TOBACCO ROADS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

In Bulgaria, an industrialised EU state, tobacco is being grown in Third World conditions

This family from the village of Tatul, in the Eastern Rhodope, make a living from an acre of tobacco. They think that Bulgartabak's purchase price is too low and look back to the days when they used to pick tobacco in Greece.

Being overpowered by the heady aroma of tobacco while travelling through the Rhodope is as easy as buying contraband cigarettes in downtown Sofia. Pull over near a field. Step out of your car and face the endless rows of tall stalks undulating in the soft breeze. Can you feel it? They give off an intense odour that crowds out the usual aromas of thyme, yellowing grass and parched soil.

If you don't see the multicoloured kerchiefs of the tobacco pickers who work in the fields in the early morning and at sundown (at noon they are at home, in the shade, stringing up the leaves) step into the furrows. Inhale. Exhale. After a minute the pleasant aroma loses its charm and your head starts to spin. The effects of inhaling green tobacco linger even after you've stepped out of the field. Look at your clothes. There are sticky brown stains where the mossy leaves have touched. Trust me, these are almost impossible to get out.

These stains are caused by tar, the substance that the cigarette packs warn against.

Tobacco leaves smudge with tar everything they have touched: from fingers to clothes

Tobacco leaves smudge with tar everything they have touched: from fingers to clothes

"When I was little, during the summer I used to help my grandma string up tobacco leaves," a 33-year-old woman from Sofia, who works in a bank, tells me. She will never forget the hours spent sitting on the floor, pulling off tobacco leaves, arranging them in neat piles and stringing them up on a long needle. Small-scale tobacco producers such as her grandmother usually grow up to an acre and a half of tobacco. After stringing up the leaves, they leave the strings (called nizi) to dry under makeshift sheds. "Once I pricked my finger and it bled. My grandma made me clamp the wound firmly with my hand. The tar on my palm sealed the wound," the woman says.

There are several hundred thousand people in Bulgaria who have had this experience firsthand. Tobacco is grown in the regions of Blagoevgrad, Kyustendil, Dzhebel, Haskovo and Plovdiv, along the southern reaches of the Tundzha River and at scattered locations in northern Bulgaria. Unlike the parents of my interviewee, who chose to try their luck in the capital city, the majority of tobacco growers are not so fortunate. While travelling through the villages and small towns they live in, you'll encounter poverty such as you usually only see in TV features about the Third World.

For tobacco growers in the early 17th Century prospects were much brighter, when land was put under tobacco for the first time in the Kardzhali region of the Rhodope. In fact, between 1633 and 1643 smoking tobacco was a capital crime in the Ottoman Empire, but once the ban was lifted, demand went up and, as a consequence, so did the amount of tobacco grown. Back in those times tobacco was a real blessing for the people living in the mountain regions, as it is an undemanding plant and could grow in their otherwise barren fields.

You see a lot of drying tobacco while travelling in the Rhodope

You see a lot of drying tobacco while travelling in the Rhodope

After 1878, when Bulgaria got liberated from Ottoman rule, tobacco growing and exporting remained lucrative businesses. In 1918 Bulgaria's major tobacco companies formed a cartel, a move that later provided the storyline for one of the most popular Bulgarian novels, Tyutyun, or Tobacco, by Dimitar Dimov.

The 1944 Communist coup changed tobacco growing, as it did every other aspect of life in Bulgaria. In 1947 small-scale tobacco growers were forced to consolidate their businesses into a state-owned holding company, Bulgartabac, and the export of Bulgarian tobacco shifted to the Soviet market. In addition, the recently established global fashion for American tobacco varieties reached Bulgaria, which had until then specialised in Oriental tobacco, and this prompted the importation of varieties such as Virginia and Burley. In the 1980s there was a total of 240,000 acres under tobacco, and Bulgaria was the world leader per capita in tobacco production and exports.

In defiance of Marx's laws, however, where Bulgarian tobacco growing was concerned, the increase in quantity did not lead to a positive change in quality of life for the producers. The record-high volumes of tobacco were the result of 100-year-old technologies that relied on manual labour: all the sowing, digging, picking and stringing was done by hand.

Tobacco growing had one other distinction in that the bulk of the crop was grown in regions which were populated by Muslims: Turks and pomaks. What until then had been the advantage of tobacco ‒ it guaranteed a livelihood for these people despite the arid land – now turned out to be a serious disadvantage. The Muslim population found themselves entirely dependent on the plant.

Petty tobacco producers, who don't have other incomes, live in Third World conditions

Petty tobacco producers, who don't have other incomes, live in Third World conditions

The dependence only increased after 1989. Socialism's planned economy, which guaranteed employment for everyone, collapsed. The export of low-quality cigarettes to the Soviet Union, and later to Russia, was no more, while unemployment in the sectors of heavy manufacturing and education forced huge numbers of people to emigrate, or to revert to growing tobacco.

In the 1990s tobacco growers became entirely dependent on the business strategy of Bulgartabac, the state-owned monopoly. Each year the company would determine how much tobacco it would buy, from whom it would buy and when it would pay for it.

At first glance, the government seemed to be protecting the farmers. Tobacco growing was declared a "strategic sector" and a special organisation, the State Tobacco Fund (STF) was set up to manage the sector and pay state subsidies to tobacco growers. This policy was a guarantee that those living in poor regions which offered no other employment opportunities would be able to make ends meet. There were occasions when Bulgartabac had to buy up tobacco even if it had no use for it.

It turned out, though, that the protectionist measures ended up protecting the interests of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, and those of its leader, Ahmed Dogan, rather than small tobacco growers.

A philosophy graduate and former agent of the Communist State Security, Ahmed Dogan officially formed the DPS as a political party, in 1990. The party quickly gained popularity among its target group: Bulgarian Muslims who were still living with the traumatic memories of the repressions in the 1980s when the Bulgaria's Communist regime forced the Bulgarian Turks to change their names into Bulgarian ones.

Within a few months most Bulgarian Muslims had became DPS supporters, giving Dogan a trump card that he would play repeatedly, with guaranteed success, in the course of the following 20 years. Each time he wanted something, he started talking about the fragility of the Bulgarian ethnic peace and of the danger of an internal conflict, similar to that in the Western Balkans.

After he and his wife lost their jobs in the local school, this man from Potochitsa turned to tobacco growing. They till an acre-and-a-half with the help of their 16-year-old daughter

After he and his wife lost their jobs in the local school, this man from Potochitsa turned to tobacco growing. They till an acre-and-a-half with the help of their 16-year-old daughter

At the insistence of Ahmed Dogan and his DPS, tobacco growing was decreed a strategic sector of the economy whilst dairy products or grain weren't.

In 1995 the government put up Bulgartabac for privatisation. However, under pressure from Dogan, each privatisation attempt was blocked and that from 2004–05 remains one of the most telling examples. It was the time when the DPS was the junior coalition partner in the government led by the National Movement of Simeon II, or NDSV. Some months before the general election the attempt by British American Tobacco to buy Bulgartabac pitted the coalition partners against each other and nearly brought about a parliamentary crisis. The privatisation scheme was scrapped.

The development was replayed in early 2010. With the DPS in opposition, the ruling GERB party announced that the privatisation of Bulgartabac was a priority. Tobacco growers took to the streets in protest, ostensibly to demand the payment of 116 million leva in state subsidies. The DPS said it backed the protest but was not involved in its organisation.

DPS's strategy is to persuade the Muslim tobacco growers that the party is doing all it can to protect their interests in a country that is hostile towards them (the memory of the Revival Process, the official euphemism for the 1984-1985 assimilation campaign, is still vivid). The truth is, however, that the only interests the DPS is committed to protecting are its own.

Under the Tobacco and Tobacco Products Act, each year the Agriculture Ministry decrees the lowest purchase prices for tobacco and the premiums (payments per pound of sold tobacco) that tobacco growers are entitled to. At their end, local mayors determine which tobacco growers the government (through Bulgartabac) will buy from, as well as the quantities which will be purchased from each farmer.

The majority of the mayors in the tobaccogrowing regions are members of the DPS, which has been in power almost uninterruptedly since 1990.

Therefore a single party had control not only of the "strategic sector," but also, by extension, of the people employed in it. By controlling the tobacco growers and setting the purchase prices and quantities, the DPS was guaranteed compliant voters. The high level of voter turnout for the DPS further guaranteed the party significant political clout.

Tobacco has been the main source of income for generations of Muslims in Bulgaria

Tobacco has been the main source of income for generations of Muslims in Bulgaria

Using the economic dependence of its voters, the DPS only increased its political muscle. Usually small-scale tobacco growers farm slightly more than an acre. Their income is so low that they barely break even. But not everyone suffers the same way.

The sort of creative accounting practices by the State Tobacco Fund can be illustrated by the 2008 story of an entrepreneur from the Silistra region, in the northeast of Bulgaria. He, his wife (who was the DPS mayor of a village in the region) and some of his kin had received a couple of hundred thousand leva in STF premiums. The family's documents showed that they possessed 140 acres, which were tilled by hired labour. The tax authorities suspected fraud: the municipality had given the businessman inexplicably high tobaccogrowing quotas, when in fact he did not own that much land. How did he make up the difference? Again, the local council had allocated excessively low quotas to the smallscale growers. Facing the prospect of being unable to sell their tobacco (the STF pays only for tobacco that has been sold), the small producers were forced to sell their surpluses to the Silistra man. He, or his relatives, declared them as their own and sold them to the tobacco processing factory which… the very same businessman had bought a few years before. He and his relatives ended up pocketing hundreds of thousands in STF premiums.

Still, the prosecutors dropped the case.

So, next time you're travelling around Bulgaria's tobacco regions and trying to clear your head of the sweet aroma, spare a thought for the people toiling in the fields and under the sheds, working in the same way as their forefathers did. They have been let down by the government, and Ahmed Dogan, their irreplaceable leader, has fed them on empty promises. The Tobacco Roads of Bulgaria will tell you a lot more about real life in this country than the Balkantourist rose-picking or fire-walking spectacles.

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