Welcome to the Jungle: The Bulgarian Hinterland, 2020
One piece of news that, strangely enough, caught very little attentio in Bulgaria – or, better – in Sofia – was the weekend plunder of a bankrupt dairy by scores of unemployed Roma in the central Bulgarian town of Kazanlak.
Several hundred people from the local Roma community just figured they would start pillaging the bankrupt dairy farm "Markeli", which used to be a major producer of yogurt, before the eyes of a couple of dozen of policemen hanging out on the spot without moving a finger, and of dozens of more "respectable" families witnessing the shocking scene from their apartment building terraces nearby.
The Roma people in question did not stage the weekend plunder because they bored out of their minds by the life in provincial Bulgaria (even though life there can be pretty boring). They had two reasons for doing what they did.
First, as the huge majority of the members of the Roma communities in rural Bulgaria live in abject poverty (the causes of that will be discussed in other articles) and are almost entirely unemployed, many of them, together with members of the other ethnic groups in Bulgaria in the same social conundrum, turn to the collecting and often stealing of copper cables, iron, and other metals to sell as scrap in order to make a living. Second, they knew that nobody will stop them, let alone punish them.
The situation in Kazanlak appears to be a case in hand with respect to the dire situation with the failed integration of the Roma in Bulgaria. Throughout 2010, the "Roma Issue" finally received EU and world attention as France deported thousands of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma back to their home states considering them a safety hazard.
But DON'T get it wrong! While the stupefyingly wretched condition of certain groups of the Bulgarian population is an enormous issue, this is not really about the problems of the Roma, the Bulgarians, the ethnic Turks, or some other ethnic community living in Bulgaria.
It is about the deepening breakdown of the Bulgarian local authorities and national institutions in the rural/provincial parts of the country – and, of course, the almost complete absence of any sort of civil society there to try to prop them up.
It is about the Bulgarian state already being unable to exert sovereign control over large swaths of its own territory, which are quickly gaining the status of an economic wasteland, swirling in a vicious cycle of insecurity, crime, corruption, and destitution.
It is about Bulgaria's turning into a failed state pretty much everywhere on its territory outside Sofia and a couple of other cities.
The total failure of the Bulgarian leadership – from communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to democratically elected Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (who has made it clear that he admires the latter and has provided arguments why) to come up with a development model for the Bulgarian villages, small towns, and even larger provincial cities is rapidly becoming more and more evident.
The unfortunate short-sightedness of the leaders in Sofia in the past 70 years – and especially in the past 20 years – led to turning Sofia into a city state, while completely ignoring most of the rest of the country sentencing it to impoverishment, all-out moral decline, and depopulation. For some time now there have been semi-formal, semi-legal, organized (crime) groups exerting control over certain cities and region including by taking over the state and local institutions there.
Cities like Pleven in the north or Sliven in the south are very "good" examples of that but probably the most interesting one is Varna, which, as every Varna resident walking in the streets will tell you, is controlled like a feud by the powerful TIM group – a formation that grew out of the security business in the early 1990s to become one of the major completely legal and most important business groups in the country today.
Unfortunately, even such groups won't hold out in most of the Bulgarian hinterland for long – because for their direct control or informal influence to work out they still need some kind of state and local authorities in place and functioning. And those are increasingly crumbling as the population is emigrating, moving, dying off, or fails to get any kinds of decent education, and the highly uncompetitive remaining plants are shutting down one by one.
Thus, the Bulgarian hinterland is rapidly approaching a situation in which it will look like a scene from "The Book of Eli" or some other Hollywood doomsday movie – or "better" yet – some of the provinces of today's Somalia – the showcase for a failed state.
This is not an exaggeration – the picture is bound to get grimmer if there is no attempt to make a fundamental change. Bulgaria is already full of ghost villages, soon it will be full of ghost towns, and then the entire countryside will succumb to chaos with nobody to restore order – not the police, not the army, not the state "leadership", not even the local barons. This is clearly visible from the way the police in Kazanlak and in the district capital Stara Zagora reacted to the plunder of the bankrupt dairy – their statement was filled with pathetic excuses.
The miserably poor Roma communities are in the "best position" to "take advantage" of that situation simply because many, though not all, of the Roma, subscribe to highly organized clan structures. But not just them, anybody who wishes will be able to ravage the Bulgarian countryside pretty soon.
It is this total abandonment of the hinterland by the government and the smug Bulgarian elite in Sofia that found expression in the rise of the nationalist party Ataka after 2005. The huge majority of the Ataka voters came from the small towns across the country where the failed state scenario is becoming more and more visible, and radicalization has turned into a last-ditch effort to find hope.
What is rather shocking in the case cited here is that Kazanlak is not ever among the "worst" places in Bulgaria in that respect. With 30 000 people, some surviving industries, Thracian tombs all over the place to draw foreign tourists, and rose oil production and a rose festival, it is supposed to be one of the decent small towns in Bulgaria to live in.
The saddest thing is that Bulgaria's hinterland is left to become a jungle while it can actually be an awesome place to live in. The climate and the nature are great, and there is a rich historical heritage – even of the global kind (i.e. ancient civilizations) if you don't care about the "local" Bulgarian history.
As it has become increasingly depopulated in the past 20 years, the Bulgarian countryside is now virtually empty. While that is a terrible problem for all sorts of reasons mentioned above, it is starting to resemble a blank page. And a blank page can be something really good – depending on the artist. The great thing about it is that you can draw anything on it if you are good enough.
The jungle scenario described here is very likely to happen. But not if somehow the state leadership and the business elite and the civil society in Sofia – with the aid of international structures – most notably the EU – exert their efforts to develop it.
The greatest disadvantage of the Bulgarian countryside – its "emptiness" – can also be its greatest asset. In the empty hinterland you can build all the greenfield industrial zones you wish, you can resettle 500 000 ethnic Bulgarians from their communities in Moldova and Ukraine, you can invite another 500 000 people from any place in the world to come and live there, you can build roads, bridges, canals, pipelines, and develop transit routes, you can build university campuses, you can put in place townships. But to do that you need to have a vision, will, and brains. It is doubtful that those in Sofia who are supposed to have all of those things have any.
The failure of the Bulgarian state in the provinces is well-known by the people who still remain there – and to those who have fled as economic refugees. Gangs have been roaming the countryside unpunished – last year, for example, it was revealed that the entire police department in the destitute northwestern town of Byala Slatina was acting like a mafia group racketeering the heck out of the local population. The incident in Kazanlak, however, with hundreds of people stealing and plundering an entire plant before the eyes of the police in broad daylight is a very bad omen.
Another one bad omen is the rise of the reported theft of cables across the country – which is handled by both people trying buy food and by organized criminal groups.
One of Bulgaria's three power utilities CEZ complained recently that the theft of cables and other components from power grids cost the company over BGN 10.1 M in 2008-2010.
My guess is that large private foreign companies operating in provincial Bulgaria will soon have to resort to hiring entire mercenary armies of paid security officers as the Bulgarian law-enforcement institutions will be good for nothing.
If some kind of miracle doesn't happen, save for the actual flora and fauna but in terms of "principles" of operation, survival, and existence, by 2020 the Bulgarian hinterland will have taken a very definitive shape of a jungle.
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