Can Europe Make It?

Voice, not exit. Portraits of protesters

Who are the Bulgarian citizens in the streets, aspiring to reconquer a state captured by post-democratic elites? (see here in Italian.)

Anna Krasteva
17 August 2020
Nikola: "We don't want you".
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Author's image.

This has been a hot political summer in Bulgaria – for more than a month thousands of angry citizens have poured into streets and squares in Sofia and the big cities, calling for ‘resignation’ and ‘prison.’

Summer 2020 has innovated civic activism in two fundamental ways. Firstly, these are the first mass protests in Bulgaria which are not anti-communist. They are the fourth wave of big mobilizations. Hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets in 1989 claiming and celebrating the end of communism and the chance to build both a democratic agora and the new post-communist citizen. The collapse of the economy, hyperinflation and the failure of the socialist government to manage the crisis provoked the second wave of mass protests in 1997, which led to the triumph of the Union of Democratic Forces. The nomination of an oligarch for director of the National Agency for National Security triggered the third wave of huge street protests in 2013. That nomination lasted a day, but the protests against the coalition government led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party were active for almost one year. 2020, however, is the first protest against post-communist state capture.

Secondly, a new generation of civic activists has entered the contestatory agora. Who are these mobilized citizens? This article draws their portraits though their own claims, values, visions, passions.

These are the first mass protests in Bulgaria which are not anti-communist.

Protest representatives

As in most mass protests, the street demonstrations in Bulgaria are multifaceted. Various political figures try to profit from the enormous civic energy – some are legitimate opposition leaders such as Hristo Ivanov, leader of the liberal coalition ‘Democratic Bulgaria!’; others are entirely illegitimate such as the shadow businessmen Vassil Bojkov, in self-exile in Dubai as he’s facing numerous charges; and the colourful “Poison Trio” self-proclaimed as leaders of the protests.

This article is not devoted to them, but to the new face of citizenry emerging in the protest agora – young and very young citizens, mobilized, determined, committed and engaged. These young protesters are the real novelty, the new civic capital, the representatives of an emergent citizenship.

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Kaloyan. | Author's image.

The portraits are not sociologically representative, they are protest representative. First, because the political class and the whole society realizes for the first time their existence, potential and strength. Second, because they are the great civic and political innovation of the protests 2020.

Third, because whatever the result of the protests is, society will never be the same again. These young protesters stand with their own names, claims and faces. The Policy and Citizens Observatory launched a platform ‘Voices of protest to allow them to speak with their own voices – most quotations in the article are from their statements, as well as from the informal meetings of the author, a protester herself.

Two types of political temporality define the claims: immediate and strategic. The immediate protest agenda is unambiguous and categorical: ‘what we want’ is the resignation of the Prime Minister and Prosecutor General. The protest rhetoric is affective and resignation rhymes with ‘shame’, ‘tribunal’, and ‘prison’. Young, but insightful and visionary, the protesters conspicuously set up the strategy for a new social contract and define it in three perspectives:

Transformation, not just resignation. ‘Systemic change, not replacement”, claims Stefanie, 21, a student in London; ‘governance should be radically changed’, emphasizes Yoanna, 19, a student from the town of Dupnitza; Gergana, 19, another student from Dupnitza protests against the oligarchy; Kaloyan, 20, a student in journalism – for the eradication of the interrelations and interdependency between governmental circles and organized crime; Phillip, 20, student in philosophy, summarizes the ‘total’ protest for radical transformation – “against the violation of law, against the authoritarian, pseudo-democratic power linked to the mafia, against the politicization of all spheres of life, against the status quo and against conformity with the status quo, which cries ‘everyone is a bad guy, what to do?’."

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Protest in London. | Author's image.

No accountability without justice and rule of law. Even before Ivan Geshev assumed the function of Prosecutor General (PG) he shocked public opinion by his aggressive ignorance of fundamental principles of the rule of law: he named & blamed as ‘extremists’ the defenders of a separation of powers. The PG is the second crucial target of the protest. The protest goes beyond mere resignation and calls for a fundamental reform – a Great National Assembly for amending the Constitution in regard to the judiciary: the PG is the only figure who is accountable ‘just to God’, according to Ivan Geshev himself. The reform of the judiciary should even precede the political transformation: as Ani, 23, TV editor, highlights: “It doesn't matter who rules if there is no independent prosecutor's office to work for the rights of the people, not the oligarchs and the mafia.”

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Ani: "I want a future in Bulgaria." | Author's image

Not a captured protest, but a political alternative. Young and without experience, yet the protesters are politically perspicuous and firmly oppose attempts by politicians to instrumentalize and privatize their civic energy: We do not want GERB. We do not want BSP. We want change! CHANGE! (Magdalena, 20, art student); “BSP, MRF, Bozhkov, Slavi, Maya, Tsvetanov, Do not try to ride us! We do not want you either! We want the protest to end with an ALTERNATIVE” (Nikola, 17, high school student). Protesters are well informed citizens and make a clear distinction between institution and the person who embody the function, e.g. they defend the institution of the President, but oppose the ambitions of the Mr. Rumen Radev to profit of the civic discontent: “The protest is in support of the INSTITUTION of the President and against the trampling of the principle of separation of powers. But for me, Mr. Radev is no different from our current rulers and I do not want to become pawns in his political strategy.” (Dafina)

Contestatory citizens v post-democratic elites

Post-democratic elites capture the state and empty the democratic institutions: protesters aspire to revitalize and re-found democracy. How do the elites respond? To quell the anger, their only recourse is to use our own money to try and turn empowered citizens into socially weak individuals. This is how the confrontation plays out so far.

The elite is totally lost in translation. The protest is political: the government reads it as social. “GERB is shocked how people do not protest demanding more money or because we are hungry. We are in the squares in search of justice and the rule of law and the public interest” (Dimitur, 24, graphic designer). The protest demands resignations: the government responds with social benefits – e.g. a small increase of pensions. This rather inadequate response to predominantly youth protest is suggested by the nationalist parties in the coalition government.

Some far-right parties (Ataka) have a tradition of organizing their campaigns as ‘Orthodox solidarity” by distributing small grants. In the same vein the government is proposing a golden rain of public money. Is this treatment of strong citizens as weak individuals more naive than short-sighted or vice versa? Will scattering public money around put them to sleep or make the protesters even angrier? The answer can be found in the square.

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Eleanor. | Author's image.

Voice, not exit

I want to live & work in Bulgaria – the favorite slogan of Gergana (Dupnitza) and Stefanie (London) – sums up the credo of this new generation. They are mobile, activist, European. Several of them study abroad, organize and participate in protests in numerous European capitals or in Bulgarian cities during holidays. They can choose and do choose where to study and work, but opt for Voice, not for Exit.

They prefer not a personal escape, but a political transformation: “Stay in Bulgaria, because it needs change and development” (Yoanna); “I want to live in Bulgaria, but not in a system full of lies and pillage.” (Ani). “Do not lose hope; the current momentum has huge potential… Bulgaria has all the necessary potential to be a true democratic European country, we just need to overcome the obstacles along the way and then we can finally all live at home”, optimistically anticipates Stefanie, 21, who still lives in the UK.

‘E-vote’ is a rather unexpected, yet logical claim of protesters who are determined to participate in national politics whatever their place of residence and who claim e-government, transparency and accountability: “I claim an e-vote in order to enable more people to get involved and as far as possible to avoid those buying votes in support of GERB” (Magdalena).

These committed Bulgarian Europeans are a huge resource. If a reformed Bulgaria one day succeeds in attracting these mobile educated young Bulgarians to remain or to come back, this would be a promising sign that the state had freed itself from the mafia and corruption and returned to the citizens and to some kind of meritocratic rule.

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"We do not want GERB! We do not want BSP! We want change! CHANGE!" | Author's image.

Creative v radicalized

“Let the ‘millennials’ go to the protest and see what happens – they are extremely creative” (Ani). Indeed, performances, art, humour all render the protest aesthetic, transforming it into a carnivalesque happening: protesters play the PM and PG as prisoners in a cage, surrounded by a "construction worker", a "nurse" and other personages of the people; the statue of Sofia holding a poster ‘Resignation’ as part of the #Resignation street art initiative; software engineers building a mockup of the ‘palace’ of the political leader who ignited the protest.

“We, the young protesters, are creative and reflexive” (Magadena). This is one face of the protesters. The other one is radicalized – protesters set up tents in squares, block crossroads and highways, hinder traffic.

The radicals are more angry, as well as more politically visible and media-wise; the creative ones are more cheerful, artistic and optimistic. Interestingly, they are often the same persons in two figures and with two modalities of protest.

The radicals are criticized for perturbing the everyday life of numerous citizens; the creative ones that they deviate the protest from its ‘serious’ political aims.

I read this aesthetisation of protests as a positive, a way of building creative citizenship. From Luc Boltanski and Ev Chiapelo we know that after 1968 political critique took two paths: social, when it aims at transforming power relations, and artistic, when it aims to transform individuals in terms of authenticity and creativity. These young protesters share the utopian project of uniting political transformation with creative citizenship.

Heralds of hope, or how to bring the future into a political temporality

During this summer of protest, I’m reading Time asylum – the new novel of the great Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov: “At that time there was still an inviolable stock of the future ... A decade later this stock was gone, only its bottom shone glazed against us ... From there somewhere something happened with time, something turned, clicked, fluttered, looped and stopped.”

Protesters bring the future into a political temporality blocked by the anti-reformist post-democratic elites in four fundamental ways:

– Radical rejection of the false ‘heroes’ of the failed post-communist transition: “For our generation, the images of the mutterer, the oligarch and the corrupt politician are not romantic. They provoke disgust or laughter” (Dimitar).

– Formation of a new generation of contestatory citizens: “These protests are the beginning of a new generation of Bulgarian citizens, more responsible, more vigilant, more critical” (Kamen, 21); “ We are the alternative – voting, protesting, fighting in all the democratic ways available” (Dafina, 22, law student)

– Building a political culture of activism for making the elites accountable: “Civic engagement and social activity, no matter who is in power! Today's protests should not be the end of a struggle, but the beginning of a more awakened society” (Ani); “The alternative is a process – it will not be built from today to tomorrow and we who are on the square must be ready to work and fight for it every day, everyone in their field and according to their values… until the change!” (Dafina).

Defining the political temporality not as a continuation of the post-democratic status quo, but as future and change: “I want a future in Bulgaria” (Ani); “It’s time for change!” (Bojidar).

The political outcome of the protests is unclear, with those in power not willing to give up power. However, the protests have already won in a civic sense. “After the resignation I know that there will be a major, gigantic change – the Bulgarian citizen will have the confidence that s/he has a voice and the power to change” (P.Ivanova, 30, teacher).

Protesting citizens are the antidote to post-democracy. Civic mobilizations are the immune system of democracy.

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Stefanie, London. | Author's Image.

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