Commoning in a post-socialist ‘Eastern European’ context: The forest commons as political issue in Bulgaria

Excerpted from MARIYA IVANCHEVA:

First, on the general context of the commons revival in Western Europe:

“The concept of “the commons” – here defined as goods and services that are managed by and serve the interest of the community that produces them – has suddenly attracted the attention of European left-wing movements. Various theorists and scientists have revisited this concept, which culminated in the drafting of A European Charter of “the commons”earlier this year at the International University College in Turin, Italy. Italy has recently experienced what seems to be a successful process of reclaiming “the commons”. After voting for a referendum that stopped the privatization of water services and repealed regulations on tariffs on water tax, it was Italians again who reclaimed cultural goods as a common resource. A number of sustained occupations of public theatres around the country – pioneered by Teatro Valle, Rome’s first public theatre – gave hopeful signs of the potential impact of horizontally organized shared management. In other European countries solidarity was built around the question of water (Austria, Germany) and shelter (Spain, France), and a pan-European campaign was staged against the ACTA agreement in order to guard intellectual rights.

All these campaigns signaled that the banner of “the commons” could bring together vastly disparate sectors of the population.”

But Eastern European contexts add specific complications to this trend, as the example of Bulgaria shows:

The example of Bulgaria indicates some crosscurrents not only in the theoretical approach but also in practically dealing with “the commons”. The recent protests against the privatization of protected land, and other campaigns which I detail below, suggest ample potential for the concept of “the commons” to carry weight elsewhere in eastern Europe. Yet the Bulgarian story also manifests some contradictions that might also be detected in countries with a geopolitical position and history similar to that of Bulgaria. It warns us against a simple copy-paste of the “commons” frame from western Europe to the east.

“While neighbouring countries like Greece and Romania protested against austerity measures, Bulgaria has hardly featured in the world’s news. However, in the last half-decade this post-socialist country in southeast Europe – arguably the most passive of the region – has witnessed a persistent wave of protests. These mobilizations, mainly carried out in the capital city Sofia, erupted in 2007 and were triggered by the increasing privatization of and construction on protected land.The process of privatization and construction was accelerated by two laws: the 1999 Law of Property that transferred the ownership of state land to municipalities who then eagerly tried to sell it to entrepreneurs, and the 2005 Law on Property and Use of Agricultural Lands, which allowed citizens of the EU to buy land in Bulgaria. A massive wave of often semi-legal and unregulated construction followed, turning many spots of natural significance into concrete wastelands and destroying water sources, soils, and natural habitats. But in 2007, 34.3% of Bulgaria’s territory became protected under the Natura2000 network operated by the European Commission and supervised by the Directives of Birds and of Habitat. The Commission started prosecuting Bulgaria for breaching these agreements by allowing in edifices that have destroyed acres of protected land.”

After describing the local struggles and their victories in detail, the author then asks how different this ‘post-socialist’ context is from the Western European one, and what commons activists should think about in terms of possible implications:

“Firstly, the protests in Bulgaria show that if we are to take the concept of “the commons” on board for left-wing struggles, we need to determine in very practical terms how broad a definition of “the commons” we can operate with, and which are the basic elements of “the commons”. For the majority of people who grew up imbued with neoliberal ideology nurtured by anti-communist and anti-communal narratives – hegemonic public discourse in east-central Europe since 1989 – the idea of “the commons” does not make much sense. Many prefer an opt-in and opt-out strategy: they stand against the privatization of nature and for the privatization of industry and services; against the pollution of water and soil, but for the private property and “management” thereof; against the cutting of funds in the education sector, but for “efficiency” and individual survival by competition within the educational and job sector. At the same time, the debates in the public forums surrounding the anti-Forestry Act protests made clear the elite-driven public they attracted. The discourse is centered on preserving individual liberty and urges people to choose their struggles selectively (even when undergoing urgent political developments). This became even more problematic once you added in the manifest feeling of entitlement that people with upper social and significant geographical mobility demonstrated. As the author of one manifesto that became famous among protesters claimed, “We are against the limitation of the possibilities of development”.

This question also introduces another level of complexity into the post-socialist, former “second world”. As Joan Subirats has argued in his recent piece for openDemocracy: “When we talk about “the commons”, we must invariably refer to the community and the relationships that sustain and run it… to relationships, social values, conventions, processes of involvement and/or mobilisation, and norms that help to organise this resource and the social derivatives that collective use and governance demand.” Taking an example from Bolivia, Walter Mignolo has argued that when moving out of the European context, the appropriate category is not “the commons”, but instead “the communal”. In these contexts, the forms of communal living and management of shared resources are or were once endemic to local populations, and these need to be rediscovered and saved from capitalism and occidentalism. This approach is, however, inappropriate for semi-peripheral regions like east-central Europe, where endogenous forms of communal management and resistance have long disappeared without trace, thanks to paternalistic state socialism and the brutal privatization of every sphere of economic life following it.

Nevertheless, the socialist regime that offered significant benefits and securities might have offered the foundation on which to build certain practices of communal living and sharing. We might want to rejuvenate them with redemptive historical work, cutting against the grain of post-communist anti-communism. Of course, with its centralized party-state, top-down management, and repressive state apparatus, the socialist state did not leave much space for self-management or spontaneous communal organizing. To speak of “communal” property and management of resources in contemporary Bulgaria – and arguably in other post-socialist countries – is slightly embarrassing: in these highly atomized societies the term “community” does not exist on the ground and is hard to operationalize in any meaningful sense. Besides, neoliberal discourse and developmentalist ideology still control the imaginations of the majority of people from across the class spectrum. In the recent Bulgarian protest wave, both farmers and middle class Sofians expressed interest in “proper” capitalist development, investment, and management, all operating within the frame of free market competition. As one of the members of the coalition “For Vitosha” claimed at a public debate on “the commons”: “You cannot leave the ski-lift to the people from the village below the ski-track – this is non-sense. Only a private owner will develop it well under healthy competition”.

Last but not least, while the tiny extra-parliamentary new left in Bulgaria has proved too weak discursively to reframe the problem, extreme right activism has demonstrated the ability to twist and jeopardize the protest against the Forest Act and, more surprisingly, the discussion of “the commons”. In an article published in an online publication of the extreme-right party Ataka, which has held seats in the Bulgarian parliament since 2005, the Bolivian water struggles of 1999-2000 were given as a bright example for claiming common goods on behalf of indigenous ethnic populations. At the same time, the other significant party on the extreme right, VMRO, has started a campaign in support of Bulgarian families whose electricity or water supply has been cut off by the now-private owners of what were before nationally owned and managed services. The latter party has also been increasingly active on the issue of rapid rises in the prices of electricity and water, and is currently registering support for a grass-roots referendum against the management of water resources by French monopolist Veolia Ltd.

In its fight to reframe the issue at stake, the extreme right is claiming “the commons” on behalf of ethnically pure Bulgarians and blaming Roma, Turkish and increasingly, migrant minorities, for the concessions the state makes to them at the expense of Bulgarians. This highly distorted version of reality has now entered the press mainstream and has been adopted by circles much broader than the electorate of the extremists.

This reframing of “the commons” against the background of the rise of neo-nationalists also signals a deeper crisis of “the commons”. The post-socialist periphery of Europe demonstrates that national territory still has highly-contested symbolic and material elements. While the reclamation of “the universal commons” is driven by core countries in the world system on behalf of populations that lack basic resources on their territory, it maintains a highly colonialist dimension. We still live in a world in which resources and primary goods are abundant mostly at places where local populations live with extremely little and labour to provide countries with few locally abundant basic “commons” of their own, the extra consumption goods they require. When speaking of European primary goods such as food, oil, and services, we cannot forget that they often come from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The overall problem of whether “the commons” are national, local, regional or universal remains still very much central to the debate. Despite this, in recent years the question of national sovereignty over basic resources is pushed off the political agenda with an air of superiority typical both of the liberal political correctness and of the European Left’s cosmopolitan pretense to universal entitlement. At the same time, liberal discourses are often strikingly shortsighted, focusing too often on access to “the commons” in order to provide leisure for elites and not the wider redistribution of access to goods and services. Thus, in contexts where “the communal” is not to be found in recent layers of history it urgently needs to be manufactured anew, avoiding both the nationalist and the colonial trap.”

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