What is happening in Bulgaria?

01/07/2013 by Christopher Buxton

Seen as much less newsworthy than the street demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt, the unrest in Bulgaria continues.

For seventeen days now the streets of Sofia have been filled by thousands of noisy but otherwise largely peaceful protestors. In foreign capitals emigrants have protested outside Bulgarian embassies. Other major towns saw protests of proportionate size but they have continued only in Varna, Plovdiv and Blagoevgrad, where allegations of local government corruption have kept the protest pot boiling.

   Local journalists report the significant presence of intellectuals and articulate young people. Many of the protestors probably did not vote in the recent elections out of a hopeless cynicism that their voice would change nothing. The police represent a benign presence – doing little more than offering token protection of significant buildings. The protests have taken on a carnival character, with lively competition for who can come up with the most striking slogans and visual effects.  Hits spread through the internet and across the front pages include a man walking behind his wife who is pushing their toddler triplets: his placard reads: “Now you’ve upset Mummy!”;  a mournful Alsatian dog the message: “You bastards spoiled my walk!” ; washing lines set up in the street carrying pantomime sized underpants, all carefully labeled with the names of politicians, all spectacularly soiled.

Thousands of people process every evening shouting for the government to resign, calling for a new electoral system, calling for new elections. The detailed aims of any large group of people cannot be easily defined but their confidence that they can achieve something is based on what happened in February, when street demonstrations brought down the previous government.

Then the cumulative tinderbox of budget cuts, growing unemployment figures, corruption scandals, ineffective legal system and increasing resentment at living in the poorest country in Europe just needed a spark. And that spark came with the delayed post- Christmas utility bills.  Their shocking size brought thousands out on the streets. People’s desperation was underlined by several incidents of self immolation.  Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned and elections were called.

Under the circumstances Boyko Borisov tried to put out a populist spin.  He said he was resigning because he did not wish to see the police breaking heads on the streets of Sofia. He claimed that one unfortunate consequence was that planned rises in the pitifully low state pension would now be delayed.  He later claimed that the February riots had saved his life, as there had been a plot to assassinate him. He hoped that in the few months of emergency government, people would forget about the various corruption scandals and that his bluff man-of-the-people persona would once again ensure success over his lackluster political rivals.

All this is typical of Boyko Borisov’s style of leadership. He cares deeply about his public image. He is the only politician in Bulgaria to possess charisma. He speaks the language of the average voter.  These qualities have led to his being admired and detested in pretty much equal order. As Prime Minister he was always quick to take centre stage to trumpet his government’s successes and equally quick to shift the blame for government failures. Prior to his resignation he sacked austerity promoter, Finance Minister Dyankov.  He has even hinted that he is ready to ditch his faithful deputy, former Minister of Internal Affairs, Tsvetan Tsvetanov who is currently facing charges of overseeing and approving illegal phone tapping and surveillance. Typically Borisov personalized this, joking that he objected to his most intimate toilet moments being recorded.

The May elections underlined the shortcomings of the Bulgarian electoral system. It is a proportional system that guarantees a total disconnect between the voters and their eventual representatives. Voters are presented with a choice of parties and their lists of names. Many small parties – including a number of fractious Conservative factions – do not stand a chance of gaining the magic 4% that will give some of their named candidates access to Parliament. Those who vote for these unsuccessful parties will find that the system transfers their votes to parties that they would never have voted for. Media coverage can be extremely partisan but also tends to favour the large parties.

The results of the May elections, however predictable, caused consternation. Boyko Borisov’s GERB party gained the most votes, but the Socialists were not far behind. Only two other parties made it over the vital 4% threshold: the far right xenophic anti-EU ATAKA party and the DPS.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) will always be an uncomfortable presence in any parliament – uncomfortable for many of the majority of ethnic Bulgarians – as this party claims to represent the interests of significant Turkish speaking and Moslem populations living in specific areas of Bulgaria. The Party has always denied being ethnically based – this would be against the current constitution – and now boasts numbers of ethnic Bulgarians in its ranks. This may be explained by rumours that in areas controlled by the DPS important contracts will only be given to DPS members. The DPS is extremely well organized and can count on the unquestioning loyalty of its constituency which includes thousands of Bulgarian Turks now living in Turkey. The bussing of these voters across the border provokes fury especially for the far right “patriotic” parties which rely on memories of Bulgaria’s five hundred years of “enslavement” under the “Ottoman yoke”.

One might have assumed that ATAKA and the DPS would never see eye to eye. During the election the black shirted ATAKA leader Volen Siderov called on his followers to block the Turkish frontier posts to stop the DPS buses bringing in their voters. However when the Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev unveiled his plan for a “government of experts” led by the colourless Plamen Oresharski and of course supported by the DPS, Volen Siderov ensured that his party’s presence in Parliament gave the necessary quorum for the launch of the new government.

Oresharski came under fire in the first days of his administration. He appointed Kalin Tiholov as Minister of Investment Planning, apparently unaware that this architect had been accused of close involvement in illegal building projects on the Black Sea coast. Oresharski quickly replaced Tiholov with another architect Ivan Danov, who has since been accused of fraudulently living off French Social Security.

Obviously shaken Oresharski nevertheless went on to rubber stamp a further appointment.  This is what brought Bulgarian people out on to the street in their thousands. The appointment of DPS MP Delyan Peevski as head of the State Security Agency (known as DANS) was announced by Sergei Stanishev with the immortal sentence: “non standard times call for non-standard solutions.” The appointment was duly passed without debate (Boyko had led his MPs out of the chamber in a publicity sulk).  As DPS colleagues thumped Peevski on the back Oresharski looked uncomfortable.

In this crisis corruption ridden country, appearances count for a lot. It is unfortunate that Peevski is morbidly fat. It adds to his reputation of media mogul and oligarch. No rich person in Bulgaria can sleep easy.  Too many people know (or suspect they know) how any rich person got their money.  A former minister in Sergei Stanishev’s previous 2005 government, Peevski had been fired for allegations of arms dealing blackmail and “lack of morals”. But newspapers and TV stations managed by his mother waged a virulent campaign against Boyko Borisov.  So eight years after his dismissal,  Sergei found his non-standard solution.  DANS’s priority  under Peevski would be to thoroughly investigate and thus discredit all of GERB’s dirty dealings.

But the appointment of Peevski proved too much for the Bulgarian people to swallow.  Even his swift resignation could not assuage people’s fury and their conviction that Oresharski  and his puppet masters were not up to the job. Behind the demonstrations there is the feeling that politicians only serve the interests of the powerful.

In street demonstrations Volen Siderov’s underpants are blood stained. The behavior of the white haired leader of ATAKA has become seemingly more and more erratic. I use the word seemingly because while he gives the impression of a man who has consumed too much alcohol and pep pills, the gradated sequence of outrageous actions may point to a more sinister as yet unrealized plan.  He is a man already known for pandering to the lowest prejudices. In previous years he has bombarded at least two political leaders with insults regarding their alleged sexuality, once shouting gay, gay Sergei at father-of-two Stanishev through a megaphone for hours in a central Sofia square.  True to form on the first day of Parliament he repeatedly punched the chest of an obviously confused young policeman, who had finally stepped in to try to prevent Volen’s thugs from beating up a journalist,  shouting “Why are you pushing me?  Don’t you know I have immunity?  Give me your name and number!”

Following Erdogan’s example,  Volen has characterized the completely peaceful protestors as terrorists, scum and Boyko Borisov’s hirelings. There is evidence of so far unsuccessful  provocateur activity aimed at discrediting the protest. Volen has declared his life to be in danger and  his patriotic followers/protectors are always bunched around him, pausing only to relieve themselves on the walls of the National Opera House. In the past two days Volen has walked from the street into Parliament armed first with a police truncheon and then with a gun. There is a strong possibility that he hopes to provoke some kind of bloody fracas in Parliament itself. Meanwhile the Oresharski  has proposed him as Head of the Parliamentary Ethics Committee.

It might seem that the strength of street protests will be to Boyko Borisov’s advantage.  Certainly were Oresharski to resign and GERB president Plevenliev call new elections, Boyko would hope for greater success. The feeling on the streets shows otherwise.  Boyko’s underpants may be the biggest on the washing line but they are no less mired. In Varna his candidate for Mayor is trailing the socialist candidate. His rivals know that the longer Oresharski survives, the more opportunity there will be for publicizing Boyko’s failures and irregularities. The problem for the folk out on the streets is that there is no statesman waiting in the wings and that the constitutional changes needed to avoid this unrepresentative four party impasse would have to be approved by Parliament.  Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

(Postscript)  Today the Egyptian army made ominous threats against democratically elected Morsi, following continuing protests by thousands – all with different agandas. In Egypt people are being killed on all sides. In Bulgaria the picture so far is very different. Angry protestors march the street every day shouting “Resign, Resign!”  The politicians say they are listening but they probably rthink that if they wait long enough the protests will die away, leaving them to settle scores and shore up their own financial interests. To quote the seemingly immortal Kevork, Kevorkyan: Bulgarians have reached the crooked pear tree.