Bulgarians Take to the Streets
SOFIA—The peaceful, anti-establishment protests taking place in Bulgaria have been overshadowed by the recent radical upheavals in Cairo, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo. But whereas the new Egyptian, Turkish, and Brazilian middle classes have come out in opposition to authoritarianism, Islamism, and corruption, Bulgarians have been trying to throw off the burden of an oligarchic power bloc that has overseen the gradual corporate takeover of public institutions.
After Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007, many believed that the country’s links with Russia would weaken and a transition to a full democracy would be completed. Those expectations proved illusory. A Bulgarian political and corporate oligarchy, viewed as closely linked to Russia’s energy monopoly, is now seen to be controlling the economy and public institutions. Things started to change this year. In a national referendum in January, less than 12 percent of eligible voters supported Russian state corporation Atomstroyexport’s plans to construct a new nuclear power plant in the country. This nuclear site would have cemented Russia’s monopoly over Bulgaria’s energy. But the doubling (and sometimes tripling) of electricity bills instigated public protests in February in major Bulgarian cities. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov of the center-right GERB Party — who rejected the Russian nuclear project after years of hesitation — resigned in March. A gruelling parliamentary election campaign followed in May, producing a hung parliament. The election brought the ex-communist Socialist Party to power, led by Sergei Stanishev, the son of a former Politburo member who had been raised as a Soviet citizen in Moscow. The Socialists joined hands with the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), whose former leader Ahmet Dogan had close ties to the communist-era intelligence services. Both politicians enjoy the support of Moscow, while Dogan also maintains close relationships to Ankara. The Socialists and MRF needed additional support in parliament to form a government, which came from the radical Volen Siderov, whose far-right populist party Ataka is the most ardent opponent of Bulgarian integration with Europe and the West and a proponent of joining the Eurasian Union led by Moscow.
The choice of coalition allies is proving an embarrassment for Stanishev, who was recently appointed chair of the Party of European Socialists. One of the first acts of the new parliamentary majority has been the appointment of media mogul Delyan Peevski as the head of the National Security Agency. This decision crossed a threshold, sparking grass-root anger with a political establishment that is seen as having betrayed the values of democracy in favor of corporate interests. Peevski’s appointment signalled the start of large-scale civil protests and opened the possibility of the fall of the government and fresh elections. In the days since, tens of thousands of Bulgarian citizens have taken to the streets, but their protests have fallen upon deaf ears. The present government seems likely to endorse the terms of Gazprom’s contentious South Stream gas pipeline project, which violate EU norms aimed at guaranteeing the diversification of energy supplies. Mass scale civic protests have continued for more than 40 days now, involving recently organized provocations of violence on behalf of the governing power block, aimed at proving the ongoing protest illegitimate. The country expects a hot political autumn with a growing popular pressure upon the government to resign. New early elections for Parliament are unavoidable. New political projects are shaping up in order to make sure that the present stalemate of public representation will not be repeated. The current Bulgarian crisis is not simply a middle class protest against authoritarian rule or a corrupt government.
Through a Russian energy-backed political-corporate oligarchy, Bulgaria could becoming increasingly beholden to Russian strategic interests. Yet Brussels and Washington are distracted. Europe’s economic crisis and the United States’ preoccupation have allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to regain some of the influence that Mikhail Gorbachev lost a quarter century ago. After other Central and Eastern European countries have found themselves threatened by Russia’s energy monopoly in recent years, Bulgaria could be next.
Dr. Ognyan Minchev is a non-resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Balkan Trust for Democracy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.