Protests in Bulgaria and the new practice of democracy

Bulgarians have been protesting not over high electricity prices, but over the failure of the political system.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov w
Although some Bulgarians were quick to see Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's defeat in the resignation, "the move is far from public acceptance of failure" [AFP]

After spontaneous non-partisan mass protests across the country, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government resigned on Wednesday, February 20. The resignation came as a surprise, as less than 24 hours earlier Borisov had declared that he would not resign. 

Although some Bulgarians were quick to see Borisov’s defeat in the resignation, the move is far from public acceptance of failure. In fact, it is quite politically shrewd. Parliamentary elections are only months away and Borisov had to make the best out of the dangerous situation that the mass protests put him in.

On Tuesday, he made promises which are impossible to achieve, such as decreasing the price of electricity by 8 percent. Then on Wednesday, he made a touching speech about how “every drop of blood for us is shameful” (referring to the violent clashes during the protests in Sofia), and declared that now the Bulgarians “should choose: Stanishev, Dogan, Kostov, whoever they want”, referring to the leaders of three opposition parties – Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), Movement for Rights and Liberties (MRL) and United Democratic Forces (UDF) respectively.

Borisov produced the intended effect: it stunned the opposition and motivated his supporters to go out and support him to withdraw his resignation. Such political circus is nothing new in Bulgaria and maybe that is the reason why international media has not paid much attention to it. However, it is a mistake to ignore the protests that have been going on in Bulgaria for the past three weeks.

Unlike their Greek neighbours, Bulgarians do not go out in large numbers to protest regularly. When they do overcome passivity and political apathy, it is always for an important reason. What is happening right now in Bulgaria is extremely important. It is much more than an economic protest and a byproduct of the global financial crisis.

It is a sign that democratic system in its present form has failed the Bulgarian people and now they demand its overhaul. Bulgarian protesters are resolved to continue until their demands are met, even after the resignation of the government.

Electricity sparks

Voices of dissatisfaction rose steadily across the country in early February, as Bulgarian households received their electricity and heating bills. People started gathering at local branches of private electricity companies and burned their power bills demonstratively. 

 Bulgaria’s government resigns amid protests

Public anger grew as company representatives started declaring publicly that there was no miscalculation in the charges, even though consumers reportedly had to pay 1.5 to 2 times more than what they had paid in previous months. The government intervened, saying it would investigate, but results were not produced fast enough to quench public anger.

Abnormal ratios of utility bills to average salaries and pensions have been a problem for years, but as one journalist noted sarcastically, “If the Bulgarian people have to react, the total paycheque for utility bills has to exceed their income”.

Pensioners were especially struck by the uncontrollably high bills; as one woman from Shumen explained, with a pension of EUR150, she had to pay a bill of EUR175 and remain hungry. The electricity company in her town was charging around EUR25 to process requests for bill revision.

The tension escalated for two weeks with growing protests across the country. On February 17, the protests mobilised thousands of people in more than 35 cities. Protests persisted even after the weekend, with violence escalating in the capital. There were even two cases of self-immolation, one in Varna and one in Veliko Turnovo.

Bulgarians started comparing the protests with the wave of demonstrations in 1997, which escalated to the point where protesters stormed the parliament and forcefully toppled the BSP government. The country back then was in a severe financial crisis, and unemployment and high cost of living had mobilised the population.

However, the main difference between the two waves is that the one in 1997 had a very clear partisan aspect, while today’s protesters have made a very clear effort to prevent political parties from taking advantage of their mobilisation.

Overhaul of the regime

The most popular chant of demonstrators has been “Mafia! Mafia!” – it might sound bizarre to an outside observer, but not to a Bulgarian, as it is full of meaning. Mafia refers to the three electricity companies which through illegal practices inflate bills. Mafia refers to the people in the state and political institutions who are aware of the problem, but financially co-opted to prevent investigation.

Mafia refers to the network of businessmen, mediators and politicians who privatised the utility companies, along with thousands of other state enterprises, profiting in the process and setting up schemes to exploit the Bulgarian people even more.

In short, the “democratic” process in Bulgaria has allowed illegality and legality to merge into one. The electoral mechanism of changing political parties in power every four years has failed completely to put a check on corrupt behaviour of politicians. Hence, it doesn’t matter which party is in power – whether GERB (Borisov’s party), or BSP, or MRL or UDF. The problem is not personal behaviour of politicians, it is systemic. 

“Abnormal ratios of utility bills to average salaries and pensions have been a problem for years.”

With complete awareness of this, demonstrators have been persistently rejecting attempts of opposition parties, including the BSP and the ultra-nationalists VMRO and “Ataka”, to take advantage of the protests. There have been scuffles with those who tried to raise partisan politics during demonstrations, and people even chanted “No parties!”

The goal of these protests is not to topple one political party to have another take power and bring the country to another crisis, nor is it to demand just normal prices of electricity.

On the economic side, the demands are: scrapping of contracts with the electricity companies and nationalising them; putting those who signed them on trial; revision of electricity bills with citizen participation; declassification of the contracts for all privatisation deals in the last 24 years; revision of all concession contracts for the past 24 years; and ceasing privatisation processes.

On the political side, demands have gone even further to seek an overhaul of the political system in Bulgaria. They have made clear that the system has to be changed in such a way that when the next party comes to power, it can no longer behave the way all governments in Bulgaria have for the past 24 years. There have to be checks on political power and mechanisms to prevent collusion between politicians, private economic interests and organised crime.

Protesters are currently calling for a Constituent Assembly to be formed to change the constitution and develop mechanisms of direct involvement of citizens in government matters. There have been proposals of specific measures to be taken such as: cutting the number of members of parliament to 240; stripping them of immunity; establishing procedures for early dismissal; establishing 50 percent citizens’ controlling quota in state institutions.

In short, a new system has to be established in which elected officials do what they are elected to do, and citizens are close enough to them to make sure they do it.

As Bulgarian protesters are pushing for these reforms, it is important to understand that Bulgaria is not a special case. This is very much the situation in “developed” democracies of Western Europe and North America.

The 2008 global financial meltdown revealed that there should have been a wake-up call for people to do what needs to be done. They started with “occupying” squares, waiting for punishment of those responsible, and when that didn’t happen, they went back home. Now is the time to demand change and only systematic pressure on governments will produce it.

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo. She is currently completing a graduate degree at Oxford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mkpetkova