Your Job or Your Climate: How the Just Transition in Bulgaria Was Hijacked by Capitalists

The European Green Deal has repeatedly been criticized as a mechanism for capital accumulation, rather than climate justice. In Bulgaria, the government is unable to secure public consent for the deal, but that is no longer even a pretext: the absorption of EU funds has become the immediate, if uncertain, goal; the future of labor is once again in the hands of greedy capitalists rather than workers, as Stoyo Tetevenski argues in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.


Climate issues in Bulgaria are in a difficult position. On the one hand, liberal NGOs and the Green Party have spearheaded a movement focused on nature conservation and opposition to deforestation and coastal encroachment that has achieved visibility but failed to articulate coherent climate demands beyond calls for environmental protection. On the other hand, the more radical movement, represented by a handful of leftist collectives and activists, has yet to produce an alternative that challenges the liberal status quo and overcomes the issue of the coal industry, a strategic sector for the Bulgarian economy that employs tens of thousands of people and produces more than a third of the energy consumed.

In this context, the European Green Deal (EGD) was introduced, accompanied by the discourse of the so-called “just transition,” which borrows the language of the radical climate justice movements from the West. Unfortunately, language is about all it has in common with the transformative messages of these movements: the European Green Deal is a plan for a new capitalist transformation, and its main task is to create new areas of accumulation under the auspices of national governments and generous EU funding. It is a new mechanism of state intervention in favor of green capital: companies will upgrade their technological base, financed by public finances, while governments will pursue market reforms that will further the neoliberalization of the market and the privatization of public resources.

In Bulgaria, for example, only a small part of the funds benefit public enterprises or citizens, and the vast majority is directed to corporations. At the same time, in order to receive funds from the Recovery and Resilience Plan, the government will have to fully liberalize the energy market as early as 2026, leaving prices vulnerable to price volatility and energy crises like the one that followed the post-pandemic recovery and was exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

European New Deal in Bulgaria

In this article I will try to outline the course of the debates on the European New Deal in Bulgaria. I propose two things. First, I will argue that the promise of the green transition, which decouples growth from carbon emissions and offers new and exciting economic possibilities, enjoys little legitimacy as the hegemony of the neoliberal project cracks. Second, in the absence of a public consensus around the idea of a green transition, the ruling class has focused all its efforts on the issue of “absorbing” EU funds – or rather, the threat of losing them – thus closing off all possibilities for a public debate on the transition itself. The question of the EGD is thus transformed into the apolitical, almost technical question of how to absorb the EU funds, and any opposing voices are constructed as backward or anti-European.

Multilayered collage: Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, presents the prospects of the European Green Deal; swarm of bees; the sooty face of a coal miner in Bulgaria. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)

A number of factors contributed to the failure of the green transition as a national climate justice project. First, no clear alternative to the closure of the coal mines was proposed. From the outset, it was unclear what would happen to coal workers and how the country’s energy supply would be secured. The underlying assumption – that market forces will take care of these issues – is highly delegitimized in Bulgaria after our transition to capitalism in the early 1990s, which drove millions to emigrate to avoid starvation and left whole regions – in fact, all regions except the mining regions – depopulated and underdeveloped. The government’s strategy is to replace the energy complexes with a kind of special economic zone, where the state will take care of the rehabilitation of the land and infrastructure, while companies will come in and create new jobs for those who have been laid off. Since this would leave the process largely in the hands of private companies with no guarantees, the promise of this transition was never trusted in the first place.

Belonging to European civilization

Second, there was never a transparent and participatory process to determine what the priorities were and where the funds would be most useful to affected communities and supply chains. Because we are in an ongoing political crisis with changing governments, the plans for the mines have also changed. Initially, the Recovery and Resilience Plan aimed to convert the coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants and keep them as an interim solution until 2030. Then the gasification plans were abandoned and a new giga-factory for batteries was proposed instead. Now that it has been abandoned, the new plan is for a series of decentralized smaller batteries across the country. What this communicated to the public was that it really didn’t matter what the plan was, as long as we got the money. This discourse became more and more public. The promise of the EGD was completely abandoned after the invasion of Ukraine, and a new discourse was forged instead. One that focuses on being “European” and “civilized,” which includes the Recovery and Resilience Plan and shifts the focus to the absorption of funds as an end in itself. The completion of the plan has become a symbol of belonging to European civilization – all those who oppose it are essentially opposing Bulgaria’s European future.

A third factor was the unions’ decision to abandon the idea of a just transition and instead focus on fighting to keep the mines open as long as possible. On the one hand, this stems from a realistic perception of their power: The unions are weak and have little ideological or protest potential. On the other hand, such a stance has further marginalized them and positioned them in the denialist camp.

Finally, climate-focused organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have also contributed to the issue. While these organizations have taken important steps in defense of a just transition, they have often drawn from the radical climate justice movements to supplement a rhetoric that is surprisingly capitalist. For example, both organizations support the liberalization of the electricity sector – that is, the removal of government regulation of the price of electricity – which they conflate with decentralization. Another example that comes to mind is a Greenpeace action that projected the slogan “No jobs on a dead planet” during the debates on the future of the mines. This slogan is central to the climate justice movement: as Antje Dieterich and Daniel Gutiérrez point out in a recent article, the movement is trying to show how screwed up the situation is: we are forced to do work that destroys the planet and ultimately destroys our prospects of living.

Threat to the workers

Of course, the resources at hand are not organized to fight this greatest challenge, because the resources are subordinated to the interests of capital, but what we see in Bulgaria is that the largely liberal environmental movement ignores this fact and instead focuses on the sacrifices we all have to make in order to somehow make it. So we see a reversal of the radical environmental messages and a complete oblivion of the fact that the miners and their communities cannot see the environmental movement as anything other than a threat to their way of life and the very ability to have enough money at the end of the month to put food on the table. And they are right, because there is no popular movement, no mass mobilization, and of course no political will whatsoever to push through a solution that will keep these communities afloat.

And this brings me to my main point: what we see in the discourse of the political elite is that they are not even trying to convince the public of the supposed benefits of the EGD, nor of the necessity of pursuing climate action. Instead, they cynically focus on the absorption of EU funds as an end in itself. Against this, we must fight for a radical alternative that includes both socialist planning from above and mass mobilization from below. There is no time – it is their money or our climate.

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series and expands on the argument the author developed in his “After Extractivism”-video lecture and later presented by the author at the conference Future Cities, Future Climates: Urban Crises of Late Capitalism, organized by KOI in Sofia, Bulgaria. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look:

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