14 Jul 15

Hard Times for Bulgaria's Old Arms Hub

Mariya Petkova

Late last year, rumours spread through the historic Bulgarian town of Sopot that its most famous landmark, a statue of the great writer Ivan Vazov, might be sold off. The debt-laden local council was unable to pay its creditors so its property was appraised and put up for sale. As it turned out, the statue survived, although the mayor’s chair didn’t – it was sold for 74 levs (about 37 euros).

Sopot’s monument to the great Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov

Sopot residents remember the town in much better days, when it was a sprawling manufacturing centre at the core of Bulgaria’s multi-billion-dollar arms industry. In the late 1980s, communist Bulgaria was one of the world’s top 10 weapons exporters.

At the peak of its success three decades ago, the factory complex VMZ Sopot (named in honour of Ivan Vazov, who was born in the town) employed 22,000 people in the main plant and its subsidiaries, locals say. It was one of the main sources of hard currency for the communist regime.

“They would not dare start a government meeting until the director of VMZ Sopot showed up,” said one man who has worked for the company for some 40 years. His current salary is a meagre 400 levs (200 euros). He asked not to be identified, fearing that speaking to a reporter could lose him his job just as he nears retirement.

These days the company employs around 3,000 people and is one of the few remaining state-owned weapons manufacturers.

After the fall of communism, the VMZ Sopot complex was plagued by falling production, factory closures, increasing debts, sweeping job cuts, and workers' strikes. It was so heavily in debt at one point that its bank accounts were frozen.

But last year the firm made a profit of 662,000 levs (331,000 euros) and announced plans to hire more people. In the past two years, private arms manufacturers in Bulgaria have also announced profits and started hiring – a trend that some attribute to the conflicts in the Middle East and increased demand for Soviet-style weapons.

I headed to Sopot to see whether this apparent renewed demand for Bulgarian arms had helped the local economy. But from conversations with people, it seemed things were as desperate as before.

Workers reminisced about the good old days.

“Everybody in town used to work in the factory,” said 67-year-old Lilyana, who along with her husband, worked in the factory for four decades. Before 1989, the plant was so busy that she often had to work weekends and leave her child with neighbours. She retired about 10 years ago with a pension of 217 levs (108 euros). Proudly showing me a bright red kerchief she embroidered with a golden thread, Lilyana explained she had to take up another job as a seamstress to earn enough to survive. Those who still work at the factory do not fare any better, she said.

But now that the company's finances appear to have stabilised, some believe it could expand production and create more jobs, with the right support from the government.

“VMZ Sopot is a unique enterprise,” says Dimitar Atanasov, the head of the branch of the KT Podkrepa trade union in the factory. “We still have specialists that no one else has.”

Yet even the hoped-for modest increase in jobs would make little difference to Sopot’s bankrupt municipality and destitute economy, which has forced many to flee to bigger cities or abroad. In just one decade, the town lost 1,000 residents out of a population that stood at just over 9,600 in 2004.

In the world of arms trading, middlemen earn millions but very little trickles down to the workers who produce the weapons.

As I left Sopot, I thought about the ugliness at the heart of this business, imagining a weapon made by an impoverished Bulgarian worker ending up in the hands of a desperate soldier, maiming and killing a few thousand kilometres away.


Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian journalist who covers stories in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East.

 

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