In the heat of the Bulgarian spring

, by Nelly Tsekova

In the heat of the Bulgarian spring

In the past years we’ve seen people taking to the streets all over the world - from the Middle East to Turkey and Brazil - to express their dissatisfaction with the ruling parties. Now the wave of civil discontent has submerged Bulgaria. Thousands of protesters have gathered in the city center every day since June 14, when the government appointed Delyan Peevski, a politically connected media mogul, as head of the powerful State Agency for National Security.

Bulgaria is no stranger to protests, the most memorable one being the events surrounding the deep political crisis in 1997 which lead to the resignation of the Socialist party. In February this year, the centre-right government of PM Boyko Borisov resigned among protests against high electricity bills, poverty and corruption. Preliminary elections were scheduled for May 12th. The election campaign was shadowed by allegations of fraud and an illegal wiretapping scandal. The day before the election, a printing press in Kostinbrod was raided and 350,000 alleged illegally printed ballots were recovered. The elections resulted in a hung parliament, with no party winning a majority of seats and voter turnout at its lowest since the end of the Communist era. Although GERB emerged as the largest party with 97 of the 240 seats, it was not enough to form a government on their own, nor were any potential partners for a coalition. It was left to the Socialists to form a minority government with the Turkish party DPS, but the coalition was still one vote short of a majority which was eventually provided by nationalist party Ataka.

We didn’t start the fire

As noted, the initial spark was the scandalous appointment of Dejan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security. Many Bulgarians were outraged that a figure like Mr. Peevski was placed in a sensitive state position in charge of fighting the most serious crimes, a job that includes access to classified information and the power to order arrests and wiretaps. The government withdrew the appointment after the immediate public outcry, but thousands have continued to march through the city center every day in peaceful protests demanding an end to what they see as incompetent, corrupt and nepotistic governance. Several government moves sparked further criticism such as debatable changes in the Agency for National Security law and the recent approval by Parliament of an additional billion leva (500 million euro) in new debt.

Will you #ДАНСwithme ?

While protesters in February were lead by economic demands, this time protests are about a change of political values and intolerance to corrupt political elites in Bulgaria. The protesters are tired of a lawless state serving business interests and demand the resignation of the present government and new elections.

Several generations take part in the protests but its “face” are the young, university-educated people with an active stance. A lot of creative energy was put into the organization of protests - witty slogans and posters, whistles and art performances accompanied the demonstrations. The peaceful protests resembled more a colorful festival uniting people in their moral solidarity. Nevertheless, there were people that joined just to provoke and some groups and factions have sought to get the protests under their control. On 24th July, the 40th day of the largely peaceful street protests turned confrontational. More than 100 legislators, government ministers, journalists and officials were blockaded by protesters inside the Bulgarian Parliament building for nearly 8 hours. Clashes between protesters and police officers were marked by questionable use of force by the latter and ended with several injuries.

Demonstrations have been noted for their use of social networks. Demonstrators relied on their creativity to express their anger over the presumed corruption of the government, including protesting every morning in front of the parliament, as part of the morning initiative to “drink coffee” with the politicians, and blockading at random different roads. The holiday season has not dampened the spirit of protestors. A group of protestors have set on Oresharski March” (a nod to the “Radetski March” of Bulgaria’s 19th century struggle for liberation from the Ottoman empire) to protest outside Evksinograd Residence where many parliamentarians rest during the summer.

The summer of our discontent

Officials from the European Union have offered tacit support for the protesters. The European Justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, who was in the country to participate in a citizens debate, publicly sided with the protesters on Tuesday: “My sympathy is with the Bulgarian citizens who are protesting on the streets against corruption.” Mrs Reding stressed the need for political parties to put aside their differences and find a solution to the political crisis.

Despite demonstrations, the government has largely ignored the protesters as divided, non-representative and organized by the opposition and dismissed their claims. Politicians are also calling for a calmer working environment and more time to implement the measures in their political program. So far, Prime Minister Mr. Oresharski has expressed no intention of stepping down, strengthened by hundreds of supporters who also hold regular demonstrations.

While they have been overlooked by the international media, whose gaze has been fixed on Tahrir Square in Cairo and Taksim Square in Istanbul, Bulgaria’s anti-government protests, which entered in their second month yesterday, are indicative of a broader disillusionment with the political and economic elite that resonates well beyond the country’s borders. The question is whether real change is possible, one that will break the vicious cycle of corruption, which has led to political and economic stagnation, and national impoverishment.

1 These days every large protest has its corresponding hashtags and key-word on social media: Tunisia was #Jan14, Egypt was #Jan26, the recent Turkish protests are using #occupygezi and #ChangeBrazil for protests in Brazil. The protests in Bulgaria are united under the hashtag #ДАНСwithme a play on words ДАНС (DANS) being the acronym of the State Agency for National Security.

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