What is happening with the Bulgarian protest movement?

For two months, Bulgarians have protested against a scandal-ridden government which refuses to resign.

Protesters surrounded the new National Assembly building,
Protester gather in the biggest anti-government protest of the past two months in central Sofia on September 2, 2020 [AP/Valentina Petrova]

On September 2, the two-month-long anti-governmental protests in Bulgaria entered the most violent stage to date. For the first time, the police deployed water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray, marking the end of the relatively peaceful phase in protesting that made Bulgaria such an outlier in Europe in this regard.

The following day the embattled government used the clashes as an excuse to stop negotiating its exit from power. As Member of Parliament Toma Bikov from the ruling GERB party put it on September 3, “after [the events of] yesterday, we can no longer discuss the resignation of the government. This would mean resigning after attacks by criminals.”

So what led to these dramatic events and what is next for the Bulgarian protest movement?

Half a year of political scandals

Since the beginning of 2020, a series of localised crises and scandals built up tension in the public sphere and led to an explosive protest wave against GERB’s almost uninterrupted 10-year rule. The winter was marked by a water crisis caused by the drying up of several dams, the most serious of which took place in the town of Pernik, 45km southwest of Sofia. The water shortage happened due to lack of maintenance of vital infrastructure and government leniency towards large industries abusing local water reserves.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s abysmal handling of the situation, which saw doctors resigning due to the lack of protective gear and inadequate emergency measures in place. Then a series of scandals revealed corrupt schemes involving lucrative property along the Black Sea coast. The most notable case was of the Aleppu beach where a landslide cleared the ground for a luxury hotel right on the beach, which the authorities claimed was merely a “fortification wall”. This angered the Bulgarian public, which has been reeling over the reckless overdevelopment of the Black Sea coast for years.

The early summer was also marked by thunderous reshuffling within the ranks of the ruling oligarchy and businessmen close to them, leading to the fall from grace of Vassil Bozhkov, one of the richest gambling, tourism and construction bosses in Bulgaria, followed by a full-blown turf war which spilled over into the public sphere in the shape of leaks.

Candid photographs of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov sleeping in his bedroom next to a drawer packed full of 500-euro bills, gold bars and a gun were leaked to the media. The prime minister did not deny the authenticity of the pictures but claimed the money was planted.

Then, the Anti-Corruption Fund, an NGO documenting and investigating high-level corruption, released a documentary about an insidious scheme for stealing high-profile businesses with the help of the judiciary.

In July 2020, Hristo Ivanov, co-leader of the liberal coalition “Democratic Bulgaria” and judicial reform activist, transformed the intra-elite war into a “civil war” of sorts by disembarking on the illegally enclosed beach, surrounding the seafront mansion of Ahmed Dogan, the honorary leader of the liberal Movement for Rights and Liberties (DPS), which claims to represent the ethnic minorities in Bulgaria but is widely known as one of the most corrupt parties.

Ivanov and his crew were brutally pushed back by security guards who refused to reveal if they work for the National Security Service (NSS), a government agency tasked with providing personal security to senior politicians and state functionaries. The skirmish caused an outcry, augmented by the intervention of the Bulgarian President Rumen Radev who confirmed that the security guards are indeed employees of the NSS and were appointed in violation of their mandate.

The chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, whom the opposition has accused of aiding and abetting corruption by refusing to press charges against politicians and businessmen, reacted immediately by ordering a raid on the presidency, in blatant violation of all constitutionally sanctioned immunity guarantees and separation of powers.

The following day, on July 9, the first mass protest took place in Sofia.

A broad-spectrum protest movement

Despite the liberal views professed by its organisers, the protest attracted people from across the political spectrum, including President Radev’s supporters from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), BSP splinters, the extra-parliamentary and the radical left, not to mention apolitical hipsters, artists and even turbo-folk singers.

This is quite unprecedented given that liberals and the left have always defined themselves in vitriolic mutual opposition to each other, but it seems that GERB and their junior coalition partners from the far right achieved the unachievable – uniting literally everybody against them.

The protests voiced three main demands: the resignation of the ruling coalition and the chief prosecutor, early elections and then judicial reform through constitutional amendments. In a sleight of hand, the governing party changed the order of the demands and in August stunned everybody by declaring they have drafted a new constitution to fulfil the demand for change.

Borisov tied his resignation to the constitutional amendments, explaining that if the party does not manage to collect the signatures of 50 percent of the MPs (or 120 people) by September 2 – the minimum quota required for the Parliament to begin discussing the draft – he will resign.

Notwithstanding the vague promise of resignation, the protesters were infuriated. The constitutional draft was full of mistakes, grammatical as well as technical; it envisioned some worrying changes, perceived as attempts to entrench the governing party’s hold on power, such as reducing the number of MPs. It also removed constitutional guarantees for the equality between men and women replacing them with pro-natalist and “family values” paragraphs.

In two nerve-racking weeks of negotiations, Borisov’s proposal finally gathered 122 signatures by the September 2 deadline, with the help of the populist party of fuel and pharmacy tycoon Veselin Mareshki. The following day it was revealed that a company linked to Mareshki clinched a lucrative 20-year beach concession.

In effect, Borisov’s constitutional exercise aimed at buying him time in power. This infuriated the protesters and on September 2, the largest crowds since the beginning of the crisis gathered in central Sofia.

In the evening, however, some protesters thought to be paid provocateurs, started throwing small fireworks at the police, which eventually provoked a violent response, as officers launched into the crowd, beating people with batons and using tear gas and water cannon. Some 100 people were arrested, many were badly beaten, including at least one journalist who produced his press card but was not spared from the police violence.

The explanations police chiefs later gave about this unheard-of deployment of police force caused an outcry and fuelled conspiracy narratives that the police had let the provocateurs off the hook to have an excuse to attack the protesters.

What happens next?

These events put the habitual understanding of the state as a neutral arbiter to the test. The Bulgarian elite is deeply divided and warring factions wield their power over the state as a weapon against their competitors.

These intra-class clashes sometimes spill over from the “backroom” and reach us via the incessant stream of corruption scandals, leaked photos and recordings, surprise arrests of businessmen who fall out of favour, and even the nationalisation of private businesses. But the violent change of positions within the ruling elite and the elimination of competitors erodes the state.

Despite the boost the liberal coalition of Hristo Ivanov got from the protests, it is unlikely that the party will solve this problem within the narrow legalistic reform framework it proposes (judicial reform and depoliticisation of the general prosecution).

The power of the oligarchy needs to be undercut not only “from above”, ie via more stringent criminal and anti-corruption legislation, but also from “below”, from the foundations. Money is power and the more wealth one accumulates privately, the greater its gravity, warping and bending the public sphere and the political life to the benefit of its owners.

Therefore, their power must be undercut by economic reforms, too, such as the long overdue abolition of the flat tax regime put in place by a BSP-DPS government in 2008, which funnels money from the bottom to the top, concentrating economic power in the hands of a few business circles.

Bulgaria also needs а more robust welfare state that can make working people less dependent on the oligarchs for their livelihood. That is why it is great news that left-wing forces are also part of the protest. However weak their voice still is, it is nonetheless important to keep pushing for “social” solutions to corruption and mafia rule.

The war against corruption must also be a battle over definitions. Without the notion of social justice to supplement the liberal ideas about rule of law and judicial reform, the lofty calls for justice animating the protest stand a lesser chance of resonating with the majority of the Bulgarian population, whose main concern is socioeconomic survival.  

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