Bulgarians confront the oligarchs

The streets of Sofia are awash with demonstrators: the terms of this protest movement, as in Sao Paulo and Istanbul, are the twin themes of justice and equality.

John O'Brennan
25 June 2013

A street protest in Sofia, Bulgaria. Demotix/Katya Yordanova. All rights reserved. 

In recent weeks the world has been transfixed by the audacity and dignity of the protest movement centred on Taksim square in Istanbul. Turkey’s civil society has found its voice and directly confronted the authoritarian leanings of Recip Tayyip Erdogan, reminding us how potent the role of protest can be in challenging ill-liberal mutations in governance and power. In Bulgaria anti-government protests which have are now well into a second week have been happening somewhat ‘under the radar’ of global media attention. But make no mistake about it: Bulgaria is undergoing a profound crisis of representation.

Every night for more than a week up to ten thousand people have taken to the streets of Sofia, initially protesting against the appointment on Friday 14 June of a media oligarch called Delyan Peevski as Bulgaria’s ‘security tsar’, the head of the State Agency for National Security (SANS), Bulgaria’s ‘CIA’. Peevski, who is 32, comes from a well-connected family that owns Bulgaria’s largest newspaper and television group (it controls 80 per cent of print media in Bulgaria) and has no experience in the security sector.

In 2007 he was sacked from his post as Deputy-Minister and investigated for attempted blackmail. He is an MP for the ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which supports Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski’s governing coalition led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). His appointment was veiled in secrecy and took place without a debate in the National Assembly.

SANS is the agency responsible both for the internal and external security of Bulgaria. Its chair is one of the most important figures in the country. Its role was elevated significantly in the wake of the terrorist attack on Burgas airport in July 2012 (attributed to Hezbollah) which killed 5 Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. This executive role has been strengthened even further recently after controversial amendments in the SANS legislation were signed giving the organization responsibility for dealing with organized crime.

Bulgarians are protesting against far-reaching and systematic corruption and the ‘capture’ of the state by rent-seeking oligarchic networks which are widely perceived as controlling the main political parties. Oresharski was appointed by the BSP to head a so-called ‘expert’ government, after a general election in April produced a tight outcome. This unusual option of a ‘technocratic government’ came about because the leading figures within the two largest political parties, the BSP and the centre-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) were so discredited. And although the Prime Minister has now withdrawn the appointment of Peevski, for protesters this episode suggested that even respected figures like Oresharski are incapable of shaking off the shadowy world of oligarchic power in Bulgaria.

An anti-politics rebellion

The Peevski appointment reminded Bulgarians of the record of the previous BSP-led government (2005-09) led by Sergei Stanishev (currently President of the Party of European Socialists or PES to which the Labour party is affiliated in the European Parliament) which was deeply compromised by its association with the oligarchs. EU monitoring of Bulgarian governance pointed in particular to a significant regression in corruption control measures as the BSP consolidated an initially fragile power base around clientelism and the capture of state offices.

In 2009 Bulgarians turned to the populist GERB party, led by the charismatic Boiko Borissov, who offered a strong anti-corruption platform and a focus on tackling organized crime. Once in office, however, GERB took political cronyism to new levels and became more and more unpopular as it implemented austerity policies which cut deep into Bulgarian incomes and living standards. Borissov was further discredited by revelations of illegal wiretapping of political opponents, and when, on the day of the general election, hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots were found at a property belonging to a prominent GERB supporter, the suggestion of a clear bid to influence the outcome of a tight electoral contest.

The protest movement which is now convulsing Bulgaria is entirely lacking in ideological ballast. Rather it is better described as an ‘anti-politics’ rebellion, the Bulgarian variant of ‘a plague on all your political houses’. Embodying extreme disaffection with the centrist parties this ‘revolt against the top’ contains a populist discourse which divides society into the corrupt and parasitical elites (from the worlds of business and politics) versus the people, but the language of the protest movement is also cast in universal terms, as accessible to protesters in Sao Paulo and Istanbul as those in Bulgaria:  the twin themes of justice and equality ring out from the nightly rallies across the country.

Government vs the people

In Bulgaria it is impossible to know where organized crime ends and legitimate business begins. The nexus between the two is characterised by complex bureaucratic structures, opaque corporate accounting and a maze of offshore accounts. In Varna, Bulgaria’s third largest city, the protests have taken direct aim at TIM, a business conglomerate allied to GERB and for some time the real power in the region. Some estimates suggest that it controls up to 70 per cent of Varna’s economy, including most of the tourist infrastructure. When protesters in Varna yell M-A-F-I-A they are automatically collapsing business into politics and implicating local municipal officials, including most notoriously the former mayor Kiril Yordanov, as the agents of this powerful oligarchic network.

Varna perfectly illustrates the point made by leading commentator Nayo Titzin that the definitive division in today’s Bulgaria is no longer between right and left but between the citizens and the mafia. This is a world where the guilty don’t just go unpunished; they ascend to the highest citadels of power. But this is a power which is hidden from any kind of public scrutiny, much less accountability or justice.

Although corruption and the abuse of power constitutes the central element of the protest movement, the shadow cast by severe economic hardship is also playing a role in fomenting anti-politics sentiment. Bulgaria makes Greece look like a normal and relatively prosperous country. New data from the EU demonstrates that Bulgarians have the lowest standard of living in the European Union, at around 50 per cent of the EU average. Even Croatia, which will accede to the EU on 1 July, is significantly more prosperous than Bulgaria.

The irony here is not lost on Bulgarians. At the onset of the EU financial crisis in 2008 Bulgaria had one of the lowest levels of public debt in Europe at 15 per cent of GDP. Its budget deficit was below 3 per cent. And yet the Borissov government embarked on a foolish programme of austerity measures, the logic of which was almost entirely predicated on demonstrating to Brussels what a good ‘European pupil’ Bulgaria now was. Reductions in public spending coupled with large increases in the price of electricity and other utilities brought people out on to the streets in February. Tragically, up to 6 people died through self-immolation, an extreme form of political protest, demonstrative of the lack of hope felt by so many in desperate economic circumstances.

Further developments

The problem for Oresharski is that what began as a protest against a specific appointment has quickly mutated into a general opposition to his government. This is not dissimilar to the situation in Istanbul where the original protest against the destruction of Gezi Park gave way to a sustained critique of Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s governing style.

Oresharski also has to grapple with increasing ethnic tensions in the country. Many Bulgarians resent the influence of the junior coalition party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) which represents mainly the Turkish minority (of about ten per cent of the population).

The sinister far-right party Ataka, which won 23 seats and 7.3 per cent of the vote in the recent parliamentary election, has sought to exploit this sentiment at every opportunity and there were some nasty clashes between Ataka supporters and other protesters at some of this week’s rallies in Sofia. Ataka’s leader Volen Siderov continues to stoke the flames of hatred against both the ethnic Turks and the Roma population.

A further destabilizing element is the continued feuding between the leaders of Bulgaria’s largest political parties. On Tuesday Boyko Borissov vowed to initiate a libel lawsuit against Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and President of the Party of European Socialists (PES) over claims by the latter that Borissov had a criminal record.

The timing of these developments could not be worse for Bulgaria as it comes into sharper European focus in the run up to the June European Council summit meeting. Protesters want to re-enforce the message to Bulgaria’s politicians: an end to vertiginous and voracious oligarchical power and the ‘normalization’ of Bulgarian politics.

Ultimately then this movement is about dignity and equity. But it demands the most radical change in Bulgaria’s political institutions since the end of the Todor Zhikov regime. It remains to be seen whether Plamen Oresharski and his colleagues can survive this ‘ferment from below’.

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