Protests Trap Bulgarian Lawmakers Inside Parliament
by Matthew Brunwasser
More than 100 legislators, government ministers, journalists and officials were blockaded inside the Bulgarian Parliament building late Tuesday night and into Wednesday, as the 40th day of largely peaceful street protests in Sofia, the capital, turned confrontational.
Scuffles broke out Tuesday evening when the police tried to clear the crowd to make way for a bus exiting Parliament under heavy guard. Protesters blew whistles, shouted "resign!" and "Mafia!" and threw bottles at the bus, as police officers in riot gear beat them back.
Ultimately the bus was forced to retreat, and by 2 a.m. Wednesday, the protesters had reinforced the blockade with garbage cans, street signs and paving stones, blocking vehicles from leaving any of the exits from Parliament.
Pictures of chaotic confrontations appeared on the evening television news and on Facebook pages, with the national radio reporting that seven protesters were being treated in hospitals for light injuries and Reuters reporting that two police officers were wounded.
The Interior Ministry did not release information about arrests or injuries. In a statement, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said that his ministry had "enough strength to guarantee the security of the people in and around the building of the National Assembly," and he called on citizens to be peaceful.
Thousands of protesters have gathered in the city center every day for the last 40 days, since June 14, when the government appointed Delyan Peevski, 32, a politically connected media mogul, as head of the powerful State Agency for National Security.
The government withdrew the appointment after the immediate public outcry, but thousands have continued to march through the city center every day in peaceful protests demanding an end to what they see as incompetent, corrupt and nepotistic governance, a view they say was only confirmed by the appointment of Mr. Peevski.
Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 and has faced unrelenting criticism by the European Commission for failing to fight corruption and reform its ineffective justice system.
The European Justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, publicly sided with the protesters on Tuesday.
"My sympathy is with the Bulgarian citizens who are protesting on the streets against corruption," she said in a discussion with civil society groups, before the clashes.
Opinion polls show that about 60 percent of Bulgarians disapprove of the government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, formed after elections in May. Few analysts expect the coalition government to survive its four-year mandate.
Bulgarians have grown accustomed to taking to the streets to express their grievances since last summer when environmentalists blocked a major Sofia intersection to protest a forestry law. Their demands were met several days later when the law was amended.
The previous government of Boyko Borisov collapsed in February after angry street protests last winter against increases in electricity bills.
The Bulgarians have been inspired by the creative spirit of the protests across the border in neighboring Turkey. But unlike the bloody and tear-gas filled streets of Istanbul, Sofia's have remained largely celebratory and peaceful.
"It began like a big street party," says Yavor Siderov, a history professor who has attended most of protests this summer. "Now it's beginning to resemble a siege. People are becoming much more determined."
Mr. Siderov said the protesters had hardened their strategy. While the protesters, who gathered after working hours, once shouted slogans at empty government buildings, they are now surrounding the Parliament while it is in session and demanding government attention.
The police have shown restraint all along, according to Lora Fileva, a reporter for the national daily newspaper Dnevnik, who was been covering the protests. Ms. Fileva says that the police were not looking for a fight but had no other way to react Tuesday when the bus filled with politicians from the Parliament was surrounded.
"It was obvious that it would happen like this," she said.
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