Left Behind: Bulgaria in Need of a Socialist Struggle for the Climate

Against the backdrop of the deepening social and climate crisis of the capitalist system, the weakness of the left becomes painfully evident in Bulgaria – and the need for a new course of action, more urgent than ever.

Left parties have espoused green capitalism and nationalism. We need a social movement for climate justice.

Bulgaria’s left is in shambles. Since capitalism was restored in 1989, both political representation and social movements have endured the devastating effects of neoliberal cultural hegemony. Socialist ideas have lost legitimacy, while the political infrastructure that produced viable discourses on the left and organised workers has largely been dismantled. The surrender to right-wing policies has lead to decades of austerity, privatisation, and inequality. Against the backdrop of the deepening social and climate crisis of the capitalist system, the weakness of the left becomes painfully evident – and the need for a new course of action, more urgent than ever.

What is left of the Bulgarian left

The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) used to be one of the major parties, running on a big-tent, social democratic platform. Over the years it shifted to the right, most notably with the adoption of a flat tax rate while in government. Since current leader Korneliya Ninova took over in 2016, the party has slid further to the right, adopting a nationalist-conservative platform focused on anti-gender politics and opposition to migration. Under her leadership support for the party collapsed to a mere 9.3% in the last parliamentary elections. Poll projections show that it will only win one or two of the 17 seats available for Bulgarian Members of the European Parliament in the upcoming vote. Smaller break-away parties are increasingly challenging BSP’s dominance on the left. In the last elections, they ran together as a coalition (“The Left!”), but did not cross the electoral threshold. Their strategy for the upcoming June elections remains uncertain. They are yet to propose a radically different vision for the left, and that seems increasingly unlikely as ideological debates are replaced by short-term electoral slogans in the many, many elections we have kept on holding over the last few years.

These processes have two main consequences. On the one hand, the social democrats have failed to produce meaningful alternatives to liberal and nationalist discourses on the climate. On the other hand, ideological and organising weakness has meant that ostensibly leftist electoral platforms have simply aligned themselves with their ideological opponents. The BSP, traditionally balancing between pro-EU, business-friendly liberalism, and a more social democratic stance, has plunged into a rhetoric bent on preserving coal at all costs as a matter of “national interest” (as opposed to the European interest) – while struggling to present a somehow pro-European message for change. In January, Ninova said that new MEP candidates should be “pro-European but defend Bulgarian sovereignty and the Bulgarian national interest”.

Between liberalism and nationalism

The electoral platforms of the BSP in the last few years serve to show not only their complete ideological resignation, but a marked shift towards a more conservative position on climate. In their 2021 programme, climate change is characterised as a “global threat”. The party envisions the development of renewable energy, the creation of greener cities and buildings, and the improvement of air, water, and soil quality. The programme features measures for reforestation paid for by major polluters, massive recycling, public transportation, and energy efficiency. Other measures include transforming the Maritsa Iztok coal complex into an “example” for private green investment. Although wrapped in nationalist gesturing towards the “Bulgarian land”, the programme shows that the BSP espouses a liberal viewpoint towards the climate crisis: climate is important, but it should be addressed by private investment, the liberalisation of the energy market, and state support for nuclear and large-scale hydropower.

The 2022 electoral platform still aims at a “green economy for a sustainable reduction of the carbon footprint”, but measures are reduced to reforestation and cleaner air programmes. However, now the plan for the Maritsa Iztok complex emphasises reliance on coal reserves. The party offers no concrete solutions, merely promising to develop an “updated national position on the Green Deal” without specifying its content.

In the 2023 platform, the topic of ecology is removed altogether. Instead, the priorities on energy policy are reduced to “[economically] sustainable development of the energy sector” and a “[r]enegotiation of the energy section of  the European Commission of the Recovery and Resilience Plan in order to preserve the Maritsa Iztok energy complex and guarantee the functioning of the coal energy sector”. There is also a declaration of “[p]riority of Bulgarian national interests”.

Its 2024 EU elections platform solidifies this position (vowing, for example, to defend the principle of “Bulgarian national interest first”). The party aims to review the European Green Deal in order to carry out a “sensible” energy policy based on nuclear power plants and large-scale hydro, while transforming the coal regions into tax-free economic zones. This somewhat unclear message should become clearer in the following weeks, when the party’s full EU elections platform and 2024 general election programme is published.

In general, we can observe a pronounced evolution of the BSP from a liberal, “green investments” position to a conservative, nationalist, pro-coal standpoint. And its discourse has changed even more: while the abandoned liberal positions gave a nod to a more socially sensitive transition, the newfound nationalist language completely disregards any notions of social justice, focusing instead on “sovereignty”, “independence”, and “national interests”, much as the the far right does throughout the continent.

Nature conservation vs. structural change

Social movements have been completely destroyed in the neoliberal transition to capitalism in the 1990s, which saw the shrinking of broad-based movements in favour of “experts” and professional “civil society” NGOs. As a result, nowadays one can hardly speak of broad social movements, with one notable exception: the ecological movement. Since at least 2006, there have been many local and national campaigns, struggles, and protests focused on resisting overbuilding, deforestation, mining, and promoting coastline protection. By denouncing “oligarchs” and “the mafia”, the movement identified corruption as the primary issue and emphasised the establishment of the rule of law as the solution.

Most of its leaders united to form a political party (now called The Green Movement Party) which joined the centre-right coalition “Democratic Bulgaria” and they have campaigned on pro-business and justice reform policies ever since. While the social movement has focused on environmental protection, its leaders have shifted focus to the connection between (or even the equation of) nature conservation in the narrow sense and combating climate change. Therefore, much of the discourse on climate change in the country revolves around individual actions and the struggle against corruption to get a “clean-up” of air, rivers, beaches, and soil, recycling, and protection of nature. Larger issues and the green transition are left to the market forces.

This “recipe” for climate policies has been adopted by BSP as well, but it is most surprisingly present in the platform of the other social democratic entity, the coalition “The Left!”, that was formed just before the last general election back in 2023. Its programme has a whole section on ecology (“Green Bulgaria”) which incorporates all of the main demands of the green movement such as the prohibition on building in protected areas, guarantees against fracking, transparency, and tougher pollution control. Astonishingly, the only other “green” policy mentioned is the promise for “support programmes for start-ups, innovative companies, green industry, and small and family businesses”.

In conclusion, the centre-left parties in Bulgaria have not contributed to the debates on climate but have resorted to blanket statements on nature protection and green investments instead of proposing any structural change.

Voices from the margins

For all it’s worth, there is a peripheral left movement in the grassroots that voices opposition to both the neoliberal status quo and the far right. Although it seems unlikely that it will become a political force any time soon, its valuable contributions to the climate struggle offer some indications of the prospects of a climate justice movement for all. Smaller collectives such as LevFem, of which I am a member, have proposed more radical analyses of the climate crisis and have critiqued the European Green Deal from Marxist and anarchist perspectives. In trying to shift the focus of climate discussion to its structural dimensions, we have voiced opposition to European plans to invest billions in the private sector, instead of radically transforming the economic system. We have supported miners in their struggles against unemployment, and defended large-scale state interventions in the economy to decommodify utilities and decolonise production. We have insisted on an overhaul of the flat tax system and the democratisation of the economy.

Left parties in Bulgaria have failed workers and the climate. They have failed to fight for a just transition and they have failed to offer a critical and transformative alternative to the climate crisis we are being pushed into. As the European elections will certainly show, none of the participating Bulgarian parties offer any prospect of change. For now. Our only hope is a radical movement from below that has the power to upset the ruling classes and burn capitalism to the ground.

Cover Photo: Mark Dixon via flickr.com