Under a near-full moon over Sofia, the only placid element on a turbulent July night in the Bulgarian capital city, two armies of the night tested each other – one an amateur force of civilians accustomed only to their many days of the peaceful rituals of protest, the other a blue-uniformed phalanx of police with a busload of beleaguered MPs in their charge.
With no captains to rally them and no line of march planned beforehand, the initial victory in the skirmish went to the anti-government protesters, as they blocked every line of advance and every line of retreat, taking blows but remaining courageous against the slowly advancing leviathan, forcing it back where it came from.
This is how it unfolded, that engagement in a battle that turned into a siege, that at this writing continues, one side having erected makeshift barricades with admirable initiative and speed, the other having dug in behind the walls of the National Assembly, with grim determination.
The night of July 23 2013 was the night of the 40th day of anti-government protests, and the night that the Bulgarian Socialist Party government chose to trot through Parliament its deeply controversial amendments to the Budget of this year, which would commit the country to a billion leva, about 500 million euro, in new debt.
In the rallying ground of the anti-government protesters, the online social networks, the rallying call was not to repeat the marches of the past but to gather to blockade Parliament.
To the anti-government protesters, whose banner holds no place for any political party, it mattered not a whit that Parliament would include in its ranks the former ruling party, which otherwise has been boycotting proceedings in parallel with these long and emotional weeks of protest.
Thousands gathered – how many thousands will remain disputed, as usual, but conservative estimates say 2000, with the real figure probably more than double that – and vowed, so to speak, “they shall not pass”.
When a large white bus emerged bearing MPs, no one asked the party affiliation of those inside. It did not seem to matter to the throng gathered around the sides of Parliament, around the circle over which the imposing pile of Alexander Nevsky cathedral rises. Yes, as the bus appeared, there were cries of “Red rubbish” but more so cries of “resign!”.
And others less printable. As the scrum continued for an hour, the bus inching forward, sometimes lurching forward, as police used their shields and bodies to force protesters out of the way, leaving some on the ground, others injured – including police themselves – a few of the protesters were incoherent with rage.
After all those weeks of the long processions around Sofia, the gatherings to shout exhortations at an empty Cabinet office, to blow whistles and hold aloft flags and posters, the bus caught up in the throng provided a very tangible and very visible focus for the protesters.
Whoever decided to send it out made a terrible error of strategy and tactics.
For the observer on the sidelines, watching the grappling, there was an obvious question – just how far would this government go, not just to cling to power, but to get a busload of MPs home?
As civilians and amateurs, and indeed lacking anything from a colonel to a subaltern, the protesters knew nothing of the folly of dividing their forces. The husky calls ran, they are going this way, they are going that way, and the protesters hurried back and forth, determined to hold the line, as much as the line moved.
When the bus retreated to the back entrance of Parliament, disgorging its load – presumably frightened, certainly in some cases angry – a socialist MP, Anton Kutev, showed Bulgarian National Television a stone that he said had just missed his head – a spontaneous tactic emerged, to blockade every street exit with whatever came to hand.
That list included refuse bins, street bollards, signs, pot plants, paving stones; even an umbrella from a nearby café was dragooned into service.
Yet it was not as if no quarter was given. Police moving back and forth amid the crowd, in twos and threes, went unmolested, barring some of the protesters barracking them with abuse, with others calling them not to.
Oddly, outside the Bulgarian Academy of Science, where refuse bins had been dragged across the yellow cobblestones to form a barrier, some protesters stepped up to throw their refuse into them, a reflection of the ethos of weeks not to leave a mess.
That is not to say that the evening was without its agents provocateur, without those spirited by alcohol. Close the entrance to Parliament, The Sofia Globe was witness to a man stepping up, dumping a bottle of alcohol over a metal refuse bin, and sweeping a cigarette lighter to produce a short-lived forest of flame in the night sky.
It was an image out of kilter with all the carefully-crafted posters, the online witticisms of the protests, an image of sudden drama, an image that suggested that tonight, something had changed.
It was clear something had changed. “There’s blood now,” one protester turned to this reporter to say. I asked another, “is this a turning point?” He looked at me, almost askance, “a turning point has already been passed”.
As 4am approached, the initial victory by the anti-government protesters seemed in danger of being overrun. Resolutely, police drove a wedge among the protesters, splitting them into two groups, seemingly creating a passage to escort their charges out.
Yet, like any battle scene, however much both sides – protesters and police – seemed to be avoiding descending into an out-and-out engagement, there were the flags, the exhortations, the cries, the drums, thumping out their rhythm: “оставка – оставка”.
Whatever the dawn might hold, it was clear that indeed things had changed, but for the final question: who would overcome, between the armies of the day?
(Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer and Alex Bivol)