Bulgaria’s ruling conservative party on Thursday (3 September) resisted calls for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government to resign, after two months of protests against his perceived tolerance of corruption erupted into the most violent day yet.
Several thousand demonstrators gathered outside parliament in Sofia early Wednesday as it began its autumn session and the rally took a violent turn in the evening.
A group of protesters that police said looked like organised football ultras threw powerful improvised explosive devices at police prompting anti-riot forces to disperse the rally by force, using stun grenades and tear gas.
The scenes were unprecedented in Bulgaria in recent years and lead to scores of injuries and the arrest of 126 people, including more than 60 football “ultras” who had previous criminal records, police said.
In an address to the nation on Thursday evening, Socialists-backed President Rumen Radev repeated protesters’ demands for Borissov to resign.
“An immediate and unconditional resignation of the government is the only way out of the crisis,” Radev said.
He accused the law enforcement authorities of mishandling the provocations that he said had become an excuse for “massive police violence” and appealed to both protesters and police to keep the protests peaceful.
“We will not resign after these excesses,” MP Toma Bikov from Borisov’s centre-right GERB party told parliament earlier.
“This would mean that every future government could be brought down by representatives of the criminal contingent,” Bikov said.
The wave of protests was sparked in early July by several incidents revealing high-level corruption and perceived government protection of shadowy oligarchs.
The demonstrators press for Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to resign.
Almost 200 hurt
Health officials said almost 200 people had to receive medical attention over the course of the day, including 120 police officers, who were weathered over 100 smoke bombs, firecrackers and other devices before anti-riot forces moved in.
Several journalists were also injured by police, including an AFP photographer, prompting demands from human rights group for authorities to investigate the reports about excessive use of force by police.
#Bulgaria: Freelance reporter @dkenarov was beaten, handcuffed & detained for hours by police, losing also his camera. @RSF_en calls for an immediate investigation into the officers' unlawful assault against a clearly identified journalist covering anti-government protests! pic.twitter.com/Attc738lj2
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) September 3, 2020
“Violence against journalists, especially at the hands of state agents, is contrary to states’ duty to uphold press freedom and to protect the safety of journalists,” Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement.
Violence against journalists, especially at the hands of state agents, is contrary to states’ duty to uphold press freedom and to protect the safety of journalists. https://t.co/8HXxUPLQ7N
— Zvezda Vankova (@zvezda_vankova) September 4, 2020
In an open letter to Borissov and Geshev, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Human Rights NGO said it had received numerous claims about “massive disproportionate use of force against protesters”, “arbitrary arrests” and “refusals to provide requested medical help.”
After dispersing Wednesday night’s rally, police moved early Thursday to lift two protest blockades of key downtown crossroads in Sofia, saying that dangerous objects, including a Molotov cocktail, were found hidden in the tent camps.
Some of the protest organisers expressed dismay at Wednesday’s violence and called for calm.
A new rally was scheduled for Thursday evening.
Borissov, who has been in power almost without interruption for more than a decade, has so far refused to resign before his third term expires in March next year.
In an attempt to appease protesters, the veteran premier has already sacked several key ministers and has put forward a proposal for a new constitution, but protesters have dismissed these moves.
The proposal has little chance of success as Borissov lacks the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to push it through and analysts see it as an attempt to win time and cling to office.
Thirteen years after joining the EU, Bulgaria remains its poorest and most graft-ridden member, according to Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.