With riots in Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt blazing across headlines worldwide, the summer of 2013 has certainly placed democracy in the hot seat. Meanwhile, another democratic revolution is taking place in East Europe. Now approaching its one month anniversary, the peaceful protests that continue to fill the streets of Bulgaria echo the sentiments expressed by their counterparts abroad.
“Our protests cannot match [those in Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt] in scale,” writes one Bulgarian commentator, “But we demand our share, however small it might be. It is ideas and determination that unite all these events.”
The events in Bulgaria have followed a trajectory quite similar to that of those in Brazil and Turkey. What began on June 14 as a protest against the appointment of Delyan Peevski, a controversial media mogul and member of the Bulgarian Parliament, as the head of the State Agency for National Security rapidly grew into a general anti-government movement. Although the decision was reversed three days later by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, protests continued. Activists have come together calling for a more representative electoral system, an end to oligarchic influence in politics, and increased transparency in government affairs. There is an overwhelming desire to end the corruption that has plagued Bulgarian politics since the 1990s.
A burnt out public
Protests have become a regular aspect of the Bulgarian political culture. Earlier this year in February, riots had forced out the previous government under Boyko Borisov, who belongs to the center-right GERB (Citizens for European Development Bulgaria). Although Borisov’s GERB came in first in the subsequent May elections, winning 31% of the vote, they ultimately fell to the coalition formed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF). However, the string of civil unrests against both left- and right-wing groups has emphasized the people’s overall disapproval of the entire political class.
Now in its 23th year of democratic transition, Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the European Union and has the 8th highest death rate in the world, trailing Afghanistan and beating out Somalia. Despite the end of the Cold War, Bulgaria appears to have changed little in the last few decades. If anything, the government’s long-term cronyism has fostered a sense of distrust and cynicism in the Bulgarian people toward politics in general. According to award winning Bulgarian journalist Maria Spirova, the protesters have little faith in their government, which constantly features the “same revolving set of failed politicians.”
The protesters have little faith in their government, which constantly features the “same revolving set of failed politicians.”
Spirova describes the recent events as a catharsis of sorts. The protesters represent the first generation to grow up outside of the old communist regime. Unlike their parents, they have been exposed to a variety of global events and have been shocked at the stagnancy of Bulgaria compared to the rest of the world. Despite the nominal dissolution of the Communist Party, it is apparent that its influence remains – Bulgarian politics are in fact oligarchic because it is nearly impossible to get into power without having the right connections. According to Spirova, more than half of Bulgarian diplomats have links to the old state. This trend has perpetuated itself, particularly since the corruption associated with politics has discouraged Bulgarian youths from pursuing studies of or a career in the government. Instead, it seems that the most voters can do besides protest is to “punish” the current government by voting them out of office.
Rising from ashes
At first glance most would assume the best of Bulgaria. While not a model of democracy, Bulgaria seems to do well enough, scoring a 2 from Freedom House in terms of overall freedom; the United States sits with a 1. However, Bulgaria has been struggling economically since 1990, especially as it transitioned into a free market. The Bulgarian economy is expected to grow only 1% this year, after expanding 0.8% in 2012.
Unsurprisingly, many acts of civil unrest prior to this summer have revolved around high utility bills, wages, and to a lesser extent, corruption.
As a result, when Asen Genov first created the Facebook event that would later result in the demonstrations that have rocked Sofia for the last month, he felt uncertain. Because the protest would have focused on the more abstract concept of corruption rather than the empty pocketbooks of the Bulgarian people, he figured that maybe 500 people would join, at best. But the thousands that have doggedly marched the streets of Bulgaria for the past month are a culmination of the people’s deep-seated resentment and broiling intolerance for corruption and government inefficacy. Vladimir Shopov, a political analyst from Bulgaria, suggests that the long-term demands of the public cannot be satisfied by any short-term response from the government, especially given its poor track record. Yet for all their anger, the Bulgarians have made an effort to express their complaints peacefully, exhibiting a high level of democratic maturity.
Curiously, the Bulgaria has attracted relatively less attention than its international counterparts; after all, it’s difficult to perceive the European country as in need of assistance. Nevertheless, the Bulgarians have felt inspired and supported by their peers abroad. As Iveta Cherneva, a 29-year old author in Sofia, commented,