Why Bulgaria's Protests Stand out in Europe
In the past few years millions of angry citizens – generally young, well educated and mobilised through social media – have "occupied" places in countries as different as the US, Egypt, Russia, Spain, Brazil, Turkey and Bulgaria, demanding not simply a change in government but also a different way of governing.
What these vastly different protest movements have in common is that they trust neither the business or political elites. They captured the public imagination without bringing to life either a new ideology or charismatic political leaders. They will be remembered for videos, not manifestos; happenings, not speeches; conspiracy theories, not political tracts.
In short, the global protests are not an expression of what Vaclav Havel once called "the power of the powerless" but of the frustration of the empowered.
In the annals of this global protest movement Bulgaria plays a special role. The country is a classic example of everything that is wrong with democracy – corruption, dysfunctional institutions and public apathy – and a textbook case of why democracy is still our best hope, with its potential to mobilise civic energy and allow people peacefully to topple governments that must go.
In February the centre-right government of former prime minister Boiko Borisov resigned after 100,000 protesters, mostly from the countryside, stormed the streets protesting against poverty, unemployment, corruption and electricity price rises. Seven people set fire to themselves during the protests.
Now it is the turn of the government of the Bulgarian socialist party and the party representing ethnic Turks to think about resignation. The story of the latest crisis is as simple as the plot of a low-budget Hollywood movie. It started on 14 June when the parliament appointed Delyan Peevski as the head of the State Agency for National Security. The appointment of this man, whom the western press respectfully describes as a "media mogul with shady connections", and whom Bulgarian media (even those few not own by him) find it best not to discuss, had the effect of a political earthquake.
Just hours after the decision was announced thousands of people mobilised via social media ended up on the street demanding his resignation. He resigned but this was not enough for the protesters. People then asked for the resignation of the government that had the perverse idea to appoint him. So every night since 14 June thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Sofia asking for only one thing – early elections. But their protest is not just against this government but against any government that treats people as useless furniture.
The strategy adopted by Bulgaria's centre-left rulers is to pretend that nothing important is really happening and to wait for the protesters to go on holiday. But the people have not gone away. On the 40th day the protest got bloody. At 10pm police tried to break the siege around parliament and both protesters and policemen were wounded. The situation remains tense. It is a safe bet that in the not so distant future Bulgaria will have new parliamentary elections. The latest opinion poll indicates that only 16% of Bulgarians want the government to serve a full term.
What do the summer protests in Sofia teach us about "the revolution of the global middle class"? First, after more than 40 days of protest the crowd on the streets of Sofia impressed foreign correspondents but did not move the Bulgarian government. Second, in the age of Facebook the urban middle class risks remaining politically isolated, incapable of reaching out to other social groups. And third, the readiness of the government to use force against protesters is proportional to the active public support it can mobilise. In Turkey police came down hard on the protests, because its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was able to gather hundreds of thousands in his support. In Bulgaria counter protests never managed to gather more than 300 people.
The final lesson, learned after the protest-election cycle in Bulgaria earlier this year, is that popular protests can change almost everything, but not necessarily the way people vote. If protests fail to come up with political alternatives that people are ready to support, they are doomed to remain simply passing episodes that those participating in might one day nostalgically recall as a beautiful one-night stand with democracy. But even in failing, the protests have succeeded. The latest opinion polls indicate that after almost two month of protests Bulgarians' support for democracy and the European Union has increased.
And it is the position taken by Brussels and the major European capitals that makes Bulgarian protests stand out in the current protest wave in Europe. It is in Bulgaria that, contrary to its bureaucratic instincts, official Europe has sided with the protesters and not with the elites. The ambassadors of France and Germany wrote a joint article on 4 July strongly criticising the political model embodied by the government and practised also by previous ones. EU justice commissioner Vivian Reding came to Sofia and did what the Bulgarian prime minister hadn't – talked to the people.
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