Protests in Bulgaria – Different voices and visions

Slogans Lift, Though Quickly Drift

Author: Vasil Stefanov
4 November 2013, on

“Ostavka” (resignation) and “cherveni boklutsi” (red trash) are terms often heard around Bulgaria these days, in the context of the ongoing anti-government protests. The latter, happens to be a chant brought out directly from the football stadiums and transposed onto a certain political denomination. The country has witnessed nearly 5 months of protests and 2 weeks of university hall occupations. What is yet to come out of all this, is any sort of dialogue or debate between politicians and citizens.

One side has barricaded itself in the Parliament building, guarded by fences and police, while the other has locked itself in university lecture halls, stalling the academic process. The danger with decades of demagogic governing and an unreformed educational system is that they create “slogan protesters”. Debates on the fundamental issues are virtually absent in both the Parliament and the university halls, or at least I am yet to see any evidence of such.

The other day, I heard Julian Popov, a former minister in the interim government and one of the founders of the New Bulgarian University, speak of how we are witnessing a revolutionary model, in which “citizens are taking over functions of the state”. And all this, in the context of a conference on democracy building, struck me as rather bizarre. Citizens, in a democratic society, are there to act as a check and balance to the state, not to take over its duties. Forming a trend, where every slightly more massive outcry by the public can reverse executive or judiciary decisions, is a precedent to a dysfunctional state.

If the protest movement is to have any success, it must first ask itself the question, does it want to be reformist or revolutionary? Revolutions can be carried out on the back of slogans and gun barrels alone, but reconstructing a political model after their initial euphoria, is a whole different matter. Professor Alexander Kiossev, one of the vocal supporters of the Sofia University occupation, talked about the need to “restart the state and form new political entities”. This is in stark contrast to what is being said by the very protesters he backs, who have declared themselves “non-partisan”, and have no wish to associate under any new political formation.

What follows by this, is that if the current government steps down, and Bulgarians head to the polls, we are unlikely to see any new actors playing a major role. Such was the case after February’s protests toppled the cabinet of former PM Boyko Borisov. His center-right GERB party still managed to earn the most votes, despite not being able to form a coalition afterwards. Recent polls suggest fresh elections would still see the two main parties, the Socialists and GERB share much of the votes, with only a slight drop in their percentages. The only new actor, which somewhat attempts to portray itself as the unifier of the protesters, the Reformist Bloc, is given no more than a 5% prediction.

The formation of new political entities responsible for restarting the state, which Kiossev talks about, is a process that must be well underway at the point of revolution, or transition (to use a more 21st century term). It needs to have concrete demands and a strategy for leadership. Such was the case with Poland’s Solidarity movement, fortified over several cycles of protests and strikes in the late 70s and throughout the 80s. By the time the country headed for its first free elections, they had become a synonym for change, ready to enter the political arena.

The typical Bulgarian trait of stubbornness, can serve as both the fuel that makes or breaks these protests. When mixed with a set of practical measures that can be embodied into a political program, the recipe for lasting change may become available. To reach that stage, the protesters must move beyond slogans, hashtags, and flash mobs.

‘Resign!’ – Bulgaria’s protesters need a better slogan than that

Authors: Jana Tsoneva and Georgi Medarov
27 November 2013, The

Bulgaria’s protests are diminishing, but the country remains in crisis. Can the student demonstrators lead the way in providing a new political language?

Bulgaria is undergoing a deep political crisis. A mass social mobilisation against austerity, poverty and electricity price rises took place in February, toppling the centre-right government. After elections in May, the independent Plamen Oresharski became prime minister, backed by a broad coalition of social democrats (BSP) liberals (DPS) and the far right (ATAKA). Oresharski, a technocrat, was best known as one of the architects of the currency board imposed on Bulgaria in 1997 as part of an IMF programme to save the country from currency collapse and hyperinflation. Bulgaria went from the frying pan into the fire, forced into a regime of unrelenting austerity, long before Greece and the rest of western Europe.

In the 2000s Oresharski shifted politically towards the social democrats. As finance minister, he developed a hardcore neoliberal pedigree, becoming infamous, although praised by the World Bank, for introducing a 10% flat tax and for taking a tough line against striking teachers in 2007.

This round of popular unrest, going on for over 160 days now, erupted over the controversial appointment of Delyan Peevski, a media mogul, as a head of national security. Originally, demonstrations were immense, with participants from all sides of the political spectrum demanding the resignation of the government. Gradually, the protests became smaller after being hijacked by groups who saw them as a way of reviving 1990s anti-communism. Protesters started to call for “European values”, “morality in politics” and a “genuine break” with the communist past. The BSP managed to organise a counter-protest movement, staging at least two huge rallies and the situation became deadlocked – government and opposition sharing identical socio-economic visions but throwing empty accusations at each other.

The protests entered a new phase when students occupied Sofia University’s main building last month. The rightwing opposition, composed of ex-ruling party GERB and the Reform Bloc, saw the occupation as an extension of their campaign. The occupation certainly inspired the street protests anew. When people saw its potential, however, there was a lot of pressure from party activists and from within the occupation to abandon its intellectual aims and to focus on bringing about the government’s resignation and new elections. The original radical content of the occupation was ignored by the media while the old “communists v anti-communists” paradigm took over.

Yet the occupation itself is curiously devoid of strong anti-communism. When they join the protests, students refuse to chant “red scum”. Another key difference is that not a single EU flag was raised inside the occupation, unlike in the street protests.

The students’ “moral revolution” sits uncomfortably with the attempt by political elites to find new legitimacy through reviving old political divisions. The students have explicitly distanced themselves from all the political parties that have dominated Bulgaria post-1989, directing their anger instead at the endless “transition” to democracy, with its misery and corruption.

Most importantly, the occupation has gone beyond demanding just a government resignation that would result in a different set of politicians but the status quo remaining the same. The students organised workshops where they discussed their desired common future, reminding us of what a university is supposed to be. While the street demonstrations were trapped in focusing on the spectral figure of “communism”, never allowing space for reflection and critical debate, by contrast, the original style of the student occupation is inspired by the Occupy movement.

The price of success in reviving the protests, however, was the irreparable loss of the intellectual content of the occupation’s initial phase. Somehow, the occupation must manage to revive its own aims and direction. It should do so not only for its own sake, but for the sake of the wider protest movement and Bulgaria as a whole.

The protest movement’s main slogan – “Ostavka!” (“Resign!”) – lacks the ability to mobilise people, hence the dwindling popularity of the protests. The students can give the protests a choice beyond two dead-end options represented by the ruling socialist-turned-neoliberal party and its challengers from GERB and the ruling bloc. And the students have shown an ability to empathise with the problems faced by ordinary Bulgarians (poverty, disappearing public services, etc) in a radically new and interesting way that takes them away from the post-1989 debate.

To find a solution to our predicament we need a new political language – one that the old political parties are in no position to provide. Still, we should not forget the dangers of the present situation. The lack of any sensible option on the left opens up the risk of radical uncertainty. We should recall the words of Gramsci, that the time when the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth, is the time of monsters.

Protester i Bulgarien

Av: Maria Georgieva,
30 November 2013, Augumented Society

Bulgarien har under året skakats av regelbundna protester, de största i landet på många år. Augumented Society bad Maria Georgieva, journalist, filmare och kommunikationsstrateg på Dagens Arena, att koppla protesterna till film.

Glöm Newsroom, välkommen till den bulgariska TV-serien Fjärde Statsmakten (Stoyan Radev och Dimitar Kotsev-Shosho, 2013-). Den kretsar kring redaktionen på en tidning som med undersökande journalistik öppnar dörren till korrumperande rum. Serien riktar sökljuset mot det politiska livet, mot avlyssningsskandaler och köpta makthavare. Enligt programdirektören för Bulgariens public service-kanal, BNT, behandlar Fjärde statsmakten aktuella samhällsfrågor – och undersöker det sammanflätade politiska spelet mellan regering och media.

Protesterna mot regeringen i Bulgarien löper också som en röd tråd genom första säsongen. De unga på landets gator kanske irriterar sig på seriens kyliga distans, på att den tar aldrig ställning. Bulgariens unga vill påverka sin framtid, de vill ha något bättre, men serien skildrar ett ingenmansland där ingen är god, inte ens de som protesterar. Alla är ytliga, det är svårt att som tittare fästa sig vid någon karaktär. Samma kompromisslöshet som karaktärerna utsätts för riktas också mot tittaren. Serien väcker frågan: “Ska det vara så här?”. Där finns en vass och omtumlande samhällskritik. Serien visar ett Bulgarien så som jag aldrig har sett det förut, genom påkostade filter i gråskala. Samhällets förfall finns i karaktärerna, i handlingen. Den hotade mediefriheten står i fokus, i ett avsnitt stormar poliser in på redaktionen och beslagtar datorer. Ironiskt nog finansieras tidningen av en oligark.

Dokumentärfilmen Sofia’s Last Ambulance (Ilian Metev, 2012) är en mikrospegling av det bulgariska samhället, sevärd inte bara för att få en glimt av Bulgarien, utan också för se hur välfärden kan se ut när den trasas sönder. Filmen följer ett av alltför få ambulansteam i huvudstaden Sofia, ambulansen skumpar över slitna, gropiga vägar i stadsmiljö. Den kommer ofta fram för sent, ibland inte alls. Radiosystemet i ambulansen fungerar inte. En läkare övertalar en äldre kvinna att låta sin sjuka man stanna hemma i stället för att åka in till sjukhuset. Det finns ändå ingen hjälp för honom att få där. Ambulansteamet pratar om allt de behöver men inte har råd med: en uthärdlig bostadssituation, pengar över när månaden är slut, ledig tid med sina barn. Samma grundläggande behov som demonstranterna i Bulgarien nu skriker efter.

I Margarit i Margarita (Nikolai Volev, 1989) viker sig ungdomen inte för överheten, det är en anarkistisk berättelse som fortfarande väcker uppmärksamhet. En brutal och realistisk uppväxtskildning som först censurerades av kommunistregimen och fick inte ses av allmänheten förrän 1989. ”För att få, måste du först ge”, säger kamrat Nerizanov, en högt uppsatt politiker medan han våldtar Margarita. Hon har rymt från gymnasiet med sin pojkvän. De hamnar på villovägar och utsätts för olika typer av våld och misstro – från sina familjer, skolan, arbetsgivare och rättsväsendet. Nu för tiden kan studenter ockupera universitet för att driva medborgerliga rättigheter, ställa krav på makthavare och komma med förslag på förändring. Under kommunismen kunde man inte ens ha för långt hår utan att straffas med en skamtyngd tvångsklippning på skolgården inför hela skolan. Med demokratiseringen kom arbetslösheten till Bulgarien.

I Letter to America (Iglika Triffonova, 2001) nås Ivan, en arbetslös författare, av nyheten att hans bästa vän Kamen – som har lämnat Bulgarien för att arbeta som teaterregissör i USA – ligger i koma efter en bilolycka. Ivan börjar dokumentera sitt liv, och beger sig på en resa genom landet. Han letar efter sanningen, skriver bara om det som verkligen drabbar honom. Filmen utspelar sig på 90-talet, fångar vardagen efter kommunismens fall – och kan ses som en bakgrund till varför unga protesterar mot den bulgariska regeringen i dag. På sistone har studenter anslutit sig till protesterna. Deras radikala budskap har inte varit “byt regering” utan “byt hela systemet”. Förändringen kommer när korruptionen upphör.

Filmer/TV-serier som nämns i inlägget: 

  • Fjärde statsmakten/Четвърта власт (TV), Stoyan Radev och Dimitar Kotsev-Shosho, 2013
  • Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev, 2012 (IMDb)
  • Margarit i Margarita, Nikolai Volev, 1989 (IMDb)
  • Letter to America, Iglika Triffonova, 2001 (IMDb)

Fjärde statsmakten / Четвърта влас

Sofia’s Last Ambulance / Последната линейка на София

Margarit i Margarit / Маргарит И Маргарита

Letter to America / Писмо до Америка



How things are done in Bulgaria?!?

I´m going to Bulgaria soon, so I better start learning how things are done in Bulgaria…


A little about me and the blog…

I'm studying archival science (include records management). My studies bring me to Bulgaria for six months.

I have been to Bulgaria on vacation but I don't know the language, Cyrillic alphabet or anybody. So I´ll be encountering many new situations and hopefully gain some insights from them. Some of it may end up on my blog. But even blogging is new to me sooo we´ll see...

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