Bulgaria’s middle-class rebels press for a ‘normal’ EU state
More than two decades after taking part in pro-democracy protests against Bulgaria's crumbling communist regime, business executive Sasha Bezuhanova feels her life has come full circle.
Now 50, she is back on the streets with thousands of others to protest against endemic corruption in the country and to demand the resignation of the new Socialist-led government.
Pointing to a tree in the heart of the government district where protestors gather every evening, Bezuhanova said:
"My husband and I stood by that tree in 1990 with our baby daughter to demand democracy and reforms. She is now 24 and studying at the London School of Economics but she is back here for the summer vacation and is protesting with us again.
"We are here for the same reasons as in 1990 but hopefully with a bit more wisdom."
Bulgaria has been transformed in the past 23 years from a financially bankrupt one-party state into an open, stable market economy anchored in the European Union and Nato.
But six years after joining the EU, it remains the poorest and one of the most graft-prone countries in the 28-member club, with average monthly salaries stuck at around €400.
Striving to be a ‘normal’ European nation
The protestors, mostly young, well-educated and well-travelled, are deeply disillusioned with a political class they view as inept, opaque, corrupt and incapable of satisfying their core demand to live in a "normal European country".
A colourful succession of prime ministers, ranging from Bulgaria's ex-king Simeon Saxe-Coburg - forced into exile in 1946 by the Moscow-backed communists - to his former bodyguard Boiko Borissov, has nudged reforms forward but failed to tame the criminal gangs that still control parts of the economy.
"We are now putting at risk the European, democratic path of Bulgaria. People who care about the country must stand up and say enough is enough," said Bezuhanova.
Bezuhanova, an elegant woman fluent in English, is a good advertisement for the new Bulgaria, having turned it into one of a handful of global hubs for US information technology giant Hewlett-Packard, which employs 5,000 people in Sofia.
Inspired by the protestors' energy and resolve, she has now quit her senior Hewlett-Packard position in the global emerging markets division to launch an online forum MoveBG to generate ideas and propose policies on how to modernise Bulgaria.
The forum's motto "Bulgaria can" is a deliberate echo of President Barack Obama's election campaign slogan "Yes we can".
Middle-class on the march
Every evening now for seven weeks, the protestors march along Sofia's 'yellow brick road' - named after the colour of its paving stones - past communist-era government buildings and Orthodox churches to the parliament.
Their route takes them past open-air bars and restaurants - teeming with customers on a sultry Balkan summer night - foreign-owned banks and boutique hotels - all monuments to a new, hedonistic, capitalist Bulgaria in which some have prospered but many struggle to make ends meet.
Like anti-government rallies in neighbouring Turkey and elsewhere, the protestors communicate via social media and are leaderless. Unlike Turkey, Bulgaria's protests have been largely peaceful and police have not used tear gas or water cannon.
The protestors pledge to continue their daily rallies until Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's two-party coalition resigns. They shrug off objections that elections now would probably lead to a new government made up of the same discredited parties.
"This is a middle class revolution. We are stronger because we pay taxes and we know what we want," said composer Viktor Stoyanov, 35.
Many protestors also fret about what they see as increasing Russian economic influence in Bulgaria, especially in the energy sector, and have welcomed expressions of EU moral support in their standoff with the Oresharski government.
"There is a geopolitical game going on here. If the EU does not back us, they will effectively lose Bulgaria. Russian influence will grow even more," said Stoyanov.
Bulgaria's previous centre-right government fell in February after street protests against low living standards and high utility bills. But today's protests are not about the economy.
According to Georgi Kadiev, a lawmaker from the ruling Socialist party (BSP), heir to the communists who once made Bulgaria Moscow's most loyal ally in the Soviet bloc, the protests are about morality.
"My colleagues said 'the protestors will grow tired, they will head off to the seaside', but this is not happening. They are becoming more radicalised," said Kadiev, who believes the government should promise early elections next year - allowing time for tempers to cool - in return for an end to the protests.
Kadiev is a rare dissenting voice in the BSP.
Protests aren't universal
But he is also alarmed by the return of phrases such as 'red trash', used by some protestors about the BSP, which recall the polarised 1990s when it was still unclear whether Bulgaria would join the Western camp or revert to authoritarian rule.
Political analysts also caution that the protestors, well-heeled and mainly Sofia-based, do not represent all Bulgarians. Nor do all young professionals support the protests.
Nadia Hadjova, 41, a British- and US-educated lawyer, said she joined the 1990 rallies because the choice then was between democracy and communism. She questioned why today's protestors didn't use the ballot box.
In a country addicted to conspiracy theories, some say the protestors are being manipulated or even paid by Borissov's opposition centre-right GERB party because it wants to return to power - a claim both GERB and the protestors deny.
Opinion polls show that Bulgarians are sharply divided over the political environment.
A survey by the Open Society Institute showed 44% of Bulgarians back the protests and 33% support the government. Worryingly, 72% felt the situation in the country was "unbearable".
Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski told Reuters in an interview he would not resign because this would harm economic stability, and he struck a philosophical note about the protests. "We Bulgarians often say we have achieved nothing but we all know this is untrue. We have achieved a lot in the past 20 years. Maybe this negative feeling comes from high expectations and the desire to advance faster than is possible," he said.
- July-December 2018: Bulgaria scheduled to hold the rotating presidency of the EU for the first time