As riot police attack protesters blockading the Bulgarian parliament, Yva Alexandrova writes on the background to the current wave of demonstrations
In orthodox Christianity the 40th day after the death of someone is an auspicious occasion. On this day, the soul of the dead finally leaves the earth. It was on this day, after forty days of protest, that the first blood of the new Bulgarian revolution was spilled. After over a month of daily demonstrations in Sofia demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Oresharski and his cabinet, tensions exploded.
Yesterday, as a new budget was being debated in Parliament, thousands gathered again in the city centre to protest. Plans to increase public borrowing were de-coupled from any indication, let alone a programme, of where this money would go, fuelling speculation that it would end up in the hands of oligarchs and shady businesses - with the debt will be left to be paid by the taxpayer.
Protesters occupied Parliament in protest against the vote and tried to prevent parliamentarians and ministers from leaving the building. At around 10pm riot police attacked protesters, attempting to break the cordon and clear a way for a bus carrying MPs. The police were, however, unable to break the blockade as thousands of people kept coming into the city. Protesters erected barricades out of concrete blocks and garbage bins at intersections around the streets surrounding the Parliament building. Calls for sleeping blankets and food were made and even a phone charging station set up.
The president called for restraint against further escalating tensions. The Minister of Interior has defended the police, claiming they have not been using excessive force. But reports started coming in of ten protesters and two policemen being injured. The international media, which had otherwise largely ignored month-long protests, showed images of clear police brutality. Eventually, at around 3am local time, the cordons of protesters were broken by the police and the MPs taken out.
External pressure is also mounting. Following the clashes, the Confederation of Trade Unions has issued a statement supporting the protesters, and calling for early elections. The trade unions have, somewhat puzzlingly, not taken part in the protests and not taken a position so far. A Reformers Bloc was formed of some of the democratic parties and the Greens calling for new elections and a reform of the electoral code. The EU Justice Commissioner Vivienne Redding, visiting Sofia today, also expressed her support for the demands of the protesters, adding to the mounting international pressure expressed by the French, German and Dutch Ambassadors to Bulgaria.
A short history of the current protests
Protests kicked off on 14 June with the announcement that a leading media mogul, associated with a number of corruption scandals and hardly qualified for the post, 32 year old Delyan Peevski was to be appointed as head of the National Security Agency. As would be the dream of any activist, within minutes of the vote being announced thousands of people started gathering, undeterred by the pouring rain, to protest this blunt violation of democratic principles. Caught unprepared, the government – then barely a few weeks old - bowed to popular demand and reversed the appointment of Peevski. However, this had hit a nerve that was too long untouched. A moral protest was starting to take shape, and a determined crowd kept coming every day as, according to opinion polls 85% of the population supported the demonstrators.
Peaceful, colourful and highly creative protests had gathered 15-20,000 people daily marching from the Council of Ministers through the streets of Sofia. Dance, music, posters, children, pets, smiles and a hope for a better future were all the characteristic elements. Every day new placards, new campaigns - there was a burial and a marriage - people came early in the morning in front of Parliament to drink coffee, and they came in the afternoons to work from an improvised outdoors office. Concerts, debates, young and old, working and unemployed, rich and poor gathered day after day, saying “No to the Mafia!” and demanding a resignation of the government, changes to the electoral code and new elections.
And every day the tension grew. The initial faltering of the government was quickly overcome and demands for resignation firmly ignored. One after another corrupt, compromised and discredited figures took senior government and state positions. Their appointment became the order of the day. Any illusion that this was a technocratic government of “experts”, as it initially tried to present itself, were quickly forgotten as the new administration showed that it was entirely dependent on the mafia, and that it had come into power to further legitimize and protect these structures.
There have been attempts at organising counter protests in support of the government but they have been feeble and anemic. Meanwhile, a verbal war of numbers has also developed, with police claiming anti-government protestors number about 2-3,000, rather than the 15-20,000 that have been very visibly filling the streets.
A longer history of the current protests
For many, these demonstrations are a natural continuation of the awakening of civil society in Bulgaria very much linked to the environmental protests of 2012, Anti-fracking demonstrations erupted in February that year and led to a moratorium on fracking in Bulgaria. Protest against the development of ski slopes on Mt. Vitosha took place shortly after, where demands were made against the privatisation of the state by the mafia and in favour of the rule of law.
In February 2013 another huge wave of protests began over high energy bills and brought down the government of Boyko Borissov two months before scheduled elections. The elections however were a big disappointment for almost everyone involved. The ruling GERB party nominally won the vote, but did not hold enough seats to form government. A coalition of the second-placed Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and third-place Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) (claiming to represent the Bulgarian-Turkish minority) was formed, but was only sustainable due to the critical and highly controversial one vote of the far-right party Ataka. Around 40% of the population did not vote at all, and the vote of approximately 25% went to parties that did not manage to pass the 4% threshold for entering Parliament. This left huge sections of society unrepresented, disappointed and angered. For the first time in the modern Bulgarian history the democratic forces that were created out of the change of regime in 1989 were not in Parliament.
This is coupled with the fact that the continuing economic recession in Europe has deeply affected the Bulgarian economy, which is highly dependent on European markets and foreign investment. The bankruptcy of medium and small size enterprises has tripled since 2011 with Bulgaria having the highest number of bankruptcies in Central and Eastern Europe. Youth unemployment is growing and is currently around 30%. The country still has the lowest standard of living in the European Union and depends on the European Commission funding for approximately two-thirds of its national budget.
Even more tellingly, since 1989 an estimated 2.5 million Bulgarians have left the country. The promises of neoliberal free market reforms have failed to deliver growth in the economy and the search for a viable and dignified alternative is once again a priority. Going further back to demonstrations in 1997 and 1989, it is clear that the Bulgarian revolution was never over, that the process started with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe is still going on.
Clashes yesterday mark a significant moment in the protests as people proved their resilience and willingness to resist the use of force. They have also undoubtedly proven that they are prepared to stand their ground and their demands. The will to see this government’s resignation through grows stronger.
In the coming days a lot will depend on sustaining this resilience and building a mass movement. However, there is a need to look beyond the immediate goal of resignation as well, to make sure the results of next elections are not as disappointing as last time around. For this to happen, there is a very strong need for everyone to stay involved in the political process.
Join a party, a movement, form a campaign organisation, stand up for elections, put pressure in any way possible and relevant on whoever is elected next to continue reforms. We do not leave our personal business to outsiders, so why do we trust the future of our country to people we don’t really know? Politics must also become personal and we must all find our own way of engaging in this process. This is the only chance for things actually changing and for the energy, beauty and hope of the protests to be carried on.
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