By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
As Bulgaria heads for the autumn of 2013, after three months of protests demanding the resignation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party minority government, the same questions come up time and again – but the answers remain in the realm of speculation.
The questions are, will the protesters give up, in the face of the apparent determination of the government not to resign – or will there indeed be early elections, and if so, what must happen to bring these about?
September 14 marks the third month since the crescendo of outrage among many thousands of Bulgarians after the hasty election in Parliament, with the votes of BSP and Movement for Rights and Freedoms MPs, of controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.
Strictly speaking, protests against the government formed by the BSP in collaboration with the MRF had started before then, but it was the Peevski appointment – subsequently withdrawn in the face of public indignation – that inspired the anti-government protests to a new level.
The anti-government protests have been overwhelmingly and routinely peaceful, and have seen a constant stream of innovative and creative ways to press home the daily demand “resignation” from the protesters.
The exception was the July 23 incident in which, late at night, a busload of MPs from the BSP and MRF (former ruling party GERB, currently still the largest in Parliament) was directed towards a crowd of thousands of anti-government protesters.
The episode saw clashes between police and protesters, leading to injuries. But in contrast to the decision by then-prime minister Boiko Borissov in February, when “cost of living” protests of the time briefly turned violent, to step down, the current government remained adamant that it would remain in place.
On September 12, it emerged that a masked police officer who had taken part in the clashes over the bus was being accused of “uncalled-for, clearly visible, flagrant police brutality,” according to Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov.
The policeman had been identified with the help of the Interior Ministry on video recordings, the Prosecutor-General said.
“This person was identified by the MoI at our request , even despite the fact that he also carried a white mask under his helmet – something that is absolutely forbidden in police equipment in such actions,” Tsatsarov said.
Others being investigated in connection with the incident include “visibly aggressive demonstrators resembling football fans” who appeared and pelted the white bus and police with stones.
One of the very few other incidents of high tension took place on September 4, when Parliament resumed for its autumn session, and a small group of men used chains to pull at police metal barriers outside the legislature. None was arrested.
Anti-government protesters, throughout the months of demonstrations, have worked with police to identify agents provocateur. Police generally have extracted potential troublemakers from the main body of anti-government protesters, who want nothing to do with agents provocateur.
But at the same time, there also have been allegations, including from former ruling party GERB that on September 4 sought to physically identify itself with the protests, of police harassment of protesters. GERB leader Boiko Borissov has said that his party would raise this matter at EU level.
Recent days also have seen further statements about the role played by the MRF, the party led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish descent, in the Peevski appointment.
An initial statement a few days ago by BSP leader Sergei Stanishev that Peevski, then an MRF MP, was nominated by the MRF and objecting to the nomination would have meant the downfall of the cabinet appointed in May.
Media critical of the government said that this was an illustration, if a hardly surprising one, of the dependence of the BSP on the MRF.
Meanwhile, an issue hanging over from the February “cost of living” protests that were mobilised around high electricity bills is whether amendments to the pricing regime pushed by the current government have had a genuine effect on consumers’ bills. After August electricity bills came out, this point was disputed.
It remains to be seen whether, in the coldest winter months of early 2014, the anniversary of the beginning of the electricity price protests, consumers’ bills will genuinely be lower.
That, in turn, is against a background of a very significant downturn in foreign investment in Bulgaria, while unemployment is rising. The country also currently is recording deflation.
The current government has pushed through national budget revisions that will enable massive borrowing, a move that it critics charge is intended to make possible populist spending measures in the hope of buying popularity by seeking to give Bulgarians the impression that their lot has improved since the May 2013 ruling axis came to power.
In turn, the BSP continues to seek to discredit the protests, with MP Maya Manolova alleging on television on September 13 that anti-government protesters were paid, by a sliding scale that rose if they were accompanied by their children, she said, while offering no proof of these allegations.
Manolova conceded that the BSP had “assisted” the pro-government protests that started some weeks after the wave of anti-government protests arose.
Anti-government protesters, who kept the campaign going even though the peak summer holiday season saw turnouts much reduced, have had a psychological fillip when Roger Waters appeared to endorse the protests during his The Wall: Live concert in Sofia, have pledged to continue.
Forthcoming plans include a large-scale global protest, again taking in Bulgarians abroad who previously also have associated themselves with the anti-government protests, on September 22, which the country celebrates as Independence Day.
On the most recent national holiday, September 6 – Unification Day, Plamen Oresharski – appointed in May to sit in the prime minister’s chair in the BSP government – had to be taken to the podium at an official celebration in an armoured car, local media reports said, while being kept well away from a public that gave him a hostile reception.
Polls show that more than half of Bulgarians support the anti-government protests. Anecdotally, however, some protesters have been alienated by GERB seeking to get in on the act, in what its detractors say has damaged the protests by tingeing them with a partisan political party. As much as the current government faces rejection and risks, the marathon that the protests are proving to be also has its challenges.