A man shouts slogans in a megaphone as protesters wearing swim suits attend a beach-party-style anti-government demonstration in front of parliament buildings in central Sofia, Bulgaria, on July 31, 2013. Bulgarians have been taking to the streets in the thousands across the country since June 14, calling for the resignation of what they call a mafia-influenced government. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)
SOFIA, Bulgaria—The Bulgarian call to revolution reads like an invitation to a beach party.
“Take your bathing suits and towels, and come to the beach at the yellow, paved yard in front of the Parliament [buildings]. Invite friends, bring your kids and dogs, put on some sunscreen, and stir yourself a cocktail. … Let’s push for the immediate resignation of the government—in a good mood—besieging Parliament from early morning. They [politicians] turned the Parliament into a circus. We turn the siege into a beach. It is not exactly a sea resort, but let’s not give up! The sea (oops, the victory) is close!”
So read one of the latest invitations to protest in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The protests have already run more than 50 days in peak summer heat. They will also continue despite the parliamentarians’ holiday, which began Aug. 5.
But as jovial or nonchalant as the message sounds, do not be misled; the mass upheaval is as serious as can be. It’s not about social benefits or even about simply overthrowing a failed government.
It targets the political paradigm. It calls for the elimination of the oligarchic mafia structures that have dominated the country since the fall of communism in 1989.
“The moment has come for a fundamental change, where Bulgaria will transform into a country ruled by law, instead of by the rules of the mafia ‘transition,’” wrote Petko Kovachev, member of The Greens political party, and an active participant in the protests.
The Greens, together with four more center-right political parties, established a reformation bloc on July 7, aimed at overthrowing the leftist government and leading the fight against mafia power.
“If this change happens, it will be the true end of Bulgaria’s transition from communism through the mafia power of the ex-communists and moguls, toward a democratic society,” Kovachev added.
Lilia Kostova, a national assembly representative for The Greens, said the protests center around a key word—“mafia.”
“People clearly understand that the political system and organized crime are one,” Kostova said. “They know it is like a war in which they have almost nothing left to lose. It is a question of honor and dignity to be on the street.”
Kostova, who is taking part in the protests, explained how the merging of mafia and state has affected all areas of life in the country. She listed the difficulties encountered in Bulgarian daily life: It is difficult to do business, to have quality tourism, to raise and educate children, to rely on the justice system, to live without fear, and to believe the media, which are manipulated by private business interests, she said.
“Even if people do not formulate it clearly, what they want is one thing: a normal, quality life in their own homeland,” said Kostova.
‘The Tumbling Stone’
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the transition has been marked by injustice, warped values, and corruption at all levels of society, said the protesters. Bulgarians have learned not to express their will freely, to vent their dissatisfaction only in private, and to shut their eyes to wrongdoing.
In June, a drop in the brimming cup of public tolerance caused it to overflow.
When Delyan Peevski, a media mogul youngster, was appointed the chief of the Bulgarian Security Agency, and a wave of protests overtook the small East European country.
“The appointment of Peevski was the tumbling stone,” said Asen Genov, a protest organizer and political blogger.
“It tore down … the façade [of the] corrupted democracy in Bulgaria, where money, private financial interests, … and political power are intertwined into one criminal food chain,” he said.
People took to the streets and firmly insisted on the immediate resignation of the government. Starting on June 14, and every day for nearly two months thousands of protesters have marched through Sofia, with as many as 30,000 to 40,000 people taking to the streets in the city of about 1.5 million. There has been a sprinkling of protests throughout the countryside and other Bulgarian cities.
President Joins Anti-Government Protest
The current government came to power last May in preliminary elections, after the previous Cabinet, led by the centrist party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Grazhdani za evropeysko razvitie na Balgariya, GERB), resigned in February under pressure from protests over high electricity prices.
Though GERB resigned, it still won a majority in the elections this May, but had to form a coalition with the leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the centrist ethnic Turkish party Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and the nationalist Ataka party to ensure quorum.
Thus, GERB became dependent on its partners, whose representatives took most of the leading positions, even that of the Parliament chairman, which is a precedent in Bulgarian history.
In another first, the president of Bulgaria has openly supported the protests.
President Rosen Plevneliev stands in opposition to the politicians who have been orchestrating what’s been called the “transition” from communism. Nayo Tizin, a journalist and one of the most emblematic faces of the protests, explained: “Right now the engineers of the transition are very stressed, because for the first time a president appeared who is not dependent on their engineering, and addresses exactly the result of this engineering, namely oligarchy and the mafia’s expropriation of the country.”
“Finally, an acting politician takes the position of the citizens,” Tizin said.
GERB, the party Plevneliev is a part of, quit Parliament to protest its coalition partners’ actions. The European Parliament has joined GERB in calling for a change in Bulgaria’s government.
Despite the echo of protest chants in the streets, the three remaining coalition parties have continued with business as usual, including making appointments that have caused further outrage.
GERB has called for an election next May. A Gallup International poll from Aug. 1 shows that 72 percent of Bulgarians stand behind this call.
Andrey Kovatchev, a member of the European Parliament and of GERB, said: “It is already too late—whatever trust there could be in this government is gone. The only way out is preliminary elections.”
Kovatchev explained his hopes for the next government: “I hope the majority in the newly elected parliament will be in the center-right. And I hope that this new government will use all its energy for the main goal—to eliminate former communists from power, once and for all.”
Kovatchev said, “[BSP] has a great flaw, which cannot be overcome: it is proud of its communist past.”
“It still has not condemned this past, and is still propagating nostalgia for communism—how nice it was, how cheap it was, how safe, how much industry there was, how well the secret services defended our national interests, and how only secret service agents can be our diplomats,” continued Kovatchev.
“All of this is fatally dangerous for a democratic and European Bulgaria,” he said.
Protesters in front of Parliament shout in unison: “We will wait for you! You may go on vacation, we will not.”