Sandy Gill in Sofia -
All's peaceful in Sofia. On the evening of July 24, the dogged Bulgarians who have been protesting for seven weeks against the Socialist-led government of Plamen Oresharski staged a well-attended and conspicuously peaceful demonstration, following violent clashes outside parliament over the previous night.
By international standards these clashes had been fairly tame stuff. Hospital reports suggest that 18 people – including five police as well as protesters – were admitted for treatment as a result of the clashes in the late hours of July 23, with only two of them actually hospitalised. But for peaceful Bulgaria just about any violence is a shock, especially as the preceding 40 straight days of demonstration had been almost entirely without violence. Politicians are debating, pointing fingers and standing their ground. But it looks as if the outbreak might be a turning point.
Predictably, the blame game is underway. The violence started at around 10:00pm as police tried to bus MPs, ministers, trade unionists and journalists, present for the committee stage of a controversial budget bill, out of a parliament that had been surrounded by protesters – the first successful full blockade since the police-controlled zone around parliament had been enlarged a month ago. Police and demonstrators clashed, as the former tried to move the latter out of the way. Stones were thrown at parliament and the bus, which turned back. Physical barricades began to be built from paving stones and trash-cans. Evacuation under escort–and without benefit of a bus–took place only after 3:00am.
There's criticism. While Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yonchev says that police acted quite properly, anti-government sources insist that they used quite serious force. Situation management has been questioned too. Was it wise to provoke by attempting evacuation in what chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov pointedly described as a "big white bus"? Some are pointing to the conspicuous absence of "anti-conflict" police in the crowd: helped by peaceful protestors, these have been effective in recent weeks in identifying and isolating violent and provocative elements. Then there's police morale: officers have been working long hours for weeks to cover the demonstrations, and the strain is beginning to show.
Nikolay Staykov, a coordinator for the recently established Antigovernment Information Service (www.noresharski.com), squarely blamed official incompetence. Timing parliamentary committee sessions to coincide with the evening protests wasn't clever, he tells bne. Police actions also needlessly inflamed the situation: "Trying to make a way through several thousand people forcefully is completely inadequate," he said. "You can remove a live chain or a few people lying on the pavement. But not when they are thousands."
Were there "provocateurs" or "extremist elements" among the protestors? "Some, definitely: but the majority of the protesters have been and continue to be non-party aligned citizens with no criminal record and no violent intentions. Part of the art of managing such protests is to avoid situations where normal crowd escalates to violence." The authorities have been peddling the line that "the protestors are only a few hundred peeople, we are in charge, and police is working perfectly," says Staykov, who thinks they fell for their own propaganda.
The preceding weeks had seen daily demonstrations remarkable for their persistence and their good nature – almost festive occasions. Originally provoked by the appointment of the controversial media tycoon Delyan Peevski to head Bulgaria's State Agency for National Security (DANS), the protests survived his embarrassed withdrawal and broadened to demand the resignation of the recently appointed and allegedly oligarch-dominated Oresharski government.
Evening demonstrations each day at 6:30pm – responding to the Twitter invitation "DANS with me" – were soon supplemented by a morning rendezvous for free coffee in front of parliament. Protestors often had children in tow; imaginative events kept interest up – most recently a group of protestors has taken to dressing up as particularly disliked politicians; those "anti-conflict police" worked well; protestors regularly applauded police lines as they passed them; and the only real violence involved the eccentric and extreme nationalist leader Volen Siderov, defending his HQ against supposed threats from demonstrators and rival nationalists.
All this in the context of a strange and hardly sustainably political situation. With the former government of Boiko Borisov's GERB party driven from power by demonstrations in February triggered by high electricity bills, a bitter campaign had yielded a surprisingly low turnout in elections on May 12. Lambasted for authoritarianism, corruption and phone-tapping, GERB had nevertheless emerged as the largest party with 97 out of 240 seats – but with no one prepared to cooperate with it. The former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) had 120 seats between them, and formed Oresharski's government on the basis of a quorum ensured by the MRF's arch enemy Siderov, leader of Ataka, the fourth party that had made parliament. This recipe for instability was further seasoned by the fact that almost a quarter of the votes cast had gone to parties that hadn't cleared the 4% hurdle needed to enter parliament.
Moreover, disputing the legitimacy of the election – the subject of an appeal since overturned – and displeased at the distribution of parliamentary committee chairmanships, Borisov has boycotted all parliamentary business except that to do with electoral reform and, in the last few days, the budget. All in all, it's a most dysfunctional parliament.
The Peevski gaffe has been followed by others; for instance, Siderov's election to head parliament's anti-corruption and parliamentary ethics committee and, more recently, the appointment of a regional governor with alleged connections to one of the 1990s' biggest organised crime groups. But the protestors have also been fuelled by the young intelligentia's general distrust of the BSP – one of the most frequent chants is "red trash" – and suspicions that the interests behind the government have hidden agendas. The Corporate Commercial Bank (widely believed to be connected with Peevski) is cited. So is a rather untransparent visit of Gazprom's Alexei Miller in early July. So is the proposed acquisition of the Doverie Pension Fund by Russian-connected offshore companies. And proposals for an – allegedly unnecessary – BGN1bn loan (€510m) for the state is giving opponents ammunition: it will benefit the "energy mafia", they say, and is redolent of the financially catastrophic premiership of the BSP's Zhan Videnov in 1996-97.
The demonstrators' persistence also derives from a sense of empowerment. Listen to Sofia-based political scientist Vladimir Shopov. "It's premature to talk of the 'development of civil society," he says. "But there's been a gradual process of cultivating civic intuitions over some years." And it's been a "bottom-up" process rather than a matter of heroic individuals. "People have been getting together on micro-issues – mothers whose kids suffer from a particular disease, for instance. Then the grievance-based groups have got together with similar groups. And green NGOs have grown in legal and organisational capacity, partly through contact with the EU." But politically aware people weren't confident in their ability to act as one social group, until the protests started: "They saw their activity as virtual and suddenly it was transformed into activity as a physical group. That's the source of a lot of energy," says Shopov.
Numbers have been uncertain, but impressive. Headline figures issued by the Interior Ministry have generally been around 3,000, but that's admitted to refer to numbers on Independence Square, the initial rallying point for evening demonstrations. Counting those who join subsequently, it's clear from TV footage that total numbers are several times higher – as high as 30,000 on some occasions. Again, the protests might be argued to be a bit narrowly based. As the international media, in "compare and contrast" mode, have been quick to point out, they're to a large extent "middle-class". And, also in contrast to February's protests, they've mostly been confined to Sofia. But, says Shopov, they involve those elements of the population that are "the most active competent in terms of constructing public influence and knowing how to advocate change." The protests would also probably have been a lot larger if it weren't for fear that they might let Borisov back in, he argues: "Several of my friends have given precisely that reason for not taking part."
It looks as if quite a large proportion of the population sympathise. An opinion poll in early July by the National Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (NCSPO) – a parliamentary-affiliated agency not noted for its subversive tendencies – suggested that 58% of Bulgarians supported the protests and that 60% thought the government should resign (37% "immediately"). It also credited the government with a 59% disapproval rating, the highest initial figure for any government on record.
There's been encouragement from other sources. In early July, the respected President Rosen Plevneliev suggested publicly that early elections were the only way out of the political mess. Not long after, the German and French ambassadors spoke up in favour of the protests, urging the government to abandon an "oligarchic model" of government (which earned the French a Delacroix tableau, complete with a top model playing a bare-breasted Liberty, from the protestors on Bastille Day). And European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding spoke enthusiastically of "those who are protesting on the streets against corruption" when she visited Sofia earlier this week and, while emphasising that Brussels couldn't change national governments, pointedly wished Bulgarians "success in forming a government that you trust."
To date, however, there's been stonewalling from the dominant forces in parliament. Siderov – ignored by all and sundry – has been complaining of the dangers to himself, sporting a gun and a truncheon on one occasion, and calling for miscellaneous officials, including the Sofia mayor as well as the interior minister, to keep the streets clear. As to the government, the response has been consistent: the government can't cease to govern just because a few thousand people choose to protest; there's urgent work on welfare to do; there's need for dialogue rather than categorical demands for resignation; and resignation would simply destabilise the country.
On the surface, that seems still to be the case after the July 23 violence. With Oresharski notably silent – though rumoured to have suggested to BSP leader Sergei Stanishev that his presence as PM might not be desirable – Stanishev and Interior Minister Yovchev have done most of the talking, referring to "violent provocations" and, in Stanishev's case, hinting that Borisov might be behind them. A plenary session of the party's ruling council on July 24 repeated the "no resignation" line, and insisted the protests were Sofia-based and represented a small minority. However, it called for "broad political consultations" and, interestingly, said that the government's programme should be implemented by "spring 2014". Though it explicitly denied any electoral intent, May 2014 is when EU elections are due in Bulgaria and the possibility of double elections has been widely mooted. Meanwhile, two senior BSP politicians have hinted at early elections: Yanaki Stoilov has said they are possible but "not now", while former presidential candidate Ivailo Kalfin has said that they are needed because the legislature is unable to function "for a number of reasons".
What elections soon, or next May, would yield is an interesting question. Pollsters – not universally trusted in Bulgaria, it must be said – have been hinting at a parliament as narrow or even narrower than the present one, were elections to be held soon. For instance, that NCSPO survey concluded that immediate elections would return only three parties to parliament – GERB, with 22-23% of respondents, BSP with 19-20%, and MRF with 6-7%. BBSS Gallup International – having polled between June 27 and July 4 – names the same three, but in a different order (BSP 21.6%, GERB 17.8%, and MRF 6.4%). Given Siderov's effective backing of a government of "communists and Turks" – and given his subsequent antics – it's not implausible that Ataka would be excluded from the next parliament (though it might well be replaced by the somewhat more moderate and considerably less erratically led National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria). But the situation is fluid and, supposing the polls accurately reflected the situation in early July, they may not even now.
For a start, the right may finally be getting its act together, repenting of the disunity that put all its formations under the 4% barrier in May. A Reformist Block has been formed by five parties including Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and former European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva's Bulgaria for Citizens Movement – with the significant Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) on the point of joining. "It's difficult to imagine these turning into a coherent block," thinks Shopov. "But probably the impetus given by the current situation will make their leaders behave sensibly in the next year or so." If so, it's electorally significant, says Shopov: "A lot of people – perhaps as many as one-third of GERB's peak support – have voted for GERB in the past simply because there was no credible right-of-centre alternative. Some of these voted for Kuneva in May, but more just abstained. Mobilise these, and you have quite a lot of votes."
Then there's the question of a "protest party". That's more delicate, says Shopov. "The protestors are very sensitive to old ways of doing politics: the classic pattern is that a figurehead politician founds a party and is quickly revealed to have powerful sponsor. So there would be a strong reaction to anyone trying to found a party at this stage. An aspiring party-builder would need to be patient and produce a political organisation that clearly isn't sponsor-controlled."
One long-term hopeful, perhaps, is Sasha Bezuhanova, who stepped down from a very senior job at Hewlett Packard in mid-July to found a "civil project" entitled "Bulgaria Can". She might have the right approach, thinks Shopov: "It's a platform for ideas rather than something explicitly political; it includes a lot of people who aren't centre-right; and it's shying away from anyone obviously ambitious." But it's a long game.
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