Yagodovo, Bulgaria; 29 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Farming communities are the traditional power base of Bulgaria's Socialist Party. But after years of subservience to nomenklatura monopolies, villagers are now turning away from the Socialist Party (BSP) in large numbers.
Political analysts in Sofia say the trend will have a major impact on the composition of Bulgaria's next parliament, with the Socialists predicted to lose at least one-third of their provincial supporters.
Yagodovo, home to 720 farming families about 100 kilometers southeast of Sofia, is a case study in the problems faced by most Bulgarian villagers. The first sight that greets visitors arriving from the nearby city of Plovdiv is a million dollar estate owned by a member of the former Communist elite. Villagers say party connections have brought lucrative tax and export privileges to the man's private agricultural trading firm.
The new white walls and balconies of his mansion, along with its ornate gates and swimming pool outside, provide a sharp contrast to the dilapidated houses and muddy streets in the rest of the village.
At the village center, struggling farmers sit in a smoky pub grumbling about the local nomenklatura and their own inability to earn a profit after months of working their fields.
"The whole village is irritated" by the display of wealth in such difficult times," says a farmer. "To us, this is not money that was earned in an honest way."
Others complain that the best buildings in Yagodovo's former state-owned cooperatives were privatized by well-connected former Communists who paid below-market prices using interest-free state loans from banks that have since become insolvent.
One farmer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, says the local nomenklatura have bought the cooperative hog farm, the slaughter houses and all the means of sausage production. He says most of the production now is exported to Russia. Connections with the Socialist-controlled Ministry of Agriculture have brought export privileges that no small farmers enjoy.
The story is similar across the country no matter what crop farmers grow. Villagers say the managers of state food processing plants only buy from private trading firms that are controlled by their circle of friends. This allows the trade firms to set prices so low that farmers are literally trapped as serfs in a system of nomenklatura feudalism.
Prevented by Socialist legislation from exporting their harvests, the only other option for small farmers is to spend their winters at outdoor markets. But hyper-inflation is rapidly destroying any hope for them to break even at street markets.
One farmer wants the European Union and other Western organizations to stop sending all aid for Bulgarian agriculture until they can guarantee that the money won't strengthen the nomenklatura monopolies. He says what is needed is the creation of a truly free market where farmers can sell their products for a fair price. For now, he says, the Socialist Party remains the only middleman.
Slavi Vassilev, a 62-year-old Yagodovo pensioner, says he had to sleep in his apple orchard for two months with a gun and dogs this autumn to guard it against thieves. His wife retired early from her job as a school teacher so that she can sell their apples at a Plovdiv street market. On a good day, sitting in the cold from early morning until after sunset, she sells 100 kilos of apples for about $6. The couple must sell all of their harvest to recover the $2,000 they've already spent on fertilizers, chemicals and petrol.
Vassilev says he will not buy any chemicals next year because he is certain he will lose the investment. In two years time, he says his orchard will be devastated by neglect. And he says he is not an isolated case.
"This is the rule now," he said. "This is why you can see abandoned orchards and fields everywhere you travel in Bulgaria."
Even in towns and villages once considered to be "red fortresses," uneducated residents are becoming conscious of the inequities caused by nomenklatura control of the economy.
In Pervomai, a town of about 50,000 people who had voted solidly for the Socialists in the last parliamentary elections, about 2,000 people marched against the Socialists earlier this month.
In nearby Haskovo and Svilengrad, protests and candlelight vigils also have been held, despite the fact that participants expect to be fired from their state jobs for marching. Many who live in this southeastern region have raised silk worms for years as a supplement to their state incomes. But the practice is no longer economically rewarding because of hyper-inflation and the monopolies of the partially-privatized silk purchasing firms.
Veska Petrova, a resident of Svilengrad whose family recently stopped producing silk in their home, says that the only substantial profits from silk production now go to the middlemen with Socialist Party connections.
Grain farmers across the country also complain about private firms in the Orion Group who were allowed by outgoing Prime Minster Zhan Videnov to export the country's grain reserves for private profits. Videnov later blamed farmers for Bulgaria's bread shortages.
A popular satirical program on Bulgarian National Television aired a comedy sketch which summarizes many Bulgarians' attitude about the grain shortage. First, two workers are shown loading a barge with grain for export to Serbia. One man becomes distressed when his hat falls into the cargo and becomes buried.
Several months later, after the Bulgarian government was forced to buy grain from Belgrade at more expensive prices in order to alleviate bread shortages, the same two workers are seen unloading a grain barge from Serbia -- and the hatless worker finds his cap in the cargo.
Under pressure from the Socialist government, Bulgarian National Television later banned the comedy program from the airwaves. Its cast has since joined the street demonstrations in Sofia against the Socialists.