Bulgaria: The moods of a protest

The public protests in Sofia, these humid days of June 2013, must first and most importantly be characterised as peaceful. But that does not mean that anger is lacking.

From the seasonal rainstorms on Friday night, that belted down and sent participants scurrying for shelter in the very eaves of the Cabinet building that was the focus of their outrage, to the pleasanter summer evening of Sunday, the protests – and their rising numbers, to an official count of 15 000 in Sofia on June 16, by half more than the day before – have been conducted with wry good humour.

But also, determination. And also too, the practices of protest, Bulgarian-style.

Those practices have their own traditions, distant and recent. “Jump if you’re not Red,” and, obligingly and enthusiastically, sneakers and shoes bounce off the yellow cobblestones below, in reminiscence of the anti-communist protests of yore.

And yet. Some of the faces and posters are of much more recent vintage, carrying on from those protests that were mobilised against high electricity prices in the grim chill of the early months of 2013.

The distillery that has prompted these protests of June 2013 has much material for its high-grade concoction. In the way that the potency of the national tipple drips from the metal in which it is heated, this is a product slow but steady in the making.

It is a blend of cynicism and optimism, distilled in these warm days of the early summer. No doubt, there are many on the square who have been here before, perhaps long ago in the early days of transition, certainly more recently in that well-mobilised campaign of the early days of this year.

It is they who have seen the pangs of birth that was the May 2013 elections in Bulgaria produce just one more clone from the same gene pool, the self-seeking politician. It is they who hold the posters reading: “BSP – MRF – GERB – Ataka – out of Parliament!” (one may dwell on the contradictions of those who cry for democracy and when presented with the results of an election that put these four, and them alone, in the 42nd National Assembly, reject the result. But they are not alone).

The Bulgarian-language media, hardly surprisingly, reflect events poorly. But Facebook, the crucible of these protests, does not. People eagerly post photos from the scene, even of their children waving flags and asking, “can we make the bad people go away and take their business outside of Bulgaria?”.

By rote, much of the Bulgarian-language media commits, in internet-speak, a Big Fail. They track the protesters: “they are at Orlov Most”; “the crowd at Parliament has thinned”.  Grey-headed so-called “sociologists” are invited into studios to explain it all, and to unveil what will happen next. They cannot, bar displaying their capacity for converting oxygen into carbon dioxide, a skill not uncommon among mammals but useless in the current context.

It is a protest against Peevski, against the new tripartite coalition – the socialists, the MRF, Ataka – it is a protest against the tawdry figures of the Bulgarian political establishment, it is a protest of despair, and hope.

“Mafia!” they scream, outside the unresponsive sheer cliffs that are the walls of the Council of Ministers building. “Resign!” they chant, perhaps, on these weekend days, with no one to hear them. Or no one willing to listen.

In television studios, dusted down for shine, Sergei Stanishev admits that the handling of the Delyan Peevski affair was a political mistake but sees no reason to resign. Nor does Plamen Oresharski, who in late May, just a few scant weeks ago, was placed in the prime minister’s chair in this administration brought about by a party that ran second in the election.

On the yellow cobblestones, a man is doing a roaring trade in Bulgarian flags and football rattles. Small children blow enthusiastically on plastic whistles, the signal emanating from these thousands that they want the final whistle to be blown on this administration.

Yes, the youngsters with the black, heavy-metal t-shirts are there, as they were in the “anti-monopoly” protests of early 2013, the ones that on one dramatic night produced a single violent clash that prompted the then-prime minister to step down. But from them, there is no sign of aggression, no sign that among their number is concealed the agents provocateur of internet rumour.

The police are out in force, but hardly forceful. They are keeping a watching brief, inscrutable in their body armour, in the confines of their buses and Gendarmerie armoured cars.

The journalists are there too, also in force, including ones off-duty. This one is not, assessing the mood, listening to the chat, later reading the Facebook posts, manoeuvring in the crowd to find the best photographic angle, not jumping but also not Red, just the literary gentleman in the grandstand, observing events.

Online, people are exhorted not to respond to “provocations” but do not have to, because there seem to be none. Emotion, yes. A Facebook favourite is that of the TV7 vehicle strewn with toilet paper, symbolic of this public’s views of a media owned by Peevski’s mother.

Another Facebook favourite is a photograph of a neatly-used refuse bin, an image that is a reproach to the anarchy of earlier in 2013. “We are many, we are strong,” they chant, as did people in the closing months of the winter at the start of this. We are tidier too, more civilised, more determined. But perhaps that is reading too much into it.

Cynicism greets the Sunday announcement by Oresharski that he is to meet representatives of the protesters the following day. Acerbically, a reaction on Facebook demands to know, who at this meeting speaks for me? Who dares to speak for me, without asking?

From the government point of view, as placed by them on the record, these protests are part of a plot by the former ruling party to make the country ungovernable, a heady haven of destabilisation.

Yet it is the same government that acknowledges that the handling of the Peevski affair was a mistake, and that society will now be consulted when a new head is found for the State Agency for National Security.

Amid these crowds, amid the humidity and high emotion, it is strange reflection, as the sunset rays arc on the latest day of protest, that it is precisely the sense of national security – or otherwise – that has brought these thousands here.


(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.