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

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NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV / AFP / Getty Images

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.

(PHOTOS: Alleged Suicide Bomber in Bulgaria Blows Up Bus)

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.

(VIDEO: Was Bulgarian Politician Really Target of “Assassination Attempt”?)

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.”

MORE: How to Clean Up Bulgaria

22 comments
IvetaCherneva
IvetaCherneva

I wonder what is US's stance on this? A NATO member country, such as Bulgaria, is being taken over by Russian oligarchs. The Bulgarian government has already dealt the cards to Russian oligarchs. The projects South Stream (natural gas) and Belene (nuclear energy) will cost the Bulgarian taxpayer billions. For the South Stream pipeline, project by Gazprom, the government took a loan for billions from a Russian bank with an 8% rate, while publicly saying that the project would cost nothing to the Bulgarian taxpayer. They convenient missed to mention that loan. The nuclear energy project, Belene, which was restarted this Friday, is likely to cost 24bln to the Bulgarian taxpayer, through loans. Again, to be carried out by Russian oligarchs. Is the US watching?

RVMarkov
RVMarkov

Bulgarian protest #ДАНСwith me is against the entire Bulgarian political “elite” of the status quo. Both protests, in February and now, have same roots – corruption, oligarch capitalism, dire economic conditions. The unemployment in Bulgaria is in the teens, and the youth unemployment even bigger.

Bulgaria has to gain its energy independence from Russia.

Bulgaria has to gain its financial independence from the currency board now in place, which fixes BG lev to the euro at 1.95 leva=1 euro. Without an independent national currency, traded under floating international exchange rate regime, Bulgarian people can’t have their full sovereignty, can’t use the proper monetary and fiscal policy for the benefit of Bulgarian economy and ultimately the people.

xmfclick
xmfclick

@RVMarkov "Energy independence from Russia"??? If the EU hadn't forced Bulgaria to shut down Kozloduy, Bulgaria would have electricity independence at least. Let's look at the EU's contribution to the energy problems in Bulgaria, shall we?

therainmaker13
therainmaker13

The story is overblowm...particularly given the fact that this is a media with no represenattive on the ground...obviously it relies on local contributors, who do not hide their bias...the facts are that large part of the citizens do not fill corectly represented, but this is not providing solutions to country chalenges...

EvgeniaPeeva
EvgeniaPeeva

@julianpopov @TIMEWorld we're certainly far enough from the Spring right now. No political alternative yet - something missing in this text.

GeorgiMitsov
GeorgiMitsov like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like


The article has managed to point out the most important aspects of the current situation in Bulgaria.

However the presentation of the blocked Parliament event is misleading!

It is widely commented and all the evidence show a well planned provocation directed by the government.
The strategy that the police used to lead away the politicians is absolutely incompetent!
A bus pushing through the crowd in the peek time of the protests?! The policemen made path for the cynical black-windowed "escape" wagon, with brutal force. Lying on the ground or standing with hands high above the head as the most peaceful sign - women and men, teenagers and old people - have been attacked without any forewarning. Beating bats, electroshocks and the most vulgar curses and threats one can imagine, were crushed upon the demonstrating citizens.
It all seemed much more as a warriors' attack against the enemy, then a wisely thought police action for governing the peace and health of all the people involved. The improvised barricades were build only then, to stop the invading policemen! Never ever was there an attempt to push back or attack the Parliament during the whole night and terror!! Meanwhile the cameras of the television reporters, who were also  inside the building, showed the "trapped" statesmen having dinner in Parliament's luxurious salons. Is it possible that the black-windowed bus was even empty?

I state my great respect to the people protesting in Bulgaria - they have withstanded all the government cynicism and provocations!
The actions of the ruling political elite in Bulgaria are very, very disturbing. What are they plannig - to declare war to the citizens?
I appeal to all concerned people and officials worldwide to state their position loud and clear against this absurd and dangerous government(regime)!

therainmaker13
therainmaker13 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@GeorgiMitsov 

deeply disaggree buddy with your oppinion.... you are not grasping the reality...the other political side (represented by the main opposition party now GERB) has its own agenda against the current government...not to mentioned that the previous PM from GERB had dark past which somebody was using to advance his own agenda...

Aendil
Aendil

I would say the article is pretty lenient on the former and current rulers of Bulgaria.

The problems are too deep and too entwined with Russia's economic plans and energy monopoly to encompass in one single article. My advice to the author is - be bold and follow your gut. You are going to be true even when you think that when it comes to Bulgaria, situation is absurd beyond recognition.  

Aendil
Aendil like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@ДжониБраво That's a bunch of BS buddy. WE all know what people are protesting against - the former commies and their nepotism, oligarchs, against the mafia rooted deep in the organization of the former communist state. Yes, they are protesting against chief DA's like the Sofia DA who graduated the very same police school that the chief of the Capital Supreme Administrative court has graduated. 

The government? You call the gang of misfits of Boyko Borisov, the former ear masseuse of the former commi leader "government"? 

Get your bearing straight and stop wasting people's time with writing crap here.

ДжониБраво
ДжониБраво

@Aendil  you probably didn't read the last sentence i wrote. anyway as i said thats only to be taken as the way i see it and you should respect others point of view as i respect yours :) as one smart guy once said in Bulgaria there are 7 million people and everyone is No1. 

ДжониБраво
ДжониБраво like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I would like to make something clear. The protests in February in its reasons were not against the government, but against the high electricity bills, caused by some GREEN ENERGY laws done by the Government before the one of Boyko Borisov. The reason of high bills was BAD contracts with the Distributing companies as well as too high price for green energy that Bulgaria buys from the plants which are owned by certain people and the purpose most of them have is suck money not developing the green energy because its good for environment. Later after the people went on the streets the same people MADE all that GREEN lie possible (at this time not ruling the country) saw opportunity in the protest and have made it clear that as Social party should take a side and Ride the protest. So they turned the people against the Government for days sending their "trolls" within the crowd.  It should be also pointed that the protesters in februaryts have been highly UNRESPECTFUL  to our President when he came out on the street to show Respect and declare supportive will.

Yes i am putting a thin line between the protests NOW and then in February, because now its much harder to turn the crowd in violence because most  of the people now have opened their eyes and they know how to isolate the provocateurs.  I was at the night when we occupied the parliament and YES i felt the Revolution in my Heart, i am not sure if i was strong enough to resist crossing the line if all went that way but as i was with so many Other like me we made it happened, and Yes there was a blood but i am staying positive that if the crowds were switched between then and now, on that same night we wouldn't have this Artistic semi violent night full of adrenalin and inspiration. We would have more or less a river of blood.
thats the way i see it and it shouldn't be taken as the whole truth ;) and the ONLY one ;)

tennisfanbg
tennisfanbg

@IvetaCherneva Добре! А мнение за това, което днес О. е споделил с Ройтерс след поредния пленум?

jmoshe80
jmoshe80 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@IvetaCherneva “The government is creating favorable conditions for big Russian oligarchs at the expense of the locals.' -Cherneva

jmoshe80
jmoshe80 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@IvetaCherneva “The government is creating favorable conditions for big Russian oligarchs at the expense of the locals.'

jmoshe80
jmoshe80 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@IvetaCherneva 'We are still not quite done with the communist past – it’s that backward mentality we’re trying to break with.' -Cherneva

poppy
poppy

@jmoshe80 @IvetaCherneva 

however, all  'former commies' have managed the best administrative and managerial positions in western world nowadays [... with the help of their parents' connections and the corresponding monies transfers..].