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Bulgaria has been shaken by two great waves of protest in the last couple of weeks

Two events over the past few weeks have put Bulgaria on the map of global resistance. The first was the mass demonstrations on January 14 across the country calling for a ban on the use of the controversial gas extraction technique, fracking. Then came the hacking of a prominent record label’s website due to their support for the contentious Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

It was revealed in 2011 that the Bulgarian government had signed a deal with American energy company Chevron, granting them a license to begin exploration for shale gas. However, as exploration started secretly, civil society and environmentalist groups rang the alarm bell about the technology used. Fracking is a technique of gas extraction that involves inserting water and toxic chemicals into shale rocks, to push the gas upwards.

Public opinion soon shifted as information on the poisonous effects fracking has on soil and water was made available, in addition to evidence that it can increase earthquakes. The use of fracking has already been banned in France and Ireland.

In Bulgaria, citizens demonstrated in January.  The protest was called by a coalition named “Citizen’s initiative for banning exploration and extraction of shale gas using the method of hydraulic fracturing”, which includes a broad range of organisations such as For Clean Bulgaria, Occupy Bulgaria, Coalition for the Nature, and others.

The protest demanded transparency – something sorely lacking in the agreement between the Bulgarian government and Chevron. Crucially, it drew attention to the fact that Dobrudza, the region where gas reserves will be found, is Bulgaria’s main grain producer. The central practical demand was an immediate ban on fracking, as well as an investigation into dangerous gas extraction techniques.

Nearly 2,500 people marched through Sofia, the capital city, and assembled in front of the parliament. There was a broad cross-section of society represented at the demonstration: people of different professional background, social status and political opinion, street performers, environmental activists, young, elderly and middle aged people, parents with their children. There were those that were coming out on the streets for the first time in their lives and others who were reminded of the mass civil movements from 1989 which brought down the country’s totalitarian regime. They were accompanied by the somewhat eclectic sound of samba drums, vuvuzelas and the traditional Bulgarian horo. Similar demonstrations happened in 12 cities across the country, as well as in London and Copenhagen.

It should be said that environmentalists have been active for many years in Bulgaria; and since the beginning of the economic crisis there have been a number of protests organised by the trade unions and specific groups (pensioners, young mothers, etc.). However, this was the first protest that appealed to sections of society not already politically organised. More importantly, this was a political protest; not in the sense that it was aligned to a certain political party, but rather that it was a part of re-politicising society.

The government agreed to ban the use of fracking with immediate effect. Protests, however, should continue as new legislation is drafted and adopted in the coming months.

The second event relates to ACTA, the infamous trade agreement, which critics say can lead to the policing and criminalisation of online content.

The Bulgarian government signed the agreement on 26 of January; the news was met with massive public outcry, especially in the online community, as well as demands for transparency and a broad public discussion before the agreement is voted in Parliament.

Last week a group of 13 organisations, including the Bulgarian music industry group Prophon, issued an open letter to welcome the signature of ACTA, and the protection it claims to award to artists and proprietors of intellectual property rights. This clearly angered the online activist group Anonymous and put Bulgaria on their map.

As a consequence on Sunday, 5 February, they hacked into the site of Prophon and declared that their domain had been seized by Anonymous.They issued a warning to other supporters of ACTA and included a link to Charlie Chaplin’s speech from the Great Dictator. A mass protest was called for February 11th.

There is a wide range of reasons why Bulgaria has thus far remained outside of the waves of protests that have swept the Arab World, Europe and the US. Primarily, this is a peculiar form of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) virus. People feel they have little say in how the country is being run.

However, the effects of the economic crises are being felt across the country, with rising unemployment (around 11% in December), increase of informal employment, the lowest living standards in the EU and stagnant economic growth (GDP growth 0.2% in 2010). With this there is also growing awareness among broad sectors of society of the need to look for and explore alternatives and there is a new energy that is building up. As a consequence, this may yet prove to be a very interesting spring for Bulgaria.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a member of Counterfire and a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.

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