As in Istanbul, recent protests in Sofia began with a single, specific issue. In Bulgaria, it was the appointment of Delyan Peevski as head of the country’s national security agency. At just 32 years of age, Peevski owns various large businesses, including TV channels and other media outlets.
So when he was hastily appointed to one of the top jobs in the country, on June 14, tens of thousands of people took to the streets within hours. Daily demonstrations have continued for more than a week with no sign of abating. But why are they so persistent, in a country where public life is usually described as politically apathetic?
In another parallel with Gezi Park and Brazil, protests have gone on even after officials backed down on the original cause for the outrage. On June 19, Peevski’s appointment was withdrawn, as politicians muttered statements about admitting mistakes and the wise voice of the people. “Keep your apologies, give us your resignations,” chanted the crowds, and the rallies raged on.
A brief overview of the developments in the days since can begin to shed light on the questions of why, why now, and why the near-complete absence of international coverage?
The lack of violent clashes goes some way towards explaining the silence of major news outlets – not only are numbers in Sofia much smaller than in Istanbul or Rio, but also the Bulgarian police union declared official support for the protests. So no riot gear, no tear gas, and not a single smashed window. Despite the angry picket signs, the daily demos have been described by some as “a bit of a lifestyle event”, complete with dogs, young children, and plenty of cold beer.
Yet there is a deeper reason why Sofia is missing from the front pages. The coalition government is just a month old and led by the Bulgarian Socialist party, whose leader is also the well-liked president of the party of European Socialists. The left-leaning press has thus largely held its breath. And in the days of social media solidarity for anti-government protests everywhere, the #OccupySofia hashtag has barely taken off.
The Bulgarian protests are not anti-socialist, although some voice such sentiment at the rallies. But not even those shouting “red trash” are in favour of budget cuts, or against an increased minimum wage, or bringing back Bulgaria’s previous centre-right government.
Most protesters feel the leftist coalition should resign not because of its colours, but because it is yet another example of the unapologetic dominance of individual interests, often criminal, in Bulgarian politics. UK voters are occasionally appalled by expense misuse, nepotistic deals, and unconvincing justifications. In Bulgaria, however, political scandal has been an everyday affair throughout the past two decades, with barely an attempt to cover up the deals behind political decisions.
On this occasion, Bulgarians are not revolting about income levels or detrimental healthcare reforms. The June 2013 slogans are about dignity, absurdity, and the feeling of being ridiculed by those paid to represent you.
Attempts to turn the protests into a clash of party ideologies have so far failed: the nationalist ATAKA party (a baffling coalition partner in a Socialist-led government) mobilised a few hundred of its supporters for a counter-protest. The mass demonstration was instantly re-routed to bypass the ATAKA headquarters, thus managing to avoid open confrontation.
Another blow to the plan of the extreme right came when the public TV channel broadcast an undercover report on their counter-demo. Earlier that day, ATAKA had recruited “supporters” in local gyms, on the promise of a 30 leva (£13) fee and a supply of free pizza. Having enthusiastically shared the story online, economic conservatives, anarchists, LGBT and environmental activists have continued to gather (for free, their signs proudly proclaim) daily to picket the representatives of the status quo.
The Bulgarian demonstrations seem increasingly likely to topple the new government, but it is becoming clearer than ever that the problems of the political establishment run to its very foundations. The protests cannot deliver the solution when there is need for radical change in the way politics is practiced. The small victory over the Peevski appointment, however, may serve to bring closer the social and political spheres which have been so profoundly divided ever since the end of single-party rule 24 years ago.