Bulgaria's winter of discontent
Sunday (24 February) was another day of huge protests in Bulgaria.
More than 100,000 people hit the streets in more than 40 towns in what local media described as the biggest demonstrations since 1997, when mass demonstrations over hyperinflation led to the fall of the then Socialist government.
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The latest protests were still going on on Tuesday, for the 17th day in a row.
In another echo of 1997, they forced the centre-right government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to step down last week.
“I did not lay asphalt in order to have blood spilled on it,” Borisov said in the national parliament in an emotional speech, referring to a demonstration that turned violent the evening before.
Less than 24 hours earlier, in a press conference that was supposed to appease protesters, he had categorically denied he would resign. “My country is still dearer to me than my party,” he said then.
But the next morning he did the opposite. Perhaps as a political ruse, or perhaps it was indeed the only move capable of stopping the escalation of unrest. Or, maybe, a combination of both.
In the past three and a half years of his government, Borisov - a former bodyguard of the ousted Communist leader Todor Zhivkov and the tsar-turned-prime-minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as well as a karate coach and former police chief - has distinguished himself with his special style and his unpredictability.
He has been strikingly populist and inconsistent, while bringing the personalisation of power to a level not reached in 25 years.
But all this did not prevent him from turning from being the people’s favourite to being the primary target of their frustration.
And the protests did not stop with the government’s resignation - quite the contrary.
What do they want, anyway?
According to different estimates, between 100,000 and 200,000 people were out on the streets of Bulgaria on Sunday, with increasingly different, contradictory and sometimes absurd demands.
There are economic demands - the ones that started the demonstrations in the first place.
In a country where the average monthly salary is not more than €400, people want their electricity bills reduced and all contracts signed with electric companies in the last 24 years revised. They have united “against the monopoles of the electric companies” and want them to be disciplined or nationalised.
There are political demands as well.
Most demonstrators say they want a total overhaul of the political system. But what this means and how it is to be achieved is another matter.
Some are calling for a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new Constitution, which would include mechanisms of direct involvement of the citizens in the governing of the country. Others are calling to scrap all political parties. “We won’t talk to any political party - we don’t negotiate with terrorists," one protester yelled into a megaphone.
In any case, it is a novel phenomenon. Bulgarians rarely overcome their apathy to go out on the streets. They don't usually believe they can make a difference by protesting.
And today’s protesters are different from those of 1997 because they do not just want to overthrow one government or one political party. They are against all political parties and against a system that has been in place since 1989, which they see as being dysfunctional and corrupt.
Many foreign journalists and commentators have been quick to say the Bulgarian government is the latest victim of austerity.
But the truth is that, while unemployment is rising (currently at around 12%), salaries remain too low and businesses are struggling, there have been no drastic cuts in recent times, as in Greece or Spain.
Economically, we can say the country has been constantly “in transition” since the fall of Communism. As analysts here say, somebody who is 30 years old in today’s Bulgaria has lived 24 of these years in transition and/or economic instability.
Bulgarians often joke: “We haven’t felt the global economic crisis here, because we’ve always been in crisis."
The economic situation is serious - but the biggest problem in Bulgaria is systemic.
It is the country’s dysfunctional institutions that have constantly been failing its citizens. On top of that comes the corrupt political system, its shady “businessmen” and its power-hungry, but vision-lacking politicians (often with links to the businessmen).
The one slogan which has united all protesters is: “Mafia! Mafia!”
It is what people have been chanting for the past two weeks and it is how they confronted the president on Sunday when he went out to speak to them (the only politician so far to have done this so far).
Eurobarometer surveys show that 92 percent of Bulgarians think shortcomings in the judicial system are an important problem.
Ninety six percent think corruption is another important issue for Bulgaria. Sixty eight percent consider the situation in this area to be unchanged or worse than it was in 2007.
Corruption was also cited as the greatest obstacle to doing business in Bulgaria in the Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012.
Bulgaria is one of the only two EU member states - together with Romania - to face post-accession monitoring by the European Commission via a special "Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM)."
In its five-year report on Bulgaria last year, the commission said that “many important steps [towards reform] seem to have been taken primarily as the result of external pressure… The fact that external pressure is still necessary raises questions about the sustainability and irreversibility of change.”
It added: “Today's European Union is highly interdependent. The rule of law is one of the fundamental values of the EU and there is a strong common interest in it which mirrors the interest of Bulgarian public opinion in these issues."
All gloom and doom?
It is difficult to foresee how the situation will develop in Bulgaria or, indeed, how it will affect its place in the EU.
A discussion on Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into the EU's passport-free Schengen zone has already been dropped from next week’s Justice and Home Affairs Council, despite the fact that both countries, notably Bulgaria, has been claiming for months that it has fulfilled all technical criteria to join.
More importantly, the EU’s next long-term budget is still to be agreed.
With no functional government in place, Bulgaria could end up being kept out of one of the most important matters to be decided by the EU for the years to come, just when the process reaches its final stages.
But the consequences of the political crisis are mostly to be felt in the country itself.
In a society in despair (as this article was being written, a third man set himself on fire in the small town of Radnevo, in front of the city council, just days after two other men did the same in Veliko Tarnovo and Varna, respectively), in a society suffering from an acute feeling of lawlessness, many scenarios are possible.
The worst case scenario is undoubtedly an escalation of the protests into violence.
There have already been sporadic clashes and the tension on the streets is palpable. People are desperate and angry. If the state does not provide fast and adequate solutions, the situation might get uglier still.
The ball is now in the president’s court.
He has to appoint a caretaker government and set a date for early elections, probably in mid-May.
That could slowly lead to the protests dying out and things returning to “normal."
But it would not answer the main question - who will people give their vote to in these elections? A snap election will not solve the essential, underlying problems - political parties and politicians perceived as corrupt, unreliable and remote from the people, weak growth and dying businesses.
There is still a glimpse of hope, however.
One positive development could be if the protests result in a general political awakening, a catharsis, new faces - the birth of a genuine civil society, actively involved in reforming the political establishment and creating a better future for the country.
Only time will tell if Bulgarians choose reason over rage and make change happen from within.
The author is writing under a pen-name. Their real identity is known to EUobserver.