Street protests and change: Bulgaria and Romania in each other’s mirror

The middle class struggles for change in Bulgaria, but the protests’ slogans deal with justice, not social affairs. Real change would come from the “downtrodden masses”, who need to find new energy, free time and financial resources in order to strengthen themselves politically. They are presently lured into populist and conspiratorial mindsets that block their emancipation. The elites fear a coalition between the middle class and the unprivileged and play divide and conquer.

This article was written before the gloomy night of 2/3 September 2020, when the protest escalated and a number of protesters underwent police violence and detention and the protest camp at Eagle’s bridge was cleansed.

Bulgaria and Romania marked the 30th anniversary of the 1989 fall of their communist regimes without any excess. It is now accepted that what happened in both countries – peacefully or through “revolution” and blood – was an internal coup d’etat in the ranks of the socialist states. What followed was shock therapy for the masses while the descendants of the elite drank in the supposed benefits of what passes for education in American and other Western business schools. At the same time, throughout the last 30 years, the unprivileged, those who are expected to survive through their labour, have been mainly voting with their boots, becoming emigrant workers abroad. Privatisation was allowed to lift off, with the consequences in Romania dissected brilliantly by Alexander Clapp in this New Left Review article.

And when crony capitalism started flourishing in Bulgaria together with the closure of factories, the Prime Minister Ivan Kostov (1997-2001) explained with a smile why there is corruption: “Bulgaria is a small country. We are all cousins,” (meaning that people are loyal to their clans and provide them with economic benefits whenever possible). It is a clear hint at the dominating social model of the in-groups in this region. You are loyal to your in-group, you live through it. As for the rest of society – it is to be exploited or ignored. Certainly, that is the obvious explanation for the lack of solidarity in these societies, where competition for scarce resources has been taking its toll. Just consider the number of young, skilled Bulgarian and Romanian professionals propping up the British and German economies (trained locally but their skills lost to wealthier societies); or the Austrian and Italian takeover of Bulgarian and Romanian industries after the massive privatisation which was made a condition of their membership of the EU and NATO.

These new Europeans do not deserve to be written off by their Western counterparts as cheap labour and thieves. Bulgarians and Romanians had great economic, scientific and cultural achievements in the 20th century and have their role in European life today. But change – defined in terms of solidarity, social development, and modernisation – in those societies takes place slowly, in pain, doubt and insecurity. Only the middle class has the resources necessary for articulating and fighting for change, but they fear they will lose what they perceive as their right to a privileged position. They see their higher social status not as a consequence of their being in service of the system, but as a meritocratic achievement. At the same time most people remain excluded from the overall process of social transformation not least due to over exploitation, including parts of the middle classes where “pathological busy-ness”, evident also in the West, is the everyday norm. 

Geopolitical and domestic factors have kept these societies on the periphery – neglected, scorned. In reality, they have had and have even now contradictions – the prerequisite for change, but also lack the language to articulate the desired change, as various forms of false empowerment mislead the sincere effort for new equilibrium. This article is an attempt to provide notions and concepts that can help bring a better understanding of what is going on.

The ongoing protests in Bulgaria have lasted for more than 55 days and demand the resignation of the prime minister Borissov and the chief prosecutor Geshev over accusations that they have been applying the agenda of the oligarchy in “a captive state”. Romania had massive protests aimed at protecting the leading anti-corruption institution – DNA – in 2017 and 2018, from a governmental reform aimed at taming it. The governments in Hungary and Poland managed to take over their own judicial authorities. Evidently, anti-corruption in Bulgaria has been inspired by Romanian anti-corruption – but in its golden era before 2017. Anti-corruption has replaced the demands for democracy and social justice with a single narrative blaming the failure of “transition” on “oligarchy” and “corruption” rather than on neoliberalism and its Eastern-European counterpart – illiberalism.

Could it be that the societies of the EU’s East are already mature and change doesn’t happen through extortion (which is what took place in Bulgaria in the 90s) or through external legitimation, but through a judicial power theoretically an independent referee of the political and economic processes? It is worth contemplating the massive protests and their potential for change in Bulgaria and Romania, especially in the conditions of the ongoing Bulgarian protests. One can get a feeling that these societies aim and strive for change, but are also oblivious to where they are heading to and there is an apparent lack of vision of the desired outcome in both of them.

Similarities and dissimilarities

Romania and Bulgaria could be telling examples for a number of regional and global tendencies in social evolution. Both countries saw the rise of anti-corruption as a lever of social change. Both have been undervaluing their labour force. Labour union resistance and grassroots organising against capital have been weak, particularly in Bulgaria. Both countries have relied excessively on their loyalty to the USA and the EU in order to have economic dynamism and strategic weight in the region. That means, of course, militarization, high expenditures on military procurement, and a reduction in social spending. The state’s interest (or the elite’s agenda) apparently has been trumping the masses’ needs for social security and calm.

Having said that, the coronavirus crisis seems to also show important differences between Romanian and Bulgarian society. A recent poll which revealed that 45% of Romanians are some form of COVID-19 sceptics is a devastating reflection on the loss of institutional trust. There is also an astonishing level of distrust of others shown by the fact that, in 2015, only 7% of the Romanian population could say that “most people can be trusted” (compared with about 20% in Italy and 40% in Germany). Of course, that can be seen as a consequence of the strong Romanian security state, with the anti-corruption agency that existed until 2018 being criticised over dubious relations with the secret services.

Bulgarians don’t place great public trust in anyone, either. Romanian elites at least are quite uniform on their foreign policy positioning and on state ideology – anticommunism, anticorruption and traditionalism/religiosity – intertwine in a way that certainly helps Romanians have a degree of homogeneity. Bulgarian elites are traditionally divided in many different ways. It makes life in Bulgaria interesting: You can find people to speak with who hold vastly different mentalities and convictions without too much effort. But Bulgarian society has been known for a lack of unifying norms. What is sacrosanct in Romania – the relationship with NATO and the USA – is important in Bulgaria too, but even God (the resident of the White House no matter who he is) and his prophets (the American embassy in Sofia) are contested. Neither is Bulgaria’s presumed russophilia such a common denominator of its elites and people – with Bulgaria actively promoting the Western agenda in the Western Balkans.

The Bulgarian protests and anti-corruption

Having said all that, the Sofia protesters’ demand for reform of the Bulgarian constitution (with the chief prosecutor’s prerogatives being curbed, political influence in the judicial system weakened and the judiciary strengthened) suggests a continuing degree of faith in these institutions’ capability to reform and be held accountable.

Bulgarian politics does have its Eastern taste with parties and movements being formed around leaders and almost all of the parties being of the so-called leader-type of parties (with one strong person who embodies the spirit and the public profile of the whole political organisation). The former Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov is one of the notable political leaders of these protests. He presides over a party called “Yes, Bulgaria”, a cousin, as it were, of the much-stronger party “Save Romania Union” of its Romanian neighbour. Both of these parties represent pro-European younger people, the urban middle class composed of young professionals, corporate employees, people with creative professions and well-connected experts in the top public and private institutions.

So why were the Romanian protests of the urban middle class in 2017-2018 in support of Romanian anti-corruption, while the Bulgarian ones of the very same social strata fought against what appears to be “Bulgarian anti-corruption”? There is a connection or at least inspiration for the anti-corruption movement “Justice for All” in Bulgaria taken from the Romanian anti-corruption movement in its golden era. But Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshe’s anti-corruption is not middle class owned or middle class empowering, as was the case in Romania. Geshev’s anti-corruption hit against business and oligarchic interests, with one of the richest Bulgarians being forced to flee to Dubai and losing his lucrative private “National Lottery” business. At the same time, the Romanian anti-corruption movement rarely touched corporate interests. It was focused on politicians, bringing about change of elites and taking the dinosaurs of transition out of the political game.

Bulgarian anti-corruption has acted in a very limited way against politicians so far, although it’s obvious that there is corruption in their ranks. Geshev is attacked for his apparent lack of interest in investigating some big oligarchs such as Delyan Peevski. The accusation is that he attacks one part of the oligarchy to the benefit of another part. That is why the Bulgarian middle class feels cheated by the state. But of course, the urban middle class also has its positions in judicial power or in the ranks of the state. And some oligarchs who previously suffered from the prosecution’s activities are now supporting the protests.

At the heart of what is happening in Bulgaria is a battle over the judicial system, which focuses on the prerogatives and role of the chief prosecutor, with the protesters demanding the curbing of these powers, while the government proposed in a new draft of the constitution the right to legislative initiative for a newly-established prosecutors’ council. In a July 2020 article at the Open Democracy I wrote: “For years, until 2017-2018, Bulgarians were fed with news of how successful the Romanian anti-corruption under the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Kövesi. As Romanian Chief prosecutor from 2013 to 2018, she presided over numerous arrests of politicians, widely reported in the international press. The “Romanian model of anti-corruption” was lauded in the Bulgarian media as an exemplary model for delivering justice and building the rule of law. The model of anti-corruption based on a powerful Chief Prosecutor’s office thus came to be seen in Bulgaria as a path towards a European standard of living. The Bulgarian middle class seemed to envy their Romanian counterpart, for its degree of empowerment as a result of the ongoing Romanian anti-corruption effort.”

Curiously, it was not the essence of the Romanian anti-corruption model from the golden era that was imported – the empowerment of the middle class, but the form – the strong chief prosecutor:

“This opened the door for the abuse of power and the public perception of this abuse that triggered more protests. In fact, the Romanian anti-corruption model is marked by a number of peculiarities. Its main target is democratically elected politicians who are presiding over clientelist networks. It rarely touches on corporate economic interests. This model of anti-corruption empowered the middle class, the people with higher incomes, the businesses. It gradually cleansed the political landscape of the dinosaurs of the post-communist transition period. However, at the same time it also significantly limited the access of the lower classes, detached from real economic power and withdrawn to their rural in-groups, to their own political representation in a democracy.

What is often presented in the Western press as the legitimate fight for justice of the Bulgarian or the Romanian people through protests against corrupt elites is in fact the struggle of the two countries’ middle classes for taking or preserving power. They seem to be natural allies to the Western lobbies – younger, pro-European, tech-savvy, richer than the rest – they are proof that the two countries have successfully integrated in Western circles. However, it would be wrong to consider this social group as representative of the whole society.

It is interesting to note that in the earlier wave of anti-oligarchic protests in Bulgaria in 2013 the protesters were called by media and society “the beautiful and the clever ones”, which was a direct reference to their representatives’ narcissism and to the abyss that divides them from the “ugly” and “stupid” masses. Romania has an almost exact notion of the same type: “the beautiful and the free youth”, which gets abbreviated as tefelists (from TFL – tineri frumoşi şi liberi – beautiful and free youth). These are signs that important parts of the overall population feel distant and maybe even ethically superior to these protesting elites, who in turn believe to hold the ethical higher ground. And these notions have been used by politicians in a divide and conquer manner.

So what is the nature of change in societies like Bulgaria and Romania? Where would the change come from?

The middle class in Romania and Bulgaria seem to want a true liberal democracy, not a cronyism (even though in Bulgaria the middle class’s protest is supported by “good oligarchs”), because it has the financial power, the knowledge and the free time to affirm itself. It is a part of the political process, a subject, a doer in politics. 

A true change in those societies, however, would look like a break from the logic of transition, which has focused on capital accumulation through the commodification of relations in society. And that would mean overcoming the stigmatisation of the left, of socialism, of labour unions – a complex process which may or may not be possible. But that is the only way for those who have been traumatised and pauperised in the times of transition to be integrated into Bulgaria’s and Romania’s process of modernisation. If the masses remain isolated from the ongoing project of westernisation, the development of these two peripheral societies will take place in an uneven way, with ups and downs. It is no coincidence that masses have been taken over by evangelical churches, conspiracy theories, types of social mobilizations that serve more to perplex rather than to help people understand their position as citizens with social and economic interests and rights.

Will change come from the left?

A left-driven change or a hint of change is being attempted in Bulgaria. The urban middle class and its leaders are not articulating strong slogans against communism, against the President Rumen Radev (who seems to enjoy the support of the old elites in Bulgarian society). The liberal protesters seem to understand that they are a minority and they need better access to the larger society. But they still don’t feel like formulating social demands that would benefit the masses. And this is used by the ruling party GERB which raised salaries in the public sector and provided some benefits to various categories of businesses, workers, and the unemployed.

It goes without much media coverage but the new left, which has been growing underground as an unofficial political subculture, has been active in those protests. It established an “ecosocial quarter” at the center of the protest – the Eagle’s Bridge in Sofia (which was evacuated by the police on the night of 2/3 September 2020). It makes online listening posts, offline people’s assemblies, activist cinema screenings, courses on political education, shares food cooked in solidarity, does art performances, disseminates leaflets and engages in social and political conversations with other protesters and passersby – grassroots activities, aimed at empowering the people. This happens in close coordination with the radical left block of the protests – young intellectuals and activists who took over the promotion of demands for social justice and slogans for equality, anti-discrimination, workers rights and so on, who were marching inline with the rest of the protesters despite attacks from the also present neo-nazi groups.

In parallel, Vanya Grigorova – the economic adviser of the labour union “Podkrepa” (Support) and leading left-wing public figure –  travels the country, presenting her latest book on labour rights and how to claim them. An year ago she gave an interview to Jacobin, which positioned herself on the side of social change in Bulgaria and the region.

But what matters is that there is an overall need for departing from the logic and conceptual frame of transition. The urban middle class, which is right-wing in its essence, wants to cleanse the corrupt elites of transition and replace the old elites with new ones. Taking over the reins of power will probably put people who are more tech-savvy, more modern in ruling positions, but it remains unclear whether it would mean empowering the masses and stronger social policies.

The left-wing tries to cure the social wounds of transition and also fights for affirmation in an unfavourable environment, where it simply lacks economic power. It promotes a tax system which will give an income of a few tens of euros more per month to the poor, it fights against stigmatization of people with disabilities and who receive social assistance, it resists dubious international free trade contracts.

The new left, as it was present at the ecosocial quarter at Eagle’s Bridge, went even further as to promote direct democracy, horizontal organisation and shared decision-making that the involved organisations have been practicing as a way to pure democracy, in particular communalism. This is an approach to rebuilding the system in ecosocial terms that aim to promote social and ecological justice. In their experience, passersby and other protesters are very much interested, even though there are suspicions as well as dismissal of yet another utopia. This approach is very much rooted in contemporary visions that are gaining influence following successful experiments in this direction in Rojava, the Zapatistas in Latin America, leftist Western movements such as Occupy, Food not Bombs, and Extinction Rebellion as well as a long tradition of social ecology and participatory democracy in the developed West. 

Borissov’s normality in the age of Trump challenged by middle class normality

The middle class is a significant, well-organised and well-position force that is triggering change. But all other groups are following suit, adjusting themselves to the current situation. The protests challenge the status-quo of the last 11 years, dominated almost exclusively by the party of Boyko Borissov. A party of stability, it has big support in the state administration. It was founded by former policemen and intelligence operatives. It also enjoys support from the European People’s Party and Western business. Borissov also is well set for the Trump times, as he has coalition partners who are nationalists and refuse to recognize gender and sexual diversity, “characteristic of the US Democratic party”, Trump’s opponents. Also, the Bulgarian government bought 8 American F-16 fighters for more than 2 billion dollars, which temporarily placed Bulgaria as one of the NATO countries with highest military expenditures as percent of GDP.

The protesters now attack the EU for supporting the corruption of GERB in Bulgaria in an unofficial deal in which Borissov provides security to the EU and stability to Western businesses here, while being allowed to let local mafia make money through corruption. But an accusation is also being made that Borissov – the former bodyguard of the communist ruler Todor Zhivkov and Bulgarian king-turned-into-prime minister Simeon Saxkobourggotski – has been appointed by the transition’s winning oligarchy to guard over its economic achievements. And it could be the case that now that part of the oligarchy was affected by prosecution’s anti-corruption operations, the internal deal with Borissov is foundering.

So the Bulgarian middle class wants to depart from “the normality” of the last years.

In Romania, Klaus Iohannis was elected president by the urban middle class in the autumn of 2019 with the slogan “For a normal Romania”. Romanians like to say that they want a country like those abroad – and they don’t mean their neighbours, but Western European states. So Iohannis seems to embody the fantasy that slowly but steadily Romania, led by the middle class’ ethnic German president, moves in the right direction.

Bulgaria’s renowned political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests in a recent book “The Light that Failed” that part of the nationalist strength in Hungary and Poland is due to the country’s shock when it realised that the European “normality” they had hoped for had been transformed into an agenda which included same-sex marriage and rights for Romas. So here seems to be a clash of normalities, which some might be tempted to interpret in civilisational terms. Bulgarian protesters have been accused of being “agents of Soros” who want to create a gender republic, meaning probably a country where the LGBT community isn’t marginalised.

What is normal for one group is clearly not acceptable for another. That is how what started as a contest over the judicial system in Bulgaria is perhaps being turned into a bit of a culture war. The same strategy has been applied by the entrenched older elites with regard to the social demands of the likes of Vanya Grigorova. Many people sympathize with the fact that she is probably the only public person who dares to confront the business elites, the almighty employers’ associations. But immediately after this initial sympathy for her, Grigorova’s latent supporters realised that she approves of the Istanbul Convention that protects women from domestic violence, a document that was successfully branded by conservatives as foreign, Soros-imposed and anti-Bulgarian in its essence. And immediately the huge public support which Vanya Grigorova enjoys for her social-economic stances got reduced to the minuscule 0,5% she got at the EU Parliamentary elections.

What the clash of normalities shows is that change is elusive, that any achievement in a certain move to “normality” can be easily eroded. Society needs to wake up to the socioeconomic issues, where normality is defined as being supportive of “the many, not the few”. But that would mean that the public discourse division line in society will be between the haves and have-nots. And it is a development which is unacceptable to the elites. The Bulgarian protests are still hesitant about formulating social demands, which would broaden the social base of their indignation, but would also mean a change of focus away from the fight for control of the judicial system. The middle class is, after all, a class of owners of various resources and has its own class interests.

Bulgaria and Romania – mirror lands

Bulgaria and Romania are mirror cases, not in the sense that they are equal, but in the sense that putting them next to one another, other curious things start to be seen. The hope for both countries lies in overcoming transition’s dehumanisation. That requires that the downtrodden masses manage to find allies among the elites and obtain economic powers that will allow for the overcoming of transition’s traumas and wounds.

Could change come from the losers of transition? Hopefully yes, as long as they are undergoing a process of empowerment. Economic, social, psychological strengthening of those who live off their labour is necessary if change in Bulgaria and Romania is to be mass- and not elite-driven.

For anyone living in these countries such a vision might sound utterly unrealistic and utopian. But as it happens with the protests in Romania in 2017/2018 and in Bulgaria today, the middle class can set the dominating narrative in society. It can stigmatise the poor, but it might hopefully also understand the plight of the underprivileged. So the battle of normalities could well be a battle for the soul of the middle class. Anyone interested in change – social, political, geopolitical or other – should explore whether the middle class could find common interest with the poorer members of society. One can be rest assured that the transition elites wouldn’t like such a coalition.

Photo: Sofia protests have gathered tens of thousands of demonstrants (source: Nikolay Draganov)

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