Kit Gillet, McClatchy Foreign Staff
(original published at McClatchy Washington Bureau)
“…Belonging to the European Union is a civilized choice. The oligarchic model is incompatible with it, both in Bulgaria and elsewhere…”
Unlike in neighboring Turkey, so far the protests have remained nonviolent, barring one night when police were forced to intervene in order to release a hundred members of Parliament who the protesters had stopped from leaving the Parliament building. The lawmakers were trapped for eight hours in the building by a group of 2,000 protesters before baton-wielding riot police cleared a way out in the early morning hours.
“We don’t want a bloody revolution, just transparency,” said Tsvetozar Valkov, the 33-year-old “comandante” of the protest camp who has been part of the protests since the beginning.
“We want changes, we don’t want to live in the Bulgaria of the 1990s,” he said.
Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 but has remained its poorest member, with a population of 7 million and an average monthly salary of just 400 euros.
In February, the previous prime minister and his entire Cabinet were forced to quit after crowds of 100,000 took to the streets to protest about rising utility costs, austerity measures and mismanagement.
The new Cabinet was barely in place before these latest protests kicked off, triggered by the appointment June 14 of Delyan Peevski, a well-connected media mogul who had lost an earlier government position for alleged corruption as head of the national security agency.
Protesters gathered in central Sofia to voice their displeasure against the appointment and within a day Peevski had resigned. But by then his appointment had triggered a crisis of confidence in the whole government and a demand for something beyond the status quo.
“Trust in the government and the Parliament has been eroded to an unprecedented degree,” said Daniel Smilov, a professor of politic science at Sofia University.
Amid the protesting, the Open Society Institute released findings from a survey it had conducted that showed almost three-quarters of Bulgarians consider their country’s politics “intolerable,” with only 2 percent of those surveyed describing the current state of the nation as normal.
The new prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, already has had to dismiss his deputy interior minister shortly after appointing him because of alleged links to organized crime, and he also was forced to withdraw another Cabinet nomination because of the candidate’s involvement in a construction scandal. The country is considered one of the most graft-prone in Europe.
“Every month it becomes worse here. There is no transparency, no public discussion. They are voting in people who have actual ties to the Mafia,” said Valkov.
Outside the Parliament building a makeshift encampment has been set up by the protesters, with a dozen tents and two pianos offering shelter and entertainment.
A statue of Tsar Alexander II, the ruler who liberated the country from Ottoman control in the late 19th century, is decorated with vivid banners and protest signs, while opposite, riot police lounge behind a sturdy metal barricade erected to keep the protesters and politicians apart. Nearby, someone has written “Orwell was Right” in white paint on the sidewalk.
Despite the seriousness of their goals there is a relaxed and hopeful mood to the protests. Some of the young protesters practice yoga when the square is less crowded, and in the evenings groups gather around the pianos to listen, chat and drink beer.
“The hardest thing about a long-term protest like this is keeping the energy up,” one protester explained.
Some days the protesters have brought desks and laptops to the square to continue their work while protesting, and on other days there have been “beachwear” marches and theater shows.
Many of the protesters are office workers who come after finishing work. Others are students hoping to change their country for the better.
“We want to live in a normal country with normal people as our leaders – this is about our future, so young people like me need to be part of it,” says 13-year-old Martiniana Tsvetkova, who attends the protest most days.
Some of the most determined protesters have spent time in the U.S. or in Europe and have returned to help make their country a better place.
Valkov, the camp comandante, spent five years in New York before returning to Bulgaria. “Sometimes it is hard to keep the faith,” he told McClatchy late one evening after the crowds had dispersed.
“We were hoping they would resign after three or four days,” he added. “No one expected it to last this long, but we aren’t going to stop.”
In a joint statement issued on the 25th day of the protests, the German and French ambassadors to Bulgaria seemed to side with the protesters.
“Belonging to the European Union is a civilized choice. The oligarchic model is incompatible with it, both in Bulgaria and elsewhere: it can only lead to the creation of a ‘state within a state,’” the statement said.
So far Prime Minister Oresharski has refused to resign or to call a new election, telling reporters that it is too soon to judge him.
After years of silence and discontent about the state of their political system, Bulgarians are not about to give up, however.
Bulgaria’s Parliament broke for summer recess at the beginning of August, but protests continued despite the absence of politicians in the city. Each evening, hundreds of protesters have continued to gather in Sofia’s Independence Square to march through the city, while others have staged rallies at the seaside resort of Varna, where many Bulgarian politicians spend their summer vacations. Parliament will reconvene at the beginning of September, and protesters are already planning their next moves.
“This government will fall at the start of September,” said Zdravko Deliev, a 48-year-old protester who has been living at the protest site for several weeks, going as far as to write the words ‘September 1st Revolution Bulgaria’ in a journalist’s notebook.
Many experts agree, believing it is only a matter of time before the government falls.
“I hope there will be early elections before the end of the year, otherwise we will have the protracted agony of a delegitimized government,” says Sofia University’s Smilov.
“The situation is very unpredictable, however,” he said. “September may be decisive.”