The power of the powerless

Nikolay Nikolov argues that there are parallels between the false democracy in Ukraine and that in Bulgaria, which has also seen long-running street protests. After the publication of an EU report on Bulgaria’s nascent democracy, Bulgaria’s political parties are facing up to the difficult business of keeping their splits private.

Volen Siderov, an indicted nationalist political leader. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Volen Siderov, an indicted nationalist political leader.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Many of you will have heard of the famous essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ written by Vaclav Havel in 1978. Some of you will probably have read it. But very few of you, I hope, will feel a deep and suffocating feeling that today is not very different from yesterday.

Today is a difficult day to discuss issues of democracy and Europe; people on the street fighting for an access to freedom are surveilled, located, profiled, shot, and killed in Kyiv. Rather than asking the question that comes most eagerly to me (For what reason are they suffering?) – I want to ask another question: When?

When is this happening? How far along the normative path to progress, to democratic consolidation; how long after the fall of the Soviet totalitarianism do we realise that democracy and freedom are not universal concepts with universal application. They are a discursive construction so clearly related to a given system of domination. In other words, we must speak of post-totalitarianism and post-democracy in the sense that Vaclav Havel conceived of those terms: “I do not wish to imply by the prefix “post-” that the system is no longer totalitarian; on the contrary, I mean that it is totalitarian in a way fundamentally different from classical dictatorships…” That is post-totalitarianism. To really rid oneself from this second kind, deeply pervasive and socially infiltrating kind of repression, there must be an “existential revolution”, according to Havel, going “significantly beyond the framework of classical parliamentary democracy”.

And so, when are these terrible events in the heart of Europe actually happening? How far into the unfinished project of Modernity are we and where do countries like Ukraine fall in along this linear path? Yesterday, the Yanukovych government enforced its new extremely repressive anti-demonstration law by calling on police to fire upon citizens. Now, 24 years after the fall of Communism, there are new, incredibly ubiquitous mechanisms to subdue a nation within Europe, even under the false and restricted notions of a democratic regime. No, it’s not as bad as it must have been 50 or so years ago; we are lucky we can have no memory of those times. But things are far from where they appear to be.

Bulgaria has one of these façade democracies. Less newsworthy than Ukraine at the moment, it is nonetheless a country where protests have been fighting the isolated, unaccountable, and corrupt political elite for over 220 days; where in recent weeks, thousands of policemen blocked the centre of Sofia in fear of large demonstrations; where the National Assembly is barricaded by a tall metal wall. Well, one thing is for sure – the only thing that stopped the tanks from rolling in there was the blessing that Bulgarians are European citizens. That changes everything.

Today, the European Commission officially announced the release of a special report on “Progress in Bulgaria under the Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism”. The report is destructive, embarrassing, and scary (or in the words of the British Ambassador to Bulgaria – “a depressing read.” A few steps forward, many steps back).

Bulgaria has done nothing to reform its judiciary system, fight corruption and organised crime, and has created a deep public outrage at official politics. Not to mention the repression of free speech, disregard for the demands of protestors and unprecedented popularity levels of the Cabinet (less than 10% support it). Speaking of free speech – one of the façade-democracy pseudo(news)papers wrote on a front page: “the European Commission praises a change in direction” from the last government. There has been no official response to the stark criticisms.

Unlike Ukraine, Bulgarians have struggled to keep the numbers and morale of protesters up. Where there were 70,000 in June, there are now 700. The Sofia University has just been released from an occupation by the students. Things seemed to be falling back into the good old scheme of post-totalitarianism – mind you, a qualitatively different kind from the Ukraine. In Bulgaria, the repression has been ideational, it has been about restricting the access to truth about the past, contemporaneity, and the future. It has been about forcing people into exile within their own homes – pure survival mode. Or in the words of Havel, it is a case resembling power relations, which “are best described as a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self-censorship which swallows up everyone within it, at the very least by rendering them silent, stultified and marked by some undesirable prejudices of the powerful…”

People thought that they could force change simply by being there – it didn’t work in Bulgaria, and unfortunately won’t be enough in Ukraine. They thought they can shame those in power to resign – that wasn’t the answer either. Nonetheless, an answer appears to have come from a rather unexpected place, with a domino effect of sorts starting from within the Bulgarian government.

About two weeks ago, the leader of the pretend-ultra-right-wing-but-actually-sponsored-by-Russian-money political party ATAKA was involved in a shocking scandal with a French cultural attaché – he abused, offended, and attacked her while getting off a plane; he subsequently attacked a fellow passenger and an intervening border police-officer. Both men were subsequently hospitalized with head-traumas. The scandal sent ripples through the entire social body because the party leader – Volen Siderov – left the scene without arrest due to his official immunity.

Responding to public anger, the Prosecutor General, a figure-head of the Socialist government, initiated a deal aiming to strip Siderov of his immunity. Today, in order to muffle the media discourse after the release of the European Commission report, Siderov, along with all his party members, handed over their immunities single-handedly. A trial against him is taking place at the moment.

This is incredibly important, as it is the first time that a political elite’s mistake has caused cession from the governing coalition. Siderov, a silent member of the Socialist-Turkish Party coalition, will be sacrificed so that the police-officers, who are the last protectors of the political elites, do not go on strike as well. His worst crime, however, was causing Bulgaria’s messy politics to spill across the border – he assaulted a European citizen.


Within days after the incident, former President Georgi Parvanov, who is a long-time member of the Socialist Party and ex-Secret Service agent with codename ‘Goce’ announced that his informal political movement ABV (Alternative for Bulgarian Enlightenment) would be running in the upcoming European Parliament elections separately from the Socialist Party. Several other Socialists quickly followed suit, abandoning the sinking ship.

The Socialists are the only party which has remained united since 1989; the party, which has been in power the longest; the party with the most stable support (around 20%). For the first time now, we see their extremely large and powerful structure disintegrate, reform, and change shape. The current political system is over: the former-deputy chief of the Turkish ethnic party has fled Bulgaria amidst tax fraud charges; Siderov’s party will not be re-elected and he will disappear like other (namely the former tsar Simeon II) into the private realm.

Stanishev, leader of the Socialist Party, who had ambitions at a European level has been isolated within the European Socialist Party. All the politicians in this Cabinet will see their careers curtailed – they have sacrificed their future to further the geopolitical and energy interests of Russia and to keep the fragile façade in place. But the cracks are now visible and it is a matter of time, as shown in the report and as predicted by Havel. Corruption, unaccountability, politics, freedom are words re-entering the public discourse; the access to truth is changing with every painted Soviet monument. The veil of untruth is lifting, the scent of freedom is tickling. There is no turning back.


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