BULGARIA: Bulgarian Summer
44th day of Bulgarian protest
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 that 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.
Communist-free zone outside of former Party HQ
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.
Eloquent statement against the mafia
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…”
Elderly member of the ‘Anti-Government Police’. Real cops in the background.
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.