Second Siege: Another Wave of Protests and the Need for Revolution in Bulgaria

A year of revolutionary uprisings in Bulgaria has culminated this week in further mass protests calling for the removal of the government. On Sunday 10th November students of the country’s largest university in Sofia declared “total and effective occupation” and joined thousands of others on the ‘March for Justice’ through the centre of the capital.

The students had already occupied their campus for three weeks, which effectively caused a shutdown of university operations and the students of 15 other universities across the country to follow suit. University lecturers and staff joined the students on Sunday in denouncing the “lies and tycoonisation” within the current system. This particular denunciation comes less than a week after the Deputy Leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedom Party (MSF) Hristo Biserov resigned from the government upon investigation for tax fraud and money laundering. On Monday students chained shut the gates to the university in Sofia. By Tuesday the student bulk of the protest had gathered mass support and marched to Parliament where they attempted to blockade the politicians inside. The police intervened, clashing with protesters. 23 were detained at the scene and 25 more were later arrested.

This wave of protests is the latest to descend on Sofia in the most turbulent year in Bulgaria’s turbulent recent history. In February violent protests against a national policy of austerity led to the resignation of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov  and succession of a majority by his right-wing party GERB followed with an inconclusive election result in May. The Socialist Party (BSP) backed a technocratic government led by Plamen Oresharski in coalition with the MSF. But this was not the end of the unrest. Oresharski promised progressive reforms helping the poorest layers of society and bringing an end to the corruption which had plagued previous administrations. He set out a programme which would increase benefits, child welfare and minimum wage within a year, while freezing the energy prices which had ignited the February movement. By the end of the month, however, there were already protests against the cabinet Oresharski had chosen and Oresharski himself, whose reforms could not be reconciled with plans to keep corporate tax low, capital gains tax at 0% and income tax at a flat rate of 10%.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party was formed out of the former ruling Communist Party in 1990. In spite of their complicity in the transition to capitalism, the privatisation programmes and in spite of the political wreck they suffered in 1997 when a BSF government was ousted by mass protests, amid economic crisis and hyperinflation, the BSF's promises of reform had raised some hopes. But the margins for social reforms in the present situation are almost non-existent and once involved in the coalition government it became soon apparent in the eyes of the masses that nothing fundamental would change.

The surprise appointment of Delyan Peevski as head of DANS, the state security agency, sparked mass protests on 14th June. Peevski, an MP who is head a major communications conglomerate in Bulgaria, had been elected within an hour of initially being nominated by the coalition government, a decision strongly linked to the Corporate Commercial Bank. The positioning of a leading Bulgarian capitalist at the head of state security seemed to fly in the face of any progress Oresharski had promised. For five days tens of thousands filled the streets in protest against the appointment. When parliament reversed its decision, protests only advanced, now calling for the resignation of the entire government.

On 23rd July, after six weeks of demonstrations, the youth of Bulgaria achieved what it attempted to repeat this week. Protesters laid siege to parliament, keeping over 100 MPs locked inside until three in the morning and forcing parliament to close the next day. The siege occurred in the wake of the mass uprising in Turkey and street protests in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo.

20130217 protesters-George ChelebievThe events of the last eight months in Bulgaria are an irrefutable signifier, if the working classes of Europe needed it, of the state of paralysis Capitalism finds itself in, across their continent and the entire world. The BSP which appointed itself head of a coalition supposed to usher in an era of progress and democracy is the very same one which was hammered out of government in the 2009 elections after innumerable allegations of corruption, with the same leader. That leader, Sergei Stanishev, said on Wednesday of the thousands of protesters outside parliament this week, “Soccer hooligans were organised to show up in front of the parliament with the obvious aim of attacking it and taking it over." He even claimed that the right-wing opposition GERB leadership was behind the “hooliganism”!

The hooligans in question belong to the poorest national population inside the EU. Bulgaria’s average wage of €400 is the lowest in the EU, and is the same wage that the lowest-end casualised workers in Greece are paid. It is unsurprising, then, that 42% of its people could not afford a balanced meal in 2010; by 2011 that number had risen above half the population, almost double the next highest percentage of any country in the EU. Bulgaria has consistently had the highest proportion of young people out of work without any form of higher education or training at all of anywhere in Europe since 2008. Since 2010 that figure has been as high as 22%. It was those young people in education who acted as the catalyst for protest this week, as so often happens, when they recognised in the extreme circumstances action had to be taken. According to a survey by Alpha Research, 60% of Bulgarians supported their actions.

In every wave of the movement in Bulgaria this year there has been a small starting point, quickly made secondary to the united struggle of the whole population against the Capitalist system and the plunderers who got immensely wealthy taking advantage of the privatisations enforced after the collapse of the Stalinist regime in 1989. This reflects the patterns of other revolutionary movements we have seen worldwide in the last year. Writing in September, Bernardo Gutierrez of Al Jazeera asks how, poses how they might be connected:

“Analysts have searched for specific reasons to explain the recent revolts: Istanbul rose to protect Gezi Park from neoliberal enclosure; Brazilian citizens took to the streets to protest against the rising of the price of public transportation; Peruvians were outraged by corruption and a government that tried to impose its will on the country's constitutional court. Bulgaria's protests, which started this January, were spurred by anger at high electricity and water bills.

But does this really explain what has happened in recent months? The reasons listed above would imply that four almost disconnected rebellions took place simultaneously.”

Like in the initial protest in Gezi Park in Istanbul, the first demonstrators against the technocratic government in Bulgaria were protesting on an environmental basis, again protesting a building project - one at a nature spot which the Investment Planning Minister had invested in before his appointment. Again, oppression by state security was initially at the heart of the issue, with Delyan Peevski’s election and a transferral of security power directly to the cabinet cause for public outrage. And again, these beginnings set in motion an entire movement, through which masses of people were forced to draw more radical conclusions as to the underlying causes of these events. What we have seen in the past year, as in the Arab Spring of two years ago, is this mass consciousness arising on the international stage, beyond the limitations of national borders. As Gutierrez points out, “a Brazilian flag was flying in Istanbul's Taksim Square”, and “the slogan ‘Brazil will be another Turkey’ was used during Brazil's demonstrations”.

The international question has not been raised after the events in Bulgaria this week, but to the students of Sofia it was clear enough that their occupation had to be linked to a wider movement for change. "The university occupation is not enough, the government does not hear us and completely ignores us, so a blockade of parliament may do it," one student told Reuters. The necessity for a national movement was met with an attempt at that blockade and an atmosphere of genuine revolutionary fervour. “Your time is up! 24 years of false transition is enough,” read one banner, in reference to the consistent failure of the Bulgarian government to meet its people’s demands since the fall of the Stalinist regime in 1989.

Yet the last nationwide action taken by the Bulgarian people came just this year, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in February. Whilst it did get rid of the GERB government, it was successful only in the transition to the current government. What is it exactly that those storming parliament this week are demanding? If they want answers from their leaders inside, their President can give them one. Rosen Plevneliev, the head of state of Bulgaria, when asked about the possibility that the government would be forced to resign by the Wall Street Journal in July, replied: "We've had three governments so far this year. Maybe we'll have five. If this government resigns, I'll appoint a new caretaker government."

But the solution offered by any party to end this crisis without ending the capitalist system is nothing more than simply another shuffle of the pack. The same reality of lies, corruption and austerity faces the Bulgarian people. These politicians and the elite have also appealed to the people of Bulgaria by claiming that the protesters are privileged and middle-class in order to try and alienate the general support for them within the broader population.

This much is inevitable: the capitalists will have their own propaganda machine, running full-tilt at times of unrest even amongst the chaos of the Bulgarian parliament. Any opposition must be highly organised, and organised on the foundation of ideas for real change in society through the overthrow of Capitalism. But it is clear, as evidenced by the slogan denouncing the last 24 years of free-market economy that layers of Bulgarian society are crying out for these ideas. In fact, the speaker of Bulgarian parliament Mihail Mikov admitted in July that "Looking for democratic and legal solutions within the framework of the Constitution is getting harder and harder", suggesting that the bureaucratic carousel will have to come to an end soon.

Nationalisation, or ‘de-privatisation’ as was demanded in February, and real democracy for working people should be the programme of those demonstrating outside parliament in Sofia. But rather than listen to the Bulgarian people, the bourgeois leaders in government would rather pander to foreign capitalists as they have done for the last two decades. In October the government made a mockery of President Plevneliev’s statement from less than a year ago that Bulgaria was “an island of stability” by announcing that it was to borrow €360m from German banks. Such an announcement has been coming for a long time, as low public debt accrued up until now is not a true reflection of the state of the Bulgarian economy. While state-owned foreign debt has remained as low as 12% of GDP in recent years, private foreign debt soared to almost 100% of GDP in the financial crisis of 2008, before settling around 80% in the last two years. This level of private debt is considerably higher than public debt reached at its height in the late nineties.

Foreign economies are essentially investing in Bulgarian companies without much of a direct return for the Bulgarian masses; instead, the return they get is in the cheap labour power at their disposal in the EU’s poorest country. As recently as last week, the Financial Times ran an article on benefits of companies outsourcing areas of business, such as service centres, to Eastern Europe. It pointed out that although Bulgaria has “been plagued by political instability...the BPO sector [business process outsourcing] is one of the main drivers of the Bulgarian office market.” Here is the reason why Oresharski is keeping corporate taxes down and the income tax rate flat; here is his government’s actual solution to the crisis in Bulgaria. Keeping the foreign outsourcers coming in is the plan - which means keeping wages down to maintain demand. To foreign investors in search of profit, worrying about “political instability” is only an afterthought; just as to the German banks the €360m they are unlikely to get back is less important than stimulating the Bulgarian economy so that there is a greater demand for German products.

The question remains, though, how can Bulgarian people go on living, buying German products or otherwise, on an outsourced salary of €400 a month, not being able to afford a proper meal, as youth unemployment continue to grow? Emigration is one way out for some young people, but very often to countries such as Greece where they are forced to continue underselling themselves into poverty to outcompete indigenous workers also falling victim to a brutal policy of austerity. Meanwhile, in wealthier countries, the hand of imperialism is coming down fast on migrant workers undercutting the homegrown workforce. In Bulgaria itself the recent high levels of youth emigration have depleted whole towns, further distorting the economy to the benefit of foreign exploitation.

The tasks for the those leading the waves of protests we have seen in Bulgaria in previous months which rose again this week must be to unite the entire working class and youth of the country and to organise for a revolutionary programme in every workplace, campus and school. The programme must call for renationalisation of every privatised element of the economy and more. Any siege on parliament must be led by the exploited workforce and accompanied with a demand to take power from the hands of the capitalists and give it to the workers, so that they can control their own wages and living conditions.

There are major barriers to this organisation: the mass poverty and large-scale privatisation play a divisive role in the struggle. As we have consistently seen there is the lack of a clear programme. The threat of a far-right reaction is growing ever greater the longer the movement goes on without a progressive solution put forward by a strong leadership. But the courage and readiness to act of the Bulgarian people should be an inspiration to the rest of Europe. And there have been definite signs of radicalisation this week, from the support given by lecturers to their students to banners declaring an end to ‘transition’. Still, preparations for revolution must advance now: there is no longer time for bourgeois politicians to try and paper the cracks of the system; its rottenness is out in the open for all Bulgarians to see. The blame cannot simply be ascribed to bureaucratic inaptitude, but to Capitalism itself. Bulgaria may be the weakest link of the EU, but for the other Balkans and neighbouring Greece it could be the spark which ignites the whole of Eastern Europe.