It’s just after 6pm, the light dying out, the air cold. Gradually, people start gathering on what has become an established route: from the Council of Ministers to the yellow cobbled streets of the National Assembly. The crowd expands, filling Tsarigradsko Boulevard all the way to Sofia University, enveloping the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, its golden domes buttressing the low sky. The streets, rattling with old city trams during the day, now witness a different reverberation: “O-STAV-KA!” or “Resign!”, the citizens shout, waving posters, angry picket signs and dummies of the people who are supposed to represent them.
Known more for their images, videos and improvised happenings than for speeches or manifestos, they are among the millions who, since 2011, have marched and occupied spaces everywhere from Egypt to the US, Russia, Spain, Brazil and Turkey. Against the backdrop of global protest, events in Bulgaria have seemed to pale in significance, receiving very little international coverage. Unlike the brutal repression in Taksim Square, the militaristic theatre in Cairo and, most recently, the mass demonstrations tear-gassed and stun-grenaded in Kiev, the daily rallies that began last year have been remarkably peaceful. Described by some as an example of what the Serbian activist Srdja Popović calls “laughtivism”, to outsiders the protests might even resemble a summer pastime for smartphone-wielding middle-class Bulgarians, complete with young children, pets and plenty of cold beer. Yet for this notoriously apathetic Balkan nation and recent EU member, the events of the last several months mark a major social and cultural leap, an expression of the deep discontent that has been building since the promised End of History two decades ago.
Early last year, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov resigned amid anti-austerity demonstrations. The biggest protests in 15 years, they were attributed to worsening living standards and a sudden hike in electricity prices, but they took a distinctly anti-government turn after the widely reported self-immolation of 36-year-old Plamen Goranov. Though he was one of six people to set themselves on fire in Bulgaria in less than a month, Goranov, who did so on 20 February in the town square of Varna as an explicit protest against the city’s long-term mayor, drew comparison with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation became a catalyst for the Arab Spring, and Jan Palach, the Czech history and politics student who set himself on fire in response to the crushing of the Prague Spring. Hailing Goranov as a symbol of the country’s profound political crisis, crowds mobilised in Sofia, Plovdiv, Blagoevgrad, Ruse, Sliven and Varna and, unappeased by Borisov’s sacking of his finance minister or his promises to slash prices, toppled his government. “I can’t look at a Parliament surrounded by barricades,” he said, explaining that it was better to step down than rely on police truncheons “to protect ourselves from the people”.
Taking office in 2009, he had been greeted as a saviour, promising to sweep Bulgaria clean of corruption and organised crime. A former firefighter and bodyguard to dignitaries such as the late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and the ex-king Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Borisov, with his formidable physical presence and straight-talking approach, was a textbook populist leader, wooing the press and the people with new highways, ribbon-cuttings and highly publicised arrests. Over time, though, cracks began to show. Some of the secret recordings of illicit phone calls his government released backfired, revealing that Borisov, like his predecessors, was offering protection for some shady schemes even as he targeted others. There were allegations of media censorship and ties with mobsters – known as “mutri” or “thick-necks” – and soon both he and his centre-right party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) were widely discredited.
His replacement, Plamen Oresharski, was elected as a supposed antidote; his cabinet was met with a kind of hopeful neutrality. Oresharski, with his serious, reliable air, is best known as one of the architects of the currency board imposed onBulgaria in 1997 as part of an IMF programme to save the country from currency collapse and 1,000 per cent inflation. He had consolidated his hardcore neoliberal pedigree as finance minister in the 2000s, and was considered just the man to “fix” the economy. Yet it was Oresharski who, in mid-June, fresh from his election at the head of a Socialist-backed government, ignited an entirely new and significant surge of protest. The match was lit by his decision, announced without debate in the National Assembly, to appoint the media magnate Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security (ДАНС).
This corpulent, improbably antagonistic-looking man, the 33-year-old son of Irena Krusteva, the former head of the national lottery, is largely known for his murky connections. After becoming head of Bulgaria’s large sea port at Varna during his second year at university, he went on to be fired from a post as deputy minister for disaster management over allegations of corruption at the tender age of 25; Peevski then began a notably passive spell in parliament, where he missed 92 per cent of legislative sessions between 2009 and 2013. He went in for crude threats against parliamentary opponents, enjoyed close ties with state prosecutors and the media, and had no intelligence experience whatsoever. Handing Peevski the guardianship of Bulgaria’s internal and external security – a role that now included responsibility for organised crime – felt positively Orwellian. In an interview, he made it clear he was keen to punish: “Whoever was in the wrong will feel the full severity of the law.”
In the context of Bulgaria’s recent history, this was hardly news. If UK voters are still capable of being scandalised by revelations of corruption, in Bulgaria, it has seeped into the fabric of everyday life. After years of repeated and increasingly flagrant transgressions, the public has come to take the abuse of power as a given. The latest bribes, embezzlements and smear campaigns have become permanent conversation fillers, along with pensions, May graduation balls and pickled vegetables for winter. So when, just hours after the Peevski announcement, thousands of people took to the streets, organising via social media with the hashtag #ДАНСwithme (literally “dance with me”), it marked a sharp turn for a civic consciousness long stuck between banality and dread. Oresharski revoked the appointment five days later but, for him and his shaky, month-old government, the die was cast. The price citizens demanded was their resignation.
Perhaps Bulgarians are growing tired of strongmen and “saviours”. For hundreds of years, the country was, to use Jonathan Franzen’s description of Lithuania in The Corrections, “passed along between powers like a much recycled wedding present”. In the incoherent architecture of the capital, Sofia, its early 20th-century Viennese-style facades plastered with elegant wreaths and lyres cohabiting with featureless Soviet concrete, you can read the signs of the five-century Ottoman rule, the San Stefano Peace Treaty of 1878, the USSR’s invasion, the post-war communist takeover.
The post-communist anarchy of the 1990s brought with it a creeping individualism and stoked the fantasy of a charismatic individual who might transform Bulgaria into a true European country through sheer force of will. In these years, wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and any meaningful distinction between the private and public sectors disappeared in a labyrinth of bureaucracy and opaque corporate accounting. Luxury cars, bleached hair and monogrammed bags appeared everywhere and the phenomenon of chalga, a pornified form of pop-folk music, seemed to penetrate all corners of the culture, embraced by national television channels and public figures. “Throughout the dejected years of the transition,” the novelist Theodora Dimova writes, the ruling classes “managed to eliminate hope and nurture a generation clogged with chalga. ‘Whoever doesn’t like chalga, emigrate!’ Some emigrated abroad, others within themselves.” Pop culture glamorised easy money and shady deals, while constant transgressions by both left and right induced a deep political apathy that seems only now to show signs of lifting. It’s no wonder the protesters do not organise themselves along party lines. For one thing, the current government is a paradoxical coalition of the Socialist Party, their traditional backer the MRF (who represent Bulgaria’s large Turkish minority) and the far-right nationalists ATAKA (“attack”), led by a political provocateur with a history of bashing the MRF and storming mosques in broad daylight. What’s more, the only other party in parliament is Borisov’s GERB.
Caught off guard, the government first tried to ignore the demonstrations and censor the coverage, hoping it would all just go away. Instead, it grew in size, boldness and creativity: flash mobs of clowns carried brooms and signs saying “Let’s sweep out the trash”; a young ballerina danced on the yellow cobblestones of the National Assembly; a diver emerged from the sea bearing a banner that read OSTAVKA; on 14 July, a crowd thanked the French ambassador for his support by staging a reenactment of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. This vibrancy and diversity of expression has been a defining feature of the protests and the new atmosphere they have created. On the 40th day, demonstrators trapped lawmakers inside the parliament buildings for eight hours: when the police loaded MPs onto a white bus, intending to drive through the crowds, the demonstrators threw up makeshift barricades of torn-out paving stones, trash cans and potted plants from nearby restaurants.
Police repression was stepped up following that incident, but the government also began trying other tactics to undermine the demonstrations. They orchestrated clumsy “counter-protests”, bribing and mobilising a few hundred people at a time, many of whom seemed oblivious to what was going on and cheerfully admitted they had been paid for their “trip to Sofia”. They also cast aspersions on the allegiances of the demonstrators, branding them middle-class “Soros-oids” in thrall to Washington and Brussels. It was an attempt once more to conjure up what the film and theatre director Yavor Gardev calls the “mythical-astrological idea of Bulgaria as a little planet surrounded by two bigger ones – the east and the west, which are magnetically pulling her on both sides”. Despite their best efforts, the fact remains that no counter-protest has ever reached the number of people gathering on the streets of their own accord almost every night since June.
While the mantra “Resign!” has been the loudest message heard at the protests, their aims have grown broader and deeper than the overthrow of this one government, which people know from experience would do little to change the status quo. The social theorist Julia Kristeva, who criticised Bulgaria’s lack of an aesthetic of the public sphere in her 2000 book The Crisis of the European Subject, may have been impressed by the events of 23 October, when students at Sofia University (inspired in part by the style of Occupy) reclaimed its public space, bringing classes to a halt to proclaim a “moral revolution”. Starting with around 50 students in one of the main lecture halls, the numbers grew and the gesture quickly gained public recognition and support. The students explicitly dissociated themselves from all political parties, instead organising workshops and street demonstrations that aimed to rethink what a desirable future might look like. “We are awake!” proclaimed the banners hung from the university walls, the slogan of those the nation has come to know as “the early risers”. Against the paid counter-protesters and fake students who have tried to discredit them, as well as the attempted invasions by ultra-nationalist government supporters and other thugs, the student occupation managed to sustain a fragile balance, preserving complexity and ambivalence. “We are not paid to protest,” a student representative said. “We are paying, with our faces, with our free time, with our work time, with our youth, so we can possibly have a future here.”
The Sofia occupation inspired others, of the National Academy of Theatre and Film, the National Art Academy, the New Bulgarian, Technical, Plovdiv and Veliko Turnovo universities, as well as a number of demonstrations of solidarity abroad. More importantly, though, the students were able to forge links with the crowds in the streets. Just as the protests were beginning to diminish at the end of the summer, the student occupation brought them thundering back to life: crowds marched in support of “the young people fighting for Bulgaria instead of leaving it, as thousands have so far”. The head of the Theatre Guild closed all theatres for several days in solidarity with the students, while actors and artists on one occasion re-created a mass funeral procession from Alexander Morfov’s play Life is Beautiful, walking under the slogan: “Let’s bury the morals of Bulgarian politicians.”
Some criticise this protest movement for its lack of clear political goals, but as Kristeva said of the student strikes at the Sorbonne in ’68: “to think is to revolt, to be in the movement of meaning”, as well as that of the street. Rejecting the coercive logic of tactical voting, of accepting the lesser evil, the student occupation has helped open up a new collective discourse. By their reclamation of public space, they have physically rejected the privatising, individualising impulse of the ’90s. Simply put, the protests mark a real desire for change. More than 60 per cent of the country say they are in sympathy with the protesters. So far, they have had one undeniable effect: they have swept away the entrenched apathy on which Bulgaria’s corrupt political class has rested easy for so long. §