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Bulgarian Protests on Holiday

“The ministers of parliament might as well go to the seaside. But this summer, if need be, we’re will stay and camp right here. We won’t give up our protest until we get what we’re looking for: Plamen Oresharski’s resignation.”

August 15, 2013 - Francesco Martino - Articles and Commentary



Miroslav Blagoev is a retired miner. Together with dozens of other people, all in their swimsuits and armed with water guns, and equipped with towels, beach umbrellas and an inflatable pool, he has just staged a “seaside protest” in front of Sofia’s parliament, in the centre of Bulgaria’s capital.

The unusual sight, which attracted journalists and photographers on the morning of July 31st, also marked the end of “phase one” of the first month and a half of protests that have been shaking the country since the beginning of June. However, despite Blagoev’s vows, and the persistent presence of a small tent camp in front of parliament, the August heat and the departure of many of Sofia’s residents (members of parliament included) for the “real” beaches on the Black Sea, seem to have cooled down spirits, at least for the time being.

However, the peace won’t last for long: there are sure to be new chapters in the unsolved struggle between the centre-left executive, led by Plamen Oresharski (an economist and former minister of finance), and the protesters, who have been marching and chanting in Sofia’s centre for almost 50 days, once people come back to work after their summer holidays at the end of the month.

The protests

The current political turmoil was sparked by one of the first appointments made by the new executive after last May’s early elections. The new government, elected on a pledge of economic reforms which would benefit the most economically vulnerable, is composed of a fragile coalition between the socialists and the liberal (and mainly ethnic Turkish) “Movement for Rights and Freedom” (MRF), but also depends on the support of the ultra-nationalist “Ataka” to reach a working quorum.

On June 14th, Delyan Peevski, the controversial MRF deputy and media mogul, was nominated as head of the reformed and strengthened State Agency for National Security (DANS). The decision immediately triggered an outburst of public outrage. In Bulgaria, Peevski is regarded by many as one of the living symbols of what is wrong with the current political system, an intertwined net of “oligarchic” private interests, pursued by interest groups behind the scenes, often through corruption and to the detriment of the public good. Peevski’s appointment was made after a mere ten minutes of open debate in parliament. The public quickly understood that his appointment was an opaque political agreement and not a result of the competences of the nominee.

That same day, thousands of citizens took to the streets in Sofia (as well as in other Bulgarian cities) demanding Peevski step down. When the following day he did so, however (while prime minister Oresharski conceded the nomination was “a mistake”), the people didn’t go home. The protesters continued to rally, shouting “Mafia!” and “Red garbage!” with a new, more ambitious goal: to bring down the Socialist-led government, possibly after a reform of the electoral law. The demonstrations were largely peaceful and marked by innovative and sometimes eccentric ways of expressing discontent. They became a daily event, especially in Sofia, while the majority in parliament and the executive entrenched themselves, refusing to step down; only asking the people “to give them more time”, and to “judge them by their deeds”.

Intelligent and beautiful” or “Soros-oids”?

Despite their unusual endurance, the protests in Bulgaria didn’t attract much attention in the international media, with the possible exception of the sole outburst of violence, which happened on the evening of July 24th, when the demonstrators decided to physically siege the parliament while some 100 MPs, government members and journalists were inside the building. When the police attempted to brake the blockade and take out the hostages on a bus, clashes followed, leaving at least 17 people injured. The demonstrations have been often defined as “middle class” and “urban” – two elements well-visible in the rallies, but certainly not enough to exclusively describe the complexity of the phenomenon.

In Bulgaria, the nature of the protests soon became an ideological clash. In the narrative of right-wing intellectuals and activists, the people on the streets were portrayed as “intelligent and beautiful young Europeans”. This contrasts with the description given to the group of protesters earlier this year as “uncivilised and hungry”, which brought down the previous government in February – the centre-right government led by the charismatic Boyko Borisov.

The Socialist party denounced the latest protests as a supposed “conspiracy” against its “popular government”, the true advocate of the interests of ordinary Bulgarians, plotted by local emissaries of the international capital and external powers. According to this view, the demonstrators are little more than “Soros-oids”, paid actors in the service of the business magnate and financier George Soros and others like him. Certainly, the people in the streets request more accountability from their political representatives, and ask for reforms that would make a profound change in the current political and economic system: a replacement of Bulgaria’s political elite, perceived as irreparably corrupt and increasingly inward-looking.

On the other hand, however, there is little consensus on the way out of the stalemate. For many Bulgarians, Borisov’s strong-handed and semi-authoritarian style is no better than the current government. And despite the widespread rejection of the current elite, there is still no sign of the emergence of a possible new, alternative one.

What’s next?

Even if the August holidays momentarily emptied the streets of Sofia, the political situation in Bulgaria remains tense. On August 7th, a decision by President Rosen Plevneliev (nominated by Borisov’s party, GERB) to impose a partial veto on the government revision of the 2013 budget, over claims that the Socialist-led cabinet had not shown enough transparency in the planned use of public money, only added to the tension.

New, early elections seem the most probable way out, and many political analysts in Bulgaria predict Oresharski’s executive won’t last longer than May 2014, at the latest. Probably unavoidable, new elections won’t necessarily result in a more stable and legitimate political system. Even if a new electoral law is passed before that, new leaders and parties capable of taking advantage of such an opportunity and make real change don’t seem close at hand.

The current political instability, also fuelled by economic stagnation, is probably not going to disappear any time soon. In the long term, however, the active role taken by civil society, which managed to bring down Borisov’s government last winter and will probably succeed in sending Oresharski home in the coming months, will probably change the rules of the game.

A moral revolution and a complete renewal of the political elite seems out of reach. After Bulgarian society has eventually showed its readiness to react to its rulers’ most controversial decisions, however, whoever takes the wheel in the future should take accountability and transparency much more seriously than their predecessors.

For more photos from the “seaside protests” click here.

Francesco Martino is an editor at Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso, an Italian online news provider and research centre devoted to South-East Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus. Based in Sofia (Bulgaria) he has been covering extensively South-East Europe since 2005.

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