The Bulgarian Winter of Protests

Over the past two months Bulgaria, the most passive country in the traditionally belligerent Balkans, has been shaken by protests. Since the beginning of February Bulgarians in most big cities have been out in the streets, protesting against the increased electricity and heating bills. After a few nights of clashes between police and protesters, the government of Boyko Borissov and his party GERB resigned.

A week of perfunctory negotiations followed. After offering the mandate to all parties in Parliament who had already declined it, President Rossen Plevneliev dissolved the Parliament and appointed an interim government. The election is scheduled on 12 May, too soon for new actors to emerge. To prevent this from happening, the first reform of the new interim government has been to increase the already high prices of electoral campaigning

The protests started with clear economic demands. A significant amount of money was charged not on energy per se but on the taxes on its distribution. The power distribution companies – privatized in 2005 and sold out to big foreign companies that signed a contract with the state to compensate them in case of loss – have kept prices high with cartel agreement. Yet, in post-socialist Bulgaria any anti-austerity and anti-free market rhetoric is either condemned as “communist” (i.e. evil) or is used by the neoliberal Socialist Party devoid of any real political meaning. Thus, not surprisingly the protesters lacked the vocabulary to articulate the situation in terms of a significant structural change. Contradictory economic demands were made: against the monopolies, but for nationalization of the power distributive companies. The claims of “a total change of the system” came with no clear political program – left or right – of what could come next.

The initial élan of the protests has now disappeared, giving way to a number of seriously alarming issues. A few (self-) proclaimed leaders of the protest have already emerged and split. Half of them just joined the campaign for parliamentary election using a marginal party that is hardly going to enter Parliament. Those same “faces of the protest” had previously claimed they were not interested in party politics, but wished to change the system: just that now they declared the system could only be changed "from within". Other recognizable figures have joined forces with the ultra-right anti-Turkish and anti-Roma party VMRO. Parallel with the other right-extreme party represented at the National and European Parliament – ATAKA – VMRO has recently doubled its support. Their representatives are now campaigning across the country with populist slogans like “nationalization”, “redistribution”, and “security”. Sounds great, but mind you: the leaders of these parties, who support openly convicted neo-nazi hooligans, ethnically-biased evictions and racist and chauvinist policies, now see as beneficiaries of the redistribution only "ethnically pure" Bulgarians. The tiny new Left has neither the human nor the financial resources to challenge the increasing hegemony of the nationalists. It is only slowly and hardly emerging in the political vacuum created by the ideology of the free market and EU-accession, which the Socialists and all other parties openly embrace.

At the same time, the poverty and deprivation of many Bulgarian families has been growing significantly. 36 000 Bulgarian families have lost their houses only in 2012, not being able to pay their credit. Six self-immolations have happened for just over a month. They have been paralleled by an avalanche of less brutal suicides and deaths from stress-induced health problems. Amidst the serious stagnation and without an acting Parliament, the new government has been unable to do anything but cosmetic improvements. The one-off allotments of 30 Euros per family in need – a sum that could hardly cover the increase in the electricity bills of a modest household – is a more than inadequate measure to save people from the chronic poverty. And while Bulgarians had mostly relied on the incomes of a family member abroad, the crisis luring in Southern Europe and the negative campaigns against Bulgarians and Romanians in the core countries of the European Union, make the perspectives for nationals of the two poorest countries of the EU rather bleak. David Cameron’s recent “tougher” measures are just a next step in an ongoing campaign against Bulgarian and Romanian citizens: the German declaration of blocking of their Schengen entry, the Dutch hot-line against workers from the two countries, and the French evictions of nationals from Romani origin. The message is clear: the EU is no longer a rich club – or, as we are reminded by the Cypress bank crisis, it is only for the transnational economic elites. Bulgaria and Romania underwent economic and political adjustment just to get a second-class citizenship: high costs, low benefits.

Two scenarios for the future, not mutually exclusive: “the hung parliament” and “pinned coffee cup”. The next Parliament which Bulgarians will elect would most probably be hung: with two or more of the current political actors in unstable coalition. What the protests have changed is that for the first time in more than a decade the power of the consolidated political class has been seriously shaken. And unless those in power now radically change their course of politics, the next winter they will face a new wave of protests. “To pin a cup” is an expression used by late Italian author Tonino Guerra. It names a practice of solidarity in which the more affluent visitors of a café would pay an extra coffee which the bartender serve to a customer who can not afford one. The expression has recently become viral on the Bulgarian internet. A growing number of cafes and shops around the country are now offering the service so people can help people in need. The practice might not solve the structural problem, or might not even take root in a country where atomization, alienation, and anomy have long become the dominant social reality. What it manifests, however, is the growing understanding of the need for grassroots organizing without dependence on the state or international donors. It is a first time in the post-socialist history of Bulgaria that selfish individualism, so fully and unquestionably endorsed in the years of transition, has been questioned as a value. Bulgarians have now started to borrow existing, develop new, and remember old forgotten practices and modes of solidarity and self-organization. A better system of governance and reversal of the inhuman economic policies is still owing. But so is a certain level of autonomy and political maturity: a thorny path for Bulgaria as for all crisis-stricken countries.