Bulgarian ‘Children of the Transition’

Opposition and ruling forces in Bulgaria are trying to polarise the public and hijack demonstrations in the country.

Parties in Bulgaria have engineered hollow political narratives to local protests, says Petkova [AFP/Getty Images]

It did not take much for the Bulgarian public to take to the streets demanding the fall of its new government after the disaster of an election it witnessed in May. Bulgarian voters had already punished political parties with a largely fragmented vote which forced the previous ruling party (GERB), which “won”, to give up its mandate and hand it over to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Its leaders managed to produce a mockery of a government in which they are allied with the “ethnic Turkish” party (the Movement for Rights and Liberties – MRL) and have the tacit approval of the far-right party “Ataka.”

The political right and left in Bulgaria are currently scrambling over the demonstrations which have persisted for more than two weeks.

The fact that the MRL is in the same boat with the ultra-nationalists is the least ridiculous aspect of this government. Its fragility was clear from the beginning and quickly reached its low-point with the appointment of Delyan Peevski (an MRL member) as the head of the State Agency for National Security (known as DANS, which gave the rise of the protests’ use  of the hashtag  #DANSwithme). Peevski, whose mother controls a prominent media conglomerate, has had numerous allegations of corruption levelled against him.

The protests that followed were predictable. But what was even more predictable was the attempt of both the ruling coalition and opposition political forces to divide and take advantage of public discontent. The current political polarisation in Bulgaria serves one purpose only: to erase from the mind of the discontent citizen the fact that the current crisis in the country is the product of the failure of the entirety of the political elite, and not just one party. It aims to convince him that there is still a political party saviour waiting around the corner. However, there is one current within the protest wave that can resist these attempts and see through the implementation of real and meaningful change in Bulgaria: the children of the transition.

Divide and rule

The political right and left in Bulgaria are currently scrambling over the demonstrations which have persisted for more than two weeks. The left (BSP) claims that the protesters are few in number, only urban and rich (but, at the same time, are being paid to protest), do not represent the general population and threaten the democratic process in Bulgaria. By contrast, the February protests, according to the BSP, supposedly represented the poor and the underprivileged, those who could not pay their monthly bills, suffered from mediocre social provision and were mainly from the countryside.

The right (GERB and the fragmented old Union of Democratic Forces – UDF) is only eager to confirm this imagined division, but they present the current protests as supposedly led by the urban, “educated” and “cultured” elite of the nation which should be the vanguard of change, while the poorer masses listen, become enlightened and obey. At the same time, former UDF leaders are trying to reunite the party which had become increasingly fragmented in the past decade. Brandishing their old fame of having led the opposition against  the communist regime, some of their leaders claim that the majority of protesters want them to lead to country out of the crisis “once again”.

Some foreign media have picked up on these imagined divisions and are informing us that the current protests are supposedly “middle class”. Dear Western journalists, there is no “middle class” in Bulgaria. People with higher education whose salaries run out once they have bought enough food, paid rent and bills are not middle class as much you try to force them into this label for the sake of writing your articles.

The “educated” urban versus the “uneducated” poor and rural are equally ridiculous labels. Thanks to persistent failure of regional development under both right and left governments, the majority of Sofia’s population is from the countryside because there is hardly any work to be found anywhere else. At the same time, thanks to the inability of the political elite to promote economic growth and reform the educational system, being “educated” in Bulgaria does not mean anything. There are plenty of people in my country with higher education who are driving taxis or cleaning hotel rooms.

Anti-government protests held across Bulgaria

Furthermore, being “educated” by far does not mean sympathising with the right, as some politicians and “intellectuals” are trying to maintain. In fact, the well-informed and well-educated citizens should also have good memory and remember the disaster of a privatisation conducted by the 1997-2001 UDF government which destroyed Bulgarian industry and agriculture and boosted oligarchic practices. They should also remember how many former UDF leaders ardently supported Boyko Borisov’s corrupt government as an “alternative to the communists” and kept supporting it up until the February protests that toppled it.

The “socialists”, on the other hand, have claimed the poor and the countryside. I am from a city in the impoverished Northwest, close to the birthplace of our last communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, and it does not take much to see that people there do not have to be paid to hate the communists and their children, who largely make up the Bulgarian Socialist Party today. They remember the early 1990s when there were no electricity bills to be paid in the countryside because they had power cuts daily. They also remember 1994-1997 when the economy collapsed, they lost their jobs and their savings were burned by the skyrocketing inflation and pyramid schemes.

The new generation

While politicians try to manipulate the public and take advantage of the protests for their benefit, there is one player whose intelligence and resilience they are underestimating and which carries the hope that whatever the outcome of the current protest is, the larger movement for change in the Bulgarian society will continue.

This is my generation, the “children of the transition“, which is emerging and struggling against the failure of our parents during the past 20 years of transition. And despite what foreign media is saying, this new generation is not just Sofia’s middle class young professionals who come out after work and go to the square. This generation also includes the hundreds of thousands young emigrants who were forced by lack of opportunities at home to seek employment and education abroad. It also includes all those who stayed behind, maybe managed to get some form of education, but crushed under the weight of family responsibilities and high youth unemployment, did not make it to a fancy office in the centre of Sofia.

We, in this generation, might have different destinies and paths, but we all share an immense creative potential. You can see it in obvious examples such as the numerous social entrepreneurship initiatives in Sofia and the bigger cities.  But you can see it in the creative means of employment that poorer young people pursue in order to earn an income and take care of themselves and their parents whose bodies and souls have been broken by two decades of misery and hopelessness.

Most of all, we share a new drive for change, unmatched by previous generations, which has the potential to bring in fundamental change to Bulgaria, resuscitate this dying country and reinvigorate its politics, society and culture. This generation will not stop with another election and another government, it will not stop until our morally bankrupt political elite learns to listen to us, obey, and concede to our drive for change, social justice, a desire for a competitive, innovation-based economy, mafia-free business environments, feudalism-free institutions and an egalitarian, tolerant society.

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist based in Cairo. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mkpetkova