Who Are the Bulgarian Protesters?
By Maria Spirova
According to the CIA’s official statistics, Bulgaria’s death rate is the eighth highest in the world. Afghanistan, war-torn for decades, is seventh. Somalia is ninth. A handful of countries before Bulgaria have gone through sustained armed conflict, famine, genocide, apartheid and a nuclear disaster. And Bulgarians? Bulgarians went through 23 years of democratic transition.
The above fact hints at a key reason for the protests that have marked 2013 and are still drawing thousands of people to anti-government protests day after day: ever since the democratic changes of 1989, life in Bulgaria has been unduly hard. The protesters presently crowding the plaza surrounding the Bulgarian National Assembly and demanding the Cabinet’s resignation, belong to the generation which was in primary school circa 1989. They belong to the generation which grew up in a deprived society of clashing values and persistent uncertainty. But crucially, they also belong to the generation which, for the first time in Bulgarian modern history, could read world news, travel widely and compare. The contrast they found between their reality and the rest of European civilization was devastating.
It still is today – and the protesters are tired of living in limbo. The thirty-somethings of Bulgaria had been silent till now – too busy trying to sort out their careers and families in an ever-contracting economy and an environment of growing lawlessness and nepotism.
Sometimes, too busy planning emigration. This is their first mass outing, their first show of concerted citizen will – an organized discontent, growing out of several green movements which gained traction in the countrysince the mid-00s precisely because they offered a politically unaffiliated – i.e. unsullied – outlet for the frustrations Bulgarians had with a long line of resource-stripping, land-grabbing, neglectful and polluting governments.
The people protesting in front of the Parliament today feel cheated out of their youth, dreams and hopes: after nearly a quarter century of “change”, nothing in their lives has actually changed for good. Their formative years were spent in conditions of deepening nihilism – between 1994 and 2012 dabbling in Bulgarian politics morphed from a challenging, ideal-bound job into a bona fide criminal career. Ministries became the front-facing “shops” of the proliferating mafia structures, manned by ousted, but well-connected Communist functionaries, and hundreds of disaffected secret police agents and prospectless young wrestlers and boxers, let down by the sudden loss of state subsidy for their local clubs (such were established in most towns in Communist times).
As children and teens, the current protest generation had to endure the doomed attempts of a nascent political scene to generate elites untainted by Communist ties – a near impossibility in a society where access to power was so tightly controlled that there was virtually no other way in. Having actual political experience equaled a compromised background. To illustrate: as of this year, more than half of the currently serving Bulgarian diplomats are still persons with proven links to the oppressive apparatus of the former Communist state security services.
The latest protests were triggered by the same legacy of entrenched, deeply illegitimate power: the snap elections on May 11 produced the current stillborn coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (heir to the seemingly dismantled all-powerful Communist Party) and ethnic Turkish party Movement for Rights and Freedoms, with Plamen Oresharski as Prime Minister. In its first days in power, the new government, aided by a largely unchanged Parliament, attempted to shoo in Delyan Peevski (a widely reviled prot?g? of massive criminal monopolies, under multiple investigations himself) as head of DANS – an ill-conceived, yet highly powerful national security structure tasked with investigating organized crime activity. This paradox was seen as a monstrous gesture of contempt towards the Bulgarian people: it is one thing to tacitly advance the toxic meshing of democratic institutions and organized crime structures. It is quite another to rub it in the face of a nation that just ousted another primitive and abusive government.
When today’s protesters were growing up, they witnessed the progressive deterioration of vital institutions, the arbitrary change of governments, but not of attitudes and political practices – each Cabinet appeared more absurd, incompetent and unprincipled than the last. The currency crashed, the shops had no food. The abrupt change from command economy to free market capitalism plunged vast swathes of the population into sudden, shocking poverty, accompanied by loss of dignity, status and security. Stunned, disoriented and angry, Bulgarians went to the ballot in ever dwindling numbers, mostly to avenge themselves against the latest government that overpromised and underdelivered. Elections became the public executions of politicians and parties, and, finally, of the concept of government itself. This is how beginning with 2000, Bulgarians voted in a progression of ever odder political entities – from one-man parties such as the National Movement Simeon II (which produced the paradox of installing deposed prince Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as a republican Prime Minister without formally rescinding his royal claims) and GERB (the charismatic movement around strongman Boyko Borisov, ousted by protests in February this year), to ultranationalist scandal-mongers “Ataka”, busy inciting ethnic hatred against the significant minority of Bulgarian Turks. It continued thus until no party, no politician was able to claim an ounce of decency or respect.
This mutual schism in Bulgarian public consciousness, pitting everybody who was in politics against everybody who was not, helped Bulgarian society arrive where it stands today. Party lines, for purposes other than public debates and election campaigns, are blurred beyond recognition. Trust in institutions is practically nil. Voters struggle to identify a true, meaningful alternative in terms of viable political opposition. Bulgarians either avoid voting altogether, disgusted with the mere thought of enabling the same revolving set of failed politicians, or go to the ballot not with their future in mind, but to punish, to lash out, to tear down. Everything that seemed new and untried before appeared preferable to whatever current government was in charge, so no Cabinet was actually allowed space and time to see though meaningful reforms. In turn, each successive Cabinet busied itself predominantly with undoing what the previous ones had done and reallocating resources to insiders – a party mandate didn’t mean governing a country, but simply draining it for personal gain and exploiting it as a vast sweatshop. To quote a recent Reuters publication: “We’re effectively dealing with a Wild West country,” said an EU official who handles east Europe, voicing doubts about Bulgaria’s ability to enforce the law and live by democratic norms”.
This stinging judgment echoes ominously for the future of Bulgarian statehood – it indicates that the country has exhausted its credit of post-Cold War good will in the eyes of its aspirational model – Western Europe. While in the 90s the West may have been willing to help Bulgaria along, now the country is viewed more as a grand nuisance, a baffling liability in the periphery of the European Union. The demonstrators standing vigil in the cold nights of November 1989, shouting “Times are changing! It’s our time!” felt the world was watching. The free world was behind them, the Iron Curtain was melting, help was on its way. It was an illusion, ultimately, but it sustained them.
Today, the children of those same protesters doggedly demand the resignation of another morally bankrupt government – the last, ugly spawn of a transition whose course was fatally perverted from the very start. They stand in the sweltering July evenings on the same yellow-bricked plaza, in front of the same Parliament building. They know now times have not changed. They know they stand alone.
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