On August 30, Roger Waters, the British musician and member of legendary rock band Pink Floyd, performed for the first time in post-socialist Bulgaria. His show, “The Wall,” has deep cultural resonance in Eastern Europe, even more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ardently anticipated, the event was the culmination and a symbolic reward for the many citizens who had been marching for the previous four months in anti-government protests around the country. Waters did not disappoint. As one of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs blared out across Vassil Levski Stadium, the large video screens on the stage flashed the word “ОСТАВКА” (resignation) in bold red letters. This word has become the main political mantra of the ongoing protests. Waters’ gesture of solidarity, which has drawn the sympathy of other famous musicians, added some deserving visibility to what might turn out to be one of the longest-running demonstrations in the recent movement of dissent in Europe.
The protests first erupted over the controversial appointment of Delyan Peevski as head of Bulgaria’s secret service (or DANS) on June 14, 2013. To many Bulgarians, Peevski was corruption incarnate. His suspicious investments in politics (he is to this day still an MP), in the media (reputably owning a significant portion of it) and in a bank (filled with state money), but also his physique and public persona, epitomized for many Bulgarians the quintessential Mafioso. Peevski’s nomination was eventually withdrawn, but masses of citizens remained on the streets, coming together every night in Sofia for over 90 days. Starting promptly at 7 pm, they would walk slowly from the presidential palace to the parliament, whistling and drumming: young families with children and people of all social strata. The small placards that they carried called for sweeping measures against “the mafiazation of the state,” for new elections, and for a complete overhaul of the political regime. Impromptu performances gave a theatrical expression to the unfolding political drama. At the beginning, some 30,000 to 40,000 people would gather at a time, bringing the overall number of participants in the protests this summer to over 250,000 people.
“#DANSwithme” (from the security agency’s acronym) has become the creative hashtag bonding the protesters over social media. Together with several other digital outlets (noresharski.com; offnews.bg, protestnamreja.bg, to mention a few) and an electronic newspaper called Protest, these venues continue to support the mass self-reflective impulse that was unleashed by the demonstrations. Even the police union has expressed support of the demonstrations, as did Rossen Plevneliev (Bulgaria’s elected President). Plevneliev commended the protesters, declaring that the best way out of the political gridlock was another round of early elections (one round of early elections had already been held in May after the previous government resigned in response to massive protests in February 2013). On the other side of this confrontation stands the government – an unlikely coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Movement for Rights and Liberties (the party representing the Turkish minority in Bulgaria), and a right-wing nationalist group know by the name Ataka (attack). They are determined to withstand the turmoil, mostly by ignoring the tumult on the street.
Years of austerity measures since 1989, increasing poverty, and continuous emigration of the young have taken away Bulgarians’ hopes for change. Awash with political apathy, the society overwhelmingly sees itself as dormant and subservient to a corrupt political elite that has become entrenched since the transition to capitalism. Some have challenged their compatriots to follow the example of their neighbours – the Greeks and the Turks – and rise up against what they see as a systematic obliteration of the Bulgarian nation.
Commentators both at home and abroad were fast to locate the protests within the widely discussed notion of the middle-class revolt. Yet, the trope only works to a certain degree in this poorest member-state of Europe where social dislocations have been most severe and the gap between the citizenry and the political class is becoming more than prominent.
Speculations over the origins of the movement in the local media insinuated that the protesters were mostly Bulgarians who live abroad, and who had returned for the summer to stir havoc in their motherland. They would soon leave and abandon their poorer relatives to deal with the consequences of the impending winter alone. The protests were hence explained as the result of a plot by a transnational network and what has been dubbed “paid Soros-oids,” connected to power centers in Washington DC and Brussels, whose seditious actions were engineered by the financier George Soros and the Open Society Institute. This popular imaginary conceives of Bulgaria as a besieged state that is prey to external supremacies, forced to fight a world conspiracy against ordinary citizens.
It is against such manipulations of public opinion that the loosely organized activists of the protest have guarded their demands from attempts by the existing political parties to hijack them. Protesters vehemently insist that they have no ties to the existing political parties, which are seen as corrupt, bankrupt and obsolete. Rather than posing questions within the discernible philosophies of liberalism or socialism, demonstrators have opted for more basic demands. They are appealing to decency and civility in public life. In this postsocialist state, which has suffered major social upheavals, a more urgent demand seems to be the very rethinking of the nation-state itself.
The unquestionable contribution of the protests may be a new culture of intolerance towards the corporate-democratic facade in Bulgaria. The protests mobilized civic solidarity for change, despite the profound atmosphere of distrust. Outside the current fictions of the Left and Right, the demonstrations have awakened a spontaneous process of democratic, egalitarian self-fashioning that is producing new civic actors. This new civic space, embodied by the protests, is invested in the possibility of completely reshaping social life. The leverage it holds is to continuously reinvent itself and grow. The latest incarnation of the movement has been the occupation of Sofia University, the oldest and most prestigious in the country. It followed on a line of unpopular decisions in the parliament, the latest of which concerned extending the ban on farmland sale to foreigners that runs against EU regulations. Protesters saw in this move yet another way of protecting the interests of the local political cliques. When students joined the wave of protest in the past, governments collapsed. They are saying “ОСТАВКА” (resignation) not only to the government and the current parliemnet but also to the entire political culture that produces mass dissolution and despair.
Maria Stoilkova is an assistant professor of anthropology also affiliated with the Center for European Studies at the University of Florida. Her research is situated at the precarious point where economic, political, and ethical life meets. She is currently completing a book manuscript tentatively titled, Exporting People, Importing Development? Bulgaria in the Orbit of the Global Modernity, which looks at the effects of an unprecedented migration in Bulgaria on changing forms of sociability, belonging and nationhood, broadly defined.
Kristen Ghodsee is contributing editor of the Soyuz column in Anthropology News.