Since mid-February, a popular uprising has brought out thousands in city squares across Bulgaria, giving voice to grievances accumulated over the last 23 years and reinserting the popular into the country’s politics. What began as a spontaneous expression of discontent at the rising electricity prices grew into a protest against the role of the privatized electricity monopolies that charge those prices, and then into a mass demonstration against the whole post-socialist model and the political class that has perpetuated it. Within a week of the beginning of the protests (and possibly motivated by the calculation that early elections would be better for the incumbents), the government had resigned while media and politicians have gone into overdrive trying to divine what had brought the people out. Here is what the author of this article saw and learnt from the protest rally in his hometown of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria on February 20th, at ca. 5˚ C:
1) The dearth of a political vision common to the Bulgarian protestors was such as to make the US Occupy movements look like a doctrinaire sect. The main political messages were negative: the government must go down; the political system is rotten; we cannot go on living like this. Such a small core of shared convictions explains the symbolic poverty of the march and the subsequent rally. Among the 200 or so people gathered at the city square (I imagine a total of 500 must have participated at some point), there were five or so with printed posters proclaiming “Down with the monopolies!,” “Goodbye, Diankov!/ Goodbye, GERB!” [respectively, the name of finance minister and the ruling party], and in a reference to the exhausted possibilities within the current political class: “You can’t make a new whorehouse out of old whores” (“Ot stari kurvi/ nov bardak ne stava”). The absence of shared politics probably contributed to the unwillingness of many people asked by the TV Stara Zagora news crew? to speak about the movement on camera.
There was no color or other visual marker to distinguish the protestors, either, except for the ubiquitous Bulgarian flag. Indeed, the common idiom of civic nationalism was the one source of positive unity: when speakers ran out of words, they would start singing the Bulgarian anthem. Similarly, most of the chanting repertoire of the march consisted of battle-cries as “Bulgarian heroes!” (“Bulgari—iunatsi!”), “We are Bulgarians!,” “Unity makes might” (Bulgaria’s national motto). The fact that the protests coincided with the 140th anniversary of the death of Bulgaria’s national hero Vasil Levsky made periodic references to him another staple of the event. It seemed as if Bulgarian history of the last 140 years lacked moments around which a majority could unite: when somebody from the steps of the Stara Zagora city hall shouted something about the last 23 years (of post-communist neoliberalism), he was countered with a comment on the evils of the previous 45 years (of state socialism). The protestors’ practices, therefore, drew on the historical memory of how earlier struggles of national liberation were organized: through towns electing organizing committees (“initsiativni komiteti”), which would then come together and produce some momentous decision. I did not hear any ethnic references to gypsies and Turks: the nationalism was kept strictly civic—at least at that meeting. Given that this was Stara Zagora, a city with a strong ecological consciousness developed in response to the recurrent air pollution from the nearby coal power plants, any mention of clean air and good environment drew cheers.
2) Except for those occasional protests against air pollution over the last several years, today’s protestors in Stara Zagora did not have much of a repertoire to draw on. As a result, the march’s movement through the city felt uncertain. It remained fairly quiet because most of the chants tried out were not recognized or were picked up by tiny groups: the marchers were only beginning to discover their voice. This relative lack of a protest culture led the crowd to lean heavily on the soccer fans, of whom there were a couple of dozen. As a group, they were by far the loudest and most organized; unlike most of the other people on the street, they had experience with chanting slogans and acting collectively. I don’t know whether Stara Zagora’s soccer fans are co-terminous with nationalists or if they represent any coherent political view, but the contrast between their unity and the atomization of the rest of the crowd, as well as the verbal domination of the protests by a small number of young men, was remarkable and somewhat troubling regardless.
Indeed, what took place was direct democracy, with all of its glory and downfalls. It felt ancient, a scene that you could have seen in ancient Sparta or in an early nineteenth-century American town hall. During the rally, the loudspeaker passed to whoever took it. Members of the audience occasionally interrupted the speakers with questions, cheered them or urged them on, or occasionally shouted them down. For many, I believe, it was their first time addressing such a large audience and holding a loudspeaker, and they rose to the challenge. One young man, who introduced himself as a student of economics, mentioned that he had not shown up at the office where he was interning ever since the protests started. The movement is producing its own—for lack of a better word—organizers.
Yet the longer one stayed, the more evident it became that the rally was dominated by a small core of activists, among either the most active speakers or the section of the audience closest to them. The people at the periphery of the rally either lacked the interest or the ability to participate in the back-and-forth between the front row of the audience and the speakers. The involvement gap—almost inevitable in any instance of direct democracy—became more painful to watch when representatives were elected in a hasty move towards the end of the rally, without much introduction or discussion.
3) I was really hoping that the social composition of the rally would give me some clues as to the direction of the movement, but ultimately the crowd seemed too diverse to be at all readable. Compared to typical inhabitants of Stara Zagora’s main pedestrian drag at that time of the day, the protesters were probably slightly poorer, with middle-aged, working people in the 30-to-60 year age range somewhat unrepresented. There was a large number of retirees, who had probably constituted the core of the protests in the first days. Now they stayed mostly at the periphery. More surprising was the high turnout of high school students. The majority of the crowd was male, with the gender imbalance greater among the speakers. This said, one of the most authoritative and popular speakers was a middle-aged woman, who described herself as a former restaurant owner who had recently had to fire all eleven of her employees owing to terrible business conditions and corruption. Her loyalists cheered her on. The fact that the rally took place in Stara Zagora (a city of 160,000 people, not a major intersection of the financial flows going through the country, but not particularly depressed by Bulgarian standards, either) meant that it was lacking both in culturally and economically elite Sofia-based publics and in the poorest, most marginalized populations found in the villages or other parts of the country.
It is still hard to imagine a common political platform or even a common language easily arising out of this mix—but it was impressive to see a people so atomized starting to speak politics! I had not seen so many spontaneous political conversations among strangers since Occupy Boston. Here are only a few of the snippets I overheard: “We don’t need 240 idiots (MPs) there. The number should be halved,” or “Our whole political class must go! We must start with a new constitution.” In response to a neighbor’s complaint that he couldn’t hear what the speakers were saying, a young person explained Occupy’s human microphone technique. A merry pensioner addressed a receptive group of soccer fans: “We want a thorough-going transformation, right? That’s a revolution. We are for a revolution, right, young people?” As one young woman was saying good-bye to a retiree, she reminded him to bring his grandchildren to the city square the next day: indeed, word of mouth seems to have been the means by which the rally was brought about. I had despaired of finding any information about a forthcoming rally online, and was ultimately informed by my father, who had heard about it from colleagues.
A dozen of weary policemen stood by. Their reaction to the impromptu proposal of one of the speakers, namely, that the rally end with a march along the main street, was indicative: “These people,” one of them said, wistfully looking at the rally that was turning back into a march, “have no pity.” The repressive apparatus did not appear keen on battle.
In their own eyes and in the eyes of most commentators, “[t]hese people” have in fact assumed the status of “the people”—not so much the actual population, but the category to which everybody appeals: the political subject that is supposedly sovereign in a democratic society. Indeed, what is being fought over at the protests is who “the people” are, what they look like, what they stands for, who can speak for them, and how to represent them. Nationalists have a head start in this struggle—they have had a monopoly on “the people” for two or three decades now. The liberal experts are in fact the worst-equipped to participate in such exchanges: they are much more comfortable bemoaning the rise of populism and the unrealistic expectations of the crowd; predicting fascism if the city squares are not cleared this minute; and hoping that the political crisis can be resolved in a technocratic cabinet, allowing them to work with their true partners—big local businesses and foreign investors, the EU and NATO—without being held back by the inconvenience of a population. The parliamentary parties—which, to one extent or another, share the above view—have a greater experience of throwing red meat at TV audiences, and when necessary, to co-opt and tame protests.
Compared to these forces, the left is tiny and—as pessimistic as this may sound—unlikely to make the protests its own. They are, however, a major opportunity for its growth. For what we are witnessing today is a moment of radical openness that Bulgarian politics over the last two decades has rarely seen, a chance not to be squandered.