Sofia, Bulgaria – Opposite the diminutive Bulgarian parliament building, beneath the dual shadows of the gleaming Radisson hotel and the neoclassical monument to Tsar Alexander II, a handful of scruffy tents flap in the breeze.
As dusk approaches, police officers wearily begin the daily ritual of erecting metal fencing around government buildings, dotted all the way down the Tsar’s eponymously named boulevard, as the tones of drums and vuvuzelas combined with the clamour of Ostavka[“resign!”] strike up in the distance.
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Soon the streets will be filled with the Black Sea state’s discontented masses denouncing democratic deficit, unemployment and the allegations of a revolving door between the political class and the world of organised crime. It is a practice that has been rehearsed for the past three months in demonstrations that have rejuvenated Bulgaria’s fledgling civil society.
Sitting in a cafe, metres away from the epicentre of the demonstrations, sits Tomislav Donchev, an MP and the minister of EU funds under the previous government. He says that, while he has not received any public opprobrium from the angry crowds, he cannot say the same for his colleagues currently serving in Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski’s governing coalition.
“Look at the security measures when the members of parliament visit their workplace,” he said. “We do not have experience of the Bulgarian parliament to be protected in this way. It’s amazing. I don’t think they feel very comfortable right now.”
We are against all those who ever ruled Bulgaria. We want our government to be ruled by regular people like us, not these parties or oligarchs and mafia.
What begun in February as a spontaneous outpouring of scorn by Bulgarians of all ages following a dramatic hike in energy bills led to the resignation of the centre-right GERB party. It has since mushroomed into a daily demand for increased transparency and accountability in public life.
Oresharski’s new government almost immediately blew much of its perceived credibility on June 14, following the appointment of Delyan Peevski, a controversial media baron, to head the national security agency.
Despite Peevski’s speedy resignation, the crowd had already mobilised, registering frustration at the political chicanery of all parties, spawning demonstrations that have been remarkable for their longevity.
Atanas, currently unemployed but desperately seeking a job, took a few moments away from softly playing the national anthem on the piano placed by activists beneath the Tsar statue to echo sentiments widely held by the crowd:
“We are against all those who ever ruled Bulgaria. We want our government to be ruled by regular people like us, not these parties or oligarchs and mafia.”
For the past three months, the demonstrations have been largely non-violen – barring one notable incident on the night of July 23 when hundreds of protesters chanting “Mafia!” formed a barricade around parliament, effectively besieging politicians inside until early morning. A bus arranged to evacuate the building came under fire from hurled projectiles, while the crowd scuffled with police leading to injuries and arrests.
Parliamentarian Donchev said the demonstrations were not ideological.
“These protests are against the dark side of political life, not the concrete parties,” he said. “There are known, or in most of the cases not well-known, connections between entrepreneurs, politicians and the former Communist secret services. This is the main reason for the turbulences in Bulgaria.”
Just as Bulgarian politics has its dark side – Transparency International recently ranked the country the second-most corrupt country in the European Union – the protest wave also experienced a tragic turn. Between February and March, six people died or sustained serious injuries after dousing themselves in flammable liquid and setting themselves on fire in scenes more commonly associated with Tibet or Tunisia than Eastern Europe. Many of the victims chose to commit their deadly protest outside governmental offices around the country, professing desperation over their grinding poverty.
The pattern of self-immolation has recently seen a lull. Leading psychologist Ivan Igoff draws a line between the February demonstrations and those currently ongoing.
These protests have never been about austerity.
“These protesters have totally different needs such as self-esteem and confidence. They are younger, active and socially adaptable; they don’t suffer from the syndrome of helplessness, they are capable of making individual choices and making decisions of their own,” Igoff said.
“This is why they don’t believe the promises and manipulations of the current politicians in Bulgaria. They want a new social contract based on the main democratic values – morality and transparency and, therefore, they do not have the need to punish anybody by taking their own lives.”
Of note in the Bulgarian protests is the prevalence of European Union flags held aloft. Bulgaria became a member of the bloc in 2007 and, in stark contrast with the streets of Madrid or Athens – where such flags might only be seen at demonstrations in flames – in Sofia, membership is largely seen as a positive sign.
“These protests have never been about austerity. What is exceptional about the Bulgarian case is the complete distrust of the political class and so the EU is seen as the saviour,” said Maria Cheresheva from the Association of European Journalists, Bulgaria. “Due to the fact that European legislation is above that of Bulgaria, there is a hope that it will bring good practices here.”
Also widely visible are placards and posters exclaiming “Out Red Trash!” directed towards the Socialist government. Many protesters here freely substitute the word Socialist for Communist. For some, such as PhD student Georgi Medarov, there is an extremist undercurrent to the demonstrations that may not be helpful to protesters’ cause.
“I am sympathetic to the protests, but I think that these kind of radical antagonistic terms do not facilitate a productive debate between different positions,” he said. “You can see the level of noise that these protests are producing and there is no desire to communicate to the person next to you. There is this slogan of resignation and this is what unites – but there are no other opinions that are allowed in this spectrum and this is problematic.”
Legal reform expert and activist Hristo Ivanov wheels his bicycle through one of the nightly rallies toward the parliament. He is also passionate about the cause, but cautious.
“People here will need to understand that even if we get the resignation of [Prime Minister] Oresharski, that is going to be only the beginning,” he said. “We will have to get many more scalps and many more other types of political accountability before we teach the political class to pay attention to what is happening in the street. There is a political potential in the citizens, there is the energy. Now you come up with the goal, you come up with a plan how to use this energy and that’s the difficult part – and I think it’s going to take some time.”
As the evening winds down and the crowds disperse for another day, a lone activist wanders past, wearing a fluorescent yellow jacket with the phrase “in September, it will be May” – a reference to the May 1 international celebration of the labour movement – scrawled on the back. September may not produce the kind of revolution in Bulgaria that some may desire, but, on the streets of Sofia, the balance of power may be starting to tip.
Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew