The Bulgarian winter of protests

March 15, 2013

A protest in Sofia on the 17th February

A protest in Sofia on the 17th February

In the last week of February, after days of protests across the country, the Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borisov resigned. Mariya Ivancheva looks at how it happened and what comes next.

 

From the beginning of February, Bulgarians in most big cities have been out in the streets, protesting against the increased electricity and heating bills. While the increase has happened gradually throughout 2012, in January 2013 the bills were considerably bigger than they would normally get. The price formation was transparently written down on the bill, but what angered many is that a significant amount of money was charged not for energy per se but for various taxes and tariffs.

Bills and bonds

A wave of contention spread throughout the country, resulting in blockades of roads, barricades, increasing popular rage and police violence. Three men died having set fire to themselves in protest at the bills and the subservience of the state to economic interests. One old man cut his veins out of sheer desperation over his electricity bill. The protesters were mostly rank-and-file Bulgarians: middle-aged men and women, young couples with children and students all went out on the streets to voice their concerns over high energy costs, mediocre living standards and perceived corruption. The protests were also joined and partly hijacked by a number of extreme-right groups, who were ready to exploit the situation for harassment and looting.

The solution offered by many intellectuals, politicians from throughout the political spectrum and the media, was – surprise, surprise – the end of monopolies and further privatization and liberalization of the energy market.

This posture disappointed many, as the whole process is actually a showcase example of how privatized entities function poorly outside state control. The national power distribution companies were privatized in 2005 and then sold out to foreign companies under very favourable conditions. This move made the state – i.e. taxpayers – indebted to the private companies, which held prices high with a cartel agreement.

Yet, it was not the monopoly in general that was a problem: the issue was eclipsed by the amnesia of 23 years of transition to a market economy. It was the monopoly in the hands of uncontrollable private companies within a free market economy with no state regulation or protection that has left the population totally vulnerable to price hikes. The clamour around the energy bills also eclipsed some contradictory actions of the Borisov government. To calm down grain producers who also threatened nation-wide protests, populist Borisov promised new subsidies. Consequently, days before his resignation, Borisov pressed Finance Minister Dyankov to issue government bonds for 800 mio lev (€409 mio). Thanks to the unexpected shock for the national economy, and to the surprise of the international markets, the country’s bond yields started to rise and the value of the Bulgarian debt went down. But it was mostly Bulgarian banks who bought most (over 80%) of the bonds, raising suspicions of a deal to help Borisov’s reelection.

The crisis becomes political

Bills and bonds aside, the crisis of political representation had started. After a few nights of running battles between police and protesters, the government made an attempt to offer some blatantly unsustainable concessions: they offered a significant decrease of energy prices and transparency of the energy sector.

A few “protesters” coming from circles close to the government called for the protests to stop, to little effect. The people demanded Borisov’s resignation. After a night of violent clashes with the police, Borisov filed his resignation, saying he could not tolerate blood on his hands. The resignation was almost unanimously approved by parliament.

President Rossen Plevneliev launched “public consultations” to find a way out of the political crisis and form a new government. In his office, along with representatives of the protesters, he invited neoliberal think-tank experts and members of oligarchic and commercial organizations. The protesters soon walked out. Plevneliev offered the mandate only to the three parties which had previously proposed to form a government: Borisov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), social-democratic Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and the Turkish ethnic Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (DPS) – all refused. This meant the dissolution of the Parliament, the calling of new elections in May and the appointment by the President of an interim “expert” government.

This outcome didn’t satisfy the protesters, who saw it as a convenient way for the current government to gain time to erase their record of corruption and avoid investigation or persecution. And this government shows no intention of reforming electoral laws ahead of the elections, when the current electoral code makes it exceptionally difficult for small parties to run for office.

People did not leave the streets. Demands for the electricity bills to be lowered were soon followed by more radical claims: a new Constitutive Assembly, elections by majority vote with no parties, only individual candidates, and the revision of all privatization deals and concessions of the last 20 years.

The price to pay

While discontent with the capitalist system barely surfaced, the shouted slogans have expressed a wide exasperation with economic impoverishment and the alienation from the political process experienced by most Bulgarians. Within a rising global economic crisis, many Bulgarians realize that the crisis has never left the country.

Since 1989 whole sectors and service industries have been privatized. Cheap concessions were given to the client firms of a succession of governments, and secret treaties were signed, always at the expense of the public. Unemployment engulfed the entire nation and exiled two million Bulgarian citizens as economic migrants abroad. Whole families were destroyed, villages deserted, and adults and children left without care. When the crisis affected host countries in the west, the income of transnational families severely decreased. Negative campaigns were staged in the Netherlands and the UK against Bulgarian and Romanian workers, and a few EU countries – most importantly Germany – declared they would block the entry of Bulgaria into the Schengen space. So, although these riots make no direct anti-capitalist claims, they do express a rage against the effects of neoliberalism and second-class EU citizenship.

Why, then, hasn’t anti-capitalist rhetoric been more present on the squares and streets and Bulgaria? The answer to this question goes beyond party politics.

Alienation and impoverishment have not only happened in the economic sense. Since the abolition of the hegemonic one-party state in 1989, politics in Bulgaria have become more plural only in terms of their formal respect for free elections. A consolidated political class has formed and shifted however was necessary to stay in power throughout the transition. The openly neoliberal BSP created a monopoly over the whole political left, and all the others were happy to call themselves “anti-communist” to justify the same political and economic programme as the BSP had espoused: western liberal democracy, free markets, privatization, economic austerity, and an attempt to enter the rich kids’ club – aka the EU.

During the transition, and under the impulse of Bulgarian and western European think-tanks and NGOs, politics were replaced by “policy” and “expertise”. Alternatives were presented as unthinkable: the road was clear ahead, and it was the only one. Whoever dared to disagree was condemned as a “communist”, a “spy”, declared “uncultured”, “uneducated” and not living up to “European values”.

Today these same experts are at a loss to explain what is happening. They have expressed publicly their moral panic and frank indignation with the people in the streets – who dared to protest without a clear political programme and no financial and symbolic resources. The people came out with the pure wrath of a mob that can neither be contained, nor reduced to the transition slogan of “civil society.” And yes, the statements of the people on the streets were often chaotic, often internally and mutually contradictory, politically incorrect, homophobic, sexist and racist at times. Protesters voiced scary demands against the construction of a second mosque in Sofia, for mandatory Orthodoxy classes in schools, or to exclude Roma and pensioners from voting. The abundant presence of football hooligans, who mobilized around the annual neo-nazi Lukovmarsh in February, was also symptomatic of this chaos.

But still, the moral indignation of the intellectual and expert class was hypocritical to say the least. In their attempts to cement the neoliberal consensus, they have contributed to the systematic lack of adequate and pluralist political education and debate throughout the transition. People were no longer deceived by the fat concoction of liberal values of western capitalism, consumerism, free market and liberal democracy. But initially they had nothing with which to replace these deceptions.

Demands from within, inspiration from abroad

In recent years Bulgarians have gradually gained more exposure to news about (and for some first-hand experience with) anti-austerity protests.

Beyond the Occupy movement, the Spanish Indignados, and the Arab Spring, they became aware of geographically close events, such as the Hungarian political crisis since 2006, the Greek anti-austerity campaign after 2008, and the Romanian winter of 2012. Protests have also happened in Bulgaria since 2007. Teachers, miners, environmentalists, students and academics, workers and citizens against the privatization of the National Railroad Company and the Sopot Machine plant, and against the ACTA treaty: their protests were testimonies of a growing protest culture that is gaining confidence in its demands and its repertoire.

Caught in the vortex of increasing popular discontent, the Bulgarian political class and Borisov’s government have mostly responded with quick-fix solutions to quell the people’s anger. They privatized state-owned enterprises but kept collective contracts. They made concessions on contradictory bills to only then change other laws in favour of big business. They exhausted the treasury to pay rents to shut down further protest. The only thing they did not change was the general direction of the austerity and privatization reforms.

More importantly, this time the people in the square came up with two key demands previously absent from the media and public space: “revision of the transition” and “change of the system”.

The first slogan presents a belated request to the political class: they were to make public the documents around the privatization and concession deals, and to declassify secret contracts and transactions between the state and private companies during the transition period. For some of the protesters, 1989 didn’t represent the start of the democratic transition, but the moment when Bulgaria went down the wrong track. (Of course, whether this is the correct date is questioned even inside the movement: some say it could also be in the 1970s, when socialist countries began to live on credit from western countries and international financial organizations; or in the 1980s, when the first chaotic privatizations began). For the first time, Bulgarian citizens demanded transparency and control.

The second claim to ‘change the system’ sounds altogether too vague, but it is also crucial. People in the square now see the problem not in our incorrect following of the European model, or our “oriental” capitalism. The problem is the model itself. The problem is capitalism.

A long winter?

Parliamentary elections having been moved to the relatively imminent date of 12 May, the resignation of the government was no news. Borisov’s political game was no longer convincing.

By resigning he deserted the sinking ship trying to save his face, and secure reelection. The fact that the parliamentary-represented parties offered the chance to form a government refused also reeks of a lack of responsibility and a badly concealed political deal. With or without an interim government, the lack of an alternative political actor makes the electoral perspectives rather bleak.

The old political parties are discredited, and people in the streets have already produced a few potential leaders, but have been neither willing, nor able to start a party that would run in May. One could predict a new coalition government formed by Borisov’s GERB and some of its former political contenders, leading  - unless they change their politics significantly – to new waves of contention next winter.

Still, what is certain is that the camel’s back has been broken in Bulgaria. Bulgarians have joined larger processes that shook the region – Romania last winter, Slovenia, Hungary, Macedonia and Kosovo this season. Slogans of the Occupy, Indignados, and Greek anti-austerity movements now fill the streets. People are less willing to trust traditional representative democracy, and they are starting to organize themselves in working groups to discuss organizational alternatives and propose new legislative measures. They speak of new mechanisms and forms of political, economic, and social participation.

Solidarity and international diffusion of protest strategies and forms of organizing are now needed more than ever. And while the anti-capitalist and anti-privatization vocabulary and alternative economic solutions are still at a rudimentary stage of development, one thing is clear: the Bulgarian winter isn’t over yet.

This is an updated version of an article that was published on 20 February 2013 in CriticAtac under the title “The Bulgarian winter: between the devil and the deep blue sea”.

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