A Bulgarian Spring? Entrenched Protests Challenge Eastern Europe’s Status Quo

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A man gestures during an anti-government protest on July 2, 2013 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Anti-government street protests are not just a feature of countries abutting the Mediterranean—they’ve now taken root in one on the Black Sea. In February, protesters in Bulgaria, an Eastern European nation of 7 million people, succeeded in toppling the country’s center-right government. And now, like their Egyptian counterparts, the Bulgarian protesters are trying to oust a second government in short order. Over the past 40 days, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the capital, Sofia, in an attempt to force out the current, Socialist-led government. The protesters say the government is deeply corrupt.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful but anger among the protesters is growing. On July 23, demonstrators blockaded the Bulgarian Parliament with trashcans, park benches, stones and street signs, leaving more than 100 members of parliament and government ministers trapped inside the building for more than eight hours. Police in riot gear eventually pushed away the protesters in the early hours of July 24 and formed a corridor to free those stuck inside.

Several protesters and at least one police officer were reportedly injured, but the protests continued. The streets continued to ring with the words “Ostavka!” (Resign!) and “Mafia!”, in shouts from the crowd and emblazoned on placards.

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Although Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the E.U. in 2007, many Bulgarians feel that their country has failed to break with its communist past. In addition to expressing discontent with what many perceive to be a dysfunctional coalition government – which took office after a snap election in May – the protests have also focused on alleged government corruption and stagnation in the political system.

The protesters themselves – who are, in general, young, well-educated and economically independent – are clear about what they want to achieve. “First of all, people want the resignation of the government,” says Lilia Apostolova, a 42-year-old managing director for a leading business media group in Bulgaria. “Then they want to change the political system and they want the rule of law.”

However, Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski is determined to remain in office. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, he said that it was “unacceptable” for protesters to accuse him of fostering corrupt practices when he has only held office for a matter of weeks.

Some in Bulgaria see the current tumult as a bellwether for the wider region. “The political stability in Bulgaria is essential for the political stability in Europe as a whole,” writes Peter Kopralev in an email interview with TIME. He is a 42-year-old architect and business manager who has been helping to organize protests in solidarity for his home country in San Francisco outside the City Hall. “Without democracy and a moral political system, our country will be turned away from European values, which will jeopardize the integrity of the E.U.” While much of Europe may be preoccupied with the fiscal contagion of its economic crisis, its eastern periphery struggles with the contagion of its non-democratic past, grappling with a legacy of cronyism, abuse and a deep-rooted lack of faith in the political classes.

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Just as the recent anti-government protests in Turkey were sparked by redevelopment plans and widespread protests in Brazil by rising public transport fees, specific social concerns triggered the demonstrations in Bulgaria. February’s uprising was provoked by a sharp increase in electricity bills. This time, the appointment of a controversial media mogul, Delyan Peevski, as the head of Bulgaria’s national security agency was the tipping point. But even though Peevski resigned on June 14, after just one day in his new post, the protests have continued.

“All Bulgarian governments in the last 24 years have protected the interests of groups of oligarchs, the mafia and organized crime structures, and have neglected to understand that they have been elected to serve and protect the interests of the people of Bulgaria,” argues Kopralev in San Francisco.

The unrest in Bulgaria is, in some respects, a consequence of the tension created by Bulgaria’s reliance on Russia for its energy supplies, with 90% of all natural gas consumed in Bulgaria coming from Russia.

Stefan Ralchev, a program director and policy analyst at the independent, Sofia-based think-tank Institute for Regional and International Studies, explains why Russia’s energy monopoly is creating concern among some Bulgarians. “Although we’re E.U. members, we are dependent on Russian energy supplies and they use it to apply pressure and make money,” Ralchev says. “And if the Russian monopoly shifts from oil and gas to the electricity sector as well, it will be the collapse of our sovereignty as a nation.”

It’s a concern frequently voiced by protesters. “The government is creating favorable conditions for big Russian oligarchs at the expense of the locals,” adds Iveta Cherneva, a 29-year-old writer from Sofia who has been involved in galvanizing support for the protests online. “We are still not quite done with the communist past – it’s that backward mentality we’re trying to break with.”

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