The Decline of Social Democracy

Posted June 17, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

When, one after another, Communist parties took over in Eastern Europe in the years after World War II, their chief competition were social democrats. The various social democratic parties supported political and economic pluralism and, with few exceptions, refused to accept the putative vanguard position the Communist parties claimed for themselves. As payment for their opposition, the new Communist governments outlawed any social democratic parties that didn’t knuckle under and threw their leaders in prison.

Many of these social democratic parties attempted comebacks after 1989. But except for the Communist parties that adopted the mantle of social democracy – as in Poland – the original parties of the moderate left weren’t able to translate their historic contributions into electoral mandates.

The pre-war social democratic parties in Bulgaria are a case in point. After 1989, they split into several different factions. They managed to send a couple dozen representatives into the first parliaments. And now they can’t get enough votes to get above the 5 percent threshold.

In 1989, I interviewed Petar Diertliev, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and one of the most respected politicians in the country at that point. He’d spent 10 years in the labor camps after 1945. Together with other camp survivors, they recreated the party after 1989, which became a cornerstone of the opposition coalition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). At the time, it looked as though the Social Democrats, along with the rest of the UDF, would easily return to power. But in the first elections, the renamed Bulgarian Socialist Party won a majority of votes.

Today, with Petar Diertliev gone and the political spectrum crowded with various groupuscules claiming the mantle of social democracy, the Bulgarian Social Democrats mostly reminisce about the victories they achieved in opposition. “We are very proud of the law on guaranteeing the benefits of employees in the case of insolvency,” Iordan Nihrizov told me as we sat with two of his colleagues in a large and very quiet office. “This law was passed in 2004 when we were in opposition. This was a unique case for the Bulgarian government: a law proposed by the opposition becoming part of legislation. The provisions stipulated in this law, which are in compliance with the International Labor Organization (ILO), were way ahead of many European countries.”

In general, Nihrizov was unhappy about the trajectory of Bulgarian politics. He also had few kind words for social democratic parties in Western Europe. These, he complained, were more concerned with money than principled politics.

But most of all, he was unhappy with the tendency of the Bulgarian population, encouraged by the major parties, to ignore the past. “The case is closed and let’s forget about it” – this, Nihrizov argued, was Bulgaria’s mantra. Because of its history and its sacrifices, his party was nowhere near ready to forget about the past.

“As our former secretary general used to say,” Nihrizov remembered, “between us and the Communists lies a trench filled with human bones.”


The Interview


Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.


Let me welcome you on behalf of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. We are now at the headquarters here in downtown Sofia built on the same location that was owned by the Social Democratic Party before 1944. The headquarters have been located here since 2005, and our party is continuing a tradition that dates back 125 years ago. Currently our party has representation in all regions of Bulgaria. We are part of the Blue coalition, which is represented in the National Assembly by 14 MPs. Unfortunately none of them is from our party.

I was an MP for two mandates, the 37th and 38th National Assemblies. During the time the Social Democratic Party was represented in parliament, we proposed over 30 bills in the social sphere, which are now part of Bulgarian legislation.

We are very proud of the law on guaranteeing the benefits of employees in the case of insolvency. This law was passed in 2004 when we were in opposition. This was a unique case for the Bulgarian government: a law proposed by the opposition becoming part of legislation. The provisions stipulated in this law, which are in compliance with the International Labor Organization (ILO), were way ahead of many European countries. A century ago, in 1918, the minister of labor and social policy in the cabinet of Teodor Teodorov, was Yanko Sakazov, one of the founding fathers of our party. The law on the 8-hour workday was adopted at that time. This happened in compliance with the first directive of the ILO. And, in 2004, we implemented the 137th directive of the ILO. That is to say, the Social Democratic Party was in power for a short term but made a significant contribution to the social development and social growth of Bulgarian legislation.

I’d like to give you a present. This is a record of what happened in our party. We tried to record the events as they occurred and make them available to our followers. And this is our political program, which is called The Social Democrats: the Dawn of the 21st Century. It was adopted at the 44th congress of the Party in 2002. And here are the statutes of the Party. And these are two old editions of our newsletter.

I suppose we will touch upon the freedom of press. It’s very difficult now to have access to the media because of the not-very-positive changes that took place over the last 20 years of change. Very often people say that we have been running in a circle and that we have ended where we started 20 years ago. In that sense, our transition was well managed. People chose democracy, but certain forces that had the power and the institutional capacities in their hands put their interests first and made political power into their economic power.

So, we have not ended up with the social democracy that Dr. Petar Diertliev championed. Let’s pray to God that this situation will improve.


When you think back to 1989, and all that has happened from then until today in Bulgaria, how would you evaluate the situation on a scale from one to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?


It’s hard to quantify. I’m an engineer, and I have a technical way of thinking. There are two things to consider. First of all, I’m aware that I’m talking to someone who hasn’t lived under communism. This is the reason why Americans can’t make good movies about Russia! Everyone knows best their own backyards and the difficulties they have suffered.

If we are to estimate freedom, I think we should give a high mark, six or seven points. At the same time, there is only the facade of freedom: the freedom to feel free and speak to yourself. But you don’t have the freedom to present yourself to other people. As for economic freedom, it is there indeed. But as a result of the period that we lived through, it became a pseudo-freedom. Currently Bulgaria is close to the order of things that exists in Latin America where there is a struggle against the oligarchs. Similarly, in Bulgaria, we face a powerful elite that grew out of the ranks of the former ruling Communist Party.

At the same time we face the problem that all countries in the world are facing — to decide between a strong middle class and a financial sector that only wants to enrich itself even more. Marx, who used to be quoted all the time here, made some errors with his theory of historical materialism. He considered the development of tribal society to feudalism and then capitalism. But he failed to explain why there was slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War and why Mongolia managed to skip feudalism. His error was that he overlooked an important component: technology. The development of technology allows for people to be controlled from the center. In the 20th century, the radio, telegraph, and television made it possible for totalitarian societies to emerge.

Today we have the Internet and the freedom it gives us. But this is the freedom to be managed. Now it doesn’t matter if something actually took place or not, as long as it is presented as taking place. Just look at the U.S. movie Wag the Dog! So, as far as freedom is concerned, let’s give a median answer and say 5.


Same scale and same time period: but your own personal situation?


It’s a personal assessment. I come from circles that prior to 1989 were placed on the black list. Back then, people realized their potential based on their relationship with the ruling party. Bulgaria is a small country, and we had a very strong tradition of nepotism in place. And we were under the strict surveillance of the secret service. Put simply, in order to study abroad or get a certain job, it was important to have the right relations with the Communist Party. I was informed in my youth that the top level I could achieve was head of department, and I was supposed to be grateful that I ended up in that position at the age of 26 when I finished my degree rather than at 65 just prior to retirement. Someone wrote in my file that I had no right to be involved in scientific research and my political activity was to be restricted to applauding the decisions made by the Communist Party.

If not for 1989, you wouldn’t be able to talk to me now as the chair of this party. However, this doesn’t bring a lot of merit. As chairman of the party, I was an MP for two mandates. But currently it doesn’t put bread on the table.

As for the pros and cons, I would place freedom as an advantage. But the setbacks include the fact that certain people were placed ahead in the competition. In countries such as Bulgaria, the people who preached communism yesterday, they or their sons are preaching capitalism today. Why was Martin Luther against the Pope? Because he was German and all the money from the indulgences given out by the Church went to Rome. I would like to be as clear as possible. I don’t think that either Europe or the United States really helped the democratic changes that took place in Eastern Europe. They chose the easiest way. They handed out indulgences to the former communists and expected to be paid in return. A lot of Americans and Europeans were very good friends to the leaders of Bulgaria prior to 1989.

The Bulgarian people were deceived in their desire to get real freedom. I’m not talking about those who always expected the government to do everything for them. I’m not talking about those who, when left to their own devices, wanted to be chained again and yet still be served food. I understand Mitt Romney when he says that 47 percent of Americans would never understand him because they rely on the social system and only sit on the couch, eating popcorn and watching TV. At the same time, I appreciate Obama’s policy, because without a social policy in place you can’t have a prosperous country.


It sounds like on a personal level, you’d say five again.


I would put two marks here: six for freedom and four for the overall situation.


How would you evaluate the near future for Bulgaria, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?


I’m not an optimist. When we started making those changes, they were widely approved. And they had a direction: the change of ownership, the establishment of civil society, the building of a middle class. The 37th National Assembly had a legislative program that was very clear. During my second mandate as an MP, we were able to further only certain aspects of the program we developed during the previous mandate.

But what I witnessed in the next two mandates, which also reflects the activity of the current National Assembly, were attempts to reinforce the monopoly of certain economic groups. For instance, when we were considering the issue of small and medium-sized enterprises in the economic committee in the National Assembly, a banker who is now deceased stated openly that Bulgaria didn’t need 200,000 companies but only 3-5,000: one or two per industry. This was much easier to manage, he said. Currently we are close to the state of affairs imagined by this deceased banker.

These days, society itself is attacking proposed legislation. At the beginning of the summer, for example, there were a lot of protests against the laws proposed on the forest. MPs had to withdraw a proposal on the ownership of agricultural land. Some of this legislation is even unconstitutional. But if no one refers these bills to the constitutional court, they become part of the law. There was an Italian movie called, The Case is Closed and Let’s Forget About It. That’s the situation here. Monopolies are encouraged. The middle class doesn’t exist.

I can’t be an optimist about the future. We’ll just be handed another explanation about why gas prices are rising and why the economic downturn was most acutely felt in Bulgaria. But this explanation will not explain the fact that gas was cheaper in Luxembourg than in Bulgaria. The reason is that there is a monopoly on petrol in Bulgaria. Our ministers remember that competition exists only when they have lost the management of the monopoly. So, the number I give is three.


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?


I remember very clearly. It happened in October 1989. The 10th of October.


I think it was November 1989.


It wasn’t October 10? Well, Google will tell us.

Do you remember what happened in Malta in 1989? A meeting between Bush Sr. and Gorbachev. I suppose this was the time and place when the scheme for the total restructuring of the world was laid. At the time when the Berlin Wall fell, there were bloodless or semi-bloodless (in the case of Romania) revolutions. There was also an agreement for those in power to save their economic gains. Bulgaria, back then, had $12 billion in debt to Western private banks. Bulgaria once had over 470 international companies located around the world: private companies managed by representatives employed by the Bulgarian government and private individuals from Western countries. Immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, these companies, which were managed by the Bulgarian secret service, were converted into private companies, and the debt that the Bulgarian people were left to pay was placed in private hands. In the years that followed, this money was reinvested in Bulgaria in the form of foreign investment. Here and there were scandals, like the one involving Bissir Dimitrov, who messed up with a French mayor and is now in the Silicon Valley. But this happened at the beginning of the democracy transition, and it was a short-lived story.

We had a very candid discussion with one person some years ago. I won’t give out his name. He was candid enough to say the following when he was talking about our party: “You’re a black dot that is an obstacle to our economic interests. I represent the Austrian electors. The money of the Bulgarian Communist leaders is at our disposal and you have the insolence to want to meddle when this money is working for the Austrian economy.” This was the first moment when I realized that the new type of Social Democrats raised in Western Europe hate fascism but love money.


What year was this?


This was 1994. Some time later, a well-known representative of the European Social Democrats said the following: “Mr. Chairman, there is a basket and you haven’t learned how to fill the basket. But we found someone in Bulgaria who will do that for us. We are not your enemies. We are your friends who will show you how to fill this basket.” This is how they understood solidarity, which is far from our understanding.

One more thing distinguishes our Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. I mentioned the name of Yanko Sakazov. At the turn of the century, in the then-unified Bulgarian Labor Social Democratic party, there was some rivalry between Sakazov and the leader of the other wing, Dimitar Blagoev. Blagoev took the road toward Leninism, whereas Sakazov formulated something that at the time was 80 years ahead of his time. He defined the so-called manufacturing forces that, at the time when the Bulgarian economy was quite backward, consisted of small companies in which the employer worked together with the employees. Unlike Leninist or Marxist theory, Sakazov argued that progress was encouraged by a partnership between labor and capital. This is why his portion of the party after the split of the two wings was called the Compromise between Capital and Labor, which for Marxist theory was heresy. Only in the 1960s and finally in 1989 did Western Europeans evolve to the understanding that Yanko Sakazov had at the turn of the century.

Our predecessors were honest and had strong principles. They received good educations in Western Europe. Most of them were lawyers. They stood their ground even when they had to decide whether to give up their lives or their ideas. In an hour’s time, I will be attending a ceremony with the Agricultural Union to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Nikola Petkov who, together with Social Democrat Kosta Lulchev, rose up against the communist dictatorship. They had to decide whether to become part of the cabinet run by the Communists or go into opposition in protection of democracy where they would have to choose prison or the gallows.

What we are lacking in Bulgaria nowadays is politics backed up by ideas in each field. The idea of personal enrichment is not a legitimate idea. It can only lead to mutual accusations among the people in power as to who stole more during their time of office. This is not a driving force in the economy. It has nothing to do with standing one’s ground on principle.

This brings us to the old joke. What will the future encyclopedias say about the “great” Brezhnev? That he was a petty politician and alcoholic who lived during the time of Solzhenitsyn.


When I talked with Petar Diertliev in 1990, he talked about his experience of being arrested and jailed. Has the issue of the prisons and labor camps been sufficiently dealt with by Bulgarian society?


This year marks the 12th year since the death of Dr. Diertliev. At his tombstone, on behalf of our Party, we held a commemoration. Somebody invited people to this event without letting us know. Four or five parties were invited that call themselves Social Democrats. Three agents of the secret service also paid tribute to Dr. Diertliev at his tombstone. And there were several others suspected of involvement in the secret service. I wrote about this later on the Internet. Each of these people responded by quoting events from their past that intersected with the life of Dr. Diertliev. But a lot of them had seen him only in passing. This is the phenomenon I’ve seen developing in Bulgaria related to justice.

When the topic of the camps came up in Bulgaria, a lot of people yelled, “Leave it alone, this is history.” At the same time, all efforts were made to delay the opening of the files of the secret service and thwart the interests of society. None of the Communist Party leaders were punished for anything. Instead of being tried for the economic and financial manipulations I mentioned earlier, the leaders were tried only for petty crimes. They were accused of things that could never be proved because the trial would have required 4,000 witnesses to be heard. The cases were initiated just to ensure that they would never yield any results. And a lot of other legal tricks were used to ensure that the so-called agents, who were no longer secret, did not receive any moral punishment but just the very opposite. For eight years, the former president of Bulgaria was an agent for the secret service, and nobody commented on that fact! Bulgaria has failed to come to terms with its past.

As our former secretary general used to say, between us and the Communists lies a trench filled with human bones.

In the period 2001-5, the Bulgarian National Assembly discussed the connection between the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Saddam Hussein. This whole scandal was initiated by an article published in an Iraqi Communist Party newspaper. The U.S. Senate set up a commission, and there was another commission in the Bulgarian National Assembly that discussed these issues. However, the U.S. Senate failed to send over any materials until the end of the mandate of the National Assembly in 2005. And the Bulgarian commission ended up with the conclusion that nothing could be done about the case. In other words, the case is closed and you can forget about it.


Your party is in the Blue coalition. The Blue coalition has 14 positions in the National Assembly, but none is from your party. What is the most important thing that your party can do to get back into parliament and establish an independent social democratic force in Bulgaria?


May I answer you jokingly?


You can answer any way you like.


In the current situation in Bulgarian politics, you just have to find someone to fill the basket. That was the suggestion given to us.


Okay. Do you want to answer the question any other way?


Naturally we have our own program. You can go to our website. There are bills that we are proposing. But nobody in Bulgarian society seems to be interested in making a choice about politics. The choice is usually made through scandals, by money changing hands in protection of certain interests. And what we are left with is the challenge of staying above board and of proposing things to society, waiting for the time when there will be a change again, and I don’t mean the change of money.


Sofia, September 27, 2012


Interpreter, Vihra Gancheva



Interview with Petar Diertliev (1990)


Petar Diertliev is the leader of the Social Democratic party, one of the largest member parties of the Union of Democratic Forces. He was described to me as the second most highly respected politician in the opposition after Zheliu Zhelev. I met with him in his office, several hours before he was due to go to the National Assembly.

The party, he told me, was very old, begun 100 years ago as a typical European-style Social Democratic party. It worked in coalition with the Communists and the Agrarian party for 1 and 1/2 years after World War II. In 1945, it went into the opposition with 101 MPs in the National Assembly after the 1946 elections. In 1948, however, the Central Committee of the party was arrested and sentenced in “a typical Communist trial.” At the time, Diertliev was the secretary of the Young Socialists and spent ten years in a camp. Jump to November, 1989. Former members of the Social Democrats who had also spent years in the camps got together to restart the party. Now, the Social Democrats have over 100,000 members and 29 MPs in Parliament. It is a founder party of the UDF.

I asked about economic reform. The party, Diertliev said, had agreed to support a mixed economy, with private enterprise and liberalization, the elimination of bureaucrats and so on. The SDP supports a strong cooperative movement in agriculture similar to the cooperatives Bulgaria had before the war. The critical question was how fast and how deep the reform should be. A welfare system is expensive, he admits. But without it, there will be revolution or catastrophe. “You in the U.S. don’t understand. If there are too many poor people in the U.S., they are ready for an explosion.” The educational level of the population was quite high: that stood Bulgaria well in terms of foreign investment.

And foreign exploitation? “The problem of exploitation is the most exploited problem,” he replied. Opportunities must be provided for investment but the accumulation of profits must not be allowed to harm the country. The best strategy: turn to the East and the South: the USSR and the Third World, the only places where Bulgarian products are competitive. I pointed to the existence of soup kitchens in downtown Sofia: never, even before the war or during were there such soup kitchens.

“We will support all reforms that go in a good direction. We don’t want that our people will starve.” The BSP promised everybody everything in the elections, Diertliev said. The UDF on the other hand promised a certain degree of suffering, the only path to get out of the current economic crisis. If the BSP picks up the UDF platform, so be it. Furthermore, the SDP does not support opposition at any price. He prefers to call it a “constructive opposition.” Some people in the opposition, he realizes, would like to destroy the BSP. But this is not reasonable thinking. “We don’t want to destroy the Communists at the price of destroying the country.”

The BSP, he thought, would split quite soon opening up “new political markets.” He suspected that the “radicals” in the BSP would all join the UDF. I asked about Petko Simeonov’s announcement that his group, Club of Glasnost and Perestroika, would split off and form a center-right party. Diertliev said that there had been some discussions but no resolution to the issue: the rest was “newspaper speculation.” I asked about other ideological tensions within the UDF. Of course they exist, Diertliev admitted: the coalition had parties of many different perspectives. (“I know you don’t like Social Democratic parties in the United States,” Diertliev interjected at this point. “What you don’t realize is that there are no Communist parties to speak of in Europe where there are strong Social Democratic parties.”)

I asked about the situation of ethnic Turks. Diertliev blamed the Communists for creating the problem. Last year, at the beginning of the changes, he had asked Mladenov to resolve the situation with a decree countermanding the law on name changes. But the government did not take the initiative and the problem continues. He did not think that it was the UDF’s fault that there presently was little dialog between it and the Movement for Rights and Freedom. “They think that separately they can solve their problems. That is not reasonable. They are a minority.” They should recognize that the majority of Bulgarians feel threatened by the border with Turkey. Most acknowledge that the Movement is a facade party: a highly disciplined, almost military organization.


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