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The Bulgarian political landscape is much changed after the birth of a genuine civil society

Yavor Siderov, Bulgarian political commentator and analyst, paper for the fourth issue of the CEAS online quarterly The New Century

Javor Siderov

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Francis Fukuyama saw protest movements, emerging throughout the world as ‘the middle class revolution’, while David Rohde in The Atlantic called them ‘the revolt of the global middle class’. However, the upswings of civil disobedience in Brazil, Turkey and Bulgaria have important distinguishing features that defy easy classification. If you add to the mix the Occupy movement and especially the so-called Arab Spring, the differences will drown out the similarities to a point where comparisons have only heuristic utility – unless one resorts to sweeping generalization.

In any case, making the primetime on the strength of a domestic civil disobedience movement is unusual for little Bulgaria. Her rare and fleeting appearances have had more to do with nitpicking Cold War-era mysteries - the unsuccessful attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life, the successful one on Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov’s (aka the poisoned umbrella case), or with exposing current scandals such as the maltreatment of orphaned children in state institutions or of dancing bears by their Roma owners. Lately these have been superseded by alarmist and increasingly hostile raves about the danger to Western social security systems poised by the huddled Eastern European masses. The inexorable passage of time draws us ever closer to 1 January 2014 when all restrictions by fellow EU members on the free movement of Bulgarian and Romanian labor must fall, hence the shrillness of the more isolationist and xenophobic media voices in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

So when last February Bulgarians went out to protest against exorbitant energy prices and managed to topple the government of strongman Boiko Borissov, world media barely twitched. After all, every now and then Bulgaria suffers an uncontrollable seizure, has a change of mind and government and embarks on a new course, only to gradually go off the rails and end up in some new fiscal, economic or political bog. Few of these occasions catch global attention. One such moment came to pass in 1996-97, the last time people went out in force over the problem of governance. The government of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) had so spectacularly mismanaged the economy, the budget and the currency that inflation ran in the hundreds of percent and people’s salaries and savings evaporated quicker than rain over the Sahara desert. But February’s protests petered out amid accusations and counteraccusations of party complicity and nothing presaged what was to follow.

What did follow was quite remarkable, even by local standards. Early elections produced a BSP and MRF (Movement for Rights and Freedoms of the ethnic Turks) minority government supported by the xenophobic and anti-Semitic ATAKA. This coalition between socialists, a purportedly liberal ethnic Turkish party and extreme nationalists was scandalous enough but in a country where the ex-communists of the BSP are traditionally allied to their former victims (in the dying years of communism the government organized an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Turks) no-one bats an eyelid – an earlier coalition involved the BSP and MRF together with another former communist victim-cum-collaborator, King Simeon II. Unprincipled coalitions, immoral alliances and shady backroom deals have governed Bulgarian political life ever since the palace coup of 1989 signaled the transformation of the Bulgarian Communist Party’s political power into economic clout. The novel ingredient to this tried and tested recipe were the nationalists, their credentials boosted by an unexpectedly good electoral result.

The materialization of this absurdity: a coalition between nationalists and socialists (the irony was not lost on many commentators who quickly took to calling it national-socialist) propped up by a constitutional aberration – an ethnic minority party - came as the final confirmation of the complete delegitimation of Bulgarian politics. Devoid of principled substance, the new government set about doing what it needed to do to entrench itself: pay off the clientele. The very first appointment however stunned public opinion by its sheer cynicism. On 14 June Delyan Peevski, in his early thirties already possessed of a rich biography including parliamentary experience, a cabinet post as well as virtual monopoly over the ownership and distribution of print media and a significant presence in broadcast and online media, was selected as the new head of the State Agency for National Security (DANS, by its Bulgarian acronym). Peevski’s mother Irena Krasteva had previously been in charge of the National Lottery. She subsequently acquired the main printing facility in the country in tandem with Tsvetan Vasilev, the chairman of Corporate Commercial Bank.

Peevski and his mother rose through the ranks of the Bulgarian nouveau riche by giving and receiving favors. At the tender age of 21, and before he had completed his legal studies – a conditio sine qua non - he was put in charge of board of directors of Varna Port, Bulgaria’s largest. In a similar fashion he was appointed to the Sofia Investigative Office without having served the requisite two years internship. He subsequently served as deputy minister of emergencies in the BSP-led Triple coalition government in charge of the state reserve and was also member of the committee regulating arms trade. A two-time Member of Parliament with the MRF, Peevski has no nominal position in his mother’s media empire but took an active part in managing it, assuming editorial control. Among the least pleasant aspects of Peevski’s appointment to the directorship at DANS is his uncanny ability to stay close to centers of power: a protégé of King Simeon’s NDSV, he built a political career on the back of MRF connections and enjoyed the favor of the BSP, spearheading the attack on Boiko Borissov’s GERB before doing a spectacular backflip and coming out in his support.

The appointment of Peevski proved the last drop for many in Sofia and the first of what turned out to be more than one hundred days of protests took place demanding that he be withdrawn from the position. The unexpected fury of public opinion resulted in Peevski’s removal five days later but by then the genie had been let out of the bottle and people’s anger was redirected at the government itself. Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski found himself under siege two weeks into his mandate. No stranger to cross-party tiptoeing, Oresharski had been deputy leader of the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and deputy minister of finance in their 1997-2001 government before running for Sofia mayor on their ticket. He subsequently became minister of finance and prime minister in socialist-led coalitions. In many people’s minds Peevski’s appointment and Oresharski’s career exemplified all that was wrong with Bulgaria’s political system – cronyism, lack of transparency, penetration of the highest levels of government by oligarchic interests, all-prevalent corruption and total lack of accountability.

Since 14 June two interrelated phenomena have taken place in Bulgaria that sprang out of these developments. One, after years of agonizing soul-searching as to why it was that other countries were able to mobilize around issues of civic importance, Bulgaria can now claim to possess an indigenous civil society. Despite its inherent instability, lack of homogeneity and relatively limited scope, there is a now a core of citizens in this country willing to persist in demanding accountability and transparency from political elites totally unused to being held to account. This is a major victory for Bulgarians whose transition from communism was marred by crippling birth defects: no indigenous dissident movement to speak of, an all-too-powerful security apparatus, fractious and ideologically unstable political parties, a very imperfect privatization that left the majority of the population feeling a distinct sense of injustice, widespread poverty and a perilous demographic situation. Two, the world began to sit up and take notice. In a very encouraging development, Bulgaria is now being mentioned in the same breath as Brazil and Turkey as a hotspot of civil unrest – an unimaginable feat of only ten year previous.

A number of important question marks surround the protests. One has to so with scope. On occasion crowds numbered in the many tens of thousands (30 000-60 000 according to some estimates), and there is growing evidence to suggest that the majority of people support the demands of the protesters. Yet the protests are most active and visible in Sofia and to a far lesser extent, other big cities; there is little sign of the same level of activity elsewhere. The reasons may be demographic (greater concentration of young, active people in larger cities versus an elderly, more conservative population in the countryside) or political-geographic (both the BSP and MRF source the majority of their support from the less educated, blue collar strata) or, more ominously, sociological and criminal (chains of patronage and dependency are more likely to flourish in smaller towns and the countryside where local strongmen act as transmission belts for the interests of national political parties and therefore critical thinking is not merely discouraged but can have adverse effects on one’s career, livelihood and even family). In all likelihood, all three play a part in what has been, so far at least, an urban phenomenon.

Another has to do with political mobilization. It is unclear to what extent the protests will affect current electoral trends. It may very well be that the core electorate of the BSP and to a lesser extent those of the MRF and GERB (Boiko Borissov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) find unity under the threat of annihilation at the polls. This is a far likelier outcome for the BSP than for the MRF, whose support is capsulated and therefore not subject to the vagaries of political life. GERB on the other hand has been conspicuously absent from the early to mid-phase of the protest; after all it was their government that fell victim last February and they are in no way a more transparent, less corrupt organization than the BSP. While in power, GERB was at the center of a tangle of dependencies involving some of the major oligarchic players on the Bulgarian scene. Borissov’s reappearance on the national stage in the later phase of the protest signaled his desire to redeem, rebrand and reestablish himself through sheer opportunism. It remains to be seen whether other reformist groups will take him on as partner or will choose to strike out on their own, hoping for a fresh start.

In terms of coalition building, there has only been one development of note, and it corresponds to the gradual shift in the nature of the protests from a general anti-corruption stance involving people of all kinds of political affiliation (and many without one) to one of nostalgia for the times when the so-called traditional Right (the UDF and its derivatives) were more or less unified and a viable political alternative to the BSP. Thus the protests assumed a more anticommunist character than they originally started off with and lost some left-leaning participants (who by no means went over to the government’s side). The crisis of the right in Bulgaria is mirrored by a crisis of the left: it is no more possible to be a right wing conservative/liberal in a country of such widespread poverty than it is to be a social democrat where communism has left such a fatal mark on ‘progressivist’ ideologies. The upshot is that the remnants of the traditional Right together with a number of other political parties that fared badly at the last elections found it in them to form a Reformist Bloc which, despite its extreme heterogeneity has steadily risen in popularity according to some polls. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB) of former PM Ivan Kostov, now led by one his deputies will manage a good working relationship with the Bulgaria for the Citizens Movement of this country’s first ever EU Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva. The Greens, whose supporters are in two minds about being part of a right-leaning coalition, and a splinter group from the MRF, add volatility to the mix.

Be that as it may, nothing can take away from the fact that the last one hundred days have been one of those rare occurrences when Bulgarians have risen to the occasion, proven their democratic mettle and dented what has all too often seemed like an impenetrable wall of Mafia rule. The omerta of public life is broken and cannot be fixed; regardless of the outcome (it is unclear as yet whether the government of Oresharski will resign in the short term, or will wait until May and call an early election to coincide with elections for European Parliament) no future government can afford the complacency and arrogance of previous ones. For too long Bulgaria has languished in a crisis of political representation. It is unlikely that such chronic crisis will be resolved through mere protests, as a lasting solution requires rebuilding the entire party system along lines of principle; the first step is, however, of tremendous importance. That first step - establishing trust and restoring self-respect - has finally been taken.

About the author: Yavor Siderov studied History and Government at the Universities of Sydney, Berkeley and Oxford. He trained and worked at the Bulgarian National Radio and the BBC World Service. For many years he taught at the American University in Bulgaria. He is a commentator and analyst with a number of Bulgarian and overseas media outlets.