Bulgaria’s days of protest on a crusade for genuine change

“Failed you have”. The protest poster depicting Yoda of Star Wars is ironic but these short words represent the reverse against which Bulgarians are protesting, their mood accusatory, condemning. That condemnation is rooted in the failure of Bulgaria’s politicians to persuade the public that they are acting with the interest of the public in mind, not just with their own.

For 26 days now, this has brought tens of thousands of people on to the streets in protest. Unlike Greece and Portugal, where protests were directed in cutbacks to the incomes of public employees or pensioners, in Bulgaria the demand is for integrity, both political and personal.

This season of discontent has sparked marches of hundreds of thousands on the streets of Egypt, Turkey and Russia. The marches have been rallied by relatively small but vocal groups who voice their rejection of  “majoritarianism”, in the sense of the one-dimensional understanding of democracy where the strength of the winner is measured by his ability to disregard the ambitions or ideas of those who lost. Legitimacy in today’s world of social media and the demands for continuing public participation in political decision-making, is no longer solely predetermined by a one-off popular vote. The isolation of Egypt’s Morsi is the most recent proof of this.

The principle is operating in Bulgaria too, where a poll has shown support for the current government at a scant 14 per cent while 85 per cent of respondents backed the anti-government protests.

With a Parliament representing 45 per cent of Bulgarian voters and the ruling coalition of the Socialists (BSP) and the Turkish minority party (MRF) holding precisely half of the 240 seats, the government in Sofia cannot claim to have been voted in by even a quarter of the electorate. It was, however, not an array of number but the government’s insistence on appointing representatives of oligarchic groups that ignited the fire of protest. Bulgarians are among the poorest people in the EU but it was not material need that drove them out this time. It was the arrogance of those in power: hence the most popular slogan of the protest, “Shame on you” (#zasrametese).

After the May 12 election, a coalition was formed between the second and the third-largest parties in Parliament, the BSP and MRF. With the votes of these two parties, plus a crucial vote from the nationalist populist party Ataka to provide a quorum, a government was put in place that was billed by its alchemists as “expert”. A brittle political situation, against the background of the February protests mobilised around cost-of-living, called for a cabinet with a high degree of political accountability and clear political representation, but from the first day it has been impossible to see this in the “programme government” of Mr. Oresharski. In turn, appointing figures whom most people see as symbolising the merger between oligarchy, media monopolies and politics such as Mr. Peevski fuelled doubts about the real agenda of those behind the government.

The addition of Ataka to this formula in Parliament, and the aggressive public behaviour of its leader Volen Siderov, have added to the anti-aesthetics of the current crisis. The protesters, however, have chosen to react with irony, or even determinedly not to react at all (#ignorevolen), thus seeking to prevent the muddying of the public debate, the mixing of radical anti-minorities slogans (‘dirty Turks’) with left-populist demands (quintupling the minimum salary). This is a quest for the protesters, to prevent a dissipation of energy, to focus on what matters – disentangling from the politics of the public domain the screened-off networks, whether they be based on economic interests or the web of old State Security connections.

Make no mistake, the spiritual soul of the protest is a yearning for the cleansing of the system, not for purging one party for the sake of another – however visceral the profound rejection by the protesters of those currently hanging on grimly to power. For all the allegations hurled by those in office, that Boiko Borissov’s GERB is manoeuvring off-stage, with cash and fronting on social networks, to return to power, the only truth is that off-stage is precisely where GERB is – now it is neither of the street and nor, for as long as its boycott of proceedings holds, is it of Parliament. Could it be that finally Bulgarians are demanding salvation without a personified saviour?

Although, unlike in Greece, Bulgaria’s protesters are strongly pro-European (#Bulgariaineurope), they have raised no banners for the EU stereotypical diagnosis or remedy to the problems in this country. Fighting corruption ot the organised crime or reforming the judiciary is important, they say, but the real goal now is political. It is about carving deep red lines beyond which elites cannot transgress against the interests of society.

In almost every place where there have been protests in recent months, the middle class has been confronted with the necessity to constantly adapt to the crisis, to be more inventive, to cope with fewer resources. In counterpoint, the political class seems to have been more inventive in blocking change, to preserve the status quo. This tension has now come to the forefront as society demands that politics adopts its agenda. In Bulgaria, which faces a chronic brain-drain problem, the demand for adaptation coined the slogan: “They want to send us out [of the country] but now we will oust them”.

The immediate resignation of the government and elections in the early autumn seems to be the most logical solution to the Bulgarian crisis, after Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev made a call on July 5 for new elections. And while to some this might seem to promise only prolonged instability, it is also a chance for a radical renewal. Such an outcome would be proof that the transition has not failed but has spawned a viable civil society that can correct the inadequacies of the system. It took Germany 23 years, from 1945 till 1968, to face its totalitarian past and to arrive at the end of the bumpy road of transition. Perhaps, after these past 23 years, Bulgaria has arrived at the end of the journey towards deeper democracy.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)




Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.