” — a broad campaign for fair taxation that began in 2017. Now she’s planning to take the spirit of these campaigns into the European Parliament itself.
Madlen Nikolova and Georgi Medarov sat down with her in Sofia to learn more about her candidacy and her vision for this struggling country on the edge of the EU.
You’re running for the European Parliament as a woman, a trade unionist, and as a candidate from a small, peripheral EU country. What do you hope to achieve?
Over the last four years I saw how directives coming from the EU decide what happens in Bulgaria, and why we need to be in Brussels to change things. Take the European Commission (EC) directive that changed how working time is calculated in Bulgaria. Despite its original intent of limiting abuses by employers, it actually made workers’ conditions even more precarious. An EC directive also fueled the rise of temporary recruitment agencies.
Often, Brussels doesn’t understand the situation in the different member-states. For instance, the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive limits employees’ probationary period to six months, but also allows it to be extended. In Bulgaria six months was already the maximum, so the measure actually helped employers to extend probation, making workers’ status even less stable. EU bureaucrats are opening up loopholes for business that didn’t exist before in Eastern Europe. So, it worries me that we have no outspoken representatives defending us.
That’s what I’m hoping to do, by raising issues that are important to ordinary Bulgarians. Even if I’m not elected, the campaign will put pressure on Bulgaria’s MEPs to acknowledge the strong progressive attitudes in the country. They won’t neglect social issues like they have until now. Only one of the existing Bulgarian MEPs, Georgi Pirinski campaigned for social and workers’ rights during the last parliament, but the BSP decided not to make him a candidate this time around.
The Left has been torn over the question of EU integration for decades. Your own country has been part of the Union for twelve years. How would you evaluate its experience as a member state on the periphery of the EU?
Currently there’s a big fuss in Bulgaria about politicians and wealthy people building “guest houses” using European funds which are meant to encourage rural development. Needless to say, they never intended to set up a family business — they simply abused public funds to build a country house for themselves. It seems EU funding consists of tax contributions from poor people in rich countries which then end up in the hands of rich people in poor countries.
But even a country on the periphery can uphold its interests as part of a larger international community. Unfortunately, our current MEPs in Brussels represent businesses, not workers. There is no strong workers’ alliance to champion their rights, but there is a strong agreement among MEPs and commissioners to ensure a “good business environment.” This is usually to the detriment of workers and akin to our “national competitiveness strategy” — low taxation and low wages to allow businesses to flourish.
The EU has begun to realize that this kind of strategy leads to the marginalization of a large part of its population and a wave of Euroscepticism. It may even lead to the dissolution of the EU. But we have to put our efforts into transforming the EU, not into its dissolution. There’s no other way forward.
The next five years of European Parliament and European Commission activity are going to be crucial for the integrity of the EU. There are grounds to believe that there can be a return to a “social Europe,” The European Pillar of Social Rights could serve as an opening for progressive change. But another term of “business as usual” would undermine any bid to build a “social Europe.”
You’ve already campaigned against and written about crucial issues like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and CETA and their potential impact on environmental and social standards. The European-wide campaign against TTIP was in a way successful and negotiations were halted. What positive direction would you like to see the European Union take in terms of trade policy?
I was the national coordinator of the Stop TTIP and CETA campaign in Bulgaria. We created a coalition of organizations working to stop the ratification of these agreements, which would have been harmful to ordinary people. They protect corporate interests while their “support” for working people is little more than lip service. How should trade policy change? All comprehensive agreements of this kind should guarantee real protections of labor and social rights.
At the same time, multinational corporations shouldn’t be allowed to take states to court. Let’s take Romania, for example, which was found guilty in a supranational arbitration court and fined for revoking an investment incentive scheme. The European Commission, on the other hand, stated that if Romania pays these fines it will violate Union rules as they will be considered state subsidies. Romania has to decide whether to pay the fine to that company and be sanctioned by the EC, or not pay the fine and risk the confiscation of its property in the United States. The EC keeps luring us into such labyrinth-like situations, which individual countries have to navigate. This is not acceptable.
We have to fight against the detrimental effects of globalization, which I see as the opposite of internationalism. The former serves corporations; the latter serves workers. Capital mobility must be restricted or eliminated through the democratic procedures available to us in the EU, because this represents the true source of social and wage dumping practices. When a Western company outsources its production to third countries where social and labor standards are lower, the commodities produced there should not be sold in the EU. There are commodities that cause great harm to the environment, and there are commodities that harm people’s lives. Their circulation in the EU should be restricted.
As chief economic advisor to the Podkrepa trade union confederation, you represent working people and people with disabilities. What do you think the EU should do in terms of social policy? Do you think reforms in that area can be used as a vehicle to transform what is being dubbed as a “two-speed Europe” and address inequalities within the EU?
In order to function as a union, the EU must ensure that member states share not only the obligation to create good business environments but also to establish labor and social standards. This is what the European Pillar of Social Rights is meant to do. Its practical application is crucial and will reveal whether the Pillar is a document with teeth or empty symbolism.
We had a bad experience with the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive I mentioned earlier. After zero-hours contracts spread across low-wage work in the UK they started to be used in many other Western European countries, and the general discontent with this type of contract strengthened. The EC tried to show it cares about protecting jobs and decided to ban zero-hours. But then the business lobby intervened and this initial goal was abandoned. The directive’s aim now is to make a few cosmetic changes to put a human face on zero-hour contracts without actually limiting employers’ power to call employees into work without much notice.
We find ourselves in a similar situation when it comes to the problems facing people with disabilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities needs to be translated into practice. We tried to push for a new Bulgarian Law on Persons with Disabilities which would require developers and investors to adjust buildings and ensure that disabled people have access to them, but there are no real conditions for real estate investors. If they fail to comply with accessibility requirements, the fine they have to pay is negligible — no impediment to carrying on as they planned anyway.
But someone needs to ensure disabled people have access to schools, universities, and workplaces. Disabled people are often accused of not holding a job for too long or not working at all. Some conservative activists and politicians want to take their pensions away, as they are deemed fit to work. But the option for them to get to work is simply not there — no ramps, no lifts, no automatic doors, no infrastructure. I believe that if the EU does not impose some of these measures on us, they will never become reality in Bulgaria.
Can the EU address the effects of the social dumping strategies of Eastern European countries?
The EU can influence tax policies. There was an EC proposal for minimum taxation levels, but the Bulgarian finance ministry strongly opposed it as Bulgaria is a leader when it comes to tax dumping. The EC can’t force progressive elements into our tax system if our government doesn’t agree. However, if the EC wants to do something it’ll find ways to do it. That became evident in 2013 when it refused to sign an agreement with Bulgaria for the next budget programming period, thus forcing the BSP government to resign. The agreement was then signed just a couple of days into the next caretaker government’s term. If they can force a government to resign, they can force a progressive element into our taxation system.
The main political group of the Left in the European Parliament is the GUE/NGL, which includes parties like Die Linke and Syriza. Should you be elected, do you plan to join them?
I expect some changes in the next European Parliament. Most probably, the right wing will still dominate the Party of European Socialists, which includes parties like the German SPD. On the other hand, conservative and nationalist parties will get many more seats. But there will probably be another party: DiEM25 with Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister. It’d be wise to wait and see which parties are more engaged with workers’ rights and go with them.
Representatives of business organizations, whose members own various media outlets, refuse to debate you publicly as you tend to confront them on issues like wages, vacation time, disability benefits, etc. How do you think that will affect your campaign’s publicity? What challenges have you faced so far in terms of media coverage?
Some business representatives have refused to debate me for a year and a half now, in my role as a trade unionist. However, the media keep inviting me to speak because I’m clear and determined to stand my ground. But the moment my candidacy was announced, my access to media was limited. I still get invited to regional radio stations. I appeared on a show at a pro-government TV channel but their aim was to discredit my message.
I will start feeling the effect of the lack of media coverage more strongly soon, as all media outlets expect us to pay to go on air and we don’t have any spare funds. We will try to reach out to people by traveling to their towns, and through social media. The lack of funds will not discourage us. I speak of “us” as there are many experienced leftist activists, trade unionists, and organizations helping with the campaign. We cooperate closely in forging the campaign’s messages, the result of years-long efforts.
Your candidacy is backed by a campaign committee exclusively composed of workers. What sectors do they come from, and whom do they represent?
The campaign committee is made up of people I met in different struggles. They identified as workers, but they could simultaneously be mothers, grandmothers, or people with disabilities. But they are united by a campaign focusing on workers’ rights and interests. One of them is a cutter at a garment factory. Another works at a mine. Yet another is a freelance journalist, translator, and economist. The fourth member is a hotel maid from Ruse — she recently became a member of Podkrepa, the trade union I work for, after her boss tried to fire her. The fifth member is a former employee of a telecommunications company. I met him because he worked at a similar company and faced the same obstacles I did trying to receive the compensation he was owed after his employer went bankrupt. The sixth member now works as a cleaner.
The committee is headed by a doctor who is also a disability rights activist and works at the Bulgarian Expert Medical Committee, which assesses disabilities. She has been campaigning against cuts in disability payments. This was a major issue last year, when the government drastically reduced welfare support for people with disabilities. Her work is sorely underpaid in Bulgaria. Despite her professional experience, she only makes 850 leva per month (roughly $480).
Do you think your candidacy will have more long-term effects, such as a change in the rhetoric of other political actors?
I’ve lost all hope in changing the Bulgarian Socialist Party, especially since I’ve been following their policies closely. I don’t believe that its members are bad, corrupt, or right-wing — on the contrary. But the party leadership certainly is. When a friend introduced me into it, I found old-school branch meetings dominated by old people, and even the youth section was run by the children of the party elite, who felt entitled to run it like their own property.
I consider myself left-wing, but in Bulgaria there is a stigma related to the socialist past — if you’re left-wing you’re authoritarian, not progressive, undemocratic. But the real problem is that Bulgarian citizens are completely confused by the terms “left” and “right.” Here, the “left-wing” party promotes right-wing measures. On the other hand, people see that the right-wing parties have made some gestures in support of ordinary people, even though it’s little more than demagoguery. So, we need to show concretely what progressive politics means, and change the conversation.
That includes labor issues. Since I began working for the trade union I’ve seen that there is a seemingly indestructible consensus on the notion of a “labor shortage” in Bulgaria. According to influential experts and organizations, this meant that those of us who stayed in the country — unlike the many who have emigrated — are lazy, uneducated, and work-shy. I started criticizing that argument by saying that the problem is not a shortage of labor but of fair wages. I’ve seen public opinion shift in the past four years and now people see mass emigration as something caused by employers. We can break that consensus through public appearances in mainstream media. We published reports on the welfare system destroying the myth of well-off benefits scroungers. Now it’s not as easy for the Right in government to exploit the issue. It is important to speak out. I hope we won’t get tired of beating our heads against the wall. These walls will crack, but our heads must be much more resilient in order to effect change.
I really hope that the momentum gained around the campaign attracts more people. I rely on people, and not funds, as funds come with certain expectations. A decent result of the campaign would give people who feel unrepresented hope that there is room for change. If we can work together, I’ll have hope. But first let’s see what happens on May 26.
The international left has been reinvigorated and inspired by the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the US. Your approach to campaigning reminds me a bit of Bernie’s slogan, “It’s not me, it’s us.” Do you feel an affinity between your own work and the democratic-socialist project more broadly?
Politicians like Sanders and Corbyn are definitely an inspiration for many of us. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to compare my candidacy to the debates taking place in the US and the UK. The Bulgarian mainstream media did not report, for example, on Sanders’s campaign pressuring Amazon to increase wages. Very few people in Bulgaria believe that a campaign of this sort can have such a positive outcome. Business owners are treated like sacred cows. Governments, and not businesses, are blamed for the low standard of living and low wages.
Social movements in Bulgaria are struggling to defend the social rights being eroded and cannot yet formulate a general program for a radical social transformation. We are still trying to remedy the damage done by neoliberal slogans, which have convinced people that the trickle-down effect is real. We are still at the stage of reacting to attacks coming from the outside, and fighting for small reforms like the introduction of a non-taxable income. Nevertheless, I hope there will soon be a discussion of a positive democratic-socialist project in Bulgaria.