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2013: The Year of Bulgarian Protest

By Sarah Lipkis 

Bulgaria, one the poorest countries in the European Union, is facing grim prospects - harsh austerity measures, high youth unemployment, lack of government transparency, and rampant government corruption. Given these realities, Bulgarians are disenchanted with the current situation in their country.

In February, Bulgarians took to the streets to demand change. Since then, there have been protests in June, and most recently in October with the Occupy Student movement. Though each protest has its own purpose, the three protests all share the same underlying sentiment of discontent and frustration with the “mafia” style government that runs the country.    

Nevena Borisova, a Bulgarian journalist working for Global Voices, said the protests “could be viewed as a moral revolution against the corruption, nepotism, and oligarchy. They can also be viewed as connected to global tendencies of discontent towards the political elites and specific economic groups.” 

In early February, protests erupted in the city of Blagoevgrad after citizens noticed their electric bills where two times higher than the month before. Protesters burned their electric bill in response to the increase in price. Their disconent soon spread to other cities, including the capital Sophia, where, on February 17, protesters gathered in front of the Ministry of Economy and the National Assembly demanding the resignation of the government.

Protesters blamed the rising electricity prices on a monopoly of privately owned utility companies and a lack of government intervention. Novinite.com, a Sofia News Agency, classified the protests as a “general outrage against poverty, monopolies, and corruption.” The Sophia protests gave rise to a broader anti-government movement in which the public not only demanded lower utility prices but also called for the government to resign. According to an Economist article, clashes broke out between protesters and police, and there were two accounts of self-immolation by protesters. Two weeks after protests began, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his government resigned.

In May, the Bulgarian Parliament elected Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski. Oresharski’s party, the left-wing Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, along with the liberal predominantly ethnic Turkish party Movements for Rights and Freedoms, won exactly half of the seats, allowing them to form a coalition.

Following the appointment of media mogul Delyan Peevski to head of the State Agency of National Security (DANS) protests broke out on June 14, in front of the Parliament building. According to a Reuters’ article, 10,000 people protested the appointment, seeking it as a return to the status quo, whereby business oligarchs run the government. Although the government retracted Peevski’s appointment, the initial protests quickly turned into a general anti-government movement calling for the resignation of the prime minister and his government.

During the summer protests, on July 14, a group of protesters expressed their anger by recreating Eugene Delacroix’s panting “Liberty Leading the People,” but instead of the French flag, Lady Liberty is proudly holding the Bulgarian flag. The performance was intended to be a “thank you” to the French Ambassador Philippe Autie and German Ambassador Matthias Hoepfner for their support in renouncing back-door dealings with oligarchs in Bulgarian politics.

Borisova notes that the last wave of student-led protests were in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. As she puts it, Bulgaria has not, “observed student protests in the country [for] fifteen years”. On October 25, students occupied the largest lecture hall at Sofia University after the Constitutional Court reinstated Peevski as MP. The student occupation, with support from professors, forced the university to shut down classes. Other universities throughout the country witnessed similar “Occupy” movements, though on a smaller scale. In a poll from November 26, about two-thirds of the population supported these student movements. 

According to their website, the “Occupy Bulgaria” student movement is protesting against a host of issues including government corruption, lack of transparency, and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor. The movement also wants reforms in the electoral code that would reduce the number of MPs, as well as make it easier to remove an MP for mismanagement. Like with the February protests, the students want the government to step down and to call for new elections. 

In addition to “Occupy Bulgaria,” the anti-government movement that began during the February protests is still active. Borisova says, “the students support the general protests, and they are also demanding, along with the other protesters, that the current Bulgarian government step down because of different controversial parliamentary decisions and the corruption in the country.” On November 20, both students and ITUB trade unions, as part of the anti-government movement, protested outside of the Parliament building demanding new elections. However, many anti-government supporters where also there to demand an increase in pay, a better retirement plan, and for tax rebates. 

Local actors and artists have also taken part in the protests. Along with the reenactment of the Eugene Delacroix painting in July, other performance pieces have been performed. For example, the producers of the television show “Lords of the Air” released 240 (the number of MPs in parliament) balloons emblazoned with pictures of the “golden skunk” award. The show gives out the award to mock what they define as a “particularly stinking affair.” Furthermore, in December, actors supporting the students staged a funeral procession akin to the one in Alexander Morfov's play "Life is Beautiful." Outside Parliament, members of the possession shouted "Let's Bury Bulgarian Political Morality" while holding a vigil and passing out obituaries for the government. 

“There was a Greek joke during past protests that they should be quiet in order ‘not to awake the Bulgarians,”’ Borisova wrote in an email. The “protests in Bulgaria could be called rather delayed citizen reaction.”

Though the protests have begun to dwindle and universities have resumed classes, some see the protests as having “failed to formulate other demands than resignation, new snap elections, and new morals in politics. The protests have reached a sort of stalemate.” However, protesters are still on the street demanding change, though on a smaller scale. This is evidenced by the recent December 8 protest outside of the Parliament building which coincided with the national holiday, College Day. Though usually a day of celabration for students, protesters pasted signs with political messages on the fences surrounding Parliament. Overall, Novinite.com postulates that although the protests might have achieved very little, they “are important for the advancement of civil society and can serve as lessons of democracy.” Though the current protests are beginning to dwindle down, many hope that Bulgarians will continue to mobilize in order to demand political change.

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Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal

[Photo courtesy of WikiMedia]

 

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