SOPOT, BULGARIA — At the foot of the Balkan mountains, the Bulgarian town of Sopot remembers with nostalgia its glory days as a booming arms industry center under communism.
Today, poverty and worries about the future reign, and people are anxious about Sunday’s general elections.
The next government will have to decide the fate of VMZ, the severely indebted arms production plant that was once the shining example of the country’s defence industry, after a recent failed privatization attempt.
That decision could have far-reaching consequences for a region that still heavily relies on the plant.
Talk to VMZ workers and they’ll say: “We are badly paid but we want to keep our jobs. There’s hardly any other work in the region.”
Fearing for their jobs, the workers are reluctant to give their names. Many even refused outright to speak to journalists.
“We deprive ourselves of everything and haven’t paid our electricity bills,” said one worker, a 35-year-old mother of two.
Her husband was unemployed, so the family survived on her monthly pay of 350 leva (€180, or US $235), she said.
This compared with the average cost of living for a four-person Bulgarian family of 2,264 leva, according to a recent KNSB trade union estimate.
Twenty-three years after the fall of communism, Sopot — once a populous town that blossomed around the defense giant — has seen its population drop by a third to 12,000 people, said Mayor Veselin Lichev, himself a former employee at VMZ.
In the plant’s heyday, some 20,000 people from the town and the surrounding area worked there, making missiles and artillery ammunition for the whole Eastern bloc.
The end of communism in 1989, however, ruined the Bulgarian arms industry, which lost its markets in the ex-Soviet states and third-world countries.
The sector now employs about 15,000 people, compared with 115,000 under communism, government data shows.
Under communism, 'there was work for everyone'
The last of Bulgaria’s state-owned defense plants, VMZ employs less than 3,000 people, and workers have mixed feelings about privatization, fearing it will spell new lay-offs.
“Privatization will make the company more flexible and able to find clients,” Maria Lalova, a local KNSB trade union official, told AFP.
“But if we talk about job security, it is better if the plant stays state-owned.”
Last December, VMZ workers and their families joined weeks of strikes to demand salaries that had gone unpaid for three months.
One worker, Daniela Genkova, sent a loaf of bread and an onion to then-prime minister Boyko Borisov to illustrate her family’s daily meal — an act that received much publicity at the time.
Genkova now refuses to give interviews. The plant’s management also declined to speak with AFP.
Workers said they miss the job security and other perks under communism.
“There was work for everyone, and the plant subsidised our holidays at the Black Sea,” retired VMZ employee Tsanko Ivanov, 72, reminisced.
“Since then, there has been a succession of parties in power but their leaders only seek to enrich themselves without caring for the people,” he told AFP.
Most of the younger generation has now left Sopot, seeking jobs in the big cities and abroad.
Other than emigration, their only option is to work at an infantry battalion base in nearby Karlovo that trains Bulgarian soldiers for missions abroad, said trade union official Lalova.
The Sopot mayor’s office has been trying to develop tourism and adventure sports to give the few remaining young people in the region an alternative means of employment.
But as Lalova put it: “The problem with the young is very serious.”
And the lives of other residents who remained are also less than secure, she added.
One retired woman in her 60s who declined to be named has resorted to growing her own food in her small garden in a village near Sopot.
“After 40 years working at VMZ, my pension is just 230 leva,” she said. “But at least I get it regularly.”