With the global spotlight on Belarus, massive protests against corruption, oligarchy, social oppression, and freedom of the press may sound all too familiar. Despite the focus on recent events and unrest in Minsk, Eastern Europe has further been rocked by massive protests in Bulgaria during recent weeks. While the country effectively transitioned into a parliamentary republic from a one-party socialist state following the revolutions of 1989, the current political system has left many Bulgarian citizens alienated and disenfranchised.
On July 7, protests were instigated by a police raid on the President of Bulgaria (a harsh critic of current Prime Minister Borisov), as well as a series of scandals involving sea-side villas and the illicit use of a public beach. Since then, thousands of protesters have been lining the streets of Sofia daily demanding reforms addressing corruption. The broad political spectrum represented by the protesters is unprecedented.
Bulgaria has recent experience with protests. In 2013, massive protests resulted in the resignation of the first Borisov government. The demonstrations were sparked by unsustainably high prices for electricity and water as a result of national monopolies, but soon evolved into demands for political and judicial reform. While the government was toppled, the demands were never addressed, leaving Bulgarians in the same predicament.
The current protesters are demanding systemic change on corruption by addressing the links to the mafia, freedom of speech limits, and significant judicial reforms. The 2020 World Press Freedom Ranking ranked Bulgaria as 111th in the world, far behind all other European Union countries. It consistently ranks as the most corrupt and poorest country of the EU, with the median annual salary being even lower than those in non-EU Balkans such as Bosnia and Montenegro, despite having access to EU cohesion funds. Protestors assert that Bulgaria must liberate itself from the oligarchic rule that has pervaded through the judicial and socioeconomic sectors. If Bulgaria is truly keen on advancing into the Eurozone, massive economic, political and social reforms are needed.
So far, there has been little progress from the protests. Borisov started by replacing a few ministers and reshuffling the government, and then proposed constitutional reforms that only exacerbated the situation by introducing amendments that serve to maintain his power, such as reducing the number of parliamentary representatives. Further measures to restrict journalists were recently implemented, and protests have turned violent in the last few weeks.
While the United States has been uncharacteristically supportive of the protests, the EU has been rather silent. There has even been support for Borisov’s government emanating from Brussels, due to its affiliation with the EPP, the largest party in the European Parliament. This could have negative consequences for any pro-EU sentiment in Bulgaria, particularly with young people who are currently shown to trust the EU more than the national government. If Brussels does not signal its support for Bulgarian citizens — of whom over two-thirds support the protests according to a Gallup poll— this could further euro-skeptic attitudes — a detriment to both the EU and Bulgaria.
Due to its strategic location as an entry point to Europe and interface with the Russian-controlled Black Sea, Bulgarian political stability is especially crucial. Europe must demonstrate solidarity — or fear lagging as a whole.