Earlier this year Bulgaria saw a wave of mass strikes and protests sparked off by a proposed increase in electricity price. The demonstrations escalated to over 35 cities and were joined by all the major trade and student unions in the country. It’s perhaps not surprising so many are discontent; Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, probably one of the most corrupt and according to the Freedom of Press Index in 2013, the least open to journalists.
The symbolic value of the protests was particularly pertinent, as they were compared to the 19th century rebellions against the 500 year Ottoman rule. The leaders of the April risings in 1876 remain to this day, national heroes in Bulgarian consciousness as those in fierce opposition to an oppressing government. Their stories flow in national literature and their faces colour the only monuments which still stand in the country (socialist monuments of Lenin and the BKP leaders were promptly removed in the early 1990s). The country is in the same ritualistic and revolutionary mood today. One demonstrator in Varna even set himself on fire.
The 20th of February saw the Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resign. The protests however did not stop. The 3rd of March, the anniversary freedom from Ottoman rule 135 years ago, saw protests escalate to national marches, as 50,000 gathered in Varna alone and Bulgarians living abroad organised gatherings in Barcelona, Berlin, Munich, Dusseldorf, London, Frankfurt and other cities across Europe.
The national anthem was playing, monuments were barricaded and the police struggled to control what should have been the sons of apathy. Following the 44 years of the Bulgarian National Republic where token parliamentary practice continued under the socialist government and ballot papers were collected every four years with only one candidate to vote for, the children of the socialists had to be apathetic by nature. They were thrown into a democratic system, still in its infancy, to vote for parties with no history or tradition. In 2003, they went as far as electing the only heir of the last Bulgarian monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha as Prime Minister. Democracy was something the people had not practiced. The failure of the prince, the failure of the centre-right alternative to socialism and eventually even the failure of the successors of the communist party – BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) – meant that elections from 2003 until 2012 were simply another meaningless process of rotation between equally ineffective candidates with many promises but fewer and fewer successes actually delivered each time.
The recent risings of civil unrest have been a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. Students from the University of Sofia created massive cardboard shields which they coloured with the book covers of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. They were making a statement, and suddenly all of Bulgaria had a shared voice in a country used to silence.
Emergency elections were held on the 12th May. GERB, the centre right group who had previously abdicated, once again got the largest share of the vote with 31%. They were followed by the Socialists with 27%, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms with 11% and far right, nationalist and viciously named ATACK with 7%. Compared to last election, not one party got ahead of another, and there were no new contenders. The country is faced with the same parties, in much the same proportions, as it was in 2009. This should be a great disappointment to all Bulgarians.
This election was won by the people after years of misrepresentation, worsening living standards, rising unemployment and corruption. Now was the time for real change. Instead of revolution in the air, however, the media roared with a scandal concerning the 300,000 ballot papers found in a shop whose owner claimed they were stored for convenience until the election was over and they could be discarded. The owner was a member of GERB.
If there is a message here, amongst the scandals of fake ballot papers, the pension cuts, the price inflation and fall in real wages, it is that Bulgarians are back exactly where they started. The sons of apathy. The country is a perfect example of constitutional suffrage and de facto disenfranchisement. What remains to be seen however, is whether a population completely disengaged with the processes of democracy will embark upon a new wave of protests and strikes; whether a syndicalist movement will develop out of the ruins of the national assembly and whether, most importantly, after the short burst of empowerment through simple solidarity Bulgarians will realise that what they need is not to take another blind pick in the bag of forgotten promises, but empty it and start again.