How Bulgarian Protesters are Remaking Europe

The “silent man” in Taksim Square, Istanbul, who stood without moving or speaking for eight hours, is a symbol that says something important about the new age of protests that have shattered the world. In the last few years millions of angry citizens— generally young, well-educated and mobilized through social media—have “occupied” places as different as Wall Street, Egypt, Russia, Spain, Brazil, Turkey and Bulgaria, demanding not simply a change in government but a different way of governing. What is common between these vastly different protest movements is that they trust neither the business or political elites, nor the government or the major opposition parties. They captured the public imagination without bringing to life a new ideology or charismatic political leaders. What these protests will be remembered for are videos, not manifestoes; happenings, not speeches; conspiracy theories, not political tracts.

If these beautiful crowds are revolutionary movements as some claim, they aren’t simply protagonists of “democratic revolutions,” because they strike both democracies and non-democracies alike. While in Egypt and Russia protesters have demanded new and fair elections, in Europe protests embody disillusionment with elections that change governments but leave public policies undisturbed. These are also not “liberal revolutions,” because many people on the streets loathe “the liberals” and blame liberalism (especially its “neo” variety) for the current crisis. These are not “nationalist revolutions” either: in many cases, the protesters are less nationalist than the rest of their societies. These revolutions are also not generational, a sort of second coming of 1968. In 1968 protesters on the streets of Paris and Berlin demanded to live in a world different from the one of their parents, while the new radicals in Europe today insist on the right to live in the same world of their parents. This protest wave is also not an expression of what Václav Havel defined as “the power of the powerless;” rather, it stands for the frustration of the empowered.

In the annals of this global protest movement Bulgaria plays a special role. Bulgaria is a classical example of everything that is wrong with democracy—corruption, dysfunctional institutions and public apathy, and she is a text book case why democracy is still our best hope—with its potential to mobilize civic energy and allow people peacefully to topple governments that must go. In the course of 2013, a government is under siege by protesting citizens for the second time in Bulgaria. In March the center-right government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov resigned after hundreds of thousands of protesters—mostly from the countryside stormed the streets protesting against poverty, unemployment, corruption and the hike of the electricity prices. Seven people burned themselves in the days of the protests.

Now it is the turn of the government of the Bulgarian socialist party and the party of the ethnic Turks to think about resignation. The story of the latest crisis is as simple as a plot of a low-budget Hollywood movie. It started on June 14 when the Parliament appointed Delyan Peevski as the head of the State Agency for National security. The appointment of this gentleman whom the Western Press respectfully describes as “media mogul with shady connections,” while Bulgarian media (even those few not owned by him) find it most reasonable not to discuss the issue, had the effect of political earthquake.

Just in hours after the decision was announced thousands of people mobilized via social media ended on the street demanding his resignation. The opinion poll taken the next day indicated 85 percent of Bulgarians wanted for Peevski to go to hell. He resigned but this was not enough for the protesters. People now asked for the resignation of the government that came with the perverted idea to appoint him. So, since June 14 every night thousands of protesters (coming out of work) march on the streets of Sofia asking only one thing-early elections. But their protest is not a protest only against this government but against any government that treats people as a useless furniture.

The strategy adopted by the current center left government (that was elected with the votes of only 20 percent of the eligible voters) is to pretend that nothing important is really happening and to wait for the protesters to go on holiday. In the eyes of the government dialogue is an expression of weakness. But people did not go away. They continue marching every day. On the 40th day the protest got bloody. At ten at night police tried to break the siege around the Parliament and both protesters and policemen were wounded. Due to the maturity of the protesters the situation got under control but remains tense. It is a safe bet that in not so distant future Bulgaria will have new parliamentary elections. The latest opinion poll indicates that only 16 percent of Bulgarians want government to serve a full term. At present, the government can survive in power but it will be unable to take any unpopular measures.

What does the summer protests in Sofia teach us about “the revolution of the global middle class?”

Paradoxically, what Bulgaria teaches us is that contrary to politically correct clichés peaceful protests are media friendly but as a rule politically effective. After more than 40 days of protest the beautiful crowd on the streets of Sofia impressed foreign correspondents but did not move Bulgarian government. The second lesson is that in the age of Facebook the urban middle class risks remaining politically lonely and incapable of reach out to other social groups. The third lesson is that the readiness of the government to use force against the protesters is proportional to the active public support it can mobilize. In Turkey police was ready to crash the protests, because Erdogan was able to gather hundreds of thousands in his support. In Bulgaria, the counter protest in defense of the government never managed to gather more than 300 people.

The third lesson of the protest is that the best way to judge on the democratic freedom in a country is to observe how its media, particularly the public one, behaves in the days of the protest. In this sense, Bulgaria is a European democracy and Turkey is not yet. The fourth lesson, learned after the protest-elections cycle in Bulgaria earlier this year, is that popular protests can change almost everything but not necessary the way people vote. So, if protests fail to come up with political alternatives that people are ready to support, they are doomed to remain simply moving episodes that those participating in them could one day nostalgically recollect as their beautiful one-night stand with democracy. But even failing the protests succeed. The latest opinion polls indicate that after almost two months of protests Bulgarians’ support for democracy and the European Union has increased.

And it is the position taken by Brussels and the major European capitals that makes Bulgarian protests stand out in the current protest wave in Europe. It is in Bulgaria that contrary to its bureaucratic instincts official Europe has sided with the protesters and not with the elites. The ambassadors of France and Germany wrote on July 4th a joint article strongly criticizing the political model embodied by the government and practiced by previous ones as well. Commissioner Vivian Redding came to Sofia and did what Bulgarian prime minister never did—talk to the citizens.

This is how Bulgarian protesters took part in reinventing Europe.

Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist. He is president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.