Letter From Bulgaria: What’s Taking Us to the Streets?

Last January I was going out for a protest again. My husband was helping me tie the sling for the baby and my ten-year-old was asking whether she could borrow my camera, because she wanted to be a journalist. We weren’t expecting to see many people – it was 15 years since 1997, when hyperinflation brought them out on the street to topple the socialist government.

When you say “socialist” in Bulgaria, you actually mean the old communist party that rebranded itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall and continues to be a major part of political life – despite the protests against the regime in 1989. I remembered those first protests starting out in joy and hopefulness, as a moment of truth, and ending in dismay as we watched the raid on the Party House on television – a raid that was ugly and vulgar and not anything we wanted to be part of.

As it turned out, we weren’t. The party used the turmoil to get rid of some rather conspicuous documents. And twenty-three years on, politics had ceased to be part of family conversations after too many changes that didn’t change anything.

So we weren’t expecting much last January; according to the media, everybody loved the current government in Sofia despite rumors of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s ties with the mafia, or the arrogance the regime displayed towards old people (called “bad electoral material” by Borissov himself), towards young families, towards science and culture, towards ordinary people and their tragedies. And towards nature as well.

This particular protest was against shale gas fracking – a subject that looked too abstract to provoke mass interest. We expected a handful of friends from civil rights organizations, or perhaps a nationalist rally (in which case we were planning to leave). We were wrong.

There were thousands of people, and the meeting point simply couldn’t hold them. They were mostly young, and they looked civil and educated. We were not the only ones who had brought kids. As the march started, we had no idea just how many we were – the street was too narrow to see. But then we went on to the broad central street that goes to the House of Parliament, and we saw there were thousands of us. People seemed elated. Some were holding anti-fracking posters, others were openly protesting against Borissov and his government. You spotted groups of friends and went there for a chat. People were laughing, because the media were wrong, and they were not alone. At one point we realized the kids were freezing, so we went home and turned on the TV.

To our dismay the three main TV channels – BNT, bTV and Nova – refused to acknowledge what was taking place. Some had sent their reporters half an hour ahead to film just the people who were early for the march. Others talked about social trivia and skipped the march altogether. It was as if 5,000 people protesting in the center of Sofia just didn’t exist. They did exist for the national radio, though, which still preserved its independence. They did exist online, too, as people were posting their own photos and videos, along with a picture of the TV channels as three monkeys who had “seen no evil, heard no evil, said no evil.”

The protests went on for a couple of days, merging with other ecological protests – for example, against the illegal expansion of the ski resort on Mount Vitosha that would lead to the deforestation of a large part of the national park adjacent to Sofia. Sometimes the media failed to report the protests altogether. But at last, the prime minister unexpectedly agreed to stop fracking plans. The protests for Vitosha continued though they were less numerous, so the government simply ignored them.

Until last summer.

Shortly before the bill for Vitosha was signed, ecological organizations managed to attract a huge number of young people who occupied the most central traffic point in the city, Orlov Most (Eagles Bridge). They started gathering in the adjacent park, then blocked traffic, sat down on the streets and sang. The police tried to pull out individual protesters but the crowd pulled them back. Some girls hugged the policemen, trying to speak to the humans behind the helmets. Others danced. The beauty of the protest was that the invariably young, middle-class, well-educated profile of the participants later prompted some commentator to say that they were politically futile, that this was a lifestyle act and it would never be politically important because the protesters were too keen on staying positive.

The people who are out on the streets now, this winter, can hardly be called lifestyle revolutionaries. Twenty-four years after the supposed fall of communism, it is the social state that was brought down, not the communist elites. Industry had been largely destroyed; factories were privatized for a penny, just so the state wouldn’t be the one throwing people out on the street. The health service had become a total mess, with people basically paying twice – first as health insurance, then again under the table if they didn’t want the healthcare they received to be purely formal.

Unemployment levels were high, which was especially hard for people over 50 who had received their professional qualifications before 1989. Most retired people were living below the poverty line, except when their children could support them. Yet it’s not just poverty that brought people on the streets but the loss of hope, the powerlessness, the blatant injustice.

And the loss of choice as well – as no government since the fall of communism ever supported the social institutions or tried to create a safety net, to invest in education, the health service, or culture, or to curb poverty. Although the old communists remained largely in place (though not a few changed political allegiances), they all went in with the unregulated market where people received no support against large corporations.

The company that provides central heating, for example, is a monopoly – and it misuses its power to the extent that no consumer can ever stop paying them, even if he physically takes the radiators out of his home. People didn’t just feel they were poor – people felt that they were being robbed, and they were. The particular trigger for the current protests was an arbitrary rise in their electricity bills, which were two to three times larger than usual and ate up most of their income. When they took to the streets, however, their frustration took many different faces.

We went to one of the first marches this winter, and, once again, we took our kids. The protesters, however, were quite different from those who went on the streets for Vitosha. We saw all kinds of ages, all sorts of professions, all sorts of demands. At first it was quite peaceful – there were people in pushchairs and other couples with small kids. There was plenty of riot police but they were not doing anything yet. The next day, however, we heard that radical groups had infiltrated the protesters and the police had let them throw stones, using that as a pretext for arresting other people.

These groups of masked men were sometimes thrown out by the protesters themselves, who shouted “no violence!” and stepped away. The police, however, invariably let them radicalize the situation, rousing suspicion that they were part of a government plan to create the impression that the protests were violent and chaotic. On the morning after the unrest, one person set himself on fire in Turnovo and burned to death. He’d said he was in despair. The media hastened to defame him, saying he was mentally unstable.

Then another man set himself on fire – in Varna, where the protests had been most numerous and most organized. Varna, the third largest city in Bulgaria and a major Black Sea port, has been in the hands of the mafia for decades. The last local elections offered no choice as both candidates were equally corrupt, and both visibly related to TIM, the clandestine investment group that owns most of the city. After days of mass protests the young man, Plamen Goranov, had been the first to speak out against TIM. He also demanded the mayor to resign. The next day he set himself on fire, receiving over 80% burns. Goranov died after 13 days in coma.

Meanwhile, the government has stepped down, but the protests continue. They seem largely directed at the political class as a whole, and the media would have us believe that they are chaotic and incompetent. Indeed, the lack of any genuine alternative has radicalized demands. Those who would have appreciated a modest social-democratic turn can now be heard demanding nationalization; those who had wanted some sort of defense against the monopolies now burn their utility bills, demanding that the suppliers be thrown out of the country. Those who have felt consistently misrepresented by voting for populist parties who abandoned their programs the minute they came into power now shout against all parties.

But those who went to the ecological protests now step back, as they just don’t agree with the demands for a new constitution (which would slow down the process of any actual change) or any direct representation fantasies. Ecological protests are still taking place, this time in defense of Mount Pirin. But the media hardly notices them. The government is using the chance to wash its hands of any responsibility, especially the notoriously populist prime minister who took the chance to step out of the limelight shortly after his police files were published, proving that he was both part of the mafia and a police informer.

The newly installed general prosecutor, however, is still in place, and he was personally selected by the minister of interior affairs for his loyalty to the ruling party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB. While we are waiting for the president to appoint an interim government, the same minister is changing police chiefs in regions with a large percentage of minority groups, where the buying of votes has been consistently reported. The same person, Tzvetan Tzvetanov, was both minister of interior affairs and head of the election campaign of the ruling party. There are widespread beliefs that he is trying to radicalize the events to create the impression that the alternative to GERB is chaos.

Even now the protests continue, though they seem to have lost purpose in Sofia. The chaotic nature of the demands prompted someone to create a “slogan generator” that is gaining popularity on the web. Some of the self-appointed protest “leaders” were proven to be related to the ruling party or the oligarchs, casting doubt over the new faces that started touring TV studios in their place.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Varna still has not stepped down even though his resignation has been demanded by more than 60,000 people. TIM thugs are regularly recorded tearing down protest posters, and in one case breaking a person’s nose. The police are standing by. People are now making jokes about the mafia feeling socially disgraced. But none of the major political parties want to rule at a moment when people are shouting against the political class as a whole.

After all, parliamentary elections are just a few months away, scheduled for May 12. And for a government that clearly failed, unpredictability is not a bad thing.