An Inconvenient Challenge for Bulgarian Civil Society
Every day since mid June, protesters have sought the resignation of the still young government of Plamen Oresharski comprised of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Turkish-minority-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms. These ongoing mass protests were sparked by the brazen appointment of the 32-year-old media baron Delyan Peevski as head of the country’s national security apparatus, with protesters directing their anger against the conspicuous linkages between the oligarchic networks that control the country’s economy and the supposedly democratic political parties tasked with regulating them. In this article, I endorse this dominant narrative of the protests but also note the reluctance of Bulgarian civil society to actively confront ethnic intolerance in its midst.
If Oresharski’s government collapses, it will not be the first but the second Bulgarian administration to fall victim to people power in 2013. Back in February, the right-wing GERB cabinet of Boiko Borissov collectively resigned after failing to contain popular anger over rising fuel prices, an issue that, then as now, threw an unflattering light on the cosy links between oligarchical networks – or, to use the more common language on the street, ‘the mafia’ – and the government. Now in opposition, partisans of the Bulgarian right are enjoying the discomfort of their BSP and MRF opponents. Indeed, some on the right have even suggested that it is not just mafia connections but also economic ‘populism’ in the form of unbudgeted welfare promises and the wanton destruction of Bulgaria’s fiscal discipline that has so offended the young and educated denizens of Sofia. Such ideas are rather fanciful however, especially since many of those mobilized on the streets now were also mobilized against GERB earlier in the year. The overwhelming consensus is that all mainstream political parties are equally compromised and this narrative is supported by the fact that the protesters last week decamped from the parliament building to stage a spin-off protest outside GERB headquarters.
Whether it is acknowledged or not however, this valiant tale of 'citizens against the mafia' is complicated by a general unwillingness to confront the intolerance of many fellow protesters who have less inclusive visions of what constitutes ‘a normal country’. To be sure, most of the protesters in Sofia would not agree with those in provincial towns such as Blagoevgrad and Pazardzhik – and some in the capital - who vented their displeasure at the role of the MRF in the government by subjecting ‘Turks’ to racist chants. However, the consensus seems to be that it would be better if journalists ignored these supposedly marginal elements. When journalists writing on the protests so much as mention this ethnic dimension of the protests, the throaty below-the-line response of protesters is summed up by the oft-repeated refrain of ‘this isn’t about ethnicity’.
Still, as Emine Gyulestan last month argued in a popular blog under the provocative heading ‘The Protest of a Dirty Turkishwoman’, the unchallenged presence of such racist messages makes many non-slavic Bulgarians unsure of whether these protests are also for them. The key problem is that national intolerance is not only the preserve of the marginal and potentially violent few but is often tacitly endorsed by a majority of those Bulgarians who see themselves as proud citizens of the EU. Prior to the botched appointment of Peevski, a satirical poster was circulated online at the time that the government was formed in late May. Against a background of the Bulgarian tricolore, it showed BSP leader Sergei Stanishev, the MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan and the ultranationalist Ataka leader Volen Siderov (whose tacit cooperation was required to allow the minority government to form) who were respectively labelled as ‘The Gay’, ‘The Bey’ and ‘The Villain’ over the slogan ‘O Mother… My Sweet Motherland!’. As a lament, it certainly struck a chord, quickly gathering over 15,000 shares (and perhaps ten times as many ‘likes’) on Facebook and all of this on the part of an online public that can be assumed to be neither BSP nor MRF nor Ataka supporters. It can be inferred from this and many other ‘shares’ that nationalist appeals augmented by anti-Turkish (and here also homophobic) innuendo actually play quite well among many of the Western-oriented and social network savvy demographic active in the protests.
The ‘non-issue’ of ethnicity turns out to be a painful dilemma for Sofia-based progressives. To actively challenge ethnic nationalist assumptions risks alienating many of those who swell the numbers of the protests, but to avoid doing so forecloses the possibility of uniting Bulgarians of all ethnicities against the democracy-subverting kleptocratic entanglements of political elites.
PhD Candidate in Political Science
School of Public Policy
University College London
The article was originally published in the site of the European Institute, which is University College London’s hub for research, collaboration and information on Europe and the European Union.
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