Vassil Levski Boulevard in central Sofia is lined with hired buses, and on the boulevard’s pavements, clusters of youths, clad in black t-shirts, with close-cropped hair.
They are the hired claque, brought in from other parts of Bulgaria to bolster – or simply just provide, from nothing – the numbers for pro-Kremlin Vuzrazhdane’s rally against Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s government, the fate of which is to be decided in the next couple of hours on this sweltering June 22 afternoon.
The youths, young men in their 20s, some in their late teens, exude a coiled aggression. The lanky foreign journalist, in his 60s and in no condition for a tussle, cedes possession of the pavement to them. In beige slacks, pink shirt and panama hat, he looks quite out of place amid that beefy, boisterous gaggle.
Amid the leafy shade of the trees in the garden adjoining the National Assembly building, a half a dozen police are filtering those heading in the direction of the legislature.
“I am going to the event,” the journalist tells the policeman who half-extends an arm to bar his way.
“At the hotel?” says the policeman, gesturing towards the five-star pile in front of which the pro-government throng is already massing.
“No, the protest,” replies the journalist.
“For or against the government?” asks the policeman.
“For,” the reporter replies. “Though actually, I’m a journalist. Neither for nor against”.
The policeman smiles, and drops his arm. “I wish you success,” he grins. “By the way, you speak Bulgarian really well.”
“Thank you,” says the hack. “I wish you success too”.
It is about an hour and 10 minutes before the vote that will decide whether Petkov’s government will stand or fall. On the yellow paving stones in front of Parliament, the mood is upbeat, however uncertain the outcome of that vote, however oppressive the summer’s heat.
There are posters, sharply satirising the opposition groups that have ganged up to bring down Petkov’s reformist government. Bulgarian and EU flags. A Nato flag. A Ukrainian flag. Some gravitate to the space between the Tsar Liberator monument and the stern array of barriers and police separating the crowd from the Parliament building. Others seek the shade thrown by the buildings surrounding the square.
Every age group is here. Those older, veterans of many protests, those of the 1990s against the economically crippling socialist administration of the time, those against the “Oresharski” administration in 2013-2014, those who have turned out time and time again in support of the quest for genuine judicial reform in Bulgaria.
The genuine judicial reform that the Petkov administration has made a keynote of its policies, and which it sees as a core reason why the opposition political forces are now ranged against it.
Over the PA based on the monument’s plinth, an interview with Petkov is played, succeeded by heavy rock music. Several of the participants arrive pushing their bicycles. This is a crowd that arrived on foot, by bicycle, by the metro. This is not the smaller crowd that the reporter observed earlier, bused in from Kyustendil, from Pazardzhik, from wherever, for their day in the big city and the chance to rejoice in hating someone.
There are pep talks, from Cabinet ministers and parliamentary leaders from the Kiril Petkov-Assen Vassilev We Continue the Change party. This vote is not about supporting the WCC party, the crowd is told. This vote, in that building (gesturing) is about whether Bulgaria continues on its European path, or continues to be in thrall to the “mafia”.
Enthusiastically, the crowd joins in the chant: “Mafia out”. Whistles sound, as they did in the heady days of June 2013 after Delyan Peevski was, briefly but scandalously, made head of the State Agency for National Security. Vuvuzelas, South Africa’s discordant gift to the outside world, are blown. There are chants of “together” and победа – victory.
Minutes after 7.10pm, and the start of the proceedings in Parliament, the PA switches to a broadcast of what is transpiring in the House.
The result is in.
There are 123 votes in favour of the motion of no confidence in the government, and 116 against.
A booing, groan of rejection rolls across the congested square. There is outrage, but not surprise. Petkov’s task to recruit enough MPs from other benches to keep his government in place always was going to be the work of a latter-day Sisyphus.
Not everyone in the crowd is fatalistic, or perturbed by the prospect of political doom. There is a middle-aged woman, wiping away the tears streaming from her eyes. She had been holding a Ukrainian flag.
At 7.45pm, by the reporter’s watch, Cabinet ministers and MPs from the parliamentary groups of the (technically now-former) ruling coalition emerge together on the steps of the National Assembly, to a rapturous welcome.
Various of the leading figures from the ousted ruling coalition make their way to the plinth, to address the many thousands: Assen Vassilev, Nikola Minchev, finally, Petkov.
They have one message: That this is just a battle in a longer war, or as Vassilev puts it, this was just Episode One.
“The Cabinet that we will come up with will be a Cabinet to oust the mafia,” said Vassilev, who co-leads the party that, by right of still being Parliament’s largest, will get the first chance to seek to form a new government within the framework of the current National Assembly.
“This vote is a small step towards the long road to winning back the country, you are the guarantee that this country will look different after the next elections,” Petkov says.
Petkov’s defiant, much-applauded words are the culmination of the evening, for those who support him and his coalition’s stated cause. The crowd diminishes, as many head to the nearby bars to talk politics and contemplate a future that may hold the risk of forces aligned firmly against everything that Petkov’s government, in office these past six months, has set out to achieve.
The journalist repairs to a park opposite the Military Club. As the summer dusk draws in, there appears Petkov, at the head of a small procession. The crowd from the protest who has gathered at the bar sees him, and flocks hastily to the pavement as he passes by, to cheer and wield their phones for one more photo.
The journalist strolls Vassil Levski Boulevard again, at the close of the evening. The buses are gone, the streets no longer burdened by those close-cropped, dark-clad youths. The purpose, for which they were recruited in the streets, has been served, outside Parliament as well as within it.
Ahead lie the rituals set by the constitution, the attempts to form a new government, and the question whether, like his colleagues, the ageing reporter will find himself, in the autumn, covering yet one more election, the latest in a myriad, and the much, much more important question: What may that election bring Bulgaria?
(All photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer. Main photo: The crowd greets ruling coalition ministers and MPs as they emerge on the National Assembly steps after the vote in which they were defeated)
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