Without a façade to hide behind: Lessons from Bulgaria

Lessons from Bulgaria

The longest anti-government protest in Bulgarian history brought about the resignation of Plamen Oresharski’s cabinet in July. But where does the political process go from here? Nikolay Nikolov remains optimistic about the outcome of the country’s tormented transition to democracy.

After the longest anti-government protest in Bulgarian history, continuing on a daily basis for almost 14 months, prime minister Plamen Oresharski’s cabinet resigned on Wednesday 23 July. It is the third Socialist-led government unable to complete its four-year term in the last 25 years and the second to resign in the midst of a financial crisis.

Plamen Oresharski in his office in Sofia, 26 February 2014. Photo: Ju1978/Shutterstock.com. Source: Shutterstock

The so-called ДАНСwithme (pronounced “dance with me”) protest erupted last June after the newly formed cabinet’s decision to appoint Delyan Peevski, an aspiring oligarch with a stronghold over a majority of online and print media outlets, to the post of Head of the National Security Agency (DANS). Though the cabinet, initially a coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Freedom and Rights Movement (DPS), claimed to represent ethnic Roma and Turkish minority rights, it only managed to form a majority in parliament after the registration of one more vote from Volen Siderov, leader of the far-right party Ataka.

Siderov is a controversial figure. After the formation of Ataka in 2005, his public profile came to associated with extreme hate speech against people of Turkish descent and attacks on mosques, not to mention his books that run into hundreds of pages, in which he “denounces” the “communist past” and “left ideology.” And yet, in May last year, it was effectively Ataka that breathed life into what became the cabinet with the lowest approval rating (ranging between eight and 13 per cent according to pollsters) in Bulgarian post-socialist history. Since then, Ataka’s popularity has plummeted too.

After Peevski was hand-picked for the job of head of the National Security Agency, tens of thousands responded to an invite on Facebook and gathered in Independence Square in Sofia. The message was simple: the government must resign, as it was clearly not accountable to the citizens and trying instead to serve special corporate/oligarchic interests.

At the time, it was not entirely clear who stood behind Peevski or indeed the entire political structure that resulted. A year later, following a programme entitled “#WHO?” (#КOЙ?), initiated by the activist group “Protest Network”, the deals made behind closed doors that led to Peevski’s appointment began to unravel, as Peevski’s links with Ahmed Dogan, former leader of DPS, and with Tsvetan Vassilev, the then majority owner of Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) came to be known.

KTB, one of the largest banks in Bulgaria, experienced a run in June and triggered the most serious banking crisis in Bulgaria since 1996 – when dozens of bank bankruptcies triggering severe hyperinflation. The week the cabinet resigned, the panic at KTB hit another major lender, First Investment Bank, which saw worried depositors take out over 500 million dollars in one day. Bulgaria is currently in the process of a review by the European Banking Authority and has requested to join the European Union’s Single Supervisory Team. Should this request succeed, Bulgaria would be the only non-euro nation to join.

Tsvetan Vassilev is said to have offered Peevski the capital that he used to purchase the majority of his media outlets. Vassilev is also said to be directly connected to the creation and financing of the new populist party “Bulgaria Without Censorship”, headed by former news anchor at TV 7 (a Peevski TV station), Nikolay Barekov.

Barekov’s party was formed several weeks prior to the European Parliament elections in May 2014, in order to gather the votes of those disillusioned with the far-right Ataka party. This disillusionment followed Ataka leader Volen Siderov significantly shifting his rhetoric after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Siderov staged rallies vowing to fight “EU homosexuality” at the same time as protecting the “sacred brotherhood” with Mother Russia. In fact, he launched his European election campaign in Moscow. Siderov’s increasingly radicalized behaviour involved statements about setting up “people’s militias”, storming meetings and assaulting a French attach during a flight.

Siderov was subsequently stripped of his political immunity and left an outcast after receiving under 3 per cent of the votes cast during the European elections. Nikolay Barekov’s party however received an overwhelming ten per cent, having spent around 500,000 dollars on his media campaign. Just two months after being established however, “Bulgaria “Without Censorship” is in disarray after one of its members, Angel Slavchev, wrote “Delyan Peevski is the real leader of the party” on his blog. The same week the cabinet resigned, it was also announced that Bulgaria Without Censorship’s coalition partner – the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) – had deserted the party too.

Both Barekov and Siderov follow the exact same model. The former TV personalities made the conversion to politicians with equal measures of finances and aggression. These are in effect short-term strategies to flood the media discourse with excesses of one sort or another on the one hand and poison the development of democratic and public space in Bulgaria on the other. Their electorate is that meandering, deeply impoverished portion of the population who is disillusioned with democracy, an atomized and neutralized sector of society that is the direct result of the continual political and economic domination of a very distinct set of oligarchic circles – those same circles that these parties have directly and fully represented during their short existence.

Unfortunately, the problem is not contained within Bulgaria’s borders – it is a question of geopolitics and pre-1990 bipolar international relations. Russia’s hold on Bulgaria, most evident in the energy sector, was a major focus of the ДАНСwithme protest alongside the calls for the immediate resignation of the government.

In the past 14 years, Bulgaria has veered between the East and the West. A Russian ambassador to Bulgaria once labelled the country the Kremlin’s “Trojan horse” in the EU and, more recently, European Commission president Jos Manuel Barroso commented “there are people in Bulgaria who are agents of Russia.” This statement was made with reference to the controversial deal to build the South Stream pipeline, which would transport Russia’s vast natural gas resources directly to Europe.

Since the formation of the Oresharski cabinet, an extremely lenient and eastward-looking policy was adopted. Firstly, the government planned to construct a second power plant in Belene, funded directly by a multi-billion dollar Russian loan that would make the Bulgarian economy volatile and dependent. Secondly, in the midst of the growing crisis in Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Bulgarian Socialist Party refused to support other EU states in pushing for sanctions on Russia. Not to mention that Volen Siderov threatened to storm the government building and drop his support for the cabinet if their support for sanctions went ahead.

But Russian influence in Bulgarian politics is felt most deeply with regard to the South Stream project. Bulgaria, the gateway for Russian natural gas to Europe, finds itself between Russia and the EU, and the project has once again stalled. Prime minister Oresharski pledged his support for the project on several occasions, despite serious reservations shown by the EU. In June, EU officials demanded the work on the pipeline be halted, deeming its construction a breach of European law.

Not long after that, a visit by a delegation of US senators, including John McCain, met with Oresharski to raise their concerns about the influence of Russia on Bulgarian domestic politics. Oresharski officially announced the pipeline would be “blocked” in a press conference after the meeting. However, after a formal visit by Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Oresharski once again expressed a desire to continue construction work on the pipeline.

During an interview for a morning news program, political scientist Ognyan Minchev said that this is a “geopolitical battle between Europe and Russia, between the West and Russia, and the Bulgarian politicians allowed the state to become its epicentre.” According to Minchev, there is a direct connection between the escalation of the banking crisis and the freezing of the South Stream deal – “at this level, they are working at destabilizing Bulgaria as the weak link within the EU. Since the EU is using Bulgaria as its weak link and is trying to apply pressure so it follows the European legal framework and discontinues construction, then Bulgaria must be destabilized in such a way, so as to show the EU that, in fact, it lacks the control and influence that it thought it had. It is a battle, which is not Bulgaria’s.”

Both internally and externally, Bulgaria was in a state of crisis – a tipping point after 14 years of populism, a growing oligarchic business and political model, and increasingly under pressure from the Kremlin. Yet, after 404 consecutive days of protest, the Oresharski cabinet, which has come to represent all that’s bad in Bulgaria’s post-socialist society, resigned. So what has really been achieved by this long-overdue resignation?

Firstly, and most importantly, the protesting citizens showed that the fascistic tendencies of public manipulation and propaganda, most successfully enforced by Vladimir Putin’s regime, did not work in Bulgaria. Let me clarify what I mean by fascistic tendencies:

1) Systematic vilification and personal discrediting of all public critics of the administration, most directly felt in pro-government media outlets, and an absolute refusal to allow public discussion. This bifurcation of society and isolation of the political elite was most clearly illustrated by the barricading of the National Assembly, still in place today.

2) Turning the ДАНСwithme protest into a pawn in the globalized neoliberal conspiracy theory. Weeks after the eruption of the protest, the pro-government media coined the term “sorosoid” and the main activists were accused of serving foreign (US) interests and of being financed by foreign NGOs. The puppet-master of the protest, according to the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and of the Party of European Socialists, was George Soros.

3) Creating a fictitious societal rift by financing pseudo-protests in support of the government and bussing thousands of people into Sofia to stage supportive rallies.

4) Creating sub-parties (Ataka and “Bulgaria without Censorship”) supporting conflicting ideologies in order to capture votes and subsequently using them to generate political theatrics vis–vis Siderov and Barekov to stifle news cycles and channel, on a short-term basis, public outrage. In fact, Siderov’s acts of calling for “people’s militias”, his assaults on police officers and journalist, the instance of bringing a firearm into Parliament are symptomatic of the underlying fascistic tendencies of the parties in power.

These strategies did not work. Access to truth was not constrained. The protest movement did not succeed in forcing an immediate resignation but it did succeed in tearing down some of the faades hiding the true nature of Bulgaria’s controlled democracy. They were successful in bringing to light just how many people there are, both in Bulgaria and abroad, who value democracy and cherish their role in the public sphere. Until then, there was a deep sense of isolation – civil society had capitulated and become atomized.

Over the last year, the protest movement showed above all that elections do not equate to democracy. They are a vital institution, but the process does not end there: especially not in a regime where democracy is far being the only game in town and the regime lacks legitimacy and consolidation. But what did change is the people’s faith in the role of citizens in the political process. Even though Oresharski’s government formed a majority, the protests showed that without the support of citizens, a painful process of political stalemate becomes the norm.

What follows from this is the realization that being political does not mean being a politician; that not all power rests within the institution of the national assembly and not all behind-the-scenes deals remain unspoken. The velocity of the public outrage broke through the fog and the demand for transparency left an increasingly isolated political elite without a faade to hide behind – from then it was the classic domino effect: the Socialist, Peevski, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms, Vassilev, Oresharski, Putin.

But most importantly, as all these myths constructed so carefully over the last 14 years – “politicians have all the power”, “nothing has changed in the last 25 years”, “democracy has failed”, “Russia is good, the EU is bad”, “the protests are paid for and serve oligarchic interests” – crumbled. The truth behind them was shattered – the public no longer has any faith in the media outlets, polling agencies, politicians, and journalists who are now know to be a part of this system. This means that what has been achieved over the last year is critical thinking – people are thinking for themselves, doubting the official discourse, debating, reading.

As a result, the quintessential value of having faith in the power of the democratic regime is being restored. The protests successfully restored the citizen as the core political subject in Bulgaria – it is their vote, their voice that can force change, regardless of the elite decision-making process that occurs. And this is very important for a country that has had such a tormented transition to democracy.

The hardest part of cleansing the public institutions of former cadres and restarting the democratic process with fresh elections now awaits us. It will no doubt be a lengthy transition and we must be patient. One step at a time. Let us begin by removing the barricades around the National Assembly.

I think that is a good start.

Published 30 July 2014
Original in English
First published by openDemocracy, 24 July 2014

Contributed by openDemocracy © Nikolay Nikolov / openDemocracy / Eurozine

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