The Bulgarian Winter: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
by Mariya Ivancheva
On Wednesday, 20th of February 2013, the Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borissov has deposited its resignation. What happened? What comes next?
Over the last week, Bulgarians in most big cities have been out in the streets, protesting against the increased electricity and heating bills. While the increase has happened gradually throughout 2012, the bills that were delivered to the post-boxes of the population in January 2013 were often times bigger than they would normally get. The wave of contention in response to the rise of electricity prices spread throughout the country, resulting in blockades of roads, barricades, increasing popular rage and police violence. An old man cut his veins in a village in North Bulgaria in a feat of desperation over his bill. One of the organizers of the protests in Varna was stabbed with a knife. The boss of the police force in traditionally rebellious city of Pernik was beaten up by angry protesters. In Sofia over ten people were arrested, and further twenty five beaten by the police. A team of journalists were shot upon with private weapon from a building in the center of Sofia. Police cars and barrels of rubbish were turned upside down after the protests on Sunday and Monday night. Bills, flags, and cars were burnt, and windows broken before offices of the few power distributing companies and their local representatives. The protesters were mostly rank-and-file Bulgarians fed up with the political system of the last 23 years that has lead to their full impoverishment and total alienation from the political process. Middle-aged men and women, young couples with children and students all went out on the streets to protest the deadlock which successive governments had installed on them. The protests were also joined and partly hijacked by a number of right-extreme groups. Mobilized around the neo-Nazi march this Saturday, commemorating interwar General Hristo Lukov, the Hitlerite leader of the Bulgarian Legions, who and introduced anti-Semitic laws, they were ready to provoke and loot. Their reactions jeopardized the energy of the protests which peaked on Sunday, and resurged on Tuesday. Tuesday night saw bloody clashes with the police in Sofia on the even of the commemoration of Vassil Levski, the only uncontested hero and political martyr of the Bulgarian national liberation. When Boyko Borissov said he would resign on Wensday morning, it was this blood on his hands, he said he could not tolerate. Yet, most people see his resignation as a way to desert the sinking ship of the Bulgarian state amidst the crisis previous cabinets started and he deepened.
The last protests did not come out of the blue. Over the last two months numerous protests have taken place throughout the country. In November the threat to the poet and all-time-dissident Nikolay "Bossiya" (Barefoot) Kolev sparked the so-called "Tomato revolution": a night of discontent not just against the unjust court trial of Bossiya, but against the government in general. In December and January two protests against privatization moves took place. The privatization of the freight train transport – the profiting part of the railway company split "under EU regulations" – has also been underway despite the protests in Sofia. A much wider social and media response was generated around the months' long blockade of the Sopot Machine plant. The demand of the workers to get their six months' salaries back led to its rapid privatization and the materialization of a mysterious sum of money with which the government paid back the salaries of the state-employed workers. In December and January the Green movement that protested in the summer was back to the streets. While in June their victory against the Forestry act was seen as a success, less than half a year later the government was overseeing the continuing construction. The contradictory Law of Education also sparked moderate protests. While the competition between teachers and the state subsidy to private schools have been the most contradictory clauses, middle-class parents mobilized against the compulsory post-4 kindergarten provision. Since December students at the Sofia University have also come out to protest against the increase of student fees. All these protests have come as a symptom of the increasing discontent of Bulgarians with the political and economic system. And while not all demands went against privatization and for protection, this was the overall frame: a frame that has proved difficult to articulate after decades of a systematic liberal pro-market brain-wash.
The latest wave of contention that led to the resignation of the cabinet made no exception, but by early this week, the demands had started to change. The initial demand for the decrease of energy bills gradually changed with the slogan "Let's burn the monopolies". This motto expressed the explanations of the government as to why the increase of prices had happened were various. The reasons given ranged from the tax on green energy, the slightly longer period of charging, the delay of the process of reporting and increased consumption due to the Christmas holidays, and the low voltage of the electricity for domestic consumption. These were all valid reasons, and it was not transparency that was missing in the price formation. The solution offered, however, by liberal intellectuals, the media, and also initially by the people in the streets, was – surprise, surprise – the end of monopolies and further privatization and liberalization of the energy market. Yet the whole process is a showcase of how privatized entities function out of state control. The power distributive companies were privatized in 2005 and then sold out to three foreign companies under very favorable conditions of secure 16% annual profit or return for them. This made the state – and thus the taxpayers – literally indebted to these private companies, which have on top of that held prices high with a cartel agreement. Yet, it was not the monopoly in general that was a problem: an issue which was eclipsed by the amnesia of 23 years of transition to market economy. It was the monopoly in the hands of uncontrolled and uncontrollable private companies within a free market economy with no state regulation or protection that made the population vulnerable to price hikes. Yet, the crisis of political representation seemed stronger and soon took a lead among the protesters. The concrete plea of concessions on the electricity bills were soon followed by an overall demand for the resignation of the government, which in some places took the form of claims against particular local mayors and representatives of the state. By Monday the demands changed more dramatically to a new Constitutional Assembly, majority vote with no parties but individual candidates, and the revision of all privatization deals and concessions for the last 20 years. Thus, while general discontent with the capitalist system only surfaced timidly in some of the protesters' demands, the crisis has become political.
Caught in the vortex of increasing popular discontent, the Bulgarian center-right government of Citizens for the European Future of Bulgaria (GERB) has mostly responded with quick-fix solutions to quell people’s anger. It has privatized state-owned enterprises but kept collective contracts. It has made concessions on contradictory bills to only then change other laws in favor of big business. It has exhausted the treasury to pay sums of money to shut down further protest. The only thing it has not changed has been the general direction of its austerity and privatization reforms. At the same time, Prime Minister Borissov’s response to most protests has thus far been that of genuine irritation and contempt. While he scorned the participants in previous protests this winter, he has tirelessly underlined the great contributions of his government in the construction of highways. After the small concessions he granted to certain protesting groups, he has restored his overall image of a reconciling father of the nation. This time, however, the paternalistic tone was not allowed by the people in the streets. After Borissov’s failed attempts to calm them down in appearances on TV late last week, the protests and blockades continued at full speed. They culminated in tens of thousands people coming out in the streets in the country on Sunday. The nervous and contradictory reactions of Borissov and his team betrayed their total impasse. In a typical populist gesture the Prime Minister publicly declared himself in support of the protesters and “generously” offered them rescheduled payment if they filed a complaint: a true gesture of liberal solidarity. This measure was not welcomed. People firmly demanded his resignation. As a next solution, Borissov pressed the Minister of Economics, Energetic, and Tourism Delyan Dobrev to carry out investigation of the power distributing companies and declassification of their contracts with the state. In less than a week, Borissov also fired two bosses of the Direction of the State Commission of Power and Water Regulation (DKVER): one for the increased bills, the other – freshly appointed – for her company’s involvement in the online trade of banned cigarettes.
The chaotic and desperate actions of Borissov and his people on Monday are a symptom of the deeper political and economic crisis which his and previous governments have brought to the country. They were also a sign of conflicts within the party in power. The President – usually a blind follower of the PM – used the chaos for some political self-promotion, declaring his support for people. GERB issued “directives for reaction” to the media, but then quickly withdrew them, saying that the email was in fact aimed to reach its parliamentary group members only. At the same time, the clamor around the energy bills eclipsed another protest – or a threat of one – that actually put the decisive spike in the gun of the government. This winter Bulgarian grain producers held a number of protests. After a promise of the Prime Minister to pay their subsidy by the end of February, they had frozen the protests. Yet, the promise of the government did not seem to materialize and a next warning was issued late last week. The promise of Borissov to pay the subsidy from the pocket of the state, until the European Commission pays it back to the grain producers, was met with unexpected resistance by the Finance Minister Simion Dyankov. Dyankov, a young yuppie that left his position as the Chief Economist of the Finance and Private Sector Vice-Presidency of the World Bank to join the government, said it was impossible to pay before April. His refusal outraged Borissov and he asked him to resign on Monday. Ironically, back in 2010 Borissov had said that the resignation of Dyankov would mean the end of his government: yet another promise of the Prime Minister that came to naught. Before he left his position, however, Dyankov was asked to issue a new emission of country’s bonds for 800 mln lv (409 mln euros) last Wensday. Under the unexpected shock for the national economy and surprise to the international market the country’s bond yields have started to rise and the value of Bulgarian debt to go down: a threat which the media and people on the streets have equally neglected.
Under the pressure of the protests about the electricity bills, on Tuesday the Prime Minister gave a press conference. He did not resign. Instead, in a program of seven points, he promised changes which the DKVER had to vote. A cancellation of the 13% increase of electricity voted in August 2012 fell down, and a further 8% decrease of the price was voted. Where the money would come from to secure these measures, the PM did not make clear. While the PM has refused the idea of nationalization, he declared himself in favor of the concentration of control of in the hands of National Electricity Company (NEC). An uncontrollable state-within-the-state, NEC was seen by the people as one of the main reasons for the lack of transparency in the price formation of electricity, but no provision was made. The declassification of the contracts with the power distributing companies was paralleled with a promise that they would be penalized and CEZ would lose its license. GERB has also promised 50% of its quota in DKVER to become public, and it has asked the other parties to follow track. Two ladies, allegedly part of the protest organizers – Daniela Pelovska and Diana Kaneva – who were called to Borissov’s premises yesterday, joined the PM at the press-conference rostrum on Tuesday. They enthusiastically endorsed the government’s quick reaction, and said they did not demand its resignation. They said that before the demands start being fulfilled no further protests would follow, and that if there was anyone to blame it was not the current PM, but the whole political system of the last 23 years. They said they did not support the ultras’ violence asked ordinary protesters to withdraw from participation. While the first reactions in the social networks were those of frustration, both journalists and protesters soon joined in their outrage against the badly staged political theater. The investigative site Bivol forwarded information about Pelovska. Beyond her participation in the privatization process and involvement with the party of the former Tsar Simeon II, it was disclosed that both her son and her daughter are high-ranking officials within the local authorities in Sofia, where Borissov’s party GERB holds power. Two of the other protest organizers Yanko Petrov and Yanaki Ganchev spoke before the privately owned independent Channel 3 saying that the two ladies had betrayed all Bulgarians. They called for the continuation of the protests until people saw the fall of the government. Protest organizers from all around Bulgaria have called people to continue their offensive. While big protests have taken place on Tuesday evening already, the real big national protest was scheduled for Sunday, 24th of February.
Given the relatively close parliamentary election in July, the deposited resignation of the government now and its loss later this spring was already no news. Borissov’s political game was no longer convincing for the majority. His resignation was a last attempt to save his face, but most people see his resignation as a sign of weakness. With or without an interim government, the lack of an alternative political actor makes the electoral perspectives rather bleak. Borissov has thus far absorbed popular discontent within both the all-time powerful Bulgarian Socialist Party its all-time ally the Movement for Rights and Liberties and their similarly neoliberal right-wing contenders. The new party of former European Commissioner Miglena Kuneva – a splinter of the Tsar’s party and some further members of the former democrats – is yet another embodiment of power-hungry marginals of the political transition. The new coalitions in the conservative right political parties as Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria seem barren, especially since it was Ivan Kostov’s government that started the whole process of privatization in the energy and further sectors. A few parties in the extreme right, such as Ataka and VMRO, have tried to ride the wave of the protests. And while their thugs discredited the protests, their leaders have kept firm ground, calling for nationalization of the power distributive companies, and the resignation of the government.
Yet if the current political system with GERB and all other discredited parties figure as the devil in the equation in the title, the alternative scenario is both impossible and appealing as the deep blue sea. What is certain is that the camel’s back has been broken in Bulgaria. Bulgarians have joined larger processes that shook the region – Romania last winter, Slovenia, Hungary, Macedonia and Kosovo this season. Slogans of los Indignados in Spain and the Greek anti-austerity protest start featuring in the streets. What is really needed now is that people organize and speak openly of what form of economic rule and political control we demand and how to achieve them. We need mechanisms and forms of political, economic, and social participation: a struggle that is parallel to the electoral one, and one that aims to overturn the system as it is. Solidarity and international diffusion of protest strategies and forms of organizing are now needed more than ever. And while the anti-capitalist and anti-privatization vocabulary and alternative economic solutions are still at a rudimentary stage of development, one thing is clear: the Bulgarian winter is still on the go.
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