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‘Resign!’ – Bulgaria’s protesters need a better slogan than that

Our colleagues Jana Tsoneva and Georgi Medarov with a piece in The Guardian about the Bulgarian protests.

Bulgaria is undergoing a deep political crisis. A mass social mobilisation against austerity, poverty and electricity price rises took place in February, toppling the centre-right government. After elections in May, the independent Plamen Oresharski became prime minister, backed by a broad coalition of social democrats (BSP) liberals (DPS) and the far right (ATAKA). Oresharski, a technocrat, was best known as one of the architects of the currency board imposed on Bulgaria in 1997 as part of an IMF programme to save the country from currency collapse and hyperinflation. Bulgaria went from the frying pan into the fire, forced into a regime of unrelenting austerity, long before Greece and the rest of western Europe.

In the 2000s Oresharski shifted politically towards the social democrats. As finance minister, he developed a hardcore neoliberal pedigree, becoming infamous, although praised by the World Bank, for introducing a 10% flat tax and for taking a tough line against striking teachers in 2007.

This round of popular unrest, going on for over 160 days now, erupted over the controversial appointment of Delyan Peevski, a media mogul, as a head of national security. Originally, demonstrations were immense, with participants from all sides of the political spectrum demanding the resignation of the government. Gradually, the protests became smaller after being hijacked by groups who saw them as a way of reviving 1990s anti-communism. Protesters started to call for “European values”, “morality in politics” and a “genuine break” with the communist past. The BSP managed to organise a counter-protest movement, staging at least two huge rallies and the situation became deadlocked – government and opposition sharing identical socio-economic visions but throwing empty accusations at each other.

The protests entered a new phase when students occupied Sofia University’s main building last month. The rightwing opposition, composed of ex-ruling party GERB and the Reform Bloc, saw the occupation as an extension of their campaign. The occupation certainly inspired the street protests anew. When people saw its potential, however, there was a lot of pressure from party activists and from within the occupation to abandon its intellectual aims and to focus on bringing about the government’s resignation and new elections. The original radical content of the occupation was ignored by the media while the old “communists v anti-communists” paradigm took over.

Yet the occupation itself is curiously devoid of strong anti-communism. When they join the protests, students refuse to chant “red scum”. Another key difference is that not a single EU flag was raised inside the occupation, unlike in the street protests.

The students’ “moral revolution” sits uncomfortably with the attempt by political elites to find new legitimacy through reviving old political divisions. The students have explicitly distanced themselves from all the political parties that have dominated Bulgaria post-1989, directing their anger instead at the endless “transition” to democracy, with its misery and corruption.

Most importantly, the occupation has gone beyond demanding just a government resignation that would result in a different set of politicians but the status quo remaining the same. The students organised workshops where they discussed their desired common future, reminding us of what a university is supposed to be. While the street demonstrations were trapped in focusing on the spectral figure of “communism”, never allowing space for reflection and critical debate, by contrast, the original style of the student occupation is inspired by the Occupy movement.

Full text here