Bulgaria’s government says that complaints from motorists are pouring in about protests against “high fuel prices” blocking motorways and major roads, while opposition parties are insisting that while they support the protests, they are not the organisers of them.
The protests were expected to proceed in various parts of Bulgaria on November 14, though it was not clear where. The day before, there were protests and road blockages in Varna, Plovdiv, Dobrich, Haskovo and Pernik. In some places in recent days, the road obstructions have left other motorists waiting for hours.
Participants in the protests, which first had a large-scale disruptive effect on traffic on November 11, told reporters they were protesting against fuel prices, and wanted a higher standard of living and reform of the way that Bulgaria is run. Prominent figures in the protests have been demanding the resignation of the government.
Bulgaria’s government has responded by saying that it has nothing to do with deciding fuel prices, which are shaped by world oil prices. It sees the protest as an attempt to destabilise the country and force early elections.
Critical observers in the Bulgarian media and among political commentators have likened the protests to those of February 2013. Those protests, five years ago, were mobilised around high electricity bills as winter headed to a close. After an incident of violence in Sofia, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, then heading his first of three governments, resigned, precipitating early elections.
The current “high fuel price” protests are open-ended. Coming days are scheduled to see “national protests” on November 18 and 19. Bulgarian media reports said that the organisers of the November 18 protests appeared to be the same as those behind 2013 protests that backed the “Oresharski” government, which was the target of widely-supported public protests after the appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski to head the State Agency for National Security.
On November 14, Mladen Marinov, the recently-appointed Interior Minister in Borissov’s third government, said that there were people involved in the protests who were seeking to provoke confrontation.
So far, the “fuel price” protests have been largely peaceful and there have been no significant clashes, beyond the tensions with frustrated motorists and when police have sought to open thoroughfares to allow traffic to pass.
On November 13, Kornelia Ninova, leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), denied that the party was organising the protests but said that it backed them. She said that the BSP would put the demands of the protesters to Parliament, through tabling legislation.
“This is a protest against inequality, because with all the policies conducted here (in Parliament), it is not solved but deepened,” said Ninova, whose party recently failed in its third attempt to win a motion of no confidence in the government in the National Assembly.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the fourth-largest party in the current Parliament and which was in the “Oresharski” coalition government of 2013/14, said that it was not participating in the organisation of the protests.
The fuel protests are currently running in parallel with another of several weeks, the latter demanding the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, of minority coalition partner the United Patriots, over his offensive comments about protesting mothers of children with disabilities.
The MRF said that it wanted Simeonov to resign, and supported some of the demands of the protests, but was not organising them.
Ekaterina Zaharieva, Foreign Minister and a deputy prime minister from Borissov’s GERB party, said on November 14 that the government intended serving its full four-year term.
“Indeed, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including through protest, but let us not provoke the situation and not break the law by blocking the main roads,” Zaharieva said.
“We are constantly receiving calls from extremely dissatisfied citizens who are waiting for hours to get home,” she said.
But Zaharieva did not see an analogy with the February 2013 protests. She said that the protests five years ago were “spontaneously triggered” after which there were instigations to violence by provocateurs and “guerrillas”. Currently, law enforcement was doing it best to not allow matters to get violent.
“Our call is for (the protesters) to express their civic position, but in doing so, not interfering with the other rights of Bulgarian citizens,” Zaharieva said.
On November 14, Ombudsman Maya Manolova said that one of the reasons for the fuel price protests was the lack of an adequate response by the state, which is responsible for passing legislation that enables a free competitive market for goods and services, and enforcing this.
Manolova said that while it was true that fuel prices in Bulgaria undoubtedly were “affected” by global prices, given that Bulgaria has the lowest excise duty in Europe, cheap electricity and labour, the end prices of fuels are not the lowest in Europe.
Manolova, in a statement, put six questions to the government. These included whether the regulation of the sector also protects the interests of citizens; does not create sufficient competitive conditions for fuel imports; whether there is a monopoly over the management of tax warehouses; the legislative framework and practices create opportunities for cheaper imports of petrol and diesel fuels or whether they obstruct them; the VAT on fuels can be reduced; and what steps have been taken in connection with the recommendations of the Commission for the Protection of Competition to improve the market environment, which includes setting up state tax warehouses.
Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC) said on November 6 that it was starting a sector analysis of the petrol and diesel fuel market, its third in seven years, to ascertain whether recent price hikes were due entirely to market reasons.
The CPC followed this up on November 14 by saying that in parallel with this analysis, it was also checking whether there had been compliance with commitments undertaken in March 2017 by large companies not to exchange information and to fire staff who do not respect the requirement of confidentiality of commercial information.
Contacts between employees of the different companies are forbidden, as is discussing commercial information within the Bulgarian Petroleum and Gas Association. However, the CPC said that it had been receiving information about violations of these undertakings by individuals and legal entities.
The CPC said that the firms covered by the check-up it announced on November 14 were Lukoil Bulgaria, Eko Bulgaria, Shell Bulgaria, OMV Bulgaria, NIS Petrol Ltd and Petrol Ltd.