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Bulgaria: students to the rescue

A prolonged crisis in Bulgaria exposes the bankruptcy of an entire political system in desperate need of renewal, says Dimitar Bechev.

Dimitar Bechev
19 November 2013

Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, has probably set a world record - even if few outsiders are taking notice. The yellow cobblestones along its central boulevard have seen more than 150 consecutive days of protest. Even the autumn drizzle could not douse the anger unleashed by the government’s decision to appoint a shady media tycoon as head of the National Security Agency (DANS). At the point where the daily rallies started losing momentum, a group known as the “Early Rising Students” put Sofia University under occupation on 25 October 2013. Suddenly, the protest wave reached new peaks. Lecture-halls were locked from the inside across the universities; thousands-strong marches led by academics blocked Sofia.

All this prompted the government to mass large numbers of police and gendarmerie around parliament. Tensions escalated in clashes with the forces of order on 12 November - leading to detention of students, threats by prime minister Plamen Oresharski to fire public servants who support the protest. The air of a state of emergency hovers in the air as the government talks about a foiled "putsch".  Though the occupiers have now decided to reopen Sofia University for classes, they are still holding the Aula Maxima, the sumptuous great hall, and remain ready for action.

The students demand the resignation of the cabinet (a coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party [BSP] and the party of ethnic Turks, supported by the ultra-nationalist and xenophobic Ataka party) and fresh elections. They see it as the epitome of all the pathologies that have poisoned public life in Bulgaria since 1989: state capture by oligarchic networks, a profound lack of transparency and accountability, the absence of rule of law, economic injustice, the elites' arrogance. On paper the democratic regime does function, but consolidation is nowhere in sight if key areas are considered: among them media independence, the judiciary, and oversight of intelligence services.

While political scientists might count Bulgaria's post-1989 transition as a qualified success, to most citizens the process now feels an utter failure. Faced with such a grim realisation, students call for nothing less than a moral revolution.

A state of mistrust

Yet the notion of “morals” - like that of “politics” - is one that arouses suspicion. Bulgarian society, paralysed by deeply ingrained mistrust, believes there is a profound rift between the rules governing private life and public affairs. Over time, it has grown into the habit of punishing politicians during elections rather than rewarding their policy choices or ideological consistency. The entrenched view that everyone taking a public stand is essentially a fraud keeps support for pivotal institutions of representative democracy such as the parliament at a level of 10%-20%. Anti-system parties normally do well; two of them won power in 2001 and 2009 respectively. Turnout at the elections in May 2013 was a little over 50%.

Mistrust is indeed the basic idiom of Bulgarian politics. The current crisis proves the point. The government, headed by the technocrat Oresharski, has sought to discredit the protests by depicting them as a project of behind-the-scenes puppeteers. The pro-cabinet web of media linked to Delyan Peevski, whose controversial appointment set off the crisis in the first instance, blamed protesters for being on the payroll of rival business figures and liberal NGOs funded by George Soros and other western donors. The stand-off is characterised not as a clash of values but as a cynical power-struggle. The government implicitly admitted its dependency on vested interests, such as the seemingly omnipotent Corporate Commercial Bank holding the bulk of public money on deposit, yet told its opponents:  “you are just the same”.

The students' entry changed the equation, as they have proven immune to smear campaigns. Sociological surveys show more than 60% of Bulgarian citizens supporting their cause. The authorities' discourse switched too. The governing parties begrudgingly acknowledge the purity of the students' motivation; their sole accusation is of political naivete. Patronisingly, Sergey Stanishev, leader of the BSP as well as of the Party of European Socialists, has told the the students that they unwittingly are pushing for the restoration to power of the centre-right GERB, blamed for cronyism and graft during its time in power which ended abruptly in March 2013.

The students shrug off such charges, as they view their struggle as separate from party-political squabbles. Puzzlingly, their detractors variably dismiss them as inveterate right-wingers or as Trotskyists and anarchists. In a sense these incompatible criticisms are rational: as in any social movement, there are multiple voices, views, competing perspectives.  Pluralism is a strength, not a liability. What truly brings students together is the rejection of the status quo. It is symptomatic that Sofia University's occupiers openly snubbed advances by GERB's leader, Boyko Borisov, who had tried to co-opt them.

A way out

In the meantime, Bulgaria's agony continues as a weak government tries to present a brave face, pretend it is "business as usual", and avoid the tricky subject of its dependency in parliament on the populist, chauvinist Ataka. The arrival of more than 6,000 asylum-seekers from war-torn Syria has stirred up a far-right backlash, hate-speech and violent attacks against people who look foreign. Such radicalisation, coupled with the prolonged economic crisis, poses a grave challenge to a country which has already been consigned to a ghetto on the fringes of the European Union. The authorities' inability to respond robustly and credibly to rising extremism has planted toxic seeds in Bulgarian society as - in an echo of “old Europe” - it confronts immigration.

The only solution to the quandary is early elections. The sooner Oresharski and his team of experts with little political weight bow out, the better. The gverning parties tacitly accept that necessity. As both the BSP and GERB held massive rallies on 16 November (in Sofia and Plovdiv respectively), the smell of a pre-election campaign is already in the air. Only the timing is uncertain; yet the vote for a European parliament in May 2014 would be the obvious choice.

Whoever comes next these parties will have to face the same old legitimacy crisis. Except that it might be worse, courtesy of the current government's desperate attempts to cling to power at any cost. Winning back citizens' trust won't come easily. Bulgaria is in terrible need of reinventing itself as a political community. The utopian republic founded by students in occupied Sofia University could prove the embryo of such reinvention. With its lengthy and often heated deliberations, it has already sent a powerful message that public spiritedness is a virtue and civic engagement is to be celebrated. Will an apathetic and often cynical nation heed the call?

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