In step with time? Bulgaria’s protest wave in transnational perspective

Since 2011, few countries have been totally exempt from protests against traditional forms of doing politics. Some have dealt with these protests better than others, but Bulgaria is starting to be described as ‘ungovernable’. Ivalyo Iaydjiev examines how similar Bulgaria’s experience is to those countries that have recently seen mass protests, and how it will cope.

Hoping to return; Boyko Borisov. Photo by Darldarl

Hoping to return; Boyko Borisov.
Photo by Darldarl

Chances are, you are not aware that Bulgarians have spent over three weeks on the streets in what are the the biggest anti-government rallies since 1989. That’s hardly surprising, given that worldwide media attention has been fixated on the violent repression at Taksim square in Turkey, the mass protests in Brazil, or, most recently, anti-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Yet as this hardly exhaustive list demonstrates, the sheer number of protest-movements since 2011 makes it hard to believe that all is just coincidence.

One way to generalise meaningfully about this recent wave of protests is to follow Moises Naim’s idea that traditional power is actually ‘evaporating’, leaving many situations quasi-ungovernable.  Alternatively, we can look into what the World Economic Forum presciently named the key geopolitical risk of 2013, namely the ‘vulnerability of elites’. However, it is probably too early to draw large-scale conclusions about this period; instead, it is interesting to see how events in Eastern Europe resonate with other similar developments around the world. Indeed, Bulgaria is neither, as a famous graffiti put it, ‘in step with time’ as many protesters seem to think, but nor is it completely divorced from our times.

Revolution or Laughtivism?

Let’s start with social media. It was key to the speedy mobilization that led tens of thousands to rally in front of the Council of Ministers in just a few hours on the first day of protests. These were against the appointment as head of the most powerful security agency in the country (called ‘ДАНС’) of shady media and economic mogul Delyan Peevski. Hence, the hashtag #ДАНСwithme, which reads literally “Dance with me”.

As the hashtag suggests, while anger boils over at Sao Paolo or Cairo, in Sofia we have largely settled for what the Serbian activist Srdja Popovic refers to as ‘laughtivism’, combining creativity and disgust in snappy political commentaries. The protests’ distinctly non-violent nature, made possible by the professionalism of the police forces protecting demonstrators rather than attacking them à la Taksim, sets Bulgarian protests apart.

Politics by other means, or anti-politics?

What about the identity of the protesters and their demands? Commentators have taken to claiming a revolt of the rising classes against entrenched political elites. This is both true and false in Bulgaria – the current government was barely in power for one month before triggering massive demonstrations calling for resignation (potentially a world record), but it is largely dominated by all too familiar faces from the political elite of the last decade or so. In terms of demands, legitimate grievances with large scale development projects are fuelling much of the unrest in Brazil and Turkey, while Egypt’s protests are connected to particular political figures. Corruption is an underlying theme in all of them, but perhaps more clearly in Bulgaria where protests center on issues such as monopolies, mafia control of the economy, and the abuse of political power for economic gain.

In the responsiveness of its government, Bulgaria seems to fit with the general pattern of defiance in Turkey and Egypt, with the important difference that violence is not part of the mix. The only exception to this is Brazil’s Rousseff, who has announced a string of measures in response, including discussions of revamping the constitution. Much as Erdogan, Bulgarian politicians cannot accept that the protests are legitimate expression of grievances, and often hurl accusations towards the protesters that they are paid, not representative of the larger population, or that they are just afraid of higher taxes (despite no indications for a rise in taxation).

Yet, there is one key difference in the political configuration between Bulgaria and Brazil and Turkey – the current government is a grotesque coalition of the socialist party, their traditional backer the MRF (a party representing the important Turkish minority in Bulgaria), and a nationalist party with history of bashing the MRF and led by a political provocateur. Given that the only other party in parliament is GERB, which formed the government that was forced to step down during mass protests in February, one can easily understand the anti-political attitudes among many protesters.


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