130715, FT, Sofia, Bulgaria’s protest against corrruption
July 15, 2013 11:05 am
By Theodor Troev in Sofia and Neil Buckley in London
They come every morning at about 8am, knots of demonstrators outside Bulgaria’s parliament building, for a “protest coffee” as parliamentarians arrive for work.
Then every evening, after 6pm as Sofia’s offices close, they come again, in their tens of thousands this time, to the communist-era council of ministers building. They call for Bulgaria’s barely two-months-old government to stand down and hold new elections under new rules.
“Ostavka!” (Resign!) they chant, or “Mafia!” – referring to what they see as a corrupt political and business establishment.
These protests, which have taken place daily for a month, are not just about discontent with a particular government, but with a whole political class, perceived cronyism and economic stagnation. Some young protesters have come dressed in prison uniforms; another day they carried four large coloured brooms, to sweep away all four political parties in Bulgaria’s parliament.
“I’m disgusted by the audacity of Bulgarian politicians,” said Elena Karova, 38, a lawyer, in Sofia last week. “They don’t care at all about what people think. All they do care about is stealing from the country. And this has been going on for more than 20 years.”
In Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, which like others around the country has also seen daily protests, Dimitar Nemski, a 22-year-old student, warned that “no matter what the colour of the politician, they are all defending some oligarchic interests”.
While Turkey, Brazil and Egypt have been rocked by protests in recent weeks, the smaller, so far peaceful ones in 7.4m-strong Bulgaria have attracted less attention. But in their size and duration – up to 30,000 daily in Sofia alone – the protests in the EU’s poorest member are unprecedented since communism fell two decades ago.
They have now outlasted those that toppled the previous government only five months ago. After those protests, sparked by spiralling fuel prices, turned violent, prime minister Boyko Borisov called early elections.
His party, the centre-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, topped those May elections, though short of an outright majority. After other parties declined to work with it, the second-placed Socialists formed a partly technocratic coalition led by Plamen Oresharski, a former finance minister.
Just weeks into the job, however, Mr Oresharski named Delyan Peevski, a 32-year-old lawmaker and controversial media baron, as head of Bulgaria’s national security agency. Mr Peevski had been investigated for corruption – and cleared – when previously serving as a deputy premier, but many Bulgarians viewed him as having dubious business ties.
The protests erupted, and have persisted long after the premier cancelled Mr Peevski’s appointment. The government has largely ignored them, apparently hoping demonstrators will drift away once the holiday season starts. Angel Naydenov, defence minister, said on TV last week the government had strong national support and “no cause to be disturbed”.
But Maxim Behar, a public relations expert and author, said these protests differed from any in Bulgaria before and might last longer than expected – partly because they have been driven by social media.
Despite low wage levels, Bulgaria has become one of Europe’s most “online” countries thanks to huge investment in high-speed broadband. That gave rise to a young, creative and connected generation that Mr Behar in a recent book called “Generation F”.
“It is now on the Sofia streets, it is online almost 24 hours a day and for sure it is the driving force of the protests in Bulgaria,” he said.
The Sofia protests, he noted, were identified by the hashtag #DANSwithme (DANS is the acronym for Bulgaria’s security services). They arose initially in the Twitter community then moved to Facebook, where 2.5m active Bulgarians spend some time daily.
Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s first European commissioner and now one of the leaders of a reformist opposition alliance, said the protests were a “revolution for dignity” against an establishment seen as corrupt and unaccountable. “The protests are unifying society, not dividing it,” she said. “The line is between the citizens and the mafia.”
Ivan Todorov, a Sofia law professor, suggested the protests were the first in Bulgaria prompted not by poverty but by “intelligent people fed up with corrupted politicians”. They might wane in August, he said, but could return in the autumn.
In Plovdiv last week, Margarita Boteva, a 57-year-old librarian now working in a restaurant, agreed the protesters were in it for the long haul. “Our generation lived through some of the atrocities of communism – but these atrocities do not seem to end,” she said. “They continue lying to us without shame.”
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