Unpacking the “Bulgarian Spring”

Mary N. TaylorPCP

I’ve just come back to New York from Sofia, Bulgaria, where there have been daily protests gatherings and marches, punctuated by chants of “step down” and, less frequently, yet consistently, “red garbage” and “mafia out of parliament”, accompanied by the sound of a three whistle march step. A general assembly has met fairly regularly, and small tent city in front of Parliament makes the protest appear to resemble Occupy Wall Street and others in the wave of protests around the world.


On the 40th day of the protest, July 23rd things took a new twist.  Protesters surrounded the Parliament, trapping lawmakers inside for over eight hours, and building barricades around the area; replacing the tacit pact between protesters and police with the first violence of the protest. A minority of the 2,500-3,00 protesters threw stones and the police reacted, some with passionate zeal.

All this comes nearly two months after Premier Plamen Oresharski’s Cabinet took office after so-called “anti-austerity protests”, particularly regarding electricity prices, in February 2103 (nearly exactly 6 years after joining the EU) forced the government led by the party Citizens for the Democratic Development of Bulgaria, or GERB (headed by Boyko Borissov) to step down. This round of protests began with the appointment of media executive Delyan Peevski on June 14 as head of the State Agency for National Security. Demonstrations across the nation forced Peevski, a media mogul with interests in tobacco and banking to back off from the appointment.

Debate was scheduled to start on July 24th regarding the budget revision approved by parliament’s budget and finance committee on the 23rd, which they claimed would to cover increased spending on social benefits, reimbursement of value-added tax receipts and payment for public services to companies.   If the package were to be approved, the deficit would widen to 2 percent from the earlier1.3 percent of economic output and raise the debt sale limit to 1 billion lev ($676 million).

The current “center-left” coalition is made up of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Liberties –supported by Bulgaria’s Turkish minority.  This government commands only 120 seats in the 240-seat Parliament and has to rely on the participation of  “ultranationalist” party, Ataka, to keep parliament functioning.

According to UK’s The Guardian,

The protests comprise part of wave of street campaigning that has shaken the paternalistic establishment across the Balkans, with tens of thousands challenging the government of Turkey in the centre of Istanbul and a public rebellion in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo fuelled by frustration at a bickering elite paralysed and rarely capable of taking any decisions…

The protests in Istanbul, Sofia and Sarajevo have displayed novel features – the unusual mobilisation of young articulate urban middle-class people not previously noted for their political activism, but fed up with governments seen as high-handed and out of touch. But the response of the governments has varied greatly. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/24/bulgarian-protesters-siege-parliament-sofia)

The language that has emerged to describe the protesters suggests that they are the beautiful middle class, put upon by corrupt government policy. (For a take on the class issue, see Mariya Ivancheva’s article:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/26/bulgaria-class-war-protest-soros-oids).  Leftists I have spoken with have described being marginalized for their use of social language, critiques of the widely held opinion that there should be an education requirement tied to voting rights. They have heard people say that if someone was at the February protests then s/he is a communist.

Having been in Sofia between July 13-25 discussing the situation with critical thinkers, I’d like to take the opportunity to ask these friends to analyze the protests from a critical leftist view.  Below I ask friends of Lefteast to answer some questions to help us develop a critical analysis of the government actions and the protests. To that end, offer some questions below.

1) Can you tell us a bit about the government coalition that is being protested? What are the parties in terms of ideology and practice? What does their coalition represent?

2) My understanding is that the protesters are being identified as middle class. From where does this interpretation come? What role does the media play in this? Do you think that middle class is the proper term for this group?

3) Is this middle class identity in contrast to that used to characterize the February protests and what does this mean?

4) What other categories is middle class being opposed to?

5) Some people have told me that they have witnessed a silencing of social or leftist language in protest contexts. Can you explain how that happens?

6) Can you tell us a bit how this protest can be compared with that in Istanbul, Occupy Wall Street, or the Protests that happened in February in Bulgaria…?

7) My understanding is that, as in many parts in the post socialist polities, in Bulgaria the term (epithet) Communist can refer to many qualities of the old regime, as well as qualities associated with those in power in the old regime who took advantage of the privatization process (so called political capitalists). Can you explain which oppositions are in play here and how the protest is articulated with them?  What are you seeing in terms of the possibilities for a Left political language to take hold given the situation?

8) Do you think there is a shared ethos/demand among the protests? Is there across this and the earlier protests?  Across the spectrum of those said by the media, and by individuals encountered, what do you think is the shared desire/symbol/demand?  How does this demand articulate with those in the international protest waves. Which techniques seem to be shared? Which demands or ideologies appear shared?

9) Can you explain how  “the IMF- and EU-inspired austerity and privatisation agendas – embraced by all Bulgarian governments – that led to mass unemployment and dismantled the welfare institutions of the socialist state” were imposed and according to what ideologies and why there is no critique of it formulated at the protests, according to Mariya Ivancheva?


Mary N. Taylor is adjunct assistant professor at Hunter College and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and part time instructor of Urban Ecologies at Parsons School of Design. She received her Ph.D in anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and was postdoctoral fellow in radical urbanism at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics (Graduate Center, City University of New York) in 2009-2011. Her research focuses on sites, technologies and politics of civic cultivation, social movement, and cultural management; the relationship of ethics and aesthetics to nationalism, cultural differentiation, and people’s movements in socialist and post-socialist East-Central Europe and the United States. She specializes in studying, theorizing, and organizing radical and alternative pedagogical activities under different conditions of urbanization.

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  • Val Hadjiyski

    To your questions:

    1) The parties of ruling coalition, BSP and DPS, are the parties that most vehemently opposed the Gerb regime: BSP was the only consistent opposition, both is ideology and practice, throughout the 2009-13 period. Since January 2013, DPS came out with the most vociferous critique so far against Boiko Borisov dubbing him a “dictator” and “threat for democracy”. A member of the Party of European Socialists (with party chairman Sergei Stanishev being also the European socialists’ president), BSP has been recently slowly moving towards a more Keynesian, anti-austerity ideology, although the centrist Oresharski government doesn’t fully subscribe to it. While BSP is a pro-business party with a heart, Oresharski himself is a conservative finance professor, formerly quite successful as finance minister, and although proclaimed an expert figure, stems from a right-wing political background (and hence for BSP he is a figure much like Kimon Georgiev in 1944 for BKP). DPS is essentially a clientelist, largely ethnic party with pragmatic and reasonable leaders who stand to lose a lot from a protracted Gerb rule.

    2) The summer protests were largely staged (including organized and paid) by Gerb (a populist cultists movement, essentially a criminal syndicate, parading as a right-wing party and desiring virtually “eternal”, unlimited power and scope much in the old BKP style) and the “blue” (traditional right-wing) parties (including the “restitutki — restitutes” crowd) and their media and NGO network — with the purpose of salvaging the Gerb elite from prosecution and imprisonment and reinstating them in power, as well as venting revanchist fury for the “blue” collapse at the May 2013 elections that left them out of parliament for the first time since 1990. A very important drive for the summer protests was protecting the interests of crony oligarch such as Borislavova, Zlatev, Prokopiev, etc., who stood to lose a lot from unexpected the toppling of the Gerb cabinet, especially in speculative solar energy projects, but also to pull them out of bankruptcy and criminal prosecution such as in the Prokopiev case.

    The media (especially Iconomedia publications owned by rogue oligarch Prokopiev, Sega daily owned by gas oligarch Sasho Donchev, several TV and radio stations) created the “middle class, beautiful” imagery seeking a parallel with Istanbul TV images. In fact the Sofia June protests have no economic or lifestyle demands on behalf of the middle class and did not spread outside central Sofia, and even there were limited to the hard-core “blue” crowd, Gerb political appointees in government and Gerb party apparatchiks, and the NGO and university “grant” crowd.

    3) The February protests were truly mass and truly spontaneous public manifestations that engulfed the entire nation, with the self-immolations that quickly became their gloomy symbol, with 70 thousand demonstrators on the streets in Varna alone on Feb 24, with distinctive economic demands on behalf of the middle class that felt squeezed to the bone by the Gerb austerity rule and monopoly racketeering, and particularly by skyrocketing utility bills. The June protesters themselves, propped by Iconomedia spin doctors, sought to distance themselves from the February crowd (the beautiful and successful against the ugly losers). And little wonder this turned out to be a suicidal tactics. In my opinion, the only “spontaneous” elements in the summer protests were the Gerb apparatchiks’ horror of their former close confidant, suddenly turned archenemy, media mogul Delyan Peevski, and the “blue” hard core’s revanchist feelings after shamefully losing the elections.

    4) The middle class, excluding the Gerb appointees and apparatchiks, the privileged Gerb companies’ employees, and the “project grant” crowd, was virtually decimated by the Gerb rule. It destroyed 450 thousand jobs, 200 thousand+ small businesses, racketeered virtually all businesses not owned by Gerb cronies, discouraged new investment, including cutting on large industrial projects for purely ideological reasons. It creatied a lunatic propaganda environment of censored media Newspeak and a personality cult of the former fireman, gangster and bodyguard Borisov, a police state with mass eaves-dropping of anyone of any importance by the Tsvetanov private police, and mass lawlessness, including election falsifications and endless tolerance even to the Gerb regime’s wildest antics such as the “Misho Birata” scandal, unthinkable in a free civilized society.

    5) The media in the summer protests were dominated by the “blue” spin doctors, from media and NGOs, who silenced any dissent, not just leftist. But especially leftist. For instance, I was censored by the Sega daily from their electronic forum for my leftist critique of what I called the June putsch against the legitimate government by those who lost the elections and who didn’t recognize the popular will. And there is no doubt that Bulgaria needs leftist economic policies now.

    6) OWS is leftist, against excessive corporate power, and the June protests in Sofia are right-wing, for preserving rogue corporate power. In Istanbul, we saw urban middle class defending its cultural and lifestyle, but also economic rights against an obscurantist Islamist regime, in Sofia in June – right-wing party apparatchiks and privileged office workers, as well as the rich, and also hired mobs, trying to reinstate a regime essentially hostile to the middle class.

    7) Gerb and its puppet masters oligarchs are the ones most intimately related to post-communist “political capitalism”. Borisov himself as well as Valentin Zlatev, the head of Lukoil Bulgaria, are part of the Pravets clan. All important Gerb leaders are healing from an enterprising communist background. President Plevneliev is a former paid Komsomol apparatchik, appointed by the reformer communist government in 1990 to be a capitalist , making money in Germany via political protection and exploiting two thousand Muslim Bulgarians he smuggled into Germany to work in construction and paid them 20% of what they earned. Borislavova, Tsvetanov and the like are all from the same hatch. Compared to them BSP is way less burdened by its pedigree.

    8) No, there’s no common ethos. A major part of the summer protesters were party crowds fighting for their own, and there were hired crowds as well. The similarity of the summer protests to Istanbul and elsewhere is just visual and not in substance. The February protests were essentially hunger revolts much like the initial Arab Spring in Tunis and Egypt. Indeed, there are some people both in February and in June who sincerely desire political change and protest political corruption on all sides — but their protest was cynically made use of in the summer and they served the interests of Gerb, the oligarchs, and the “blue” parties. Since no mass “moral” protests ever erupted under Gerb, with mass and flagrant corruption, election-rigging and police-state scandals shaking the nation virtually daily, it’s very hard to justify the “moral” character of the summer protests, and the summer protesters demonstrated double standards on too many occasions.

    9) Gerb’s austerity policy, promoted by former finance minister Simeon Djankov and by Borisov himself, brought Bulgaria to an economic catastrophe. At the peak of the crisis of demand, when enlarged government spending should compensate for the deficiency in private and corporate spending, austerity brought forward a self-catalyzing downward spiral of decreasing income, government revenue and spending. At the same time, Gerb-promoted speculative interests particularly in new energy (solar) and monopolistic behemoths in utilities made utility prices skyrocket. In February, my father in law, at 85, paid BGN 265 a month for electricity while his pension had been frozen since 2009 at BGN 218 per month! And he heats just one room in his apartment. That’s why hundreds of thousands of people rebelled in February and quickly toppled Gerb’s cabinet. Clearly, anti-austerity feeling is running very high, combined with anti-privatization anti-monopoly feeling (the bulk of privatization was completed under Ivan Kostov’s right-wing rule in 2007-2001). There is a strong sentiment as well against the big international discount retailers. And a general anti-Western feeling is steadily picking up, especially now with the Syrian crisis.

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