What now for Bulgaria?


On 20 February, 2013, the Bulgarian government, led by the ex-fireman and bodyguard turned centre-right Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, resigned following days of protests against austerity measures.

There are two faces to this civil revolution in Bulgaria.

One is economic – a revolt against the monopolies. The other one is political, which has manifested itself in an attack against Bulgaria’s power structures and oligarchy.

Until now, the evolution of events in Bulgaria has followed the logic and characteristics of peoples’ revolutions throughout history.

Its spontaneous beginning saw over 100,000 angry Bulgarians from more than 30 cities take to the streets in protest against the unbearable cost of electricity utility bills, which were between 50 per cent and 100 per cent higher this January compared to the previous winter.

But the protests have since morphed into a movement against government corruption and poverty in Bulgaria.

The initial target of the people’s anger was the Czech energy company CEZ, which gained notoriety for cheating consumers in Albania.

A paralysis of political power followed the surprise resignation of Borisov’s populist government, before President Rosen Plevneliev announced the formation of an interim government (in place since 12 March) and plans for extraordinary parliamentary elections on 12 May, 2013.

There have since been attempts to form a ‘community council’ to deal with the situation, but as the demands of the protestors has escalated, the situation has been radicalised even further.

Today, protestors are not only calling for a better standard of living but for a complete “Change of the System!” and “Direct Democracy!”

So how did this happen?

How did Bulgaria go from being a country of total obedience to one of stormy and extensive revolt?

One major factor is poverty. This is what distinguishes the current protests from those conducted 15 years ago in the throes of hyperinflation, or 23 years ago when people marched to end communism.

Bulgaria has the highest poverty rate in the EU and it has been at a dangerously high level for many years.

One quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty, according to data from the National Office of Statistics, and about 50 per cent of Bulgarians are in danger of falling into the poverty trap.

Meanwhile, real unemployment has tripled year-on-year since 2008 from 5.6 per cent to 17.5 per cent.

The ‘hopeless’ class

It is possible to be poor or unemployed, but if you are entitled to receive social benefits or if you have the chance to find work, this could nurture your hopes for a better future.

However, to be deprived from both turns your life into a personal catastrophe. And this is what happens in Bulgaria on a daily basis.

Although Bulgarians can receive state benefits, the payments are minimal – the average state pension is only 70 euros per month.

This difficult socio-economic situation in Bulgaria has created a special class of ’hopeless’ individuals: 30 per cent of the country’s youth is unemployed; 75 per cent of retired people are considered ‘desperately poor’; and the majority of middle class households survive on minimal incomes, if they are not already totally bankrupt.

Only a tiny minority – some three to four per cent of the country’s population – manage to maintain a high standard of living.

Since the end of communism in Bulgaria two decades ago, a group of influential tycoons have received, for little or no money, premium land and industrial sites for construction projects.

These instances have increased in the last four years and the market value of these transactions is estimated to exceed four billion euros.

Moreover, corruption scandals in private transactions, public tenders and in the ‘absorption’ of euro-funds, has become a part of daily life here in Bulgaria.

And last but not at least, the sharp maneuver towards adopting austerity policies has been the cause of huge discontent and discomfort.

It began in 2009 following the election of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party (GERB).

Governance of the public finances was handed over to a Bulgarian former World Bank economist by the name of Simeon Djankov.

Thus, in the poorest member state of the European Union, at the peak of the economic crisis, this World Bank missionary enforced ‘a unique, anti-crisis packet of measures’ to further tighten the belts.

The state froze wages despite substantial increases in the cost of living, stopped paying businesses for contracted tenders, cancelled inflation-indexation schemes for pensioners and cut social benefits by between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

Bulgaria reported its ‘excellent results’ to the European Commission: a 0.5 per cent budget deficit for 2012 and only 17 per cent external debt.

What it didn’t mention was the high price paid by Bulgarian tax payers for these figures.


Taking it to the streets

It was at this moment that people began to protest.

The power elite, the financial oligarchy and the mainstream media were initially unprepared.

For many years the official propaganda trumpeted the mantra that civil society in Bulgaria was dead, and that social inequality was a ‘natural phenomenon’ for societies which adopted the ‘values of the free and perfect market’.

This ideologically-fueled construction no longer holds up.

As I write these lines, a third wave of national protests is evolving, mobilising more than 100,000 Bulgarians.

These protests have delivered new calls for the suspension of the National Parliament until a new Election Act is passed.

There are calls to cancel the current Electoral Code, which bans civil organisations from direct and democratic participation in the political life of the country.

In its place, protestors want to introduce an electoral system which favours the majority vote rule, rather than the proportional representational system in place today.

The Bulgarian people are calling for a direct vote. They want to participate in the structures of power and have a seat in the decision-making process, especially with regards to resource distribution.

But of course, their opponents – representatives of the country’s political parties – want to maintain the status-quo, which is why they are currently public enemy number one.

Even the trade unions have been criticised by the protest movement for its close ties with the fallen government and its initially passive response to the first weeks of protests.


To the future

There is no guarantee, however, that the civil revolution in Bulgaria will end with an authentic victory.

The enemies of the revolution are ready to strike back through the media and the infiltration of agent-provocateurs among the protestors.

The protestors, too, are lagging behind with the restructure and formation of coordinated mechanisms at a national level. Partnerships between protest leaders and independent experts were only established after weeks of protests.

Having already made some gains in the fight against the CEZ energy monopoly, now is the time to ask where all natural resource monopolies should be nationalised or not.

In response to the pressure to de-monopolise public services, a new attack against the country’s banking cartels is on its way as there are hundreds of thousands of people, who – as credit-receiving individuals – were defrauded by the banks.

In summation, the two main generators of the civil revolution – the anti-monopoly revolt and the protests against the power elites – will have to merge if they are to survive.

The extraordinary elections in May 2013 will demonstrate whether the peoples’ protests can earn a strategic victory, or whether the status-quo will survive at the price of tactical retreats.