The Dimitrovgrad markets:
appropriating public space in a socialist planned town
Located in a coal mining area on the river Maritsa along a major railway line connecting Asia and Western Europe and a north-south junction, the site was considered a perfect choice for the establishment of a new industrial centre when the Communist Party gained power in Bulgaria after the end of the Second World War. The new city aimed not only to symbolise the victory of socialism but also to contribute to its triumph, functioning as an educational institution for creating nothing less than a new socialist man (Brunnbauer 2010, 199). According to the Stalinist doctrine, ‘the architectural form and the planning of the urban space were vested with a social-transformative role in the lives of its residents’ (Crowley and Reid 2002, 11). Dimitrovgrad was intended to represent the unbending determination to rebuild, the belief in virtually unlimited opportunities of technical progress and industrial growth, and the break with the past, conjured up by the Communist government, who were willing to create a new reality where even the limitations of nature would be withdrawn (Brunnbauer 2010, 199). Youth brigades from all over the country were recruited to build new thermal power plants and factories that produced nitrogen fertiliser, asbestos cement tubes, and canned food for increased productivity to match Soviet standards. The new ‘City of Youth’ was based on a typical Stalinist urban design scheme with neoclassical architecture alongside generous boulevards and squares, which could also host political manifestations, and public parks and gardens with sports facilities for recreational purposes.
According to the Communist economic doctrine, open-air markets were originally considered to be remnants of an outdated and unnecessary form of commerce or as a dangerous challenge to the socialised retail sector. But they had to be tolerated as a compensation for the failures of the redistributive system to produce and deliver goods (Sik and Wallace 1999). The planned town of Dimitrovgrad had the first and biggest market of its kind in Bulgaria during the Communist era. Its geographic location at or at least close to several major rail and road corridors and its relative proximity to the Black Sea harbour of Burgas (200 km) and the Turkish border (100 km) made it a hotspot at the time.
During the years of endless transition after 1989, this market took on even greater importance: designed as a centre of heavy industry, Dimitrovgrad suffered badly during the post-socialist transition. By the mid-1990s, almost the entire industrial complex had been shut down; the only remaining chemical factory radically reduced its number of employees. The population of the city shrunk from 53,800 in the peak year of 1985 to just 36,740 in 2014. And those who already had experience with smuggling before the fall of communism, those who for a long time had good reason not to trust the state, and especially those who could count on trans-border kinship relations, took their chances first: in Bulgaria it was the ethnic Turks and Roma, who had been greatly discriminated against during the transition, who started as suitcase traders, showing other Bulgarians the way to capitalism (Konstantinov 1996; Konstantinov, Kressel, and Thuen 1988). On the other hand, the market in Dimitrovgrad became of enormous importance for driving the local light industry: textile products manufactured in small workshops in Dimitrovgrad and the surroundings were offered for sale, and new business networks with distributors and resellers were established here.
The market opened at a site with easy access for both vendors and visitors, preventing the many strangers from crossing or spreading over the entire city. Its site is located alongside the rail tracks close to the train station of Dimitrovgrad, which moreover is in the immediate vicinity of the central bus station, where the first suitcase vendors had arrived with their preferred means of transport: trains and especially buses, which were used to smuggle goods purchased at the market in Istanbul (Konstantinov 1996). The infrastructure of a big indoor-sports stadium proved the perfect site: to guarantee evacuation routes and emergency access but also to enhance the monumental qualities of the building, the modernist stadium stands alone on a big square, functioning as a landmark that no one could miss. The paved parking lots and the public square around the stadium were appropriated for market purposes, which soon also expanded to encompass some of the parks and green areas, and even into the yards of the surrounding housing blocks that accommodated the remaining Vietnamese guest workers who had played a significant role in the informal trading boom (Petrova 2009). Today this market is institutionalised and highly regulated by the municipality. The products offered for sale are limited to clothes and shoes and all kinds of textile products. The entire area is also physically and visually separated from the city side by a row of solid prefab kiosks with their entirely closed backs facing the main street, preventing a direct gaze into the less formal parts of the market.
Second-hand car trade and the Avtopazar at Minyor Stadium
When the import of cars from Western Europe to Bulgaria significantly increased, a second market was established in Dimitrovgrad in walking distance from the first but at a site where it was easier to accommodate many more cars. This car market (Avtopazar) is located at the western margin of the beautiful Maritsa park, this time in front of a large outdoor sports stadium, which is named Minyor in honour of the hard-working coal miners who formerly produced the basic resources for Communist modernisation.
The appropriation of sports infrastructure to accommodate ‘informal markets’ follows many international examples, epitomised most famously by the Jarmark Europa at the abandoned tenth anniversary stadium in Warsaw, a Communist showpiece built in 1955 capable of housing 100,000 spectators (Warza 2009). In 1989 it was leased to a private company that opened one of the largest multi-ethnic markets in Central and Eastern Europe, mainly initiated by Vietnamese vendors. The market in Warsaw was closed down in 2008 when a new stadium was built on top of the old one for the European Football Championship of 2012 (Hüwelmeier 2015).
In Dimtrovgrad the stadium itself has not been appropriated to hold a market. Although the stadium looks rather derelict and abandoned and suffers from a lack of investment, it is still in use for popular events and sports matches of all kinds, for instance, the local football team Minyor 1947, which currently plays in the Bulgarian third league.
As in other socialist countries, there had been a delay in individual motorisation and therefore the demand for cars continues to increase (there was only a short period of significant passenger car production in Communist Bulgaria). But the economic crisis during the transition, followed by high unemployment rates and hyperinflation, made new cars a luxury product affordable only to a small minority. Hence, the early 1990s were characterised by a booming business in the illegal import of both new and second-hand cars – many of them stolen in Western Europe – to Eastern Europe. The very loose control of import and resale, almost free of custom fees and VAT tax (when sales prices are estimated close to zero), not only encouraged organised crime in Bulgaria: many individuals and small newly founded companies also began importing second-hand vehicles themselves. According to Eurostat, in 2000 second-hand cars made up the biggest share in Bulgarian imports in terms of value. Today Bulgaria is characterised by a relatively high rate of passenger car ownership, similar to that of Poland and the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, due to widespread low incomes, the vehicle stock in Bulgaria is quite old and significantly exceeds EU averages. One can still see some old Renault, FIAT, and Moskvitch vehicles on the streets, especially in rural areas. Switching from a sixteen-year-old vehicle to an eight-year-old car is still considered a big upgrade here.
After Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 the import of second-hand cars became even easier; nevertheless, the economic crisis of 2009 suddenly ended the abundance of financing opportunities, and the number of new vehicles sold dropped to half that of the previous year. Today a Bulgarian citizen can purchase a second-hand car from a professional vendor or a private individual – in which case it is free even of VAT – in any EU member state, simply drive it to Bulgaria, and then resell it at an open-air market, paying a tax of only 2.5 per cent of the specified value of the vehicle. Only if the transaction exceeds 15,000 BLN (7,500 Euro) does the payment have to be made as a bank transfer. This limit can easily be maintained when dealing with second-hand cars. Thus, this policy invites more and more people to deal in this semi-legal market in which only cash circulates. Although Bulgaria is a desirable destination to outsource the production of car components to, for many manufacturers in the automotive industries there has yet to be a relevant car producer operating in Bulgaria who would lobby against the lack of import barriers.
And, indeed, we observed the effects of the second-hand car markets when driving the pan-European corridors from the former West to the former East. Starting from Vienna we tested all the different arms of the bundle of streets today known as the Balkan corridors. No matter whether we drove to Bulgaria via Hungary, Serbia, or Romania, we followed trucks and trailers of all sizes bringing second-hand cars from Germany and Austria, and even from France and Great Britain, to their target destinations. And when we drove back we met many empty trailers. At the time when Bulgarians and Serbs became more familiar with smuggling goods during the embargo, after the end of the Yugoslavian disintegration wars, the Bulgarians used to prefer the Serbian route. But when Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, following this route meant they had to cross the EU border twice in one direction. So when the new bridge across the Danube between Calafat and Vidin opened in 2013, the Bulgarians switched to this new route via Romania, which did not entail crossing any EU borders to reach Bulgaria – nevertheless, on the way back, when they didn’t have any critical goods, they chose the much faster route via Serbia. We have met Serbs and Bulgarians living and working in Germany and Austria who bring a second-hand car back with them whenever they drive back home. Not all depend economically on exporting cars, but they feel obliged to do a favour for their friends and relatives, who expect them to bring prestigious goods from the West, which includes specific-brand second-hand cars. But many, of course, do depend on this practice. If they do not have access to a trailer, they just drive the car directly to the market and use a cheap bus connection to get back to the north. And if they fail to sell their car at the first market, they try at another one or leave the car with a professional vendor.
These people – ‘ant vendors’ as Karl Schloegel named them – would never be capable of establishing any expensive infrastructure themselves, but they are using an existing one, and by importing second-hand cars via the highways and bridges of the pan-European road infrastructure they enable others to use these infrastructures as well, contributing to an increase in individual mobilisation.
One might suppose that the booming years of a ‘wild’ second-hand car trade will some day be over: that there might be some modest saturation one day and many of the former informal traders will have become professionalised, resulting in endless clusters of second-hand car parks along all the entrance roads to the bigger cities. If so, the Dimitrovgrad market has already responded to this tendency, as here it is not only cars that are for sale. There are diversified zones characterised by the different goods offered, each with a rather different atmosphere, different social ranking, and a different graduation of formalisation.
Vendors already arrive during the night before or very early in the morning. During the opening hours on Sundays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. crowds of people walk in both directions alongside the main street, which connects the clothes market and the car market. Many vendors leave the market when they have successfully sold their goods. The access from the main road to the stadium also marks the entrance to the market. There is no fence or gate, only a security guard is there to regulate traffic arriving and departing to and from the market. And there are no fixed stalls at all. The market starts immediately at the entrance, follows a tree-lined road to the parking lot in front of the stadium, and wraps around its terraces into the public park. Alongside the access road are several kiosks that offer drinks and food – especially grilled meat – in the shadow of trees. The old stadium opens its many toilets to the vendors and visitors. The best places are between the entrance and the stadium, and obviously the most professional vendors can be found here. They use a stall system built up in front of their parked vans. The deeper visitors enter into the area, the smaller are the items for sale. The grassland behind the alley close to the entrance is offered to those who need more space, for example, to park a transporter loaded with second-hand cars or a larger van with a trailer, or to display large-scale spare parts for cars. There is an entire section specialising in spare parts for TIR trucks and another for tires, which are arranged in a rather artistic manner. Where space is limited, the cars and the goods for sale become smaller. Most cars are also used to transport, store, and display other goods: boots are open, offering a showcase of the goods on offer; bonnets are covered with goods of all kinds, mainly technical gadgets, from microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, and sewing machines, to consumer electronics, records, audio cassettes, and CDs; larger objects such as washing machines or fridges are placed beside the car. At the deepest point, in the park, the market takes on the look of a traditional flea market where one can find all kinds of small-scale items, offered by non-motorised vendors from the ground, mainly Roma people. Although there are many childrens' toys offered in front of the stadium, and there is even a section offering pets, mainly dogs, birds, and fish, for sale, our Bulgarian research partner Emiliya Karaboeva noted that this market seems to primarily attract men, while the clothes market primarily attracts women. If that is true, then both successfully complement one another.
From our perspective, a Western European male intellectual’s romantic gaze, the Dimitrovgrad car market was far more attractive than the clothes market because it had kept its ‘informal’ appeal and a more exotic ‘flea market’ atmosphere, with masses of people strolling around in the beautiful park with a strange mix of all kinds of technical gadgets on display, while vendors of different ethnic backgrounds shout and smoke from grilled meat wafts in the air. Another interesting feature is the rhythm this market imposes on the place by opening early in the morning just one Sunday per month and closing down soon after noon. This lack of continuation, of time to look around at the offered goods, to digest and eventually purchase goods, increases both the curiosity and the demand of visitors. It prevents the vendors from investing in solid stalls and transforms the market into a sort of event, a festival – or at least a sort of ritual – which people obviously enjoy very much.