Bulgarians: Citizens with a cause
It has been more than 40 days now since protests started in Bulgaria's capital. Thousands hit the streets in Sofia every day to voice their frustration and disgust with the Bulgarian political establishment.
It all started on 14 June, when the parliament approved the nomination of the 32-year-old media mogul Delyan Peevski as head of the country’s powerful national security agency.
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Peevski, who is also a member of parliament from the liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), was investigated for corruption as a deputy minister in a previous government in 2007. The charges were eventually dropped and he was reinstated in his post, but he is still perceived as a clear example of private interests controlling institutions and of the country's ill-functioning judiciary.
After being nominated by Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, Peevski’s appointment was swiftly voted through by the parliament without any debate or explanation.
The public reaction was instantaneous and massive. The government – only two weeks in office – reacted quickly and cancelled the appointment, but the damage had already been done.
The truth is that, as controversial as Peevski is, his nomination is a symptom of Bulgaria's deepest problems, not the root.
This is also why it is wrong to assume that Bulgarians are demonstrating against the current government alone, led by the Socialists and the MRF.
People in Sofia have been protesting against all parties represented in the current parliament – formerly ruling centre-right GERB explicitly included – and calling on them to leave and let room for real change in Bulgaria's dysfunctional and corrupt political system.
For almost 25 years – since the communist regime fell in 1989 – the country has been ruled by a rotating system of politicians with shady links to shady economic and/or crime circles. Bulgaria's failed transition from communism has so far mostly served former communist state security networks, crime rings and oligarchies, while it has completely failed the country's citizens.
Government in denial
But despite the protesters' energy and tireless calls for change (42 days of protests during a hot Bulgarian summer is no mean feat), the government's silence has been deafening.
Ministers and MPs from ruling parties have dismissed the protesters as insignificant in number, not representative of Bulgarian society, or paid by the opposition.
Various ministers have rejected the possibility of resigning. Meanwhile, Volen Siderov, the extremist leader of far-right party Ataka, has spared no effort in trying to radicalise the demonstrators – luckily, with no success.
"The institutions do not recognise that there is a protest. Whether they (the protesters) are a majority or not – I do not know. But they are Bulgarian citizens who have been protesting for 42 days and this is not normal… I am 61 years old and I have not seen such a thing (before)," Bulgarian Ombudsman Konstantin Penchev said on Thursday, 25 July.
Penchev's comments came a day after the first clashes happened between police and protesters.
Late on Tuesday, after the adoption in parliamentary committees of a controversial revision of Budget 2013, citizens circled the National Parliament blocking inside some hundred MPs, members of the Cabinet, civil servants and journalists.
Tensions escalated when riot police attempted to escort the trapped politicians in a bus right through the crowd of protesters. Clashes followed and some ten people were reported injured.
The calm has since returned in Sofia and the protests continue in their traditionally peaceful and creative manner.
Unusually strong EU reaction
The long-lasting protests and the large number of people participating – there have been more than 10,000 people on certain days – have provoked unusually strong reactions from EU countries, as well as from the European Commission.
On 8 July the ambassadors of France and Germany published a common op-ed in one of Bulgaria's biggest dailies saying they understand Bulgarian citizens' protest against oligarchic models.
"Good governance is all Bulgarians' business. But it's also all Europeans' business: as tax payers (almost 40% of EU funds going to Bulgaria come from French and German taxpayers); because our economies are inter-dependent; and simply because our destinies are now linked," the ambassadors wrote.
Similar reactions from the Dutch and Belgian ambassadors followed, as well as from Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission.
Reding, in charge of fundamental rights, also pointed to the need to maintain the EU monitoring of Bulgaria's judiciary – the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism imposed on Bulgaria and Romania.
"A strong and independent justice system is not a luxury but a necessary part of public life in a country… Delivering results on the CVM is also a powerful tool to help restore the confidence of the citizens in the political and judicial institutions," she said.
It is extremely difficult to predict what will happen next. A majority of analysts seem to agree that the government should resign soon and many say that new elections will be held in May next year at the latest (together with the European elections).
It is unlikely that this solve anything, however, unless bigger and more substantial change takes place.
Unfortunately, the protesters have not put forward a clear leader (or leaders) yet, nor has a new political force appeared that could bring in the much desired change.
This has allowed politicians from the biggest parties to all but ignore the protests.
A positive sign is the strong EU reaction. Moreover, the EU has a concrete tool to act. The Commission already suspended large amounts of EU funds once over Bulgaria's persistent corruption problems (during the government led by Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev in 2008).
Still, the EU "stick" is also unlikely to do the job on its own.
For change to be genuine, it must come from within. It must be sought after, fought for and achieved by Bulgarian citizens themselves.
In that respect, the undoubtedly positive energy of the protests is a very good sign.
By its sudden and hopefully irreversible awakening, the Bulgarian society has already won the battle against its sclerotic government.
But in order for it to win the war, this positive energy has to be transformed into something concrete and cohesive, bringing in new faces that have not been corrupted by the old system.
If that happens, Bulgaria's transition to actual democracy may at last move forward.