Let’s talk about Vanya Grigorova

A look at the election results and the political content of the Bulgarian left’s “new star”

No, this won’t be another text about how the apocalypse got away from us for a while. Nor will it be an article about how we narrowly escaped an amazing new beginning. This article is meant to offer a bit of nuance to the discourse surrounding the last local elections in Bulgaria, particularly Sofia, which had more to do with embittered football jerseys than political dialogue about the future of a city and its residents.

On 5 November 2023 the second round of Bulgarian local elections took place. Vasil Terziev – the candidate of the coalition “We continue the change – Democratic Bulgaria – Save Sofia”, received 48,89% or 175 044 votes. Vasil Terziev is an IT entrepreneur, who attracted the votes of the younger generations in Sofia, even though it was revealed that his family clan had a lot of high-ranking members of the socialist-times State Security. The candidate, supported by a coalition of russophile left-wing and nationalist forces, including the Bulgarian Socialist Party – Vanya Grigorova, got 46,92% or 170 258 votes. Vanya Grigorova established her name as a labour unionist, speaker on social issues and leader of protests e.g. against the TTIP free trade agreement proposal. She also attracted public attention with russophile-sounding positions on the issue of Russian gas imports and war in Ukraine after Russia invaded Ukraine on 22 February 2022. 

This text is an attempt to look at the phenomenon of Vanya Grigorova beyond the usual pro and anti fan bases. 

Hate as a weapon

There is no way to begin a feminist reading of this issue without talking about the huge wave of sexism and racism that has poured, and continues to pour, over Vanya Grigorova. It is difficult to describe the scale of this problem without quoting extremely unacceptable statements that we cannot and should not repeat here. Instead, we share a short excerpt from a comment by Kalina Drenska of LevFem:

No one enters politics to be stroked with a feather, and rude and aggressive language and tone are, unfortunately, part of the game of any declared political force, especially in an election situation. But the rivers of sexism, racism, unbridled misogyny and class hatred that are pouring down on Vanya Grigorova exceed all limits.

Identity-based hatred has been used as a weapon to suppress Grigorova’s candidacy. It has been used, among others, by a large number of people who pretend (and probably believe) that they are the voices of tolerance and progress, scandalized by Grigorova’s choice to accept the most hateful political figures in the country as her supporters. The hypocrisy and irony of this political agitprop, however, further alienates people from their (sometimes) legitimate criticisms.

The woman from the outer borough who almost became mayor of Sofia

In feminist circles, there is often talk of representation, especially of marginalised groups, especially in the public sphere and especially in the media and politics. The fact that a woman perceived as part of an ethnic minority, who grew up in a neighbourhood on the periphery of Sofia, was able to come so close to such a political office is indeed a significant event. Her example shows that people like her have something to say – and deserve to be heard – on political issues. Unfortunately, however, Vanya Grigorova is yet another example that representation is not enough.

A minority woman in power guarantees neither good policies for women nor for people from ethnic minorities. This is most obvious from the allies that Grigorova decided to stand shoulder to shoulder with, most notably far-right figures such as the Ataka Party and representatives of the openly fascist Bulgarian National Union, organisers of the pro-Nazi ‘Lukov March’. With this decision, she not only definitively alienated a serious part of the progressive people in Sofia, who are generally not scared of her positioning to the left of the political spectrum, but most of all she showed that when talking about “Sofia for all”, she did not mean everyone without exceptions. The alliance with the political representatives in question in general, as well as the BSP itself, inherently excludes some of the most vulnerable people – ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, people with marginalized sexual orientation and gender identity.

For some reason, however, this glaring issue did not seem to be the main reason for the huge influx of criticism, “hate” and even fear surrounding her candidacy.

Is communism making a comeback?

Much of the panic that gripped Vanya Grigorova’s opponents revolved around the fact that she was the embodiment of communism and Putin’s influence in Bulgaria.

First, before we even touch on whether and to what extent these concerns are justified, we should talk about equating “communism” with Putin and modern Russia. Let’s be clear – Russia has followed extremely conservative right-wing policies for decades. And while Grigorova earned her own association with Putin alongside her highly controversial positions on the war with Ukraine, that alone does not make her an agent of communism.

After the fall of the regime in ’89, the words “socialism” and “communism” became synonymous with authoritarianism, personality cult, nationalism, censorship and political oppression. This phenomenon is reinforced by the serious lack of adequate political education. By definition, communism is the utopian idea of abolishing the state, private property, the monetary system and classes. For good or ill, there are not many politicians who fight openly or covertly for this. Certainly both Grigorova and Putin’s Russia are very far from that idea, in word and in practice.

The political ideology of socialism, on the other hand, in its simplest terms, is marked by a focus on workers’ rights, higher and progressive taxes, and more ownership in the hands of workers, mostly by unions, the state or municipalities, at the expense of corporations and the private sector. Here we are beginning to recognise some of Grigorova’s positions and see more clearly a divergence with Putin’s policies.

Grigorova herself describes herself as a “left-liberal”, which, in slightly more established political terms, perhaps means centre-left. That she became a representative of the Bulgarian Socialist Party causes further but understandable confusion. The real policies and positions of the BSP are far from “left”. This party introduced the flat tax (a right-wing economic measure that sets us seriously apart from progressive tax systems across the EU), it opposes the Istanbul Convention on extreme conservative and reactionary grounds. In general, under Ninova’s leadership, the ‘socialists’ are moving in a visibly conservative, even far-right direction.

Grigorova’s association with this pseudo-left party and her refusal to criticize Putin’s authoritarian and conservative regime has further alienated people who years ago followed with approval her campaigns against the flat tax, criticism of the BSP’s position on the Istanbul Convention and real progressive positions. There were such people and their criticism of Grigorova today cannot be dismissed as based on prejudice, party affiliation or fear of “communism”.

All these clarifications are important because calling things by their real names is important. Otherwise, we continue to misunderstand the direction in which politics is going in this country. And when we do not understand in what direction politics is really going in our country, namely towards the rise of the extreme right, not only can we not oppose it effectively, but with their misunderstood criticism many well-meaning people unwittingly strengthen these currents.

What could have happened

With the message of “People Before Profits” and speaking to the needs of workers and ordinary people, Grigorova did touch many people that young entrepreneurs could never touch. Mocking her for daring to raise the lack of public toilets as a significant social problem exemplifies the utterly dismissive attitude towards the material reality of the (mostly) poor residents of the capital.

Grigorova’s candidacy could have been an occasion to talk about the inequalities and social divisions in the neighbourhoods, about homelessness and the housing crisis, about the accessibility of the urban environment for people with disabilities, mothers with prams, and the elderly. It could have been an occasion to discuss the role of capital and business in the city, how the policies and practices of the municipality privilege the private sector and push residents further and further away from the centre and further and further away from adequate urban conditions.

Unfortunately, all of the real problems with Grigorova’s candidacy and positions mentioned so far, combined with her patriarchal, racist, and anti-communist attitudes, are unlikely to allow her opponents to reflect on their own deeply problematic prejudices and ideologically limited worldview. And could this unexpectedly “successful” candidacy be the occasion for a profound rethinking of our reality, of the needs of the people really, of the functions of municipal government, and of the possibilities for a crreal, tangible alternative.

Instead, it is just another reason to say, quite unironically, that low turnout is the strongest and most consistent civic position in this ridiculous race for power.

Photo: Vanya Grigorova (source: YouTube)

This text was first published by Feminist Library on 7 November 2023. We republish it upon the author’s permission.

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