Rebels in a Strange Land
A Greek flag waves at Syntagma square in front of the Greek Parliament as pedestrians walk by, in Athens, Greece, 15 May 2012. Photo by EPA/BGNES
Woe betide the foreign bureaucrat who tries to push around a determined Bulgarian woman.
by Boyko Vassilev
Kostadinka Kuneva is a Bulgarian woman, an émigré.
She had gone to Greece to save the life of her 4-year-old son, who needed specialized heart surgery and care. The move took her away from her husband, who remained in Bulgaria – and forced her and her mother, who joined her, to work hard to earn enough money.
In the beginning she worked at a supermarket warehouse, but the management fired her in order to avoid paying for her insurance. She then joined the corps of Athens subway cleaners. But Kuneva was no ordinary cleaner. She joined the union and started to fight for better conditions and pay for her co-workers. Strangers called her with threats, but she went courageously on.
On the evening of 23 December 2008 two young men approached her and threw acid in her face. She managed to cry out and even run after her attackers. Yet the pain overwhelmed her. Kuneva lost an eye and had to undergo a dramatic and complicated operation to save her life. Soon she became a symbol of protest against exploitation and greed. Greek workers marched with her name on their banners. The state gave her a flat; the leftist Syriza party approached her about running for parliament. But Kuneva was not seduced by money or power. Instead, she found an additional cause, protesting against what she said was the myth of Greek indebtedness.
"People criticize Greeks for the big European money and subsidies that they get, but they've benefited those in power, not the common people," she said.
Tatyana Roeva is another Bulgarian woman, also an émigré.
She left in 1989 and settled in Spain, where she married a Lebanese man. In Bulgaria she had studied psychology, in Madrid fashion design; she worked at several fashion agencies, while her husband set up as a car dealer. Together, they also ran two pastry shops and felt successful enough to take out a bank loan and buy an apartment for 215,000 euros.
Yet in 2009 the bad times came – and both the pastry shops and the car dealership went under. Roeva, her husband, and her daughter could not pay off the loan with its high interest. The bank bought the flat at auction for half price; the family was told to leave and pay 269,000 euros in principal and interest. But that's not what happened.
On the first attempt to evict the family, 800 people gathered to defend them. The second attempt failed as well. Then the bank negotiated. Finally, they agreed that the family would give up the flat, but the debt would be forgiven. But Roeva wasn't finished yet. She organized the Platform of Those Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca) pressure group. On Bulgarian TV she said that banks, as those responsible for the financial crisis, should be forced by the government to compromise with their individual loan defaulters.
Two female émigrés – and two stories of protest in two of Europe's most crisis-stricken countries.
What's strange is that Kuneva and Roeva come from Bulgaria, a country where social protest is rare and disorganized – and intellectuals criticize the ordinary folk for passivity and lack of solidarity. Here bloggers joke that Greek protesters carried banners that read, "Keep quiet, don't wake up the Bulgarians."
There are good reasons for the joke. Bulgarian workers have seen crises much worse than this and do not feel the urge to march in the streets. Worker solidarity is perceived as a communist cliché; trendy pundits are more apt to quote Gordon Gekko. Polls constantly point to the individualism and social pessimism of the ordinary Bulgarian. And trade unions, which became part of the political process in the beginning of transition, soon started to prefer the negotiating table rather than the strike. They also indulged in compromises and diversions: one prominent labor leader recently announced that he had discovered how to turn water into plasma.
So why has such a tranquil country produced such rebellious emigrants?
Perhaps because Roeva and Kuneva come from an individualistic, but also very egalitarian society. Bulgarians do not understand the notion of aristocracy; in fact, in the period of state formation at the end of the 19th century Bulgarians decided there would be no aristocracy.
Communism reinforced this egalitarianism immensely. And the notion that those in power are not to be trusted has been the leading motif for social change ever since.
After the fall of communism, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians went south, especially to Greece and Spain. There, they found enormous opportunities – and a hurdle they could neither understand nor accept: a system of privilege. They also found solidarity, a rare commodity back home: Greek and Spanish workers were ready to undertake organized struggle.
It also helps to understand Bulgarian women. We have a popular saying, "The strongest men in Bulgaria are the women." They are decisive, brave, and industrious. In communism almost all of them had jobs, so they knew how to survive. Staying at home was rare in communist Bulgaria, and is still frowned upon, despite the higher standard of living. There are entire communities where women earn the family's money working abroad (for example, as badanti, Italian for women who care for older people), while men spend idle days back home, drinking cheap alcohol and cursing their fortune.
While this mass emigration has been bad demographic news for Bulgaria, it has also clearly meant emancipation for many Bulgarian women. Some are up for a revolution, and they find that easier to accomplish abroad. And if no one else will step forward, they are willing to lead.
Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television
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