Bulgaria’s protesters in profile

The “informal leaders” of Bulgaria’s nationwide protests are a motley lot with diverse backgrounds, including Russophiles, self-proclaimed consumer rights activists, anti-smoking ban campaigners and a LGBT rights advocate – and no mistake should be made that most emerged recently, unaccustomed to public speaking.

No mistake should be made, either, that there is a single unified leadership of the protest; on the contrary, in some cases mutual animosity and dissension are the order of the day. Some leaders do not recognise others as leaders and at least one “organiser” balks at being called that.

The current protests are the largest in many years, but also represent a culmination of previous protests in Bulgaria. In some respects, the current protests invoke traditions established in Bulgaria’s protests in 1990 and in 1996/97. But in comparison with the latter, there is at least one notable difference – the absence of a mobilised student body, as such. Another is the role of social networks, not only for mobilisation, but also for propagating conspiracy theories about what these protests are really about and who is really behind them.

Layer on layer
Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev’s March 1 “public council” meeting of invited representatives of the protesters, business and trade union groups and NGOs was a flop, but it did provide the only list so far of “recognised” protest leaders. In turn, this list was criticised by protesters who said the leaders named did not represent them.

The names on the “public council” meeting list included several that have seen the light of day before, in a different context.

Angel Slavchev, Mariana Hristova, Yanko Andreev and Svetlin Tachev all were involved with the anti-shale gas protests in 2012 that led to Boiko Borissov’s ruling party GERB voting a moratorium on exploring for and extracting shale gas – a move that, leaving aside the highly emotional debate on the ecological aspects of shale gas, was seen as a victory for Russia that would prefer to maintain its overwhelming predominance of the supply of natural gas to Bulgaria.

Another of the protesters, Doncho Dudev, formerly was in the Sofia chapter of an extra-parliamentary minority party, Nova Sila. Led by a former Ataka member, Anton Sirakov, Nova Sila’s website sets out its positions on a number of issues. It stands for the completion of the Russian-linked Belene nuclear power station project, has declared its support for Russian president Vladimir Putin, has hit out at Shalom leader Maxim Benevisti after he was quoted as saying that anti-Semitism in Bulgaria was a Russian import, and backed the protests against shale gas. In 2011, Nova Sila endorsed the presidential bid of Alexei Petrov, the former secret service consultant currently on trial of charges of involvement in serious organised crime.

Slavchev, who along with Dudev and Yanko Petrov walked out of Plevneliev’s March 1 meeting objecting to the presence of “oligarchs” alone has an interesting history, having packed quite a bit of activism into the adult part of his 31 years.

Slavchev is a former member of the Bulgarian Left party – he has rejected as untrue media reports claiming that he was a member of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party’s youth wing, and he left the Bulgarian Left party in 2012; in 2011, he had been on the list of the party’s candidate municipal councillors in the local elections that year. He was a member of a Russophile association, which he told journalists he joined because of Russia’s long-standing solidarity with Bulgaria and because he was an Orthodox Christian, although he insisted that he always would put Bulgaria’s national interests first.

In 2009, he took part in public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television’s week Referendum debate show, against foreign military bases in Bulgaria (a Nato member, Bulgaria has a shared military bases agreement with the United States). After the Soviet Army Monument in Sofia was redecorated by anonymous artists, Slavchev was photographed cleaning it, and Slavchev also appears in a YouTube video speaking at a counter-protest to a protest demanding the dismantling of the monument.

Slavchev has alleged that some of the provocateurs of violent incidents during the protests were paid and has alleged that some of the protest organisers have received death threats. (When media reports and social networks alleged that football “ultras”-for-hire were seeking to provoke violence during the protests, the Bulgarian Football Union and major football clubs issued a statement voicing support for the protests but insisting that it was wrong to allege that football fans were involved in any malicious way.)

While online Slavchev previously called for the resignation and criminal prosecution of Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, Petrov’s list is longer – he said that Borissov, former president and former socialist party leader Georgi Purvanov and Movement for Rights and Freedoms honorary president Ahmed Dogan should all be in jail.

Slavchev, Petrov and Dudev deny having political ambitions; Dudev has said he left Nova Sila in 2012 because it was becoming just another political party.

Meanwhile, at least one of the protest organisers appears to have no previous background in public life – Lyudmila Manova, of Blagoevrad, unemployed for several years but now projected to the foreground by events. But Manova appears to be an exception.

One of the more bizarre incidents in the saga so far of the protests was when Borissov, before he led his government into resignation, appeared with Daniela Pelovska, presented as a leader of the protests.

For her appearance with Borissov, Pelovska (who is seen in a YouTube clip on a platform with Kristian Koev – of whom more later on – although the video does not show them speaking to each other) was denounced by Petrov and by Yanaki Ganchev. After allegations were made that Pelovska had connections to GERB, she largely disappeared from the public scene. But the infighting did not.

Ganchev, most recently in the headlines for the tent put up in the park near Parliament on March 4, has decried Slavchev, Petrov and Dudev as attempting to “ride” the protest on behalf of the Bulgarian Socialist Party – to which Slavchev responded by jeering at Ganchev as a nobody whose claims to be a “logistical organiser” of the protests were untrue and whose “Eagle Bridge” civic movement was phony.

The tent itself is a symbol in Bulgarian protest traditions. In 1990, a tent encampment dubbed the “City of Truth” was erected in central Sofia by protesters against the rump of the communist regime.

Ganchev himself is no stranger to headlines, on topics from the role of social networks in spreading information during the May 2012 earthquake to his campaign against mobile phone networks.

He has said that he was involved in the anti-ACTA protests as an organiser (whether Petrov also was involved in the anti-ACTA protests is unclear, though media reports of the time quote someone of the same name speaking on the topic).

Ganchev also appeared in the media ahead of the November 5 2012 protest in Sofia. This protest, linked in social networks to the Anonymous movement, had the theme of “Rebellion for a new Bulgaria” (the phrasing used on the side of the tent outside Parliament in March 2013) and was dominated by calls for the resignation of Borissov and the GERB government. The protest, which drew several thousand people, saw arrests after incidents, including one in which a paving stone was thrown, breaking a window in Parliament.

Before the November 5 protest, Ganchev told reporters, “we are talking about a permanent entry into protest mode. Following this protest on Monday (November 5), Bulgaria will not be the same”.

In the months before the protest, Ganchev was known best as the chairman of the Association of Telecommunication and Internet Users. It was in that capacity that he commented, after the May 2013 earthquake, on people in Bulgaria preferring to get their information from Facebook rather than the Bulgarian-language media: “Facebook is precious because there is no censorship there”. Social media provided information that appeared nowhere else, Ganchev was quoted as saying.

Ganchev also was the subject of a finding in the Czech Arbitration Court in 2011 after mobile phone service provider MobilTel filed a complaint against him, for registering the domain name mtelbg.eu. MTel based its complaint on a number of grounds, including being the owner of MTel trademarks and saying the domain name then being used by Ganchev was misleading. At the time of the complaint, the site – according to court records – included the statement that it was “a virtual reception room for complaints regarding consumer rights violated by Mobiltel EAD”.

The panel, having considered MTel’s lengthy complaint, said that it had offered Ganchev and his association the opportunity to respond, but there had been no response. The panel, on the basis of EU law, found for MTel and ordered that the domain name “be revoked and transferred to the complainant”.

Barring further developments in the days to come, eyes will be on Ganchev up to March 9, the date he announced as set aside for a national conference of protest organisers at Sofia’s Arena Armeec stadium. On March 4, Bulgarian-language media established that no such booking had been made, adding that such a booking would cost 15 000 leva (about 7500 euro).

“People can’t pay their electricity bills but can fork out 15 000 leva to book Arena Armeec?” was just one forum comment.

Other voices
A trinity much seen at one of the first “round table” meetings at a Sofia hotel was that of Andrei Slabakov, Kristian “The Golden Flute” Koev and Desislava “The Soldier” Petrova.

A name that is well-remembered from the 1990 protests against the grip of the Bulgarian Communist Party is that of Petar Slabakov, film director and subsequently member of the Grand National Assembly that brought constitutional change to Bulgaria. His son, Andrei Slabakov, also a film and theatre director, appears determined to make his own mark on protest legend.

Andrei Slabakov insists that he should not be called an organiser of the current protests. An appearance by him on a special panel debate live on BNT was remarkably short after the moderator introduced him as such. Slabakov made a shouty exit from the studio.

Apart from his other appearances, including participation some time ago in a reality television show, Slabakov was at the forefront of 2012 protests against that June’s law forbidding smoking in enclosed public spaces such as restaurants and bars. He was photographed wearing a yellow Star of David, altered so that the word пушач (“smoker”) was imposed on it, his dedication to his personal cause apparently overriding the profound offence likely to be taken in many circles by anyone seen as trivialising the Holocaust.

In the current protests, Slabakov’s other notable live television appearance was after he escorted to hospital someone who had been injured in the February 19 clash between protesters and police in Sofia. But he was not present at the second in the series of “round tables” at a Sofia hotel, reportedly having taken offence at the attitude towards him after the first.

Koev, a flautist of great skill and note, inherited his “Golden Flute” title from his teacher, Severino Gazzelloni. A magnet for television cameras because of his flamboyant style of dress, Koev – holder of dual Bulgarian and Italian nationality – has long also been photogenic for the fact of his trademark flute, Japanese-made, is fashioned from 14-carat gold. He shares with Slabakov membership of the Free Choice movement, initially founded around the smoking law issue and which reportedly, ahead of the February start of the electricity price protests, aimed for seats in Parliament in the 2013 elections.

At the second roundtable in Sofia, Koev was quoted as saying that the protesters wanted the current Parliament to remain in session to approve amendments to the Electoral Code so that ordinary Bulgarians, from outside political parties, could be elected to the National Assembly.

Petrova’s name similarly is not unknown. A long-standing campaigner for LGBT rights, she was involved with the BGO Gemini organisation and is involved with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. At the round tables, Petrova has been seen trying to keep order amid the chaos, especially at the second one, which ended inconclusively amid shouting matches in the overcrowded room.

Perhaps predictably, given the dissension within the motley array of the protesters, the three have been the subject of sniping in Bulgarian-language forums. As by now should be clear, such sniping is part of the story and given the general anonymity of such comments, it is not known where they come from, though there have been exceptions. Local media quoted Manova as saying that “various actors, musicians and so on should not try to ride the civil wave, should not conjure up illusions. They have no right to make demands on the backs of the people”. Slabakov and Koev both hit back, with Koev reportedly saying, “whoever tries to divide the protests is an agent provocateur”.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.