What happened to the protest movements in Romania and Bulgaria?

Protest movements in Bulgaria and Romania have taken different paths to address similar issues.

Romania's protest movement has managed to avoid the infiltration of partisan politics, writes Ciobanu [Reuters]

On June 14, thousands of Bulgarians marked the one-year anniversary of the start of their anti-government protest. In 2013, under the banner Ostavka or resignation, Bulgarians took to the streets for months in a row, calling for a new government.

The government they wanted to bring down was representing an unholy alliance made up of the Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Liberties, a party that supposedly represents the country’s Turkish population, with the tacit approval of the far-right, inherently anti-Turkish, Ataka. The trigger for the public outrage was the appointment of a young media mogul as head of the national security agency.

What brought the Bulgarians to the streets was an overpowering anger at a political class perceived to be corrupt to the bone, serving the interests of oligarchs and mafia groups, and ignoring the needs of the people.

During the winter of 2013, poor Bulgarians had protested against unbearably high electricity bills, and a couple of people set themselves on fire in separate incidents across the country, in acts of protest and desperation.

Romania’s nationwide mobilisation began on September 1, and was sparked by a draft law that was meant to give extraordinary powers to a Canadian corporation wanting to build Europe’s biggest gold mine in the village of Rosia Montana in the country’s west. The legislative proposal gave the state the right to expropriate land in the name of “national interest” at the request of the company and ordered authorities to reissue automatically with any permits overruled by national courts.

The project’s social and environmental costs far exceeded its benefits, and yet politicians across party lines and all mainstream media had been promoting it for 15 years, which to people, was a sure sign of corruption.

Rosia Montana became the symbol of everything that was wrong in the country. Romanians identified with the Rosia Montana’s villagers who had been for years harassed by the state and foreign companies which wanted to destroy their environment in order to make profits.

Innocence lost

In the post-Occupy global context, the Romanian and Bulgarian stories are not new. We have seen the same storyline repeating in many places over the past years: People coming together to take on the corrupted nexus between politics and business which sidelines the needs and the will of the people.

As in other places, Romanians and Bulgarians came out in the streets to express their anger, and in the process stumbled upon a sense of collective empowerment they had thought lost or nonexistent. It was both the outrage at government mismanagement and the ecstasy of coming together for the first time that fuelled such intensive protests.

People & Power – Bulgaria: Wrestled to the Ground

That Romanians and Bulgarians shared an agenda with Americans, Greeks, Spaniards, Turks, Brazilians and others is not surprising. Whatever political systems we nominally live in, power is often sold to capital and citizens are excluded from politics.

What is peculiar in the Eastern European case is that these protests marked the end of popular trust in the post-socialist transition and the Western dream. A quarter-century ago, communist systems in these countries collapsed and a transition to liberalism and the market economy began. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union, the ultimate goal of all post-1989 political projects in these countries. We thought we had it figured out.

Yet in 25 years, it slowly became clear that the Western dream had its demons too. Common goods were sacrificed in the name of a future prosperity that came to only a few, while many remained destitute and marginalised.

While some of those protesting corruption and dysfunctional politics were still seeing them as effects of a communist heritage (in Bulgaria specifically, this message was actively pushed by the centre-right opposition among the protesters), many were ready to admit that they were victims of the new system as well. 

Diverging paths

Romanians and Bulgarians tend to see their societies as passive. Decades of authoritarian regimes during which opposition was brutally stifled meant that a tradition of protest was missing. Civic engagement did not really pick up after 1989, partly because of this history, and partly because people were busy chasing new opportunities, or perhaps because we had managed to persuade ourselves we were inactive by nature.

Over the course of 2013, both Romanians and Bulgarians broke with that tradition with gusto.

Beyond the commonalities described until now, the evolution of the protest movements differed in the two countries.

In a way, Romanians were lucky. The trigger for their protests was a cause that proved less divisive. Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum had promoted the gold mine, and organisers of the protests were very careful to distance the movement from any party.

The Bulgarian pretext for mobilisation – the call for the resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski – backfired in the end. In the beginning of the summer of 2013, it seemed that everyone was in the streets united by this call. Yet after a while, the protests took on a more specific political colour.

People & Power – Europe’s Hidden Shame

Voices blaming “communists” (the Socialist Party was the offspring of the former Bulgarian Communist Party) for all of society’s ills became very vocal. Getting rid of “red trash” and making Bulgaria truly European emerged as the core message. This was the rhetoric of the centre-right parties in opposition. Many stopped participating, feeling unrepresented, and weary of being used in electoral games.

The Bulgarian government, battered and bruised, has nevertheless held on to power. Early elections for this autumn were recently announced, meaning that Oresharski had to resign this summer – but this would have been too late for the protesters to see it as a direct result of their intervention. The thousands celebrating the anniversary in mid-June still called for an immediate resignation, indicative of how much some of the Bulgarians wanted a symbolic victory.

In Romania, circumstances were very different. After a few weeks of protests, Romanians were already getting signals from parliamentarians that the controversial draft project might not pass. A 15-year-old campaign to save Rosia Montana had prepared solid evidence against the project which popular mobilisation brought to the surface. MPs were now afraid to push the law. This sense of victory proved empowering.

Thus the Romanian protest gave birth immediately to a loose civic movement that is active until today. Winning Rosia Montana boosted people’s confidence and they were ready for more. Good guidance from a core of experienced activists helped Uniti Salvam, a Facebook page coordinating the protests, turn into a real community. They had regular meetings and took on new themes, such as fighting fracking, promoting electoral reform, and saving parks. 

Bulgarians, on the other hand, have been much more divided and polarised since fall 2013.

What is unique to Bulgaria though, is that as the protests were winding down last year, an occupation of Sofia university was organised in October, explicitly to challenge the direction of Bulgaria’s post-socialist transition. The students’ actions enjoyed broad sympathy, from Sofia intelligentsia to people from the countryside. The political activation of students could bear fruit in the future.

The Bulgarian and Romanian protests were in a sense a visceral criticism of the transition. In the Bulgarian case, there was a clear political critique voiced by some of the protesters. On the other hand, the Romanian network has been working on spreading progressive politics. At the moment the main challenge they face is linking individual issues (the treat of fracking in Pungesti, for example) to their systemic causes (dysfunctional capitalism, corruption, etc).

Still, a momentous shift has happened in both countries. Citizens have moved back into the public space and politicians are no longer operating in a civic vacuum. Romanians and Bulgarians are readier than ever to ask questions and demand answers from politicians, even if they have to do it in the streets. Figuring out a long-term strategy for real and lasting change is a challenge, and one which they share with many around the world.

Claudia Ciobanu is a freelance reporter based in Warsaw, who contributes to Inter Press Service (ipsnews.net) and OpenDemocracy (opendemocracy.net), among other media. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Claudia_Warsaw.