A whopping 250+ days of protests in a row demanding the resignation of Plamen Oresharski?s government have gripped Bulgaria since June 14 when the prime minister appointed Delyan Pehevski — a well-known Bulgarian oligarch — for head of the National State Security Agency. The public pressure led to his withdrawal, but Pehevski nonetheless became the summary image of the grotesque that is Bulgarian democracy today: brutal, short-sighted, cynical, oligarchic and shallow.
?If you want to know the truth — ask a child? says an old Bulgarian proverb. The current events in Bulgaria have actually confirmed the validity of this folk wisdom. While the analysts internationally had been scratching their heads trying to figure out the political background of the protests, a 7-years-old boy who came to demonstrate with his parents revealed this ?secret? — in very simple words — to a journalist of the Bulgarian National Television.
– There is no way we can stand it anymore. You can?t live here! We hate to politicians, we hate the parties, we hate the parliament, we hate the thieves, we hate the mafia, we hate the nonsense around us. No money, no jobs, no state really. Poverty and death around us. You can?t live here! — he shouted to the microphone held against this face and proudly waved the miniature Bulgarian flag he had in his hands. This clip recorded in the early fall last year became one of the major hits in the Bulgarian internet.
This short statement, no matter how childish in its form is — in fact — very exhaustive and explanatory. At first glance it appears very confusing, particularly to an external observer. What does one associate Bulgaria with in the West? Cheap tourist destination most of all. But in the political dimension, officially, Bulgaria has a lot of democracy going on — laws, elections, a parliament, a president, EU membership, free will… Look from the outside, and it?s clearly there. The inside of this strange hologram, though, feels completely different, especially if you are a Bulgarian. One little scratch of this liberal-democratic surface and the excrement starts leaking massively.
Pehevski and the rumor around him were obviously just a spark which dragged people out to the streets last summer. Fact is, his nomination and the maneuvers preceding it tell you a lot about the state of affairs in Bulgaria and the extent of alienation of the politicians of which Marx has not even dreamt when defining it. Same goes for their arrogance. It took just five weeks from the early elections in May last year to ruin everything. Literally 40 days after the majority of the voters were no longer represented in Bulgaria?s worse-than-hung parliament.
One quarter of voted candidates did not make the cut to begin with. Then the party with the most votes (30%) announced its MPs will no longer attend the parliamentary sessions and on top of that another 7% of voters saw their party?s leader U-turn on all promises upon entering parliament. 62% altogether. Then came the cherry on the cake. A media mogul and MP with — to put it euphemistically — a shady past, Delyan Pehevski, was appointed chief of Bulgaria?s State Agency for National Security (DANS, ???? in Bulgarian). It all has happened in a terrible rush, without any kind of debate and after re-tailoring the law so that he can be made a suitable candidate. He was nominated, voted, and sworn in, in one afternoon, within a couple of hours. That was too much.
???? (pronounce ?dance?) is kind of like the CIA/NSA only smaller. Yet, much like the NSA, they too can listen in on communications. Imagine what happens when the (top-level access clearance) head of the agency is a politician? Not to get carried away in allegations; some facts. Pehevski is one of the golden children of the transition who accumulated considerable wealth. He was investigated for corruption in 2007, and there is a 2002 photo of him hanging out with Iliya Pavlov — a well-known mafioso (officially a ?businessman?) shot with a sniper rifle a few months later that year. For the record — business people do not get sniped in Bulgaria.
The newly elected politicians thought they will have a long honeymoon as the early parliamentary elections which brought them to power were a fruit of another wave of massive protests in Bulgaria. Therefore they thought things are now going to unfold according to the old school — first you protest, you abolish our political competitors, you vote for us, you go home, you let us do the job the way we want, you don?t object too much as you?re too tired bringing down the previous government. Well, not this time… Or maybe?
Here is how it all started. Long before Pehevski?s nomination. The birth of the current movement is the urban unrest Sofia witnessed in the fall of 2012. It was then that GERB — the then ruling party of Boiko Borisov (karateist and ex-chief of Todor Zhivkov?s security) decided to make another concession to the Bulgarian oligarchy. A law was passed in the parliament allowing ski-tracing in the Vitosha National Park at the expense of terrible destruction of the environment. The people called it ?the present? as it all happened on Borisov?s birthday.
It was met with an immediate reaction. A few individual FaceBook and Twitter calls for action were met with enormous response and within hours from the moment the concession was granted thousands of people (predominantly students) gathered on Orlov Most (Eagle?s bridge, a central place in Sofia, popular for mass gatherings) and occupied the square effectively for weeks in a row and forced the prime minister to withdraw. By the way — the proceedings around this withdrawal tell you a lot. The prime minister instructed the president to put a veto to the law that has just been passed in the parliament upon his own initiative and then the MPs were instructed to vote in favor of the veto thus against the law they had been encouraged to vote for just weeks before. This is how the political decision-taking process functions in the nominally parliamentary republic of Bulgaria.
The next stage came just months later. On the 28th of January 2013 in Blagoevgrad (south-west Bulgaria) against sky-high electricity and hot water bills resulting from monopolism of foreign companies in the sphere. This small and spontaneous demonstration against abnormally high bills subsequently spread — again, based on initiatives in the social networks — to over 30 cities in Bulgaria and ended with the resignation of Boyko Borisov government on 20 February 2013. The initial, purely material cause of the protests soon faded away and the whole business turned into a mass non-partisan movement against the corrupt government and the failed transition and the political system. The events were marked by seven tragic and spectacular self-immolations, spontaneous demonstrations and an extra-strong, nearly anarchistic, sentiment against political parties. As a result of the demonstrations, the centre-right government of Boyko Borisov resigned and a caretaker cabinet led by Marin Raykov was appointed. The demands of protesters, however, were not addressed in the slightest and demonstrations continued throughout the country calling for a change of the political model and nationalisation of strategic economic sectors.
And then the new nightmare came in. A few weeks after the new parliamentary elections in May 2013 another dinosaur — Plamen Oresharski — became the prime minister. But it has not happened just like that. During the campaign there were allegations of fraud and an illegal wiretapping scandal. The day before the election, a printing press in Kostinbrod was raided and 350,000 alleged illegally printed ballots were recovered. The elections resulted in a hung parliament, with no party winning with a majority of seats and voter turnout at its lowest since 1989. Although GERB emerged as the largest party with 97 of the 240 seats. Though Borisov’s party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) won a plurality, it could not form a government. Thus the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) came in and led the government under technocratic PM — Plamen Oresharski. The nominally left-wing government was approved by the 120 members of the BSP and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, a party widely associated with Turkish interests in Bulgaria). The informal member of the ruling coalition however was the extreme right-wing, semi-fascist ATAKA party led by Volen Siderov an outspoken anti-communist, racist and — above all — turkophobic character. Has it not been for the ATAKA?s MPs support — there would have been no Oresharski government. Thus we arrived at probably most grotesque moment in the official Bulgarian politics where we have a left-wing cabinet with a clearly right-wing agenda in a coalition with a solely pro-Turkish and extremely anti-Turkish parties. But, hey, that?s just the beginning. Then the oligarchic rampage really has really began. And immediately provoked reactions.
Initially the demonstrations started as a protest by environmentalists and green activists against the nomination of Kalin Tiholov as Investment Planning Minister. Tiholov has been involved in the controversial “Dyuni-gate” affair, whereby he had invested in a major building project at the Dyuni (“dunes”) nature spot on the Black Sea coast. Due to the protests Tiholov withdrew his candidature. Protests arose for a variety of topics, with most important the restart of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant (a long-lasting very serious, soap-opera-like scandal) and allowing construction in protected areas.
The second series of protests had a far more political scope. These were the protests started on 14 June, as response to the election of Delyan Peevski as a head of the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security. Pehevski, an MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), is also head of Alegro Capital LTD, a big communications company. The decision to elect Pehevski has also been linked to the Corporate Commercial Bank (???), wherein much funding for state development projects is invested. The bank’s largest shareholder has been repeatedly linked in the public sphere to the media holdings of Pehevski and his mother. Pehevski was approved by parliament within an hour of being nominated by the ruling coalition. His surprising election immediately provoked nationwide protests the same evening (10,000 in Sofia alone). Although the election was a surprise for the public later investigations by the newspaper ?Capital? (often regarded as the only serious daily paper in the country) made clear that the appointment was not at all spontaneous, but carefully orchestrated by the oligarchy linked to the BSP and prepared long before the party was able (or maybe ?allowed? fits better here) to form a cabinet. On top of everything in the weeks and days leading up to Pehevski’s election, the parliament had approved major changes in the legal framework of DANS structures, which gave its head unprecedented powers which additionally exacerbated the popular anger. Although Peevski wrote on the 15th of June that he will be withdrawing from the post, the protests stem from general discontent with the government as a whole. Even despite the later government’s decision to reverse the appointment, protests continued, raising new demands, including Oresharski’s resignation. Demonstrations have been noted in the world media mostly for their use of social networks.
The protests were still ongoing weeks after the reversal of Pehevski’s appointment, attracting a steady number of 10,000 to 30,000 people every day without any signs of attenuation. Because of the lack of response from the government, the demonstrators have resorted to other means of expressing their anger over the presumed corruption of the government, including protesting every morning in front of the parliament, as part of the morning initiative to “drink coffee” with the politicians, and blockading different roads at random. Despite demonstrations, the government has largely ignored the protesters and dismissed their claims. This led to widespread frustration which resulted in growing tensions and violence. Things got seriously heated up on the 23rd of July late in the evening. Many people were beaten up by anti-riot police squads brought from other cities to Sofia. On that evening the protesters decided to organize a total blockade around the building of the National Assembly and to — in a way — keep the MPs inside as hostages. More than 100 lawmakers, ministers, and journalists spent the night barricaded inside parliament before police removed them. MPs attempted to leave parliament by boarding a white coach bus and making their way through the crowd. The police tried to clear the way for the bus a few times, but in the end the bus was forced to return around midnight. A police action at around 4 am forcefully cleared the remaining protesters, and the coach left.
After this incident a widespread criticism appeared in the media and things returned to the routine. The politicians were hoping to get rid of the protesters during the summer vacation period, but the innovatory thought of the masses had obviously been underestimated. The protesters organized a special ?political pilgrimage? to the Euxinograd — governmental summer residence and protested there, on the Black Sea coast. Later, soon after the academic year started, many students of the biggest Bulgarian universities took to occupy them demanding the resignation of Oresharski?s cabinet. Again, it was all accompanied by peculiar events in the world of official politics. On 8 October 2013, the Constitutional Court effectively allowed Pehevski to return to parliament after failing to reach a decision on whether to strip him of his MP status. Several hundred people turned out for the 117th day of protests, a slightly higher number than in previous days. There were some violent episodes between protesters and police. On 23 October 2013, students at Sofia University joined the anti-Oresharski government protests and occupied the main lecture hall in protest against the “façade democracy” and asked for “accountability from their professors”, mainly from their history of law professor Dimitar Tokushev, who is also chairman of the Constitutional Court. The student protests and the occupation of university buildings injected new life into a persistent anti-government movement that was into its 140th day on 1 November. The protests still continue and are becoming more and more vivid, though it has to be noted that they have lost a lot of it?s massive impetus from before over 200 days.
The most unfortunate element in the overall picture seems to be the complete lack of any successful perspective. Despite the fact that the most important postulates are clear it does not seem realistic to expect from neither this nor any other — even interim — government to actually realize them. One of the demands is a major change in the Elections code which would pull down the entering-parliament barrier. In the last elections more than 30% of the votes went for parties which are outside the parliament. The overwhelming strength and control of the Bulgarian oligarchy and mafia composed of former secret service officers and ex-sportsmen does not seem to be weakened in the slightest. Only its image has been damaged, but — on the other hand — has it been ever good? The political monopoly of the main parties which represent various wings of the hidden mafia structures has not been broken despite the enormous effort on the part of the society.
One of the key questions is definitely the reluctant reaction of the Bulgarian labor leaders who have done everything to neither support the protesters nor the government. Similar protests to these occurred in Bulgaria in the winter of 1997 and the government of Zhan Videnov finally resigned under the pressure of a nationwide general strike. This element is absent this time.
Another problem is the overall political confusion. Since a few months we can easily observe a large section of the protesters orchestrating a right-wing hysteria and trying (to an extent successfully) to inject rusophobic and strongly anti-communist elements into the dynamic of the social movement. This becomes easier and easier as the frustration among the masses is growing and there still seems to be no light in the tunnel. As Borislav Sandv, the co-chairperson of the Bulgarian Green Party, surely the most progressive mainstream political force engaged in the protests told me: ?I don?t know. This government has to step down and it will. But what comes next? I can?t be sure. I can only hope for a slightly better interim government and maybe something substantial happens before the next early elections. Let?s hope for that!”. Let us hope.
Because if nothing happens then Bulgaria will continue to roll down on this slippery slope with a lighting speed heading towards complete social, political and most of all economic collapse. And the specter of such a disaster is haunting. Bulgarians are the poorest population in the EU. According to the World Bank they have also held the crown of the fastest dying nation on the planet for the last three years and it pretty much seems they will keep it for the 2014. In the capital — Sofia — a city of 2 mln. there are only 13 ambulances operating and the minimum wage is below 70 EUR and some pensioners have to live with less than 40 EUR per month. It seems to be the very last moment for a major change. Otherwise the old punk slogan ?No future? can ironically get materialized in Bulgaria.