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A new face for European dissent

Bulgaria's peaceful protests might provide a new model for discontented Europeans seeking to engage their governments.

Last Modified: 14 Jul 2013 20:27
Julian Popov

Julian Popov is a journalist, consultant, and was a cabinet Minister in the last Bulgarian interim government.
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The protests against the appointment of Delyan Peevski have morphed into demonstrations over the political culture in Bulgaria [AFP]

"Now you really angered Mommy!" – says a placard held by two little well dressed girls on the streets of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, where tens of thousands have been protesting every day since June 14. Young families with children are the face of the protests, which were sparked by the decision of the newly elected parliament to appoint Delyan Peevski to head the State Agency for National Security (which also includes the directorate fighting organised crime).

Its acronym in Bulgarian is "DANS" which is why the hashtag uniting the protesters over social media #DANSwithme. The 33-year-old Peevski owes his stratospheric career largely to his mother, who used to head the national sports lottery and built a vast national media empire with the government favoured banker Tzvetan Vassilev.

The current protests have a longer and more complex history than the disgraceful appointment of Peeveski

In 2007 Peevski was dismissed from his Deputy Minister position after being accused of blackmailing a businessman. The investigation was eventually dropped and he was reinstated to his old position. He continues to be associated with activities that the agency he helms, is supposed to fight.

The appointment was quickly rescinded, but the protesters did not go home. They demand the resignation of the government, new election rules, sweeping measures against corruption and, essentially, the total transformation of public life. A young lady in the crowd was carrying around her neck a dating announcement:  "Literate, educated, attractive, well-raised, with no criminal record and in good mental, emotional and moral health, is looking for a similar government". Her smile did not hide her determination to come out every evening onto the street until her demand is met.

There is something unusual about this protest. There are no water cannons and tear gas, nor the aggravated riot police who we usually associate with such events. The security services are relaxed and the protesters bring them cold mineral water and flowers.

You can find pictures online of young girls with red carnations hugging policemen. "The police are with us, we are negotiating with the army now!" – says another placard, with the typical good humour that characterises the protests. The police union even issued a carefully worded statement which was clearly in support of the demonstrations.

The Bulgarian Orthodox church, well known for its deep political and social fatigue, also issued a statement that, with a bit of an imagination, could be read as a support for the protests. The directly elected President Rossen Plevneliev, who has become probably the most respected public figure in Bulgaria, has also made it clear that the protesters should be listened to and the best way out of the political crisis might be another round of early elections.

So, what is happening?

The current protests have a longer and more complex history than the disgraceful appointment of Peeveski. You can trace them back at least to December 2011 when a Facebook group was set up in protest against the way a ski area just outside Sofia was being developed without public consultation by a company that had taken over the state-owned ski lifts in the Vitosha Nature Park .

Even earlier in 2011 a number of small protest flashmobs, Facebook groups and YouTube actions targeting government fraud also started taking place. The flashmobs were boutique events involving 30 to 40 people who would march for a few minutes at different landmark spots in the capital. Nobody thought that these minuscule actions were conceiving something big.

Early in 2012 there was a sudden eruption of anti-shale gas protests. They took many by surprise, not least Chevron which was planning onshore gas exploration. A theory quickly spread that Gazprom interests were behind the protests. A coincidence in interests does not however mean that Russia can organise demonstrations in 16 cities in Bulgaria and mobilise Bulgarians around the world to join in the protests.

Apart from the shale gas agenda and the environmental concerns there was something else behind the protests - the growing anger with the complete lack of communication and understanding between citizens and decision makers. During an interview the then US ambassador to Bulgaria shared his frustration that Bulgarians did not want a company like Chevron to invest millions and create lots of jobs. (He was recalled to Washington before the end of his mandate.)

Had the choice been between Chevron and Gazprom, Bulgarians would most likely have picked Chevron. However that was not the point. The issue was that corporations and government did not consult the people and did not make the slightest attempt to create, as Michael Porter would say, shared value.

Whether Gazprom or somebody down the gas line sent any PR company a cheque is irrelevant. Public anger boiled up and eventually led to the Parliament imposing a moratorium on shale gas exploration. Many saw that as an extreme measure. A Bulgarian scientist said that "we banned something that we didn't know whether we have got".

Anti-government protests held across Bulgaria

The ban made history and was welcomed by campaigners around the world. In a widely circulated email, the prominent American activist Sandra Steingraber wrote: "Thank you for the inspiration, Bulgaria, the Harriet Tubman of fracking. May your success be replicated here and everywhere".

But that was not simply a ban of an insufficiently regulated industrial activity with unclear environmental impact, but a punishment for inappropriate public behaviour by the "people in power". And this is exactly what the political parties and powerful corporations failed to see.

The protests against the lack of transparency in the environmental field moved forward. In June last year the flashmob tactics facilitated by utilising Facebook led to what could be one of the most successful Occupy actions in the world. Several thousand people quickly mobilised themselves and occupied the most sensitive transport route in Sofia, protesting against changes in the Forestry Act to facilitate developments in protected territories.

The occupation led to a Presidential veto of the controversial amendments. This protest was a loud warning for what was to happen on June 14 this year. It showed clearly that the citizens' energy was focussed and mature.

In the autumn of 2012 another unprecedented protest action, again largely organised over the social networks, took place - this time against the appointment of a controversial judge to the Constitutional Court. The President intervened again, this time in an unorthodox manner - on December 15, just before the judge in question had to take the oath, the President walked out of the room making the appointment technically impossible.

The Bulgarian political parties, corporations and media were still seeing mostly single issue actions behind each protest. And when the energy of the street protests appeared to be too strong to resist, the government would agree to bend on that single issue. However, it was consistently failing to recognise the trend of growing public disenchantment and the increasing capability of citizens to organise themselves over the social networks.

In January 2013 mass protests started around the country. They were again seen as single issue movement – this time against high energy prices. The protests escalated, engulfed the entire country and the government eventually resigned in February this year, triggering early parliamentary elections (in fact only 8 weeks before the date when they were supposed to take place anyway).

The street gave a very cautious vote of confidence to the new Parliament despite the highly acrimonious election campaign and the fact that none of the shards of the fragmented former anti-Communist block (misleadingly called "the Right" in Bulgariameaning mainly opposition to the Communist left of the past rather than consistent association with economic or nationalist right wing policies) managed to get into Parliament. And that confidence lasted just over two weeks until the Parliament appointed Peevski. The street exploded as never before.

After more than three weeks the protests do not show any sign of subsiding. Rather , the contrary was observed - frustrated by the constant underestimation of their numbers on July 7 the protesters decided to walk up a large boulevard (coincidently called "The Istanbul Road") so that they can be more easily counted. At least 2.5 km of the boulevard was filled with protesters.

The protesters also rejected attempts by existing political parties to hijack them. The protest is not promoting its own leaders and has not produced any organisational structure. A popular banner captures this sentiment: "This is not a protest, this is a process". While some see that as a weakness, it might be the strength of #DANSwithme.

So, what do the protesters want?

Somebody said on Facebook: "Just read the banners and you can write a new Constitution". During the February protest a small group of young people were carrying a banner demanding: "For new cultural paradigm". To many the slogan sounded comical. However it seems now that this is the ultimate demand. But how do you get there? Who can change the paradigm? And how long might it take?

The answer is emerging. The protest is perfectly organised but it does not have organisers. It draws tens of thousands of people every day but nobody is funding it. Huge crowds are on the streets but that is not having a negative impact on the economy. The protest has no office, newsroom or a PR agent but it is hugely creative, and its statements are spreading instantly, not just in Bulgaria but around the world. People are angry with the government but the protesters are lawful and civilised.

There is a new paradigm emerging on the streets of Sofia and other Bulgarian towns. This is the paradigm of permanent and proactive civic presence in public affairs. The smaller protest in June 2012 and the current much larger demonstrations have something important in common - they were both convened in a matter of a few hours over Facebook. They show that the citizens are out there, watching constantly and ready to act and to block anybody's intention to privatise the public agenda.

Potentially the protest could have significant implications not only for Bulgaria but also for the Balkan region, including Turkey (where larger but much more confrontational protests are taking place) and the Western Balkans, where several countries are in the queue for the EU membership.

If what is happening on the streets of Bulgaria proves to be a deeper transformation, then the entry of new states into the EU might become a clear success story after all. It can show that it is not the direct action and policing by the European Commission that should control the behaviour of the Balkan underdogs, but that the countries themselves are capable of self-transformation. And this is the only transformation that lasts.

And while Bulgaria is not exactly the country you might expect to export trends in public life around the EU, there is a chance that this may be the case. There is a lot of anger and a lot of dissatisfaction with political life around the EU, exacerbated by the prolonged economic downturn and the threat of falling living standards for many.  Sustained but highly civilised marches arranged instantly over social networks might soon become part of the public life across Europe. And not just on single issues but about almost everything.

 

Julian Popov is a journalist, consultant, director of the UK charity organisation Friends of Bulgaria, and was a cabinet Minister in the last Bulgarian interim government.

Follow him on Twitter: @julianpopov

2015

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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