Wednesday, 7 August 2013

BULGARIA: The Bulgarian Protest

They have been overlooked by the international media, whose gaze has been fixed on Tahrir Square in Cairo and Taksim Square in Istanbul. But Bulgaria’s ongoing anti-government protests, which entered their 50th day last week, are indicative of a broader disillusionment with the political and economic elite seen all over Southeastern Europe. The concept of a state “captured” by business interests may resonate well beyond Bulgaria’s borders. The question is whether real change to how politics and the economy are run will come about.

The demonstrations are Bulgaria’s biggest since 1997, when economic crisis brought citizens to the street and led to the government’s ouster. At the peak of this summer’s demonstrations, a siege of parliament led to deputies being trapped in the building overnight; on another occasion, a bus carrying politicians was surrounded by protesters, who refused to let it pass.

The protests were triggered by the exasperation of an increasingly politicized, internet-savvy middle class with the state of Bulgarian democracy, as well as pervasive state capture, [and a] lack of transparency and accountability. The end of GERB's rule ushered in a ‘never again’ sentiment [that was] overlooked by BSP-DPS in their push to settle scores with opponents—like two teams on a football pitch which ignore, to their peril, the spectators. By pressing for resignation, protesters want to punish this government and teach a lesson to the entire political class

The demonstrators are calling for the resignation of the government headed by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, which was appointed in May following a snap election. The election was called after the previous center-right government of Boyko Borisov and his GERB party itself resigned following street protests. But whereas the anti-Borisov demonstrations were originally motivated by economic problems, particularly rising energy prices, the current protests are largely caused by political grievances.

They were triggered in June by Oresharski’s appointment, rapidly reversed, of highly controversial politician Delyan Peevski as head of the national security agency, DANS. Peevski’s mother is a media magnate and former head of Bulgaria’s national lottery, and is associated with a group of media industry leaders linked to Corporate Commercial Bank, a controversial institution with alleged political ties.

As such, Peevski is seen to typify the links between Bulgarian politicians and nefarious business interests; while no charges against him have been proved, he was sacked by a previous government for alleged corruption. The group around his mother is accused of concentrating media ownership, and thus influence, in their hands.

In retrospect, the Peevski appointment seems to have been a remarkably maladroit move by Oresharski and his government, which is backed by and includes members of Bulgaria’s socialist and ethnic Muslim parties—the BSP and DPS, respectively—with occasional support from the prickly far-right party “Attack” party. Few in Bulgaria seem able to fathom why the decision was made.

The Oresharski government was theoretically an administration including both technocrats and politicians that was meant to restore political stability and sound economic management after the chaos of the last years of the Borisov regime. While the new government was broadly welcomed by investors, many Bulgarians were unhappy about its senior figures’ apparent connections to business and even organized crime. The appointment of Peevski, some days after the cabinet was installed, brought those concerns sharply into focus.

But resentment goes far beyond the figures of Peevski and Oresharski; the protesters, and the many other Bulgarians who have stayed at home but nevertheless support them, are expressing frustration about the country’s political elite and the way that they conduct themselves.

It was predictable that the pugnacious Borisov, now in opposition, would seek to use the protests as grist for his own political mill, and indeed the former prime minister has called for new elections that he clearly expects he would win. But those involved in the anti-government movement make it clear that they want neither the socialists and their allies, nor a return of Borisov, who himself has been accused of unpalatable links to business and a clumsy and authoritarian style of government.

After years of silence and widespread fatalism about the state of politics in Bulgaria, a significant number of Bulgarians feel that enough is enough and that they will no longer tolerate business as usual. It bears noting that a substantial proportion of their compatriots, and not only among BSP and DPS loyalists, do not necessarily agree. But many hope that the country can close the door on the post-communist era, in which many senior politicians seemed more concerned with their own interests and those of their business partners than with the greater good.

While the protests have sustained momentum remarkably well, the government remains in place, a sign of more than just its tenacity given its precarious parliamentary position. Investors are naturally wary of more political uncertainty. The opposition has almost no political figures that would inspire widespread confidence and support. And changing a system that has been in place for more than two decades will prove a challenge. But this year’s protests at least show that some Bulgarians will no longer tolerate the status quo.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP: Protest in Sofia photo