Which way will the winds blow? Post-privatisation water struggles in Sofia, Bulgaria

Georgi Medarov
Bulgarian Academy of Science, Bulgaria, georgimedarov@gmail.com

David A. McDonald
Global Development Studies, Queen’s University, Canada; and Director of the Municipal Services Project; dm23@queensu.ca

ABSTRACT: The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s gave rise to widespread experimentation with neoliberal policy across much of the former Soviet sphere of influence. Nowhere was this more evident than in Bulgaria which has been a hotbed of neoliberal reform since the late 1990s, including the introduction of a water concession in Sofia in 1999. This paper critically examines efforts to remunicipalise water in the city. We argue that there is widespread support for water remunicipalisation but it is highly fractured along ideological and institutional lines. Bringing water services back in house is a real possibility but a progressive outcome is far from assured, with far-right nationalists keen to make water public for their own cronyist agenda and with neoliberal forces potentially demanding a commercialised public water utility. There is another more progressive possibility, but one that will require sensitive multi-stakeholder coalition-building (including with Romani communities) and longer-term cultural shifts in public service ethos. We conclude by arguing that progressive organisations in Sofia have no choice but to start mobilising now for the kind of public water operator they want to see when the private contract with Veolia ends in 2025.

KEYWORDS: Remunicipalisation, Veolia, post-socialist, post-neoliberal, Sofia, Bulgaria