Weaving amid the buses that crowded almost every square metre of the cobblestones outside Alexander Nevski cathedral on the day of the Bulgarian Socialist Party-Movement for Rights and Freedoms pro-government rally, it was striking how much a passerby heard Turkish spoken.
Striking, but hardly surprising. The MRF dedicated serious resources to bring people to Sofia from its strongholds, including on two trains from the coast and on a phalanx of buses.
Given that the MRF is generally led and supported by Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity, it was hardly suprising to hear so much Turkish spoken in the centre of Sofia, that overcast day of November 16.
Those thousands who came along for a day in the city got food and drink en route, although the BSP and MRF insisted to reporters that the bussed-in crowds had not got cash payments.
The crowd, in return, got its exhortations from the stage and along its route of march, being told what to chant and when: “Победа“, „Подкрепа“ and “Оре-шар-ски“ – victory, support and the name of the person who occupies the prime minister’s chair in the current government. The marshalled chanting was somewhat in contrast with the spontaneity of the days and nights of the anti-government protests (оставка) but rather reminiscent of the February protests that brought down the centre-right government of the time.
In return for its decisive role in bringing thousands to Sofia, the MRF got a landmark gesture from the BSP.
Sergei Stanishev issued a formal apology for the renaming process of the 1980s by which Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity had Bulgarian names – meaning Slavonic and Christian – “restored” to them. This restoration was accompanied by gross abuses of human rights of those who resisted, went as far as defacing and replacement of Turkish names on headstones, and led to the exodus from Bulgarian into Turkey that created an exile community from which the MRF continues to draw a significant part of its electorate.
Of course, what on the face of it is a political due paid, not only a belated apology on behalf of the BSP predecessor the Bulgarian Communist Party but also a sweetie for a political common-law spouse, may just have been a gesture to the tolerance and love about which MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan spoke at the podium.
After all, the theme of the pro-government rally was “yes to freedom, no to hatred”. (Apparently, in the view of the ruling axis, they represent the former and the anti-government protesters the latter. Maybe they have seen the posters reading, “I am not paid, I hate you for free”. Or maybe it is more dire than that, with Stanishev saying that democracy in Bulgaria was under threat, again referring to the anti-government protesters).
Oresharski, given his chance at the microphone, said that the government would continue to “show tolerance and to work for the good future of Bulgaria, irrespective of what this costs in personal terms”.
This tolerance, presumably, does not extend to people on the public payroll who take part in the protests that have continued for five months to demand the resignation of the government, fresh parliamentary elections and profound reforms to the political system.
The previous day, November 15, Oresharski had told local radio station Darik that state officials “who are known to work against the government” would be relieved of duty.
“We can’t allow the administration to be politicised,” said Oresharski, causing uproar on social networks as people commented that depriving Bulgarian citizens of the right to protest in peaceful assembly was unlawful, unconstitutional and against the law and spirit of the European Union of which Bulgaria is a member.
On November 16, Oresharski told the crowd, “strength lies in unity. I have faith that we will find a way and will not get lost in the fog”.
Surely he was not referring to the hired buses that departed from their parking places outside Alexander Nevsky cathedral and other points in the centre of the city, taking people home from their day’s outing to the city. By late afternoon, where there had been buses and excited crowds, there was only litter on the cobblestones – plastic bags, water bottles and here and there, some torn and trampled little Bulgarian flags.
(Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)