Bulgaria: All protests great and small

Bulgaria: All protests great and small


By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe

When November 14 rolls around, and unless the Bulgarian Socialist Party government resigns by that day, the anti-government DANSWithme protests will reach their fifth consecutive month.

But while those protests are currently the longest, the largest-scale and the most widely supported among Bulgarians, they are not the only ones going on at the moment, as almost everyone has something to complain about – even if in some cases it is only each other.

Here is an overview of the range of protests, as Bulgaria appears headed for an even deeper winter of discontent.

The DANSWithme protests began on June 14 after the votes of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms rushed through the appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security. Though this appointment was revoked by Parliament four days later (or not; this is the subject of a question that the President has put to the Constitutional Court), outrage at the conduct of a government seen as utterly discredited has continued, demanding its resignation and fresh elections.

The protests generally have taken the form of processions around key points in Sofia – Parliament,t the Cabinet office, the Eagle Bridge intersection. Early practices such as visits to various political party headquarters have largely died out, but groups of protesters have on occasion tracked down Plamen Oresharski, named in May as prime minister in the BSP government, to confront him personally – if peacefully – leading to running jokes online about Oresharski no longer using front doors anywhere in the capital.

Turnout faded over the height of summer, but was reinvigorated to a degree first by the outcome of the first Constitutional Court challenge to Peevski’s place as an MP, which saw him restored to membership of the 42nd National Assembly, and later by the (see below) “Early Rising Students” protests which a group of socialists and ultra-nationalists had sought to intimidate. Various of the more reliable polls show between 60 and 76 per cent support among Bulgarians for the resignation of the government and early elections.

In counterpoint are the “counter-protests” that started some weeks after the DANSWithme protests, in support of the BSP government, Oresharski personally, and against President Rossen Plevneliev. These protests allege that Plevneliev, who took office in January 2012 on the ticket of centre-right party GERB, then in government and now the sole opposition party, is a divisive figure for his statements seen as endorsing the anti-government protests. Their counter to anti-government protesters who object to the nexus of oligarchy and political parties in power is to portray Plevneliev, a successful private sector figure before being recruited to political life, as an oligarch himself. In this, they are abetted by media from the family of Peevski, which have hurled allegations – unproven and denied by Plevneliev – that the head of state had undisclosed offshore holdings. Among the “counter-protesters”, the same small group of faces, mostly pensioners, tends to turn up speaking to television reporters each evening, and inasmuch as they allege that the anti-government protesters are paid by “oligarchs” and GERB, the same allegation is thrown at them. The BSP has largely admitted supporting the pro-government protests. With the “couner-protesters” having also adopted the “ostavka” (resignation) chant, it is possible to hear it in two different places in the capital at the same time, just with different targets.

The “Early Rising Students” began their protest at Sofia University about two weeks ago, first disrupting a lecture by the Constitutional Court president and going on to start a still-continuing occupation of the main rectorate building on the university’s central campus. Their demands are parallel to the main anti-government protesters’ – the resignation of the government, early elections and a “Clean Hands” operation to rid public life in Bulgaria of illicit influences. The students’ protest has spread to about 15 universities, although in only a few cases are lecture rooms “occupied” by participants. There has been endorsement by some academics – a list of 90 recently signed a statement of support – but university authorities in the main have called on the students to find a form of protest other than occupation. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, so far has signalled that it would not physically intervene to evict the students from the occupied lecture rooms, resulting in something of a standoff. An invitation by the education minister for “dialogue” with the protesting students was rejected with sharp contempt, with the students saying that such dialogue was pointless when all that was awaited was the minister’s resignation, along with that of the rest of the cabinet.

An oddity among all of these is a lingering remnant of the February 2013 “cost of living” protests, in the form of a small cluster of tents at the side of the building of Parliament, set up by Yanaki Ganchev, a February protester with a colourful history who helmed a spectacularly failed bid to get into the 42ndNational Assembly. His little cluster of tents is meant to be in the tradition of the “City of Truth” tent city of the anti-government protesters of many years yore, and was set up in the early days of spring, and has remained in place through all the developments that have passed it by – the GERB government resignation, the caretaker government, the elections, the BSP-MRF government and the June onwards protests.

Albeit with different causes, there are now three “tent cities” – his, the anti-government one in front of Parliament, and the anti-Plevneliev one newly in front of the Presidency, the last-mentioned of which appears to have had the biggest budget (fancier than the humble army surplus and plastic gazebos of the other two) and the only one to have a continuing police guard.

Then there have been the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant protests.

The first-mentioned largely have been on the NIMBY – not in my back yard – principle, in towns and villages where word has spread of real or imagined plans to settle Syrian refugees.

The second have been more virulent, to the extent that some participants in the one organised by the nationalist VMRO-BND party now are facing pre-trial proceedings for allegedly using racist hate speech. These anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, xenophobic protests have in turn spawned counter-protests upholding values of tolerance and anti-racism – and there is quite an overlap in personnel in these protests and those of the DANSWithme notables.

On top of all of these have come a series of other protesters in sectors concerned about their current and future budgets – in the past week or so, including medical staff and prison warders.

Recent days also have seen protests by stock breeders complaining of late payments of subsidies, with an attempt, blocked by police, on November 7 to obstruct the Trakiya Motorway.

Currently missing from the streets but still possible are pro- and anti-smoking activists, although the possibility should not be ruled out. Legislation has been tabled in Parliament, following on election promises by the BSP and ultra-nationalists Ataka to roll back the June 2012 legislation outlawing smoking in enclosed public places.

Condemned by opponents as a populist measure likely to endanger public health and discourage a recent upturn in foreign tourists opting for Bulgarian resorts, the backtrack on the smoking ban thus far has not had a smooth passage – notably among the ranks of the BSP itself. The issue has gone quiet after the legislation was approved by the committee on the economy but rejected by the committee on health, and at this writing does not seem to have been given a place on Parliament’s order paper, in spite of earlier BSP promises that it would be approved before the end of the year.

In late 2012, similar attempts to roll back the legislation were defeated, and in spite of the high rate of smoking among Bulgarians, turnout for anti-smoking protests was higher than those against the public ban legislation.

Still awaited is whether the two major trade union confederations will embark on protests or even a general strike, although signals from within their ranks for now seem to indicate that they will not.

Beyond that, the next major development could be in February 2014, in particular if the first anniversary of the “cost of living” protests rallies mobilised around electricity bills rolls around and Bulgarians find that their lot has not improved, in spite of tinkering with reforms by the current government.