I saw a man sitting at a metro station last week. Gracia neighbourhood, Barcelona. He was reading a brick of a hardcover, entitled ‘1914-1918’. It’s a hot topic this year. World War 1, the massacre that ended the Age of Empires and inaugurated the 20th century.
The prologue of the conflict began in Sarajevo, with the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, at the hands of a Serbian nationalist. At the time, the region was at the centre of a power struggle between German-backed Austria and Russian-backed Serbia, and, by extension, between the two grand alliances that included almost every great power of the day. Hence, the local conflict went global.
After one hundred years and three devastating wars, the country and its peoples are still divided and subject to powerplay from abroad. Earlier this month, protests erupted in Tuzla, against corruption, plunder, unemployment and a failed political system. What follows is an overview of the current problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina from an anonymous activist on the ground. For more info about the ongoing protests, check out this article in Roar Mag.
“Political dysfunction started with the Dayton Peace Agreement, which disfigured the country and left it decentralized, in service to the ideas which started the war in the first place. Aggression toward the territory. The Dayton agreement left Bosnia-Herzegovina as the only ex Yugoslav state that had or did not have war without it’s head, and dependent on the ideas that come from the outside supporting nations such as are Croatia, Serbia and Turkey.
Soon after the protests started our local official government had meetings with prime ministers of these above mentioned countries. General idea is that we are a protectorate and a colony for political ideas, economical and religious interests that come from each of these countries. Sarajevo, as a capital city lost its role and two out of three main nations (Serbs, Croats) look at Zagreb or Belgrade as their capital cities though they are in different separate and independent states.
As the country got destabilized and decentralized so did the justice system and with nobody to look after the state’s general interests in post war years, along with the theft of the foreign donations and the mobster privatization played by the ruling parties, the whole core of the state is collapsing, schooling system, medical care system … So that generally, Dayton is looked at as a plunder agreement and not as a peace one.
Once a well organized state became a state of small enclaves of isolated religious and ethnic zealots with corrupted provincial mentality. But, there is a saying in ex Yugoslavia, if Bosnia arises the whole Balkans will. Yugoslavia was actually formed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it was called a ‘little Europe’ back in the day.
Refreshed with a new generation we began the new struggle against socioeconomic dehumanization and humiliation of the common folk for the interest of international religious based mob cartels that want us kept in isolation and hatred while we’re being robbed.
And as soon as the protests stopped people organized in plenums all over the county, seeking honest conversation leading to solutions to the major problems left unsolved, such as, war crimes, post war privatization, social security, cuts for the political parties, nepotism, devastated factories, nontransparent public deals… and in the town of Mostar, which is still kept separated like Berlin was but without the wall, where protesters also burned down the two main party’s headquarters, the message has been sent that these politics of segregation aren’t in our minds and souls as Europeans..”
In the abovementioned article in Roar, the plenum is described by Mate Kapović as being a general assembly, “very similar to the original Russian soviets. The protesters are using them in order to reach collective decisions and demands in a direct democratic manner. What is interesting is that the idea of the plenum, as a political body for democratic decision-making, originated in the 2009 wave of student occupations in Croatia, while the Croatian student movement itself got the idea from the 2006 Belgrade student movement. This, in other words, is a fine example of post-Yugoslav left activist cooperation and mutual inspiration.”
[Spanish translation attempt here]
Sofia, August 4
There is one more layer missing. People here have rightly pointed this out to me. The fourth dimension.
Imagine time. Imagine people, cities, nations, empires. Imagine birth, growth, stagnation, decay, death. Over and over again. Imagine the fog. You’re somewhere on the line of time. Actually, you’re exactly in the middle, always. When you look forward, you can’t see where you’re going, which is frightening. When you look back, you can distinguish the road appearing out of the haze. You see yourself, your parents, your tribe, your species.
Here in Sofia I met a Russian girl, an archaeologist, who had come all the way from California to dig up pieces of an old Thracian city. It’s the furthest point of the road behind us that we can still vaguely see. We know it’s much longer than that. This fertile land between East and West we now call Bulgaria has been inhabited long before that by nomadic tribes. The whole idea of settling down in cities, and keeping records, is pretty recent.
So what’s the use of history? Well, quite simply, it serves to understand who we are, and more in particular what distinguishes us from ‘the others’, what makes us special. We look back, we downplay the tragedies, the defeats, the decline and instead we try to focus on something that boosts our national ego. The Dutch for example, they concentrate on the ‘Golden Age’, when the trading fleets from the Lowlands ruled the seven seas, when great painters left their immortal masterpieces, when those who were persecuted for their ideas or their beliefs found refuge in a climate of relative tolerance.
Here in Bulgaria, like in other places around Europe, you have your Romans and your Greeks and your Christian missionaries, who are used to define us as a civilization. More in particular, as far as the nation is concerned, people learn in school about the Bulgarian Empires, first and second, which ruled the greater part of the Balkans during the middle ages.
In my conversations with the people here, most of the highlights and lowlights of Bulgarian history have made their brief appearances. The people remember with pride how the Bulgarians besieged mighty Constantinople more than once. But then, then came the Turks. For four centuries they dominated the land, and schoolbook history pictures them as cruel heathen overlords.
There is a significant minority of Turks still living in Bulgaria. Many Bulgarians don’t like them, as a result of what they are taught. They also say the Turks refuse to speak to Bulgarian. They can’t stand to see a Turkish minister in the Bulgarian government. During communist times, the Turks were forced to bulgarianize their names. After the fall, they quickly turkified them again, which angered many nationalists. From their side, Bulgarians generally don’t speak Turkish, except for maybe one single phrase, a particularly insulting one.
In opposition to the Turks, Bulgarian history paints the Russians as a big brother, if only because they helped the country regain its independence from Ottoman rule at the end of the 19th century. Fortunately, local wisdom also includes a sense of irony. The saying goes that if you put three Bulgarians together, then one is a leader, one is a follower, and one is a traitor. To which people usually add: “Most probably, two of them are traitors.”
Bulgaria sided with the losing coalition in both world wars and ended up under direct Soviet domination. Forty-five years of communism really screwed this country up. It’ll take time for people to get the communist heritage out of their system. It’s still present all around. The other day I went with a friend into the outskirts of Sofia. Contrary to the centre, which is pretty charming, the outskirts are like a cemetery. People live in huge concrete tombstones, which are heavily suffering the passage of time only decades after they were built. They are lacking maintenance, they start falling apart. Some of them are mere skeletons.
It was here that I heard a few of the ‘Tales from the Crypt’, as my friend called them, the stories of pure Bulgarian hopelessness. He told me about poverty, corruption, emigration, and about the people staying behind who try to avoid the bitter reality by getting drunk on cheap booze every day.
In the 90s, omnipresent authority in Bulgaria transvested itself from the communist party into the mafia. If I’m to believe what I hear, the mafia is not simply a criminal organization that leeches off the economy. Much like in southern Italy, the mafia is the economy. It make things go around, and either directly or indirectly, people depend on it to get by.
I got to see one of the outskirt flats from the inside the other day. It’s everything you expect it to be. The small dark rooms, the leaking tubes, the flaking plaster, the rusty window frames, the broken doors. Then there’s the 1970s furniture, wall paper and curtains. The mix of brown and orange and dark green. There is a world map on one of the walls that still shows the old Soviet Union. The television comes from the era when screens were not flat yet and had a big butt behind them. You know, the kind of screen that used red-blue-green cathode ray tubes. Even the programs it broadcast matched the environment: 1980s trash horror with ditto special effects.
Nothing worthwhile to do here but drink, I begin to understand that. Drink and play ‘tavla’.
Now, getting back to the culture discourse, there are numerous ways to classify a civilization. By mobility (nomad or sedentary), by religion (polytheist, monotheist, atheist), by dominant status symbol (property, knowledge, age, valour, etc.) by language, by dominant cereal type (grain, corn, rice), by preferred or endorsed drug (alcohol, coca, caffeine, weed, opium, etc.), or by games. One of the oldest artifacts found in the tombs of Egyptians faraos was a board game. Nowadays you have chess civilizations, mahjong civilizations, poker civilizations, etc. Bulgaria, like Turkey, is part of the backgammon civilization. It’s a beautiful game that adds a touch of luck to strategy and tactics. Me, coming from a different civilization, I had the pleasure to be taught some of the game’s tricks in an original communist environment.
In Sofia’s outskirts you will still encounter the Lada’s and the Moskvitches. I am amazed that these cars haven’t disintegrated yet. They are famous for their crappiness. Let me give you an example. My dad once brought me a toy Zil from the Soviet Union. The Zil was the limousine of the party officials. Usually, toy cars are pretty much indestructable. You can throw them off a skyscraper and continue to play with them without trouble. But the toy Zil fell apart by itself. So imagine the original limousine. Imagine the common man’s Lada.
On our way back to the centre, we don’t pass by the Gypsy ghetto. Bulgarians like to avoid those places. Generally, they hate Gypsies. Their motives are the same ones you will hear in other countries. “They don’t work. They steal. They breed like rabbits.” This is quoted from one of the most open-minded and reasonable people I met here. The Turks are at the penultimate rung of the social ladder. Then there’s a big gap, then there’s the Gypsies at the bottom. The hatred of Turks is mainly based on “stupid prejudice”, and in some cases on envy (one of Bulgaria’s big business tycoons is a Turk). The hatred of Gypsies on the other hand is mainly based on personal experience: “You get robbed a few times, and you turn into a racist.”
It comes down to pure incompatibility. The Gypsies are fundamentally nomads. Most societies try to assimilate them, turn them into “normal people”, store them in big building blocks. The Bulgarian government made similar efforts. But the Gypsies treated the flats as tents, they lit fires in the living rooms and parked their horses on the balcony. They don’t pay for utilities. They tap their electricity directly from the source, which is cited as another reason why electricity companies raised prices out of proportion, causing yet more ethnic animosity.
The Bulgarian population is shrinking, the Gypsie population is thriving. They usually don’t send their kids to school. But the schools are funded on the basis of the amount of students. And it’s obligatory to send your kids to school if you want to receive child benefits from the government. So officially they are registered and attending. This way the school receives funding, and the Gypsies as well. It’s the kind of minor corruption that most people will understand and forgive. But it’s also a symptom of a wider and broader corruption on which Bulgarian society is based. All of this will not change overnight should the current government resign.
Friday marked the fiftieth day of protest. To celebrate it there was a re-enactment of last week’s siege on the parliament. People had built a cardboard bus, which featured the images of members of the government. It was escorted by Star Wars stormtroopers and medieval knights who ruthlessly yet playfully attacked any camera who tried to catch the scene.
The fiftieth day also marked the end of this stage of the protest. Parliament will go on holiday. Some people have vowed they will continue the protest here in Sofia, others have said they will follow the government to the seaside and continue to make noise on the beach and even offshore. In any case, the protests are likely to pick up again in September. One of the protesters hinted to this by paraphrasing a famous verse from a Bulgarian poem: “September will be May.”
“September will be January”, the sign said, in reference to the last popular uprising against the post-communists in January 1997. At that time, exasperated by hyperinflation, the people stormed parliament, entered, and brought down the government by force.
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, August 2.
At Occupy Wall Street there used to be the Morning Bell March and the Closing Bell March. Also in Bulgaria the beginning and the end of the day are marked by protest.
The evening march is the main event, no doubt. It attracts thousands of protesters, it targets the government as a whole and its main slogan is ‘resignation!’ The morning protest only drums up a few dozen people, it targets the parliamentarians individually as they arrive at parliament in their fancy black Mercedeses. The main slogan you will hear is ‘Mafia! Mafia!’
Both protests have their own spaces, and every space has its own encampment. The evening protest takes place in front of parliament, where there is the main camp around the monument with the piano, the banners, the slogans, the cross, the plastic swimming pools and the communications tent. Today, while others staged their morning coffee protest, there was yoga all around the equestrian statue.
The morning protest takes place at the back of parliament, in the park, where there is a small camp with a handful of tents, and four park benches in a square under a gazebo, giving it a living room type of feel. Every evening I drop by there to speak to the locals and catch up on the latest news, rumours, accusations, conspiracy theories, etc. Then I usually go back to the main camp, for the live concert.
Yesterday, a second piano had appeared. A small one, without a wing. There was an old man who sat down to play. Beethoven. You wouldn’t believe it. From a classic start he took his listeners on a tour of musical history that had people dancing the charleston and the polka before he arrived at jazz, at rhythm and blues, at swinging 1950s rock and roll. Truly, the man smashed up the piano, playing like Jerry Lee Lewis. If only he had set it on fire, his act would have been complete. Or if he had played on a little longer, the piano would have ignited by itself.
Tonight, as well, we might have a swinging little party, to celebrate 50 days of protest…
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, July 31.
Let me tell you a story. It’s the kind of story you would hear around the fire in winter. Now in summer, you can hear it around the piano.
It was told to me by comrade M., the man who carries a styrofoam horsehead on a stick every evening, in protest against the mafia. Comrade M. is a repatriate. There is no way for me to verify if his story is true, but frankly I don’t care. A good story doesn’t need to be weighed down by truthfulness.
M. was 17 years old when he fled from communist Bulgaria in 1980, together with his dad. They didn’t really have a choice at the time. His dad was an engineer who had invented a device for the quick and even distribution of cocoa powder. The authorities seized his machine, and employed it for military purposes, replacing the cocoa with gunpowder. M’s dad was furious. He had constructed his device for the joy of all man kind, not to sow death and destruction. So he raised hell.
Criticizing authorities in a communist regime can be very dangerous, deadly even. Faced with the choice to die at the hands of the secret police, or to die while trying to escape to the free world, the inventor chose the latter. His son decided to take the risk and come along.
For one month they were in hiding along the border with Yugoslavia, observing every single defensive measure that the Bulgarian state used to protect their citizens from the evil temptation to leave.
There were mine fields, electric fences, watch towers with armed border guards, and booby traps linked to invisible fishing lines strung between distant poles. On the day of their attempt, they made it through the minefield, they crossed the electric fence with a special ladder constructed for the purpose, they avoided the booby traps, but they didn’t manage to escape the attention of the border guards.
For fifteen kilometres into Yugoslavian territory, the Bulgarian border guards came after them with dogs. Fortunately, they were prepared for this. They used little bundles of pepper to disorient the dogs’ sense of smell. Until they lost them, finally, somewhere deep in the forests of Serbia.
It meant by no means that they were safe. Yugoslavia wasn’t part of the eastern block, but it was a communist country and it had supposedly struck a deal with the Bulgarians to curb illegal emigration. For every refugee caught and returned by Yugoslav authorities, the Bulgarians offered a trainload of salt as a reward.
M. and his dad had to walk, all through the country, 32 days to the Austrian border. They couldn’t fool the locals they encountered. Everyone could tell that they were refugees, but in all the republics they past – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia – none of the locals turned them in.
The border between Yugoslavia and Austria was practically unprotected. They stayed in observation for three days, fearing that it might be a trap. Finally, they took their chances and successfully crossed into the free world.
M. ended up as a shop owner in Chicago, where he a made a decent living for more than a decade. Then the Wall came down and in 1992 he decided to return to his home country, convinced that a new age of freedom and opportunity was dawning on Bulgaria.
Oh, how bitterly wrong he was! The Communist Party was replaced by the mafia, although the people remained more or less the same. Because of his contacts in the U.S., he was offered to become part of the organization. He refused. And ever since, for over twenty years, he has been struggling to get by.
Now he is one of the familiar faces of the protest. He proudly carries the horsehead, a new one each day, because every evening at the end of the march from Communist Party HQ he throws it over the barrier onto the steps of parliament. A friend of his always carries a sign that explains that these heads are fake, but that the real ones are coming, once the people will get rid of the ‘red scum’.
I don’t know what happens to the horseheads, but I already imagine a future museum of democracy, where they are all lined up, one after the other, each with a sign that shows the date, right up to the end, when the government came down, and the people took power.
M. notices my glass, it’s empty. “Here, have a refill.”
“Just a little bit.” He pours the homemade wine from a plastic bottle until the glass overflows.
“To the brim, man. To the brim!”
I smile, I lift the glass. “Cheers, mate.”
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, July 30.
Like most eastern European countries, Bulgaria has rarely been master of its own destiny. Things were decided either in Constantinople, or in Moscow, or more recently in Brussels and Washington. As part of the next layer, I will concentrate on the country’s geopolitical importance.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West swiftly moved to incorporate eastern Europe in its expanding sphere of influence. Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004, and of the EU in 2007.
As far as Europe is concerned there is a disequilibrium in the relationship between Sofia and Brussels. Bulgarians long to be as free and prosperous as the West, but Brussels doesn’t really seem to care for them. They are a second rate member, outside of the Schengen area and outside of the euro. If the EU ever bothered to welcome Bulgaria in its ranks, it was most of all to prevent other powers (Turkey, Russia) from re-asserting their influence over the region.
From a Realpolitik point of view there is indeed no reason why the European Union should care too much for democracy in a corrupt little nation of seven million souls on its far periphery. But in the grand global scheme of things, Bulgaria is an important link between East and West. So forget democracy, forget freedom, opportunity, human rights. It’s all about energy. And Russia has everything to do with it.
During the Cold War, Bulgaria was the closest ally of the Soviet Union, and even today the Russians are considered more positively here than elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact. They have considerable investments in the country and a big influence over the post-communist government. The Kremlin’s great project for which Bulgaria is vital is the South Stream pipeline.
If Russia is still of any importance internationally, it’s because they sell weapons, they got nukes, they got good chess and ice-hockey players, and because they deal in fossil fuels to a wide range of junky states. Many of those are in Europe, and they get their supply of natural gas through pipelines. At the moment the major pipelines pass through Poland and Ukraine. In order to bypass these troublesome countries and strengthen its hold on customers in the Balkans, the Putin government intends to build another pipeline under the Black Sea, through Bulgaria and Serbia up to Slovenia and into Italy.
The post-communist governments in Bulgaria are always most willing to collaborate with the Russians, while the right-wing governments have traditionally been more oriented towards Washington. The Americans have four military bases in Bulgaria, and just before being toppled the government of Boyko Borisov requested indefinite American military presence on Bulgarian soil.
For the West, Bulgaria is vital in keeping the Russians away from the Mediterranean, and has been so ever since the modern Bulgarian state came into existence in the late 19th century. Today, the country is also crucial as a link in an alternative pipeline project called Nabucco.
The idea behind Nabucco is to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia as its natural gas dealer in favour or smaller nations which are more easy to control. The Nabucco pipeline would pass through Turkey, a loyal US ally, into the Southern Caucasus, through the Caspian oil fields, towards Central Asia, with offramps to the Middle East, thus completely avoiding Russian soil.
Since the project was conceived in 2002, the Russians have frowned on it with suspicion. It was in reaction to the Nabucco project that state controlled Gazprom announced the South Stream pipeline in 2007. The Nabucco project has one major drawback on which the Russians wanted to capitalize with their South Stream alternative: it has to tap into significant energy sources outside of Russia. The conquest of Iraq by US forces, and the constant western threat on Iran cannot be properly understood without taking the global energy question into account.
Bulgaria will host both pipeline projects, and so the Kremlin and the White House will prefer the Bulgarian government to be controlled by themselves rather than by, for example, the Bulgarian citizens.
Of course, there is a way around all these schemes, and it’s called ‘renewable energy’. If Bulgaria, or any other country for that matter, will one day want to be independent, they will have to switch to home-produced sustainable energy. And this is being done, indeed. The Bulgarian government has granted huge incentives for the creation of renewable energy supplies. Foreign investors jumped on it. Solar panels and wind parks popped up like crazy in the last few years.
Great, you’d say. Well, no. Picture this. In practice, the boom in renewables resulted in an overload of the antiquated infrastructure. The grid couldn’t handle it. So the government cut the incentives, which resulted in rising prices. It’s one of those strange occasions were a rise in supply (of something that’s basically free), caused prices to rise, which in turn caused the people to revolt, last February.
So we’re back at our starting point. Everything is more complicated than it seems. Renewable energy is part of the solution. Direct democracy is part of the solution. An end to foreign influence, be it Russian or American, is another part of solution. The difficulty is to find a way to fit all these things together. But we’ll have time to think about it, to talk about it. Tonight is day 47. Yesterday was day 46. And it was good. Lots of noise. More people than the day before, and great discussions until late at night, fueled by homemade wine. This time, for a change, the piano man played songs from Jesus Christ Superstar.
[With thanks to Stratfor Global Intelligence Agency for their reports. And to Wikileaks for leaking them 🙂 ]
[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.
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, July 28
You notice the difference at the border. The Turkish side is super fancy, with neon lights and grand unified architecture that announces a proud nation on the rise. The Bulgarian side is a run-down dump with a few shacks that nobody cared to replace since communist times. Inside one of the shacks it’s a mess. Apparently, a router had recently been installed and they never bothered to tidy up the wiring. The only piece of 21st century is the chip-reader for passports, for which the router was necessary. Everyone passes without a problem. When it’s my turn the border guard starts asking questions. I wonder what popped up on his screen. He seems reluctant to let me in.
I’m here for tourism, sure. I considered telling him that I’m a foreign agent intent on bringing down the Bulgarian government, but I realized it wouldn’t be too smart. Besides, it would be just as untrue as saying that I’m a tourist. The Bulgarian people don’t need anybody’s help to bring down their government. But they can always do with someone to report on their revolt. Now that is my real purpose.
The whole question is complicated, weird even. I have been reading the scant material on the protests and some historic context, I have been talking to people, and it gets ever more complicated as I go along. For now, I will go straight to the core, and try to onion my way around it at a later stage.
It’s actually quite amazing what’s going on. For 44 consecutive days, thousands of people have been demonstrating against the government. They are camping outside parliament, and they don’t plan to let go.
So what do they want? In short, they want a complete reboot of the system. The democratic experiment in Bulgaria has failed. The country is arguably the worst example of a post-communist kleptocracy in eastern Europe. Ever since the Wall came down it has been ruled by recycled apparatchiks, bandits, buffoons, bullies, racists and the likes. It has been two decades of medieval freak show. Almost a quarter of the population has emigrated. Those who remain are thoroughly fed up. They demand honest professionals who look after the interests of the people, instead of the business interests of what they call ‘the mafia’. They want to be a serious European country with a decent standard of living.
So every night around seven o’ clock the people start to gather in front of the former Communist Party headquarters, with drums and whistles and flags. There are no party flags, no union flags, just the Bulgarian one, and to a lesser extent the European one.
Yesterday it started off with just a few dozen people, then it went almost imperceptibly to a few hundred, to a few thousand. The Bulgarians claim they have mobilized at least 10k people every day since the start. This time, my personal estimate was five thousand people maximum. They are all ages, many families, many young children. They make a lot of noise as they march to parliament, two hundred meters down the road.
Rather differently from Turkey, police is on their side. I can imagine why. I talked to a police officer last time I was here, and they suffer as much from government incompetence and corruption as anybody else. There were a few dozen of them who guarded one of the ministries and the presidency of the republic. No water cannons, no scorpions, no riot gear. The officers who walked along with the march were completely unarmed. No guns, no billy clubs, no nothing. Just one of those fluorescent vests over their uniforms, which had ‘security police’ printed on it. Instead of creating new vests, they had tried to cancel it out and printed ‘anti-conflict police’ on top of it. It’s a charming nation, Bulgaria.
Parliament is fenced off. There are maybe twenty officers on duty, without shields or helmets. A few dozen more are on stand-by. Ever since the start, the protest has been peaceful, with the crowd only making noise and calling for resignation. The exception was last Wednesday, when protesters refused to let the parliamentarians leave the building. They opened up the pavements and built barricades around. They smashed the windows of the bus that was supposed to bring the parliamentarians to safety. It was only then – after forty days – that the protest gained some significant attention by international media. The police were ordered to charge the crowd. They also went for journalists and in particular their cameras. It took until four o’ clock in the morning before the parliamentarians were finally liberated.
In the following days, the protest continued, peaceful as before. Yesterday, like custom, people went on a seemingly spontaneous march of a few miles around the centre and part of the suburbs. At the end, they occupied a six lane boulevard in small groups. Some of them just sat around in circles, some played football, or volleyball, others listened to music from a 1980s ghetto blaster. In front of parliament, at the heart of the small encampment, there stands a white concert piano, like the one we had for a few nights in Taksim Square. People gathered around to sing songs. “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”
It’s a very strange situation. There is no legitimate authority in Bulgaria at the moment. The government has no credibility at all. To me, it seems like the country is in a revolutionary limbo. The people have the power, and police might not comply with an order of repression. It would only take a small push, and the whole state apparatus would crumble.
But this is not the point for most people. The last thing they want is for the protest to turn violent. It would divide society, it would give motive for authorities to assert themselves. “What is being accomplished now is much more valuable than a revolution,” someone told me. “People are coming together to build society. They are no longer locked up in their own small spaces.”
Soon, the government will go on holiday. They hope and expect people to get tired and return to their homes. But everyone I spoke to is determined to continue, for as long as it takes to bring about a peaceful change. There is this feeling in the air that if they give up now, they will be slaves of the post-communist mafia forever.