Reporting Protests in Sofia

By Geert Luteijn

Protests Sofia 2013After 40 days of protests in Sofia against bureaucracy, corruption, rising electricity bills and clientelism it reached the headlines of the international press. Not because the continuing protests or interest in the socio-economic situation in the country, but because of violence occurred in the protests. I visited Bulgaria this summer for two weeks and talked to people I met along the way about the protests. I cannot say I fully understand what is going on, that would require a lot more study into the country’s political scene, however I have learned of the people’s perspective than the headlines will tell you.

I arrived in Sofia a day after the police and protesters had clashed because of a bus with members of parliament had tried to get through the crowd surrounding the parliament. In fact the protest movement is incredibly peaceful in Sofia. People bring their kids along and march through the center every day after working hours. It has become a social gathering where you can find youth having a casual beer, there is a small occupy tent camp in front of the parliament building and people bring Bulgarian and some EU flags to show they care about the future of their country. The atmosphere is relaxed with determination in the way people call for the government to step down. Demonstrations in which I participated in The Hague and Berlin were a lot more violent than anything I have experienced in Sofia. I have also seen protests in neighboring Serbia and the protest culture in Bulgaria is completely different. Where hooligans make protests violent in Belgrade, they are absent in the protests in Sofia. It makes the protests all the more remarkable: how come the people are taking to the streets in a country where there is so little protest culture?

Trying to place the protests

First, protests in Bulgaria broke out because of rising utility bills. Public outrage brought down the center right government of Boiko Borisov after mass protests (100 000 people) in Sofia. New elections took place after that and little changed. If you talk to people and ask them why the election did not bring any change, they will tell you that there are no good parties. For outsiders this makes the situation all the more incomprehensible. Next question: ‘What do you hope to achieve with the protests?’ The answer here is as confusing as the first one, since new elections did not change much before, what would be the purpose of new elections this time? People want regime change, but there is no alternative at hand. This mess and continuing questions is probably the best description of what is going on. Nobody knows what is next, but everyone is clear on the fact that continuing on the present course is a disaster.

The newly elected parliament appointed Delyan Peevski as the head of the State Agency from National Security. This man embodied the fears of the people about corruption and clientelism within the ruling class. Basically, it affirmed that oligarchs and puppet masters pull the strings without any regard for the public interest. Peevski is a media monopolist with shady connections. The elections changed the government from center right to center left, but the political culture remained exactly the same. The protests recurred and attracted people from many parts of society. You can find plenty of people, who do not participate, but few that have no affinity with the people in the protests.

The role of the EU

Viki is a student engaged with the protests that tries to explain the situation today while we follow the crowd on its way to block traffic in the center of Sofia. She tells me that she hopes the EU will not grant this government another loan. The previous loans from the EU had just proven to be a burden for the people and cash for the clientelist network in power. When a new loan is granted, it means the ruling class creates shady investment projects that make money disappear into their pockets.

I have noticed that people in Bulgaria look to the European Union as an example. They blame their ruling class for the poor economic situation and not the EU. Viki is convinced that protests would have more effect in Western European countries. She speaks passionately about why she protests and reluctantly accepts the more moderate attitude of students around her. While hitchhiking from Plovdiv to Sofia, I meet a men in his thirties who explains to us that he finds it natural to protest and that he brings his wife and child sometimes. He works in the marketing business for a German company operating on the Bulgarian market.

There are of course also people that are less enthusiastic about the protests and say that people should go back to work. A story-line that can be understood in light of the lacking professional mentality that form a strong stereotype around Bulgarians. However, this is something I only picked up ones or twice and I do not consider a valid argument. The stereotype might not be complete bogus, but there is more than enough reason to head for the streets.

I will keep looking for stories that can explain me the social unrest into more depth. I find it fascinating to see how such a peaceful protest exists and frustrating to see how little the political scene does with the social unrest. The government went on holiday for now, we shall see how the relation between society and ruling class continues after the summer, when the masses come back from the beautiful mountains and seaside in Bulgaria.

Two interesting stories from the headline producers: