U-Turn if you want to

Ivalyo Iaydijev describes how careless leadership and inequality in Bulgaria has shaken up the political system.

Like Al Jazeera in the clip above, world news agencies have described Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, who resigned last Wednesday, as the latest victim of popular angst at austerity policies in Europe. On the contrary, disillusionment with politics and dissatisfaction with the low quality of living are long standing in Bulgaria, while the immediate trigger was an increase in energy prices. Around 30,000 people turned out to protest against foreign companies who own the energy distribution grid – by far the biggest protest since 1997, when hyperinflation drove out another government.

Borisov’s downfall has been his populism – he recently panicked and fired Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Simeon Dyankov. The official reason was Dyankov’s refusal to pay subsidies owed to Bulgarian agricultural producers which would later be repaid by the EU; Borisov instead elected to finance this through an unplanned short-term debt emission. At a botched press conference, Borisov then declared that he would “not resign even though it is in the Party’s best interests as it would plunge the country into chaos.” In what has become a signature reversal he resigned the next morning, leaving his cabinet stunned.

Borisov’s resignation seems to have put oil onto the fire. What started as a means to vent frustration over high prices and low quality of life indices has escalated into an anti-politics protest, reflecting the bitter disappointment with all politicians during Bulgaria’s transition and distrust towards the self-appointed elites. The prospects for the next elections are grim, with predictions of a fragmented vote compounded by fears of vote buying and rigging.

Meanwhile, the “reawakening of civil society” and demands for “a change in the political system”, coupled with attacks on monopolies and foreign energy companies, have many worried about an outbreak of anarchy or populism. Some protesters have burned copies of the constitution, others are busy proposing an array of constitutional changes. The insistence on civil society representatives in parliamentary committees and calls for a shift from a proportional to a majority voting system, may exacerbate these tendencies.

Until now, the charismatic Borisov, former bodyguard to the late Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, has largely managed to deflect blame towards his predecessors. The danger of the current crisis, however, is much more than the fall of one government. Anger built up against the political elite over two decades has been unleashed and remains undirected. Austerity per se has nothing to do with the current protests; energy prices in Bulgaria are by far the lowest in the EU, its debt to GDP ratio hovers around 20% and other macroeconomic indicators are all stable (for now). However, stability at the macro level has not led to any real convergence of EU and Bulgarian incomes over the past five years. Bulgaria remains the poorest member with incomes hovering at just 40% of EU’s average.

As an old Bulgarian joke goes, there are two ways out of a crisis: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 of Sofia Airport.


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