Civic Power: Bulgarian Democracy in Action

19.06.2013 § Leave a comment

Parliament

Bulgaria is in the throes of a political crisis (some background). The interim cabinet’s appointment of a college dropout with known Mafia ties as head of DANS (the Bulgarian NSA) sent thousands of Bulgarians onto the streets in protest. Not being directly involved, I have a few quick comments before I quote a few friends who are there right now.

Peaceful Protest

Despite the heightened atmosphere, so far the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Bulgarians are exercising their right to dissent, and the fundamental democratic tenet of allowing them to do so without interference is being upheld by the government. This is a seemingly rare occurrence in a world where the US, Brazil, Turkey and, I’m sorry to say, Canada, have recently shown aggressive responses to peaceful protests. Not only that, but the police is largely sympathetic and refuses to be drawn into confrontations or ordered around by the government. Just today the police union released a declaration of support with the protests:

The union of Ministry of the Interior staff wishes to remind the politicians and assure Bulgarian society that MoI officers are not private employees serving the interests of one or another political party or coalition. MoI officers are part of Bulgarian society and are fully and solely in the service of public interest. We fully support the equitable social and economic demands of the citizens. Our friends, relatives, and members of our families are among the protesters.

It is with the least motivation that employees in the Ministry of Interior stand with face and chest in front of one or another party headquarters and defend the political elite from the “love” of the people.

(Translated from this Union declaration)

The protesters have returned the respect granted to them by police and security forces in spades. Boyan Benev, writing for HuffPo, had this anecdote:

…gathered on the Eagles’ Bridge yesterday evening I saw a friend wandering through the crowd carrying two cases of 500ml mineral water. I made a quip about him stocking up for the protest when he replied:

“This water isn’t for us, it’s for the police. These men and women have been standing here in the 30 degree sun all afternoon and have shown us only respect. I think it’s time we showed some back.”

Police-water

A police cordon with protester-supplied bottled water

Clearly, Directly, Politely, Firmly

The demographics of the protesters are also extremely encouraging. People of all age groups, toddlers to seniors, have turned out to make their opinion known in a firm, but polite manner. They are from all economic strata, intelligent, joyful, and non-destructive. This kind of action is impossible to write off as extremist, hippie, or misguided. The protests began in earnest at 6:30pm on Friday, when working Bulgarians got out of work to come to the squares, flanked by their parents and holding their children, representing the nation’s thinking, disciplined, working, watchful core.

garbage

A public square garbage bin after the protesters have left.

The Elite Is Terrified

It seems the ruling elite has been put on notice. After what seems like 25 years of keeping the Bulgarian frog in the gradually heating frying pan of inane or downright criminal political decisions, they have found the breaking point of Bulgarian society. The bolt has been tightened to bursting and now they have to backpedal. This development gives me hope that at least in the coming months political decisions in the country will also take public opinion into account.

A protester holding a sign in front of the Parliament Building. The sign reads "It's polite to throw out your garbage. Especially if it's in Parliament."

A protester holding a sign in front of the Parliament Building. The sign reads “It’s polite to throw out your garbage. Especially if it’s in Parliament.”

Voices From Bulgaria

Now, some quotes from people I know in Sofia:

“I was at the protest yesterday, going again tonight. I’m disgusted by the arrogance and audacity of the government. The protesters are intelligent people of different ages. So far, things are quite calm and provocation attempts are being parried quite well.”

“My impressions are solely with the government. None of the political parties in the current government is behaving appropriately. … None of these parties should not be in parliament, but what can you do …”

“I was at the protest yesterday. I saw alert citizens who do not want to topple this party or that party, they want to elevate Bulgaria itself… I’m curious to see what will happen because no one in the government is making a good impression right now….”

This is an excerpt from Bozhidar Bozhanov, translated here:

I generally do not go to protests. I have rarely found meaningful ideas in the protests, and I do not like to yell and jump. I did not approve of the February protests and the fuel price protests.

This protest is of a different type. It is composed of the active part of the population, of young people who are  working and paying taxes. I saw a lot of friends in this exact position. People with a good standard of living, but also people with opinion. Yesterday I summarized the social differences between the two types of protests: “In February, we saw the people who cannot pay their bills. Now came the people who pay the bills of the state.”

With this protest, civil society wants to say “you’re screwing up, don’t do that.” It does not want to say “we don’t live well,” does not want to say ‘everyone out’, it doesn’t have a dozen fuzzy requests each one more daft and unworkable than the last. It just want to indicate the inadequacy of one solution. So it was with protests against ACTA (the last protest I attended). As with ACTA, now we have met the original goal – Delian Peevski will not head the State Agency for National Security. Whether his appointment was super-insolence or merely political inadequacy, remains an open question. But civil society has achieved its target.

Only it was much more. The middle class has identified itself and reminded of its existence.

And once it happened, it went “on the offensive” and demanded the resignation of the government. It’s already done (or announced its intentions to do) too much crap – the express appointment of Peevski, mostly political appointees in the supposedly expert cabinet, the abolition of the distribution of state-owned companies’ money in several banks, the appointment of former State Security agents in embassies, resuming the construction of the Belene power plant, removing the ban on smoking indoors (after transparent lobbying). The middle class has decided that the government has run out of the trust it was given and has to go. Not because a few weeks have worsened the economic situation, but because with its actions this cabinet set us back 20 years – with an agenda that isn’t even trying to look logical. And the idea of “journalists” (from the personal media outlets of Peevski and Tsvetan Vassilev) that the people’s concerns were for bills and what to eat, don’t fly – the middle class has another agenda and that is to provide long-term prospects for themselves and others.

Whether the government will fall or not, whether there will be early elections – will be posted soon. But more importantly, the middle class came together and began to function and to point out the gross errors of the government. And we were right, because democracy is not only about voting in elections. Democracy is the daily work of society – quietly through the appropriate channels (complaints, suggestions, requests for information and clarification from institutions) when it comes to smaller things and louder and en masse in the case of transgressions.

I do not want to emit excessive pathos or naivete. But in our society there are glimpses and we should encourage them.

Another blogger, R. Bimbalov, has this to say:

I do not like crowds. Their loud facelessness annoys me. Those in power, however, love crowds – controlled anger relaxes tension and supplies the necessary conditions for making the appropriate puppet changes.

These days those in power are really terrified. Because those aren’t crowds in the streets. Those are thinking people. This surprised the puppeteers.

These people don’t scream that they are hungry…because they are not really hungry. They somehow manage to sustain themselves in a country that treats them as minor percentage voters. These people don’t believe that the most important thing is to lower their electricity bills – they are among the few who do pay on time, whatever it may cost them. These people are not screaming to raise their wages because they know that this is not an automatic decision, but depends on a number of changes in the economy. These people were not motivated by revenge and do not want to get a particular party in power. Moreover, these people do not want to enter politics, because they have jobs in which they feel adequate. These people have something that sets them apart from the obedient, disposable crowds. These people have brains.

For the first time since the beginning of the transition, those in power are really scared. Because the Revolution of Reason is coming. Revolution that will speak clearly, directly, politely and firmly. Revolution, which must not lead to change, not of rulers, but of the system. Right now.

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