No clashes marred the various protests in Sofia on November 20 – a day when no fewer than five separate rallies were held in the Bulgarian capital city amid heightened police presence.
At their worst, rival groups of protesters exchanged verbal attacks over the heads of police lines that kept them separated. In total, several hundred police officers had been dispatched all over central Sofia to keep the peace, reports said.
Several protests had been announced a day earlier, but the first to make an appearance outside Parliament in the morning – unexpectedly so – were a group of about 100 government supporters who briefly formed a human chain outside the metal barriers erected in front of Parliament.
The group, mainly men wearing hoodies, assembled near Parliament at about 9am and shouted their support for the embattled government of Plamen Oresharski and the ruling axis in the legislature. About 20 minutes later, they left, most of them refusing to answer any questions from the media.
Their place in front of Parliament was taken later by anti-government protesters, including a great number of students. At about noon, they moved back to make place for the rally organised by the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB), one of the country’s two major trade union blocs.
Some anti-government protesters, speaking to the assembled media, said that they opposed the CITUB rally – said to be numbering up to 6000 people – because the trade union has refused to join the calls for the resignation of the Oresharski cabinet and snap elections.
From a makeshift stage, CITUB leaders demanded changes to the 2014 Budget bill (passed by Parliament at first reading last week), including more social spending and a freeze on pension reform (the ruling axis has already said it would not go ahead with raising the retirement age). However, their voices would occasionally be drowned out by the chants of “Ostavka!” (meaning “resignation”) from several hundred anti-government protesters stationed behind the CITUB rally.
One splinter group of anti-government protesters made an attempt to go around the Parliament enclosures, but was repeatedly blocked by police lines, which led to a long traffic disruption on Dondukov Boulevard. But despite heated exchanges with the police, there were no reports of violence erupting during the encircling manoeuvre.
Lost in the excitement of the other rallies was the protest by taxi drivers – somewhat off the Parliament building, near the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. About 30 taxis were parked in the area, with some reports claiming that police prevented taxi drivers from other cities from joining. According to private broadcaster bTV, the large taxi firms in Sofia did not back the protest.
The drivers demanded to meet Transport Minister Danail Papazov to demand changes to rules and regulations governing the industry, including the proposed changes that will tighten up the current regulations. Instead, they had to settle for Traffic Administration Agency director Dimitar Ganev, who said that some of the industry’s demands – including allowing taxis use of the bus lane and lifting the age of cars restriction on taxis – were already being discussed by the Transport Ministry.
In the afternoon, after the end of the CITUB rally, anti-government protesters staged several performances – in one, a couple dozen protesters dressed in paper “uniforms” and holding cardboard gun-shaped cut-outs “assaulted” Parliament; in another, several dozen people held up blank cardboard squares aloft (presumably to signify the wall between Parliament and the rest of the country), which were later set on fire.
Meanwhile, inside Parliament, most MPs from the ruling coalition interviewed by the media showed no signs of being bothered by the protests, some of them saying that they had become accustomed to the din.
The fifth rally met outside the Presidency’s building in the afternoon, right before the special sitting of the Consultative Council on National Security, called by head of state President Rossen Plevneliev for 2pm. The meeting was called to discuss the “current risks and threats to the national security of the Republic of Bulgaria” and was expected to focus on the impact of the growing number of refugees in the country.
This rally was headlined by TV host-turned-politician Nikolai Barekov, who demanded a day earlier that he was allowed to attend the consultative council because some public opinion polls put his “Bulgaria without Censorship” movement above the Parliamentary representation threshold of four per cent if elections were to be held now.
The Presidency denied Barekov’s demand, saying that the council’s meetings are held behind closed doors, with the law stipulating very clearly who can attend the meetings.
Barekov’s supporters, numbering in the hundreds, had intended to prevent some of the leaders of the parliamentary parties from attending the council’s meeting, but were never given the opportunity to do so because the police kept the rally far from the entrances to the Presidency.
At one point, this rally and groups of anti-government protesters were only separated by a police line and insults were hurled between the two crowds, although neither side made an attempt to initiate a clash.
(Photos: Joana Levieva-Sawyer)