Analysis / Interview

Bulgaria’s Student Protests

Bulgaria has experienced two waves of protests in 2013. The first, between January and February, led to the resignation of the Borisov government and early elections. After the formation of an unconventional coalition government, new protests began in May and have grown in size. Now students are taking matters a step further. Borislav Gizdavkov, from the Henry Jackson Society and a former University College London (UCL) Student, and Nikolay Nikolov, a PhD student at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, UCL run the blog Banitza. This post originally appeared here.

As some of you may know, for the past 155 days, Bulgarians both at home and abroad have been protesting against an undemocratic, corrupt, and unaccountable government. Since then, the battle has become entrenched as the voice of the protesters has been effectively stifled, muffled, and muted by media and official government discourses. Bulgaria is now #87 on the 2013 Reporters without Borders Freedom of Press Index. The only country that is further down the list from Eastern and Central Europe is Albania.

The #ДАНСwithme movement, which takes its name from a popular hashtag, has become a battle between competing languages, ideals, and identities. To a large extent, Bulgarian society has been effectively torn apart into two camps – those who actively support the protests and want to live and breathe in a freer, more democratic country and those who are sceptical of all change in Bulgaria, cynical of all social movements and causes, or simply tired of or uninterested in politics.

As a result, the daily marches in the capital and the weekly protests gatherings abroad have fluctuated and decreased in numbers. Many thought that it would be easier, quicker, painless to bring down a government. Some of them gave up after they realized it would not be that simple. Others see the Cabinet’s resignation as a stepping-stone in a nation-wide struggle to reshape, recultivate and rebuild the vanishing democratic institutions in Bulgaria.

Several students, who first attempted to facilitate some form of dialogue with the government and were subsequently ignored and sidelined, occupied the biggest auditorium in the St. Kliment Ohridski, Sofia University, in October. Since then, students from the New Bulgarian University and The Journalism Faculty have joined the movement. Ivaylo Zahariev, a talented Bulgarian actor, announced that all theatres will go on strike in the upcoming days.

Lectures have now resumed at the university, although the occupation of the main auditorium continues. The National Assembly is surrounded by a large continuous metal barricade – the first of its kind to ever be erected around the institution; it was built exactly 24 years and 1 day after we celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall; free movement in central Sofia is restricted as more than 5,000 armed forces are patrolling and blocking off streets and boulevards; yesterday the socialist party and the movement for rights and freedoms called in thousands of Roma and poorer Bulgarians from all parts of rural Bulgaria for a protests; the pictures of how they look are shocking.

Banitza’s editors spoke to one of the students organising the occupation at Sofia University, asking why they chose to participate in the protest, and whether the #ДАНСwithme movement can be compared with Occupy Wall Street or to the protests in France in 1968?

“We care that you don’t care” – Interview with Raya Raeva

“Our civic consciousness needs to be awake at all times, we need to communicate, to demand  accountability, to ask our questions, to rise from our slumber, to always stand firm, together” Raya Raycheva

“Our civic consciousness needs to be awake at all times, we need to communicate, to demand accountability, to ask our questions, to rise from our slumber, to always stand firm, together” Raya Raycheva

Banitza: Hello and thank you very much for taking the time to sit with us. Tell us a few words about yourself – what’s your name, what are your views on #ДАНСwithme and Plamen Oresharski’s government?

Raya Raeva: Hi! My name is Raya Raeva and I am a Philosophy student at Sofia University (SU). I have supported #ДАНСwithme from its inception. I recognised many of my own ideas and values in it. I was on the city square almost every day this summer. I think that one of the main successes of the protests is that it disciplined us into having a much more attuned and nuanced civic and political consciousness. It sharpened our senses and made us more sensitive towards the political situation in Bulgaria, and that is what’s really important. The occupation of the auditorium #272 and the building of the Rectorate are a direct confirmation of that. The protest movement  continues to be very successful in many of its aspects – it woke up (trans. note: meant in the sense of ‘enlightened’) many, opened up a space for dialogue.

BanitzaWhat led to the occupation of the Sofia University (SU)?

Raya Raeva: The initiative began with the occupation of the biggest auditorium in SU. This was not a spontaneous decision but a logical continuation of the protest movement of the enlightened students, who are protecting their rights and freedoms since the summer. A week ago, the Early Birds Students (ed.note: the group who organized the movement) had undertaken several initiatives in Studentski Grad (trans. note – this is the neighbourhood in Sofia, where most students live, literally means ‘Student City’), SU, and Parliament. They had all been attempts at raising awareness and a direct signal to their fellow students and citizens. When we did not receive any answers to our questions, three days after the beginning of the 272 occupation, we decided that we ought to take a more radical route. As of October 25th, the building of the Rectorate is fully occupied. This occupation is permanent and its goals are as follows:

1. immediate dissolution of the XLII National Assembly;

2. Immediate organization of new Parliamentary elections;

3.  Active critique of civil society against the widespread criminality within the highest echelons of the governmental institutions;

4. The transformation of Bulgaria in a civilized, lawful state;

5. The upholding of justice and knowledge as the pivotal societal and cultural values.

BanitzaTell us about the Early Birds Student – are you a part of that group? When was it formed?

Raya Raeva: It is a community of young and enlightened individuals, which is growing significantly every single day. This is not an organization, in the strict sense of the word. There are no leaders here, no official hierarchy or membership preferences. This is really important to us. Nonetheless, we do not expect or wish to remain anonymous. We stand firm behind all those young people with a clear civic stand and ambition for change and a better, brighter future in Bulgaria.

BanitzaIn one of the first lectures held in the auditorium, Dr. Kristian Takov warned, that this government, this regime, is formed by “big-eyed, thick-skinned” individuals who cannot be tamed by this occupation. What are your thoughts? What are the long-term goals of this occupation?

Raya Raeva: Dr. Kristian Takov held a very captivating lecture. The students responded with a very lengthy standing ovation. I agree that against those “big-eyed, thick-skinned” individuals need to be counteracted permanently, with efforts and perseverance. It is difficult, but by no means is it impossible. It is not enough to simply remain in the auditorium or go out in the streets. It is crucial that we share our story to someone, to remain alert and awake at all times. One of the messages written on the blackboard in 272 is “We care that you don’t care”. We want that to change. We believe that we can overcome the growing apathy. Our civic consciousness needs to be awake at all times, we need to communicate, to demand accountability, to ask our questions, to rise from our slumber, to always stand firm, together.

BanitzaAre you worried that the institutions of Bulgarian democracy are being eroded?

Raya Raeva: Of course. If I was not worried, I would not be in the auditorium today. Yet, besides the fear we are motivated and confident that change will come. We know it is our duty, each and every individual’s responsibility.

BanitzaDo you see your future in Bulgaria?

Raya Raeva: Yes, at this given moment I am sure that it is important that I stay here

BanitzaAnd how do you imagine the future will unfold?

Raya Raeva: I do not wish to speculate, but my prescriptive vision is positive. We are optimistic and we hold strong faith and resolve. I wish, within the space of the next 20 years, to feel the same way I do today, regardless of the overarching social or political situation within the country.

BanitzaThe occupation is spreading to other universities in Sofia (New Bulgarian University and the Journalism Faculty) – do you expect for it to continue growing?

Raya Raeva: We expect that the initiative will grow because we think that the young people are here and have many questions, whose answers they are yet to receive. Also, we believe that our example is contagious. We are receiving support from our colleagues not only in Sofia, but from the entire country. Today we found out that our colleagues in Veliko Turnovo are showing their solidarity for us and will attempt to occupy their respective university as well. Among us are students from the University of National and World Economy, New Bulgarian University, National Academy of Arts, University of Architecture, the Medical University, and many more.

BanitzaWhat would you like to share with our foreign readers?

Raya Raeva: I would like to call upon them – students, colleagues, young people… all like-minded people, be watchful and stay awake!

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