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Bulgarian Students Intensify Effort To Topple Government

Students held up their hands to protest what they regarded as police violence during an antigovernment protest in downtown Sofia on November 13.
Students held up their hands to protest what they regarded as police violence during an antigovernment protest in downtown Sofia on November 13.
By Claire Bigg
Unrest is escalating in the Bulgarian capital as students step up street protests calling for the government's resignation.

Hundreds of students are camped out for a third day around the parliament building in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to demand that the Socialist-led government bow out and make way for snap elections.

The protests are part of an ongoing campaign against what students denounce as the new government's links to murky businessmen amid grinding poverty in the country, the EU's poorest nation.

Over the past three weeks, they have occupied universities across the country and held almost daily rallies, including a thousands-strong "march of justice" in downtown Sofia on November 10.

Demonstrators accuse authorities, whose reaction so far has consisted mainly of attempting to quell the protests, of failing to heed their grievances.

"They are ready for anything just to silence us," Alexander Popov, an English-language student who was injured in clashes with police outside parliament earlier this week, said. "They don't want us to oppose the corruption, the oligarchy, and the system that they have all created and that they feel so comfortable maintaining."

False Start?

Anger over Bulgaria's deep-rooted problems brought down the last government, a center-right minority, in February.

But the new government formed under Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski has lost much of its support amid allegations of corruption.

The deputy leader of the MRF party, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, quit earlier this month and has since been placed under investigation for alleged tax fraud and money laundering.

The latest surge in protests was sparked by the Constitutional Court's decision to allow media mogul Delyan Peevski to retain his seat in parliament despite being appointed as head of the powerful state agency for national security.

Peevski's appointment to the agency in June had sparked an outcry and been quickly reversed by parliament under pressure from protesters.

The protests against what many Bulgarians see as rampant government graft and impunity, however, have not abated.

"Crimes are never punished," Tatiana Vaksberg, a Sofia-based journalist, says. "It's a judicial system that barely functions, where high-profile cases against organized crimes never bring any results. What we need are a state and state structures that function."

So far, the protests have been largely peaceful.

Demonstrators have used nonviolent tactics and humor to press their demands, portraying Oresharski as a "zombie" and putting the Constitutional Court -- which is seen as loyal to the government -- up for auction on eBay.

The October 30 auction, which the site took down after a few hours, described the item on sale as "not functioning as intended and not fully operational" and said it would be most useful to mafia members or corrupt members of parliament.

'Lies And Tycoonization'

But the growing frustration felt by Bulgarians has resulted in tragedy, including a series of self-immolations to protest low living standards that left at least nine people dead earlier this year, leading to the previous government's fall.

Polls show the latest protests are backed by some 60 percent of Bulgarians, who are weary of corruption, political instability, and economic hardship in their country 24 years after the end of communist rule.

Many university professors and teachers have thrown their weight behind the students, issuing a statement that condemned the "lies and 'tycoonization' of the political and social environment."

"There is a growing consensus that this situation is untenable and that preterm elections are the only way out," Daniel Smilov, a professor of political science at Sofia University, says.

According to Smilov, the protests have helped consolidate civil society in Bulgaria and have the potential to bring long-term political change.

"The good thing about these long protests is that they've created networks of active citizens," Smilov says. "Many types of active groups of citizens in the big cities got a chance to communicate with each other, and they started to like it. This makes me optimistic about future events because this is a critical mass of people who could have an impact. I think politicians will have to take the views of these people into account."

Since the communist demise, the birthrate in Bulgaria has dropped, the mortality rate has risen, and emigration is on the rise.

Membership of the European Union has failed to bring prosperity to the country, where the average monthly salary is just $530.

Claire Bigg

Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


 

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