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Thursday, 04 July 2013 11:49

Protests in Bulgaria – a call for normality and democracy

Written by Velislav Ivanov

For some 20 days straight, tens of thousands of Bulgarians have taken to the streets, protesting against the newly-elected government, in office for only a month. Riots brought down the previous government in February – what has happened to make tensions mount once more?

Rewind to February. When bodyguard-turned-PM Boyko Borisov resigned amidst mass protests against poverty (it was high electricity bills that prompted those riots in the first place), many thought things would slowly normalise. It was his authoritarian tendencies, macho manner, and penchant for the daily gaffe that he was widely criticised for – along with allegations of widespread cronyism and legislation tailored for his business associates. An overwhelming wiretapping scandal (dubbed 'Eastern Europe's Watergate' by The Economist) topped it all, exposing Borisov and two of his close partners in a chillingly cynical conversation, discussing, inter alia, high judicial appointments (take that, separation of powers) and political opponents ('fags'). The day prior to the May elections was marred by the seizure of 350,000 empty, illegally-printed ballots at the printing house of one of Borisov's party (GERB) members (which would have amounted to some 10% of the votes at the elections).

Amidst such obvious disrespect for democracy, the election results had a certain wayward logic to them – neither of the two natural pairs of parties in parliament (GERB and the far-right 'Ataka', on one side, and the Socialists (BSP) and the Turkish minority party (DPS), on the other) could form a government – both had an equal number of seats (120). The endlessly arrogant attitude of Borisov practically isolated him, which in turn prompted a seemingly impossible quasi-coalition between the other three parties. BSP, the allegedly reformed communist party, is currently in power with two very different parties: one represents an ethnic minority, and the other has utilised a xenophobic, especially anti-Turkish rhetoric for almost a decade now. (Although it must be said that for this particular election campaign 'Ataka' mostly relied on the statement that Bulgaria was under a colonial yoke from Brussels and Western corporations.)

Although these three parties have a stable majority in parliament, this is no clear indicator for the legitimacy of this government. Only half of all Bulgarian voters participated in the elections, while 20% cast their vote for parties that did not exceed the 4% threshold. Furthermore, Transparency International estimated the corporate-controlled vote at 18.6%, and the votes that were downright bought at 3%. Basic calculations show that the three parties in power therefore received only 15% of the electorate's genuine confidence.

The initial claims by the socialists for an expert-dominated technocratic government and co-operation with parties outside parliament and NGOs seemed the only solution to this political gridlock. However, hopes for such a new start only lasted until the actual cabinet was announced – the key figures are closely linked to the corporate interests of people who concentrate immense economic and media power, commonly referred to as 'oligarchs'.

It didn't take too long for resentment to burst out. The tipping point was when one such 'oligarch', Delyan Peevski, was appointed chief of the security agency by the Parliament with less than 15 minutes of debate and a quickly passed law that was tailored to his CV. The grotesquely ironic appointment of Peevski, a notorious media mogul with close ties to the underworld whose name had become a byword for corruption, to a body that was central to national security was simply too much.

Within hours Bulgarians created a facebook event with the hashtag #ДАНСwithme (DANS being the acronym for the national security agency), which 82,000 people signed up to attend. Even if there were less than 82,000 people physically present at the Independence Square in Sofia, the five-digit number was more than anyone had expected.

The protests are about an open manner of doing politics; politics based on ethics and made in the public interest. It's not about money, it's about values.

It was certainly enough for a U-turn. The very next day the government withdrew their questionable candidate but failed to address wider concerns. For instead of openly admitting their mistake and taking responsibility, the government entangled themselves in excuses. Former PM, BSP leader and leader of the Party of the European Socialists, Sergey Stanishev, produced something of a comedy landmark when he claimed that Peevski had undergone 'a personal catharsis' and would have deserved trust within a fortnight. No-one had an answer as to why he was nominated in the first place nor to why he was appointed virtually without debate.

It was this arrogance along with a string of other appointments, less conspicuous but still just as questionable, that kept the protests going. These protests are not about electricity bills, austerity, or social security measures. They are about an open manner of doing politics; politics based on ethics and made in the public interest. It's not about money, it's about values.

The protestors set the tone – they are loud, but not violent. They do not leave a trail of empty beer bottles and burning cars behind them. They bring their children and dogs along and express their views in a positive (if noisy) manner with a pinch of sardonic humour in their slogans. You can even see the odd EU flag. Much like in Turkey or Brazil, these are protests of the middle classes, disappointed in their governments because they know and have seen better. Among them are successful entrepreneurs, graduates from prestigious universities, cherished artists, idealistic students. And contrary to Nigel Farage's prejudice, the Bulgarians who have taken to the streets aren't about to pack their bags for London, Lisbon, or Liechtenstein come January 1st, when they will have the full right to work in any EU country. They simply want the rule of law in their own.

However, reactions from the incumbents have been indifferent at best. Defence minister Naydenov's response was perhaps the bluntest, earnestly exclaiming that 'we are not disposed to hearing calls to resign'. The Chairman of Parliament went as far as drafting an address guiding the media towards the 'proper' way of covering protests. A socialist MP called the protestors 'internet-lumpen who would protest against anything', while another, apparently better-versed in the works of Marx, Engels, et al., saw the seeds of all-but-forgotten class struggle, claiming that it's only the rich from Sofia with a monthly income higher than 4500 lev (2250 EUR, with an average monthly wage of 400 EUR) who protest because the BSP would increase their taxes. However, it was the previous BSP government that introduced the 10% flat income tax rate and the current holders of power have only stated that they would keep it this way.

Meanwhile, the far-right 'Ataka' party leader has made full use of his great importance for this parliament. As he holds the 121st seat, the functioning of the whole government depends on his party. And as the National-Socialist aficionado he is, he has brushed away the last crumbs of political normality with the outrageous behaviour of an endlessly arrogant enfant terrible. First by trying to initiate clashes with protestors (which prompted the #ignorevolen movement), then by slandering the President in public, and going to Parliament with a police truncheon one day, and with a gun the next. Not only have the other two parties in power turned a blind eye to his stunts, they appointed him head of the ethics commission in Parliament.

With none of its actions has this government gained a grain of trust. Just to sketch a few of its other proposed policies: a restart of the Russian-funded Belene nuclear power plant project; a lift on the ban on smoking in public places; a law practically monopolising gambling; a negligibly slight increase in pensions that would need a foreign loan to be funded. Moreover, the daily sight of Mr. Siderov waving a truncheon and threatening journalists and protestors is a shameful stain on Bulgarian democracy. Hence the protestors' call for resignation and early elections as an only exit from the political crisis.

Twenty days on, there are still tens of thousands of Bulgarians each evening voicing their views. Unlike the protests in Turkey or Brazil, the Bulgarian ones have been largely neglected by international media because of their non-violent nature. Yet, they prove that 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a European, cultured, and persistent civil society has finally emerged in this Balkan country, and it has demanded no less than a fundamentally different manner of doing politics.

Last modified on Friday, 05 July 2013 20:39

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