Water Melon DayPosted: July 29, 2013
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, July 29.
I haven’t seen people dancing in circles out on the streets since early June when Taksim Square was ours. Yesterday, the Bulgarians danced in front of parliament. It was the 45th consecutive day of protest.
For the occasion, some people had brought water melons. It took a while for me to figure out the reference. It was an intricate one. The Bulgarian word for water melon (диня, dinya) is similar to the words for ‘day’ (ден, den) and ‘year’ (година, godina). The communists ruled the country for 45 years, the protest is lasting for 45 days, the melons meant to say that it has been enough. It’s time for the ‘mafia’ to leave. So, on the beat of the drums the crowd chanted the unambiguous slogan of ‘оставка’ (ostavka, resignation).
As I promised, I will try to onion my way around the core to capture as much of the Bulgarian situation as I can. First of all, the political context.
Most of you will know that a revolution sometimes comes in two different stages. This is the case in Bulgaria. It started with the February Revolution, earlier this year, which was sparked by a dramatic increase in electricity prices. For almost a decade now, the Bulgarian energy sector has been sold off to foreign companies as a result of privatization frenzy. These companies have no trouble to raise prices even if they are completely out of proportion with the average wage in Bulgaria, which is the lowest in the EU. For many families, the electricity bill swallowed up more than their entire income this winter.
All over Bulgaria, people took the streets. As if to underline exactly how desperate the situation was, six people died after they set themselves on fire out of protest. These gruesome acts got hardly any attention from international media.
The right wing government of Boyko Borisov resigned as a result of the protests. When he got elected Borisov had presented himself as a strong man, the ‘roll up your sleeves’ type of guy, who likes to be pictured as a doer in the style of Benito Mussolini or Vladimir Putin. And yes, quite literally, he is a strong man. He had been a bodyguard of Bulgaria’s long time communist leader Todor Zhivkov before he embarked on a career in organized crime during the Wild West years that followed the communist collapse. His policies of strict austerity, combined with a sell-out of state property in an atmosphere of endemic corruption quickly made him lose support of the population.
During the February Revolution, councils of citizens were formed which formulated a series of more or less practical demands. The first was the re-nationalization of the energy sector. Others included criminal accountability for politicians, a change in the electoral system and increased citizens’ control over the nation’s political life.
When the government resigned, the protest collapsed. I was here in April, I spoke to people about the political situation, about the upcoming elections, and all I harvested was complete apathy. Elections or not, there was nothing to elect, the next government would be as bad as the previous one, and probably worse. That was the general idea.
Indeed, for some strange reason, Borisov’s party won the most seats in parliament. Only half of the people bothered to vote. There were widespread allegations of electoral fraud. I heard stories of dead people who miraculously turned in a ballot paper. I asked people about it.
“Yeah, sure. That’s normal in Bulgaria.” Apparently it’s such a normal practice that it isn’t even considered fraud anymore. No, this time it went beyond these minor ‘adjustments’. Printing presses were running overtime to deliver extra ballot papers.
Fraud or not, Borisov’s party finally renounced to form a new government and preferred to let the post-communists handle the mess. They had come in second in the election and managed to form a highly unlikely coalition with hardcore nationalists and the Turkish minority party.
I say highly unlikely, but in practice it may be less so than it seems. Vox popoli says that both the nationalist and the Turkish minority parties are ‘inventions’ of the post-communists, designed to give an appearance of democratic plurality to what is otherwise an attempt to continue the hegemony of Bulgaria’s former Communist Party.
When the post-communists returned to power in June, they nominated a minister who had gotten his hands dirty with a controversial building project on the coast of the Black Sea. Environmentalists staged a protest against his nomination starting on May 28 (the same day that environmentalists in Turkey started protesting against the destruction of Gezi Park). The minister withdrew from his post over the protests.
On June 14, the new government made an ever more controversial nomination. In less than half an hour they agreed to make 32-year old Delyan Peevski the head of almighty ДАНС (DANS, the Bulgarian KGB). As any candidate for a serious post in government, Mr. Peevski possessed the necessary credentials he gained from organized crime. On top of that, his mom owns the majority of Bulgarian press outlets.
This nomination sparked the current protests in Bulgaria. June 14 was day 1. The appointment of Peevski was quickly withdrawn, but the protests have continued ever since. For the people it’s not about conflicts of interests or lurid characters being placed in sensitive positions. It’s about the whole political culture being rotten to the bone from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Yesterday, on day 45, the people took it easy. They marched around parliament, blowing their whistles and beating their drums. They sat down in front of the Alexander Nevski cathedral, and then most of them went home. Those who remained gathered around the piano for a concert that varied from classic waltzers to ragtime, to Abba…
It’s not sure if the protest will last throughout August when parliament is on holiday. But even if it doesn’t, it’s bound to flare up again. As the citizen committees stated earlier this year, ‘We are not a protest, we are a process.’
The Bulgarian civil society has started the long process of laying the foundations for a new way of doing politics. This process must and will continue, because the current political game is not an option any more.