The Winter of 'Their' Discontent
The entire world, the Old continent, and Bulgaria are shaken and gripped by protests of people in discontent over layoffs, unemployment, budget cuts, corporate and political greed.
Bulgaria and the capital Sofia witnessed some unusually large rallies in opposition to the retirement reform, reforms in the heavily-indebted State Railways BDZ Holding, and cuts in national subsidies for the farming sector.
Society and experts are divided on the protests – some support them staunchly; others blame syndicates and demonstrators for digging even a deeper hole for Bulgaria in times of crisis.
The second group accuses Bulgarians of being lazy – people who would rather protest than work for one more year beyond the current retirement age, which the cabinet wanted to introduce in 2012 and later retracted under labor union pressure. True, when there is such impoverishment, such shortage of cash and pensions are so miserable, it would make sense to stay longer on the labor market. The move, however, would affect most negatively those inching to retirement age, worn-out from hard jobs with low pay and bad work conditions, and the middle-aged unemployed, who have a tough time finding work since there is definite age discrimination by the country's employers.
Railway workers are criticized for refusing, incited by the unions, to understand that there is no more money to pay their wages (which are, by the way, also miserable); that layoffs are imminent, and it would be better to take the six salaries and leave instead of sinking the company even further by a prolonged strike. But if one steps in their shoes - the majority of these people is also middle-aged with families to feed; have no other skills, and will just join the army of unemployed in an extremely shrinking and "cold" labor market.
The grain producers are blamed for not wanting to accept that they would not get what was promised to them. Their foes say they should stop infringing by their tractor-blockades on the right of other Bulgarians to move freely on country roads, and should not spend so much on the very expensive fuel for farming equipment for which they demand a lift of the excise duty.
Their protest so far seems the most controversial one – true, these rallies with food, hotel accommodations for participants, and fuel have been expensive. It is also true that grain producing has been favored with the largest portion of subsidies for a long time, making a handful of people very rich while the other farming sectors suffer.
Grain producers further prompted antagonism by going back and forth with demands for money and/or cabinet resignations, blurring the protest grounds and sending it to a deadlock.
However, they were cheated by an empty promise and have an officially signed agreement with government officials to prove it – and this is the bottom line.
Curiously enough, the majority of the disgruntled want the head of Finance Minister, Simeon Djankov and wish to talk to the "good" Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, as the only politician to be trusted. The grounds behind such demands are somewhat mindboggling since Borisov changes his mind so often... (One day he covets the Footballer of the Year title and on the next declares he does not want it...)
In the midst of it all, Djankov walks around chanting the mantra of no money and low deficit, but repeatedly declares he will jump ship in a year and half (when the next general elections will be held) over "other plans."
Certainly, reforms are a must and the State is strapped for cash. Retirement age will go and has to go up as everywhere in Europe; BDZ can no longer remain in its current situation, propped by State funding, with obsolete, filthy trains, passengers with free fares, and losses on top of losses... Grain producers will have to come to terms that they are better off, compared to many, and stop asking for more national subsidies.
As Borisov recently advised, everyone should tighten their belts, and look for other ways to get funding – part with the "Socialist" mentality the State should pay, seek EU projects, sponsors etc. "I am sick and tired of people crying for money under my windows," he said.
But a question inevitably pops up – if these reforms were and are so much needed why the cabinet waited until after the elections to announce them, along with the very austere and conservative budget 2012? Didn't they know all this before the elections – are they incompetent or was it all a deception in order to get more votes?
In an attempt to excuse the lie, the Prime Minister, leader of a self-proclaimed right-wing party, accused the grain producers of being greedy when there are millionaires among them, driving Bentleys. A quite peculiar right-wing stance, not only immediately dividing the nation into "us against them," but implying that being wealthy is a sin, some sort of being a criminal.
The irony is even more striking when one takes into consideration that the PM is by no means a poor man, and by own admissions, loves to drive his BMW. Unlike many, he did not come into politics to become rich; he amassed his wealth some time before that. But on the other hand side, there have been a number of allegations about ways he used to make money in the past.
In a diplomatic cable of the US embassy in Sofia, dated May 5, 2006, revealed on WikiLeaks and their partner for Bulgaria, the investigative journalism site Bivol.bg, former American Ambassador, John Beyrle, focusing on Borisov's biography and rise to power, wrote the following:
"Accusations in years past have linked Borisov to oil-siphoning scandals, illegal deals involving Lukoil and major traffic in methamphetamines."
It is also known that in the past, the now Prime Minister had a joint business with a notorious boss from SIC corporation (allegedly one of Bulgaria's two powerful mafia structures, along with VIS, in the 1990s). – Rumen Nikolov AKA The Pasha.
Could this possibly be behind Borisov's belief a millionaire or someone who is driving a Bentley equals doing something wrong?
Meanwhile, in times when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church "enjoys" 3% approval among Bulgarians (the Parliament has 22%) the clergy flashes gold chains, Rolex watches and luxury limos without any clarity on how did they acquire them...
And, yes, in a democracy the right to protest is a basic one. What democracy?
The right to vote for the candidate of your choice, free speech and the right of protest are still better than the alternative.. Since the 1980's, unfortunately, the democratic process has produced far few voices that actually represent the people, and instead has produced the right-wing dogma of special interest elitism..
In that regard, Bulgaria is not unique in having a modern democracy which benefits a small percentage of the population, and where the more populist leadership is priced out of the process..