Bulgaria: What’s behind the current protests?

Are the current protests somehow different from winter’s protests or more or less it is same story irrespective of the fact the Bulgarian has a different government?

Stefan Ralchev, Programme Director and Policy Analyst, Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS)

The current protests, which started on 14 June and continue until now, are essentially different from the ones in February. The February protests were instigated by an abrupt and unexplainable rise in electricity bills for thousands of households. In that sense, they were economic in nature – they were protests of people unable to pay their bills and fed up with their difficult economic situation even 23 years after the so-called transition began. The protests later grew to become anti-oligarchy and anti-monopoly protests because the major utility companies were seen as representatives of those monopolies unfairly controlling the market and imposing unbearable prices. But the February action was NOT anti-government in its essence. There were sporadic shouts about resignation, but the vast majority of people did NOT demand the resignation of the then centre-right government of the GERB party. The party’s leader, Boiko Borisov, however, was shrewd enough to offer resignation after the first violence occurred so that he could keep the popularity of his party from plummeting due to the growing social unrest. And so resignation and early elections happened.

The June protests have nothing to do with economic hardship. They are protests about values – against the flagrant appointments of the current Socialist-led government and its reliance on support from a far-right, xenophobic and anti-European party (Ataka) with the only goal to stay on power and against the vile interconnectedness between shady business and politics. These protests are of middle-class, relatively educated people who rely on their own capabilities to succeed in life but who were grossly frustrated by the insolence of the current power. They are a separate, detached phenomenon from the February events; the only line of similarity is that both protests at one point state anti-oligarchy and anti-monopoly positions.

But the June protests are the first protests in Bulgaria who are inspired not by poverty and economic hardship but by values and true civic worries about where this society is heading. The 1990 political party rallies had something similar, but then it was essentially an anti-Communist effort. In 1997, when hyper-inflation hit Bulgaria and the pensions reached as low as $8 a month, the people came out on the streets for economic reasons: it was the true revolution in Bulgaria (not the Communist party coup of 1989) but it was inspired by poverty. February 2013 was again inspired by high prices for electricity. June 2013 is the true awakening of civil society in this country. It is only too sad the Socialist party does not realise this fact and keeps behaving like in 1997, clinging to power with teeth and claws and neglecting the people on the streets – despite open and unprecedented support for the people by German, French, Dutch, Belgian and UK ambassadors and the European Commission (Viviane Reding was here yesterday to talk to the people). It was expected that people would start to lose their patience when nobody wants to listen to them and some radicalisation would occur.

One last thing – the current protests are not only against the Socialists, their partners from the Turkish minority party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and their de facto allies from the radical Ataka party. They are also against the previous rulers of the GERB party who had a major contribution in establishing Bulgaria as a mafia state and installing monopolies and oligarchies in the economy. These four parties are the only ones represented in parliament after the 12 May early poll.

Andrew MacDowall, Freelance Correspondent and Analyst focusing on South East Europe

The protests against the Oresharski government have similar motivations to those against its Borisov-led predecessor in that they express the frustration and indeed rage of many (though not all) Bulgarian people against what they see as a compromised, corrupted, insular and often incompetent political elite.  However, the protests in the winter had a more overt economic motivation – firstly substantial increases to energy prices in what remains the EU’s poorest nation; and more broadly, economic stagnation and a failure to increase living standards despite six years in the EU. But it’s worth asking if any government of any party could have delivered true political change and economic growth, given the international situation and Bulgaria’s political history and administrative problems.

The current protests are more associated with the middle classes motivated by political factors. Many are fed up with the political elite, and see the current government as more of the same. They want neither the Socialists and their DPS allies, nor the rightist GERB. It’s notable that around 25% of votes went to parties that didn’t get the minimum 5% of the total vote to make it into parliament. There’s a real sense of frustration about the lack of other options.

The current protests were of course triggered by the appointment of Delyan Peevski has the head of DANS (State Agency for National Security), quickly reversed. Peevski, rightly or wrongly, is seen as an avatar for Bulgaria’s entrenched political class and the nexus between politics and business. It’s worth noting that the Oresharski government was initially broadly welcomed by Bulgaria’s international allies and the business community, and grudgingly accepted by many Bulgarians. That goodwill now looks in short supply.

Bulgaria has a post-communist history of never re-electing a government and has instead often opted for apparent saviours – Ivan Kostov’s rightists, Simeon (the former Tsar) and, most recently, Borisov. Each of these were then ousted when they proved a disappointment to the electorate. Investors want a technocratic government as originally promised; GERB, BSP and DPS loyalists stick by their parties and reject the others; and an increasingly disillusioned middle class wants a new political order, free from the taint of the past. All may have to wait some time.

Vihar Georgiev, Associate Professor, European Studies Department, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski

There are obvious differences between the protests in February and now. The most important difference is the socio-economic profile of the protesters. In February it was mostly unemployed, low-paid workers and pensioners. Now, it’s young urban professionals who are protesting. This impacts the demands of the protesters. In February, it was all about disposable income and prices of staples and utility bills. Now the protest is all about rule of law, transparency and the fight against corruption.

The February protests were clearly targeted against the previous GERB government. Current protests are targeted against the whole system of government and the extremely high level of corruption in all branches.

Dimitar Bechev, Senior Policy Fellow & Head of Sofia Office European Council on Foreign Relations

Though this time around economic grievances aren’t at the forefront the underlying issue is the same: state capture and lack of accountability of elites.

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