Only weeks after national elections in May, street protests have once again erupted in Bulgaria. Marietta Stankova writes that what began as a protest against an ill-judged state appointment has developed into a widespread movement of dissatisfaction with the government’s lack of respect for democracy. In spite of the protests, and while new elections are increasingly probable, a major change in Bulgarian politics towards greater integrity and accountability will require strong political will, persistent civil participation and international pressure.
For over a month Bulgaria has been gripped by powerful civil protests against a government which has not even been in power for the proverbial hundred days. This is all the more remarkable since it was only last February that widespread demonstrations precipitated the resignation of the centre-right government, which was followed by an early general election in mid-May that resulted in a centre-left government. The current campaign builds upon previous smaller actions of discontent aimed at particular instances of alleged fraud and mismanagement on environmental issues and energy policy. However, today’s rallies are driven by fundamental system-defining demands: they strive to affirm the very principles of democratic rule by forcing more accountability, transparency and morality in government and policy-making. Even those under attack voice agreement with such lofty objectives, yet their achievement in the foreseeable future is hindered by the absence of an unequivocal political or civic force offering a plausible way out of the interbreeding between corrupt politicians and power-seeking economic circles.
Part of the present sense of stalemate is reinforced by the precarious balance in the new National Assembly: the two ruling parties, the Socialists (BSP) and the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) command exactly half the number of deputies. They are thus heavily dependent on uneasy and illogical cooperation with an extreme nationalistic party, Ataka, for the purpose of keeping at bay the single-largest parliamentary party, GERB. The latter has just stepped down from four years in power after mass outrage erupted at the end of the winter against what were generally considered excessive and fraudulent household energy bills. Clashes with the police and a string of self-immolations led Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to cut his losses, proclaiming he had no desire to rule against the will of the people.
Today’s ongoing action was sparked by the new Prime Minister, Plamen Oresharski’s, nomination of Delian Peevski as head of the country’s security agency. Peevski , a 32-year-old parliamentary deputy, is the co-owner of a vast and versatile media empire overshadowed by rumours and scandals about questionable origins, business connections and methods of operation. Insult was added to the injury as the choice of personality was aggravated by the near-conspiratorial manner in which the appointment was made. Peevski has previously been promoted to high office for which he had no qualification and from which he was dismissed amidst allegations of blackmailing and corruption; in this instance, special statutory amendments were hastily adopted to adjust the job description to his CV and no hearings were allowed.
Yet, rather unexpectedly in view of widespread cynicism regarding politics, a large portion of society refused to put up with this latest – and admittedly most blatant – example of endemic misconduct at the highest echelons of the state. An explosion in social media was accompanied by spontaneous rallies across the country. Even though within 24 hours Peevski’s appointment was annulled, the public perceived some invisible line of political and moral decency to have been crossed. The distrust of institutions that has chronically marked Bulgarian contemporary history spilled out, fuelling something more than a demand for the reversal of a single ill-judged move.
The ongoing street activism in Bulgaria has coincided with turmoil in its southern neighbours. In outlook, motivation and aims the activists in Sofia have more in common with those in Taksim square rather than their counterparts in Greece’s Syntagma place. There is one major difference, though – unlike Istanbul and Athens, Sofia has drawn little attention of the world media. Indeed, neither the number of protestors, nor the nature of the confrontation, calls for priority amidst a global momentum of anti-government protests. Closer observers should however be aware of witnessing a rather unique moment in a country which has historically been fractious and slow to gather around nation-wide causes. After the heady initial years of dismantling of the Communist system, there has been only one strong show of discontent: in early 1997 a Socialist government which presided over rising unemployment and hyperinflation fell under mass pressure and sporadic outbursts of violence. The handling of the crisis by the police has also been largely more sensible and sensitive than on previous occasions.
So far, the demonstrators have also proven determined to remain peaceful and succeeded in weeding out nationalistic and anarchic trouble-seekers. Within the first week the radical antics of Ataka’s leader, who entered parliament bearing a gun and seemed intent on stirring violent clashes among supporters of differing causes, were exposed and marginalised by the joint efforts of the main crowd of protestors, police and the media. Most importantly, the demonstrators have made it abundantly clear that they do not identify with any political entity in or out of power and on the whole see themselves as non-partisan. They also refute any accusations of misrepresenting the views of the majority of the population, especially in areas away from the big more prosperous cities. In fact, recent polls suggest that well above half of Bulgarians identify with the demands of the activists.
The immediate short-term aim of the protesters is the resignation of the cabinet. Oresharski, overnight dubbed “Oligarch-ski”, has compromised his credibility as a financial expert called upon to reinvigorate the faltering economy. Attempts to alleviate tensions by announcing improved welfare measures have been interpreted as distracting tactics and offset by further controversial appointments; new scandals have spread not only across the executive and legislature but also engulfed the judicial establishment.
As there is hardly an institution in Bulgaria commanding popular respect, it is difficult to see where a solution may emerge from. Events have entered a phase where patience and sheer stubbornness might define who will prevail. The government fears that another early election is likely to shrink its electorate to the hard core. The ability of GERB to attract the single-largest vote for the third time running is questionable as it is itself deeply steeped in malpractice and conflict of interest. Whether the post-Communist democratic right – which was unable to return a single deputy due to chronic splintering and lack of popular politicians – will manage to reinvigorate and reunite in time is also uncertain.
The most meaningful and welcome support for the vision of the demonstrators in Sofia has come in the shape of a joint statement by the German and French Ambassadors who highlighted the need to reverse “the penetration of private interests in the public sphere”. This was a serious blow to the government, especially since other Western diplomats followed suit. In acknowledgement of the significance of the move, the route of the traditional nightly march was diverted to pass by the two embassies: Sofia must be the only European capital where the representatives of the German government have been cheered in the middle of a government crisis. On the other hand, the European Union’s previous official expressions of concern about recent developments in addition to the ongoing monitoring of judicial reform and fight against corruption appear to make no lasting difference. The leadership of the European parliamentary parties has largely stood by their local members thus unwittingly helping the latter to dig in.
Thus far the protests have been resilient and creative – for instance staging a live picture of Delacroix’s “Liberty leading the people” to mark a month since the beginning of the protests. Some activists call for a re-launch of Bulgaria’s political model but this may prove to be both impractical and unnecessary. Changing the constitution and electoral system cannot guarantee the rule of law and morality. But if the political class is forced to begin to show respect for the boundaries of political integrity and accountability as a consequence of the unfolding civil participation, this may trigger a genuine democratic progress, however slow and painful.
The article is based on one that originally appeared at the LSE’s IDEAS blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Marietta Stankova – LSE IDEAS
Marietta Stankova is an Associate of the Balkan International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS. She has written on the origins of the Cold War in the Balkans, with particular regard to Bulgaria. Another persistent focus of interest is the establishment of Communist rule in the country.