Can Europe Make It?

How long does it take to overcome an anti-democratic regime - lessons from Bulgaria

The government in Bulgaria has resigned after 404 days of protests. What has changed in the past year and how has it affected the state of democracy in the country?

Nikolay Nikolov
24 July 2014
 Vassil Garnizov

People celebrate the Cabinet's resignation. Photo: Vassil Garnizov

The short answer is 404 days. After the longest anti-government protest in Bulgarian history, continuing on a daily basis for almost 14 months, Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski’s cabinet resigned today. It is the third Socialist-led government unable to complete its four-year term in the last 25 years and the second to resign in the midst of a financial crisis.

The so-called ДАНСwithme (pronounced ‘dance with me’) protest erupted last June after the newly formed cabinet’s decision to appoint Delyan Peevski, an aspiring oligarch with a stronghold over a majority of online and print media outlets, to the post of Head of the National Security Agency (DANS). The cabinet, initially a coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Freedom and Rights Movement (DPS), traditionally assumed to represent ethnic Roma and Turkish minority rights, only managed to form a majority in Parliament after the registration of one more vote from Volen Siderov, leader of the far-right party ‘Ataka’.

Siderov is a controversial figure – after the formation of ‘Ataka’ in 2005, his public profile has been one of extreme hate speech against people of Turkish descent, attacks on mosques, not to mention hundreds of pages in his books, in which he ‘denounces’ the ‘communist past’ and the ‘left ideology’. Yet, effectively, in May last year it was ‘Ataka’ which breathed life into what became the cabinet with the lowest approval rating (ranging between 8-13% according to pollsters) in Bulgarian post-socialist history. Since then, their popularity has plummeted.

After Peevski was hand-picked for the job of Head of the National Security Agency, tens of thousands responded to an invite on Facebook and gathered at the ‘Independence Square’ in Sofia. The message was simple – the government must resign, as it clearly is not accountable to the citizens, instead trying to serve specific corporate/oligarchic interests.

At the time, it was not entirely clear who stood behind Peevski and the entire political structure that was formed. A year later, and with a specific programme initiated by the activist group ‘Protest Network’ named ‘#WHO?’ (#КОЙ?), the behind closed doors deals involved in picking Peevski began to unravel – his links with Ahmed Dogan, former leader of DPS and Tsvetan Vassilev, majority owner of Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank (known as K.T.B.).

K.T.B., which experienced a run last month, has triggered the most serious banking crisis in Bulgaria since 1996 - back then dozens of banks bankrupted triggering severe hyperinflation. Today, the panic at K.T.B., one of the largest banks in Bulgaria, hit another major lender, First Investment Bank, which saw worried depositors  take out over $500 million in one day. Bulgaria is currently in the process of a review by the European Banking Authority and has requested to join the European Union’s Single Supervisory Team, making it the only non-Euro nation to join.

Tsvetan Vassilev, the (former) majority owner of  K.T.B., who is said to have had close ties with Delyan Peevski, offering the capital used to purchase the majority of his media outlets, is also said to be directly connected to creation and financing of the new populist party ‘Bulgaria Without Censorship’, headed by former news anchor (at a Peevski TV station, TV 7) Nikolay Barekov.

Barekov’s party was formed several weeks prior to the European Parliament (EP) elections held this May in order to gather up the votes of the disillusioned far-right wing Ataka voters. The reason being is that Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka, steered a significant shift in rhetoric after the Russian annexation of Crimea. He staged rallies vowing to fight the ‘EU homosexuality’ while protecting the ‘sacred brotherhood’ with Mother Russia and launched his EP elections campaign in Moscow. His increasingly radicalized behavior involved statements of setting up ‘people’s militias’, storming meetings, and assaulting a French attaché during a flight. 

Siderov, subsequently stripped of his political immunity was left outcast after receiving under 3% of the ballots cast for the EP elections. In his place, Nikolay Barekov’s party, received an overwhelming 10%, having spent the largest amount (around $500,000 on media campaigning). Just two months after coming to life, however, ‘Bulgaria without Censorship’ is in disarray after one of its members, Angel Slavchev, wrote ‘Delyan Peevski is the real leader of the party’ on his blog. This week it was also announced that their coalition partners – the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) – have left. 

Both Barekov and Siderov follow the exact same model – from TV personalities to politicians with significant finances and aggressive behavior. They are short-term strategies to flood the media discourse with excesses on the one hand and poison the development of the democratic and public space in Bulgaria on the other. Their electorate is that meandering, deeply impoverished and/or disillusioned with democracy, atomized and neutralized part of society, which is the direct result of the continual political and economic domination of a very distinct set of oligarchic circles – those same circles which these parties directly and fully represent during their short existence.

Unfortunately, the problem is not contained within Bulgaria’s borders – it is a question of geopolitics and pre-1990 realist international bipolar relations. Russia’s hold on Bulgaria, most evidently shown in the energy sector, was a major focus of the ДАНСwithme protest, going alongside the calls for an immediate resignation. 

In the past 14 years, Bulgaria has veered between the East and the West, at one time being called the ‘Trojan horse’ of the Kremlin in the EU by the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria. More recently, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso made a statement saying ‘there are people in Bulgaria, who are agents of Russia’.

This statement was made with regards to the controversial deal regarding the building of the ‘South Stream’ pipeline, which would connect Russia’s vast natural gas resources directly with Europe. 

Since the formation of the Oresharski cabinet, an extremely lenient and eastward-looking policy was adopted. Firstly, the government planned to construct a second power plant in Belene, funded directly by a multi-billion dollar Russian loan, making the Bulgarian economy volatile and dependent. Secondly, amidst the growing crisis in Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea, the Bulgarian Socialist Party refused to support other European Union states in pushing for sanctions on Russia. Not to mention that Volen Siderov threatened to storm the government building and drop his support for the cabinet if their support for sanctions went ahead. 

Yet, the Russian influence in Bulgarian politics is felt most deeply around the ‘South Stream’ project. Bulgaria, the gateway of Russian natural gas to Europe, finds itself between Russia and the EU and the project  has once again stalled. Prime Minister Oresharski has vowed his support for the project on several occasions, despite the serious reservations shown by the EU. So much so that in June, officials from the EU demanded work on the pipeline is halted, on the basis that its construction is a breach of European law. 

Not long after that, a visit by a delegation of US senators, including John McCain, met with PM Oresharski to raise their concerns about the influence of Russia on Bulgarian domestic politics. Oresharski officially announced the pipeline would be ‘blocked’ in a press conference after the meeting. However, after a formal visit by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, a few weeks later saw a shift once again, and PM Oresharski once again expressed a desire to continue construction on the pipeline. 

During an interview for a morning news program, political scientist Ognyan Minchev said that this is a ‘geopolitical battle between Europe and Russia, between the West and Russia, and the Bulgarian politicians allowed the state to become its epicentre.’ 

According to Minchev, there is a direct connection between the escalation of the banking crisis and the freezing of the ‘South Stream’ deal – “at this level, they are working at destabilizing Bulgaria as the weak link within the EU. Since the EU is using Bulgaria as its weak link and is trying to apply pressure so it follows the European legal framework and discontinues construction, then Bulgaria must be destabilized in such a way, so as to show the EU that, in fact, it lacks the control and influence that it thought it had. It is a battle, which is not Bulgaria’s.”

Both internally and externally, Bulgaria was in a state of crisis – a tipping point after 14 years of populism, a growing oligarchic business and political model, and an increasing pressure by the Kremlin. Yet, after 404 consecutive days of protest, the Oresharski cabinet, which has come to represent all that’s bad in Bulgaria’s post-socialist society, resigned. So what has really been achieved by this long-overdue resignation? 

Firstly, and most importantly, the protesting citizens showed that the fascist tendencies of public manipulation and propaganda, most successfully enforced by Vladimir Putin’s regime, did not work in Bulgaria. Let me clarify what I mean by fascist tendencies:

1)    systematic vilification and personal discrediting of all public critics of the administration, most directly felt in the pro- government media outlets, and a absolute refusal for public discussion. This bifurcation of the society and isolation of the political elite was most clearly illustrated by the barricading of the National Assembly, still in place today.

2)    turning the ДАНСwithme protest into a pawn in the globalized neoliberal conspiracy theory. Weeks after the eruption of the protest, the term ‘sorosoid’ was coined by pro-government media and the main activists were accused of serving foreign (US) interests and being financed by foreign NGOs. The puppet-master of the protest, according to the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and of the Party of European Socialists, is George Soros.

3)    Creating a fictitious societal separation by financing pseudo-protests in support of the government and bussing in thousands of people into Sofia to stage supportive rallies.

4)    Creating sub-parties based on conflicting ideologies to capture votes (‘Ataka’ and ‘Bulgaria with Censorship’) and subsequently using them as political theatrics vis-à-vis Siderov and Barekov to stifle news cycles and channel, on a short term basis, the public outrage. In fact, Siderov’s acts of calling for ‘people’s militias’, his assaults on police officers and journalist, the instance of bringing a firearm into Parliament are in fact symptomatic of the underlying fascistic tendencies of the parties in power.

These strategies did not work. The access to truth was not tilted. The protest movement did not succeed in forcing an immediate resignation but it did succeed in tearing down some of the façades hiding the true nature of Bulgaria’s controlled democracy. They were successful in bringing to light just how many people there are, both in Bulgaria and abroad, who value democracy and cherish their role in the public sphere. Until then, there was a deep sense of isolation – civil society was capitulated and atomized.

The protest movement, over the last year, showed, above all that elections are not equivalent to democracy. They are a vital institution, but the process does not end there; especially in a regime where democracy is by far not the only game in town and the regime lacks legitimacy and consolidation. But what did change is the people’s faith in the role of citizens in the political process. Even though Oresharski’s government formed a majority, the protests showed that without the support of citizens, a painful process of political stalemate becomes the norm.

What follows from this is the realization that being political does not mean being a politician; that not all power rests within the institution of the National Assembly and not all behind the scenes deals remind unspoken. The velocity of the public outrage broke through the fog and demanded transparency, leading the increasingly isolated political elite without a façade to hide behind – from then it was the classic domino effect – the Socialist, Peevski, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, Vassilev, Oresharski, Putin.

But most importantly, as all these myths constructed so carefully over the last 14 years – ‘politicians have all the power’, ‘nothing has changed in the last 25 years’, ‘democracy has failed’, ‘Russia is good, the EU is bad’, ‘the protests are paid for and serve oligarchic interests’ – crumbled. The truth behind them was shattered – the public no longer has any faith in the media outlets, polling agencies, politicians, and journalists who are now know to be a part of this system. This means that what has been achieved over the last year is critical thinking – people are thinking for themselves, doubting the official discourse, debating, reading.

As a result, the quintessential value of having faith in the power of the democratic regime is being restored. The protests successfully restored the citizen as the core political subject in Bulgaria –it is their vote, their voice that can force change, regardless of the elite decision-making process that occurs. And this is very important for a country which has had such a tormented transition to democracy.

The hardest party of cleansing the public institutions of former cadres and restarting the democratic process with fresh elections now awaits. It will no doubt be a long-awaited transition and we must be patient. One step at a time. Let us begin by removing the barricades around the National Assembly.

I think that is a good start.

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