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Financial Crisis

Winter of Discontent Progresses to Bulgaria

WARSAW, Feb 24 2013 (IPS) - Bulgarian prime minister Boiko Borisov of the ruling centre-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), announced his resignation Wednesday, following two weeks of sustained protests across the country which were sparked by rising electricity and heating costs.

Borisov, a populist politician whose party has been in power since 2009, announced his resignation to the parliament with the words, “It is the people who put us in power and we give it back to them today.”

“Most people see Borisov’s resignation as a way to desert the sinking ship of the Bulgarian state amidst the crisis previous cabinets started and he deepened,” writes Mariya Ivancheva, a Bulgarian sociologist from the Central European University.

The prime minister’s resignation could well be meant to prevent the further downfall of GERB, whose public support eroded during the years in government and which was expected to lose the upcoming July elections. Following the resignation, it is likely Bulgaria will see early elections, no sooner than mid-April.

Bulgarians were not appeased by the gesture: people continued taking to the streets after the announcement, and a big protest is scheduled to take place Sunday in Sofia.

Rising electricity and heating prices were what got the protests started: in this poorest of EU member states, salaries average 350 euros monthly and pensions 150 euros, while energy bills are around 100 euros and often higher.

In the weeks preceding these nation-wide street actions, isolated protests had occurred in various municipalities during which people gathered in front of the energy providers headquarters and burnt their monthly bills. Two men set themselves on fire in Varna and Veliko Tarnovo.

Unlike other Eastern European countries like Romania, Hungary or Latvia, Bulgaria started the economic crisis with a balanced budget and saw no pressure to contract a loan from the IMF and the EU; but poverty levels here are higher than in neighbouring countries, and people whose salaries and pensions were frozen by the Borisov government can hardly weather the rising costs brought by the economic crisis. Sudden increases in energy costs this winter worked as ‘the last straw’.

One of the main calls of the protesters has been for the re-nationalisation of the electricity distribution system, which was privatised in 2004, with three players currently controlling the market: Czechs from CEZ and Energo-Pro and Austrians from EVN. The three companies exercise regional monopolies over parts of the network.

In a series of interventions before resigning, Borisov promised to decrease electricity prices by 8 percent (without explaining how that would be possible) and to withdraw the licence of CEZ. He went on to fire several officials, including the finance minister.

The protesters did not respond positively to those announcements; instead, they gradually started taking issue with corruption and disrespect for the rule of law in the country, and ended up decrying the functioning of representative democracy in Bulgaria as a whole.

Coordinators of the demonstrations told Bulgarian media that demands of the protests include: the rewriting of the constitution with citizen involvement; reducing the number of parliamentarians and restricting their immunity; getting citizens involved in analysing how electricity and heating bills are calculated; and giving 50 percent of shares in the energy regulator to citizens so they can participate in the management of the electricity and heating companies.

“The main sentiment during all the protests has been a critique of representation and a call for direct democracy,” says Georgi Medarov from the New Left Perspectives magazine, who participated in some of the protests. “But a total unmediated direct democracy with 100 percent national unity against the foreign oppressors (represented by the foreign companies). There are voices calling for a reduction in the number of parliamentarians because they see the parliament as the main evil, as it is full of political parties which destroy national unity.”

While a nationalistic taint has been noted in the messages of the protesters, this comes more in the form of a strong desire for self-determination and a rally behind the notion of ‘Bulgarian people getting attacked from all sides’. Attempts by far-parties such as Ataka to appropriate the protests have failed, with participants rejecting association with any political faction.

The Bulgarian protests share many features with anti-austerity protests seen across Europe since the crisis began: they started from immediate economic woes (in Bulgaria, energy prices; in the case of very similar protests in Romania last year, the privatisation of the medical system; elsewhere, cuts in salaries and social benefits, or tax hikes); participation comes from all social categories, including a middle class that feels threatened by increasing economic instability; and one of the core messages is a deep criticism of the entire political class and a call for more citizen involvement in decision-making.

Like elsewhere, the heterogeneity of the protesters presents a challenge: with participants from the middle class to the very poor, including far right and far left groups, even seeing police trade unions joining the ranks – it is difficult for the movement to coalesce and present a series of targeted demands which could be pursued in a strategic manner.

Lack of experience with using protest as a democratic tool adds to that in Bulgaria: “Many of the protesters have a low level of political culture and they don’t have their own language in which to frame their problems,” Medarov tells IPS. In this, Bulgaria differs from places like Greece, Italy and Spain, in which an old protest tradition and repertoires can be resorted to.

“Broad frustrations are being expressed in these protests, and what makes things different this time around is that there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” says political scientist Ivelin Sardamov from the American University in Bulgaria. “My real worry is that not only the political class but also Bulgarian public institutions have been delegitimised beyond the point of no return.

“But Bulgarian protests may be a part of a bigger trend of anti-systemic protests worldwide,” Sardamov tells IPS. “The events and processes which have unfolded over the last few years are truly unprecedented, and I don’t think anyone knows where we are headed.”

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