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By Rada Leenders
Who knew the Bulgarians had it in them? Protests are intensifying. Bulgarians are finally heading for the streets to make their voices heard on the deplorable economic fate they face. What could have been dismissed as a passing quibble over soaring electricity prices following gradual, unconstitutional privatizations in the energy sector, now has gained momentum. Finally, there is a chance for citizens to speak out against government corruption and what’s believed to be the usurpation of high political offices by organized crime.
On the backdrop of government buildings dotted with egg yolk and dented by rocks, protesters shouted, “Mafia resign!” By Wednesday, the nation saw resignations by the entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, former masseur and body guard of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, and allegedly an informant on organized crime networks. Borisov is said to have been recruited during the rule of the 1996 Socialist government under his code name “Buddha.” Although parliament is monopolized by the former prime minister’s party, the body approved the resignation on Thursday.
Still, it seems these actions will not placate the Bulgarians this time around. The largest protests are expected Sunday, despite the government's resignation. Or perhaps the population, which for centuries has abided by a resigned gesture of turning the other cheek, has finally reached its boiling point.
For at least a millennium the ancient Kingdom of Bulgaria found itself at the crossroads of the European continent and the Near East. With exceptional patience and multicultural docility, Bulgarians, in contrast to many of their fiery neighbors, incorporated the influence and accommodated the rule of different empires heading East and West through their territory. Somehow, Bulgaria, through a diplomacy of appeasement, has acted like an absorber, a silencer on each gun, a shield balanced on the threshold of Europe and the very edge of the Middle East. Always on the frontline of the physical borders separating Christianity from Islam, Nazis from Allied forces, Capitalism from Communism, East from West, Bulgarians have learned to keep a low profile—a sentiment of caution bordering on cowardice, or a national trait of pacifism. So in 1989, with the end of communism in eastern and central Europe, for the first time in 700 years, a democratically elected government returned to Bulgaria.
Though ethnic strife has never plagued the country, a different kind of challenge has caused violence on the streets of Sofia in recent weeks, leaving dozens injured and dead. A succession of governments since 1989 has rendered the country almost a joke. At last, Bulgarians—be they Blue Coalition Democrats, Red Socialists, Black Nationalists of Ataka!, Yellow Monarchists of NDCV, ancestral Turks of DCP, or adherents to The Crest of GERB—could aspire to winning over the state. A popular witticism is that pilots of fighter-jets flying over Bulgaria to war-zones in the vicinity as early as the mid-1990s and even today, look down and shrug off Bulgaria as having already been bombed. This is a reference to the gaping potholes, visible from high altitudes, that have rendered road accidents the most perilous of threats to the daily lives of citizens. And then there’s the generally destitute appearance of urban areas and abandoned industrial zones. Here, packs of vagrant feral mutts roam, sniffing through the uncollected trash that overflows the large metal trash bins that line the corner of each block of concrete-paneled high-rises—the typically gray vogue of communist architecture.
The philosophy of the GERB, center-right government that ruled until recently is edinovlastie (single power in the state). Nearly 80 laws passed in the current parliament were pushed by powerful economic lobbies and designed to kill small businesses, recreating Soviet-style monopolies. The fallen government promised to increase income, but brought misery to the people with 30 percent inflation in food prices, a 40 percent increase in electricity prices and a freeze on incomes. Bulgarians have the lowest income level of the European Union, with average monthly salary rates at 400 Leva ($270), while pensions typically range between 100 and 200 Leva ($35-$70), which for most seniors, who are the largest single demographic element, doesn't even cover the monthly cost of medication prescribed through the national health plan. Austerity measures are one thing, but they have been used to reinvigorate a budget that lubricates and sustains established channels of corruption.
By now the national reserves have dwindled to an unconstitutional level following a cycle of misappropriation of state funds and resources, which began with the fraudulent privatization schemes of the 90s, the rise of the oligarchs, the gradual elimination of competition through organized crime, the sale of public utilities and forests, and finally with entry into the EU, the misappropriation of a large supply of Euro funds that have simply disappeared. With little left to squander, pension and social security funds have been decimated.
Bulgarian civil society is sharply divided between the “excluded” and the “included.” The Electoral Code doesn’t allow participation of large portions of the population, who have instead taken to the streets, protesting the “Monopolies,” claiming “direct control of citizens over the government.” At the same time, demonstrators have begun appealing for a change of the political system including the voting system, and 50 percent citizen participation in all state regulatory bodies.
The movement, which still bears no name and no identified leader, may end like Occupy Wall Street, as a new government with the same breed of leaders in new garb is sworn in. The GERB political party won the parliamentary elections in July 2009 with 117 seats (39.7 percent of the popular vote), bringing Borisov to the position of prime minister in July 2009. And the same problem has persisted since: the entire class of political parties pursues interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of the population those parties claim to represent. The citizens don’t know which political party to choose because, ultimately, throughout the last 20 years, they have all acted in the same manner.
At least for now, the nameless popular uprising has temporarily opened the door to an unprecedented political shift towards democracy and a possibility for economic empowerment. Who knew simple, rising electric bills could wreak so much havoc? Sofia is neither Prague nor Athens, so the central question remains where the turtle revolution might go.
Since Borisov's resignation along with his cabinet, Bulgaria's future has become even hazier. The protests continue and the promise of early elections, where the same cast of characters and parties are likely to vie for power on short notice, offers no true alternative. This raises the question of why European Union flags are being burned in the streets. Instead, it might be wise to establish an interim government devoid of party officials, composed, as in Italy nearby, of experts who are distanced from all party politics. Together with foreign experts, they could steer the nation through the current governmental and economic crisis until a grassroots civil society movement has had time to formulate demands as well as viable solutions to the endemic problem of Bulgaria's democracy. After centuries of slavery and tacit acceptance of the status quo, at last, the average Ivan might then be empowered to guard his Guardians.
Rada Leenders has an M.A. from Columbia University, where she studied international relations, focusing on cross border networks, resources of transnational actors, democratization, and transitions of power.
[Photo courtesy of George Chelebiev]