2 October, 2023
Maria Cernat and Vladimir Mitev (photo: Faceboook)

How do the Bulgarian protests unfold and what is the quarrel all about?

Maria Cernat

The Bulgarian protests have been taking place every evening after 9 July 2020. They demonstrate youth’s mobilization, but continue to be heterogeneous. Government shuffle is expected. Apart from the revolt against political cynicism, there is also a confrontation between two visions for anti-corruption. I have discussed these things and about the international implication in the protests with Vladimir Mitev, the editor of the Barricade Romania in the evening of 17 July 2020.

We talk with Vladimir Mitev, a journalist from the Barricade, about the protests, which take place in Bulgaria. This week many Bulgarians have risen against what happened in the presidency, where the Bulgarian prosecution entered in the cabinet of two of president Radev’s employees, because of suspicions, related to the way in which secret documents were handled. Bulgarians considered this an abuse of rule of law and started to protest. There were also initiatives, related to the leader of a relatively new political formation, who tried to reach a beach, where he was stopped by the national guard, paid for by public money, while protecting the private property of a politician. It looks like many people have reasons to protest against the way, in which Bulgaria is governed. There are a lot of accusations of corruption. This week big protests took place. Yesterday, Thursday only in Sofia there were 50 000 people on the streets. There were also protests in the big cities of Bulgaria. Profiting from the fact that we know each other with Vladimir for some time, I proposed that we discuss what is going on in Bulgaria. How did the protests evolve this week, Vladimir?

Hello to all the viewers! I would start with a small clarification. Bulgarians were indignated by a big number of abuses, lack of empathy, cynicism, which come from the elite that governs the country in the last years. It is not an indignation, related to just one fact. The search of the cabinets in the presidency was only the ultimate event in a series of abuses. The revolt and the indignation, was accumulated over a lot of time.

How did it evolve? The people continue to be on the streets not only in Sofia, but also in the big cities. There are great gatherings. It must be noted that at those protests the important presence of the youngest generation is probably seen for the first time. A lot of comparisons between the current protests and the protests in the summer of 2013 were made, when again young people from our generation, which are now 35-40 years old had their moment of indignation. But now on the street we see people, who are 20+ years old. Of course, this force is something, which cannot be easily ignored.

The exchange of words between the political players has also continued…

How did they react? I learned that the main motive behind the dissatisfaction is the way in which the prime minister manages the situation and he himself is somebody, who stirs the public’s contempt. What did he do as a reaction to these protests?

Borissov has a big capacity to resolve such situations. That is why in the last 10-11 he is almost permanently the prime minister of Bulgaria. Now he manages this situation through an attempt to distance himself from the party, called “Movement for Rights and Freedoms”. This is the party of the oligarch Peevski. Borissov tries to direct the people’s contempt, especially towards Peevski and DPS and to distance himself from him. That is how maybe he tries to create a division in the ranks of the protesters.

An action in this sense was the announcement for the resignation of three ministers, who were labelled as ministers, related to this party.

So this is the party of the ethnic Turks, ruled by this oligarch? Borissov tries to label this party as a party of the corrupt people, from whom he takes distance. Is this right?

Yes, it is indeed the party of the ethnic Turks. But the things are more complex, because through this party a part of the Bulgarian oligarchy, from which Peevski is part of, acts. Today a decision was taken… I need to explain more… There is something, which is called a “cold reserve” for the electrical system in Bulgaria. There are thermal power plants, which are not active, but can be activated at any moment, in order to compensate for falls in the production of electricity. The honourable president of this party – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – Ahmed Dogan, owns the thermal power plant in Varna. There was criticism in the national press, that he received an enormous sum of money – 30 million leva, without this power plant doing anything…

How much is this sum in euro?

Around 15 million euro. This is done without the power plant being active. It is made just for it to be able to be activated. This is considered in the press as transfer of money.

This is what Borissov tries to do. It is being discussed that on Monday, when there will be a confidence vote in the Parliament, it is possible that a government shuffle is announced. Borissov said that the cabinet would change radically. He also said that he would rely on the minor partner – a group of three nationalist parties, for governing. He rules with them even now.

How did the protests respond to those measures? There are a lot of people. They come out on the streets every evening. And it was announced that tonight they will be at least as numerous as before…

What we see in Bulgaria now is called “mobilisation” in Romania. On the streets are young, active people, who have professions or educational prospects, and probably want to do something good not only for themselves, but also for the country. They really want the resignation of Borissov and the resignation of the chief prosecutor Geshev, because as far as I understand they think that without these resignations nothing good will happen in Bulgaria. They don’t seem to renounce that position.

But it is more complex, because as the political scientists say there are many protests on the street, gathered at one place. All of them are directed against the government. You can see there young people, who vote for “Yes, Bulgaria ”, labelled as pro-European. There are people who are more nationalist. There are left-wing people. There are very different currents. They don’t easily accept one another. But they agree that Borissov has to go. Let see if they will be able to do something more than just ask for his resignation.

So they agree that Borissov is a problem, but they don’t agree what is the solution after Borissov leaves office?

There are still not many discussions about what will follow. There are discussions that Borissov will probably have to cede power. There are discussions about when could that withdrawal from the tops take place – sooner or later. There are discussions about the European dimensions – who relies on those in power and who relies on those on the street. But there is still not talk of a coherent plan. At least I haven’t heard such.

I understood. Is there a risk that Borissov resigns, but gets reelected and that all those protests turn out to be just a moment of fury, which ends in a bad way with the return of Borissov?

If I return to the people on the street, which I hear or with which I talk, they are worried that these protests can fail in the way in which a lot of protests in Bulgaria have failed – without changing anything significant and structural. There is something more. I don’t want to discourage anyone. It is great that this civic energy exists. But Borissov himself said that once that he becomes an opposition, he will be making his own protests. So he also has a voting base.

In this situation we expect European funds for the fight with the COVID-19 generated crisis and other types of European funds. There is no doubt that the Bulgarian elites compete among themselves who will manage those funds. Borissov’s party is based to a great extent on the absorption of the European funds. It is difficult to imagine that GERB could be in opposition. It must be seen whether it will survive in this position. There are even discussions whether if they lose power they will not get divided. An important factor of GERB – the former internal minister Tzvetan Tzvetanov has already left the party.

I understood. So they have internal problems too. Tell us a little bit about the role, which the American embassy plays in this story. Usually this embassy has important things to say in our small countries with weak economies. Whether we like it or not, the American embassy has things to say. And it is interesting how it positions with regard to these protests…

Yes. There is no doubt that the American embassy is probably the most important embassy in Bulgaria. Even in the first days the embassy came out with a message, which explicitly supported the peaceful protests and the right to peaceful protest. It also said something, which can be interpreted in the context of anti-corruption – that “no one is above the law”. This statement was interpreted by the protesters as support for them. But the chief prosecutor Geshev also came out with a declaration, through which he supported this approach – that no one is above the law.

It must be noted that there was a meeting between Radev and the EU ambassadors. The partners from Brussels of the attacked parties also came out with support for them. The European People’s Party officially supported Borissov. The European liberal made a more complex reaction. In the beginning they supported the honourable leader of the party Movement for Rights and Freedoms – Ahmed Dogan. But then… There is a Romanian who plays a role. Dacian Cioloş came out with a second more balanced message, where he said that he didn’t know all the details and the context and, of course, he supports the rule of law.

It is bizarre that usually protesters want punitive measures – such as arrests. I see that it is different in Bulgaria – the people protest mainly against the prosecution’s abuses, don’t they?

Yes, something must be noted here. We don’t have just one anti-corruption discourse. There is a competition who will realise anti-corruption and what vision will be applied. So far the anti-corruption project that is being realised is considered by some to be abuse. On the other hand, the party “Yes, Bulgaria”, which supports those protests, has its own vision for this anti-corruption.

I would say that there might be a third vision for anti-corruption, even though it is not represented by a party at this moment. It is a left-wing point of view. We know that corruption is like motor oil, which smooths the work of capitalism’s engine. I have heard in the left wing circles discussions about corruption and anti-corruption in this sense. But of course the most vocal players in this moment are the chief prosecutor, who enjoys great media attention, “Yes, Bulgaria” and a page in Facebook, which is called “Initiative “Justice for Everyone”, which has organised a number of protests on anti-corruption.

I understood. Thank you very much, Vladimir. I hope that those who follow us have learned interesting things. There are very few people, who have managed to publish in the Romanian press all the details about those protests. I hope that the information, which we offer, will be useful. For me as a simple citizen, is very interesting what we have discussed about the developments in Sofia and in the big cities. Let’s hope that your country and our country will advance in a good direction. Thank you very much for this interview.

I thank you too!

Photo: Young people protest (source: Jana Tsoneva)

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