The Bulgarian Spring Started In February

By Konstantin Mravov, Photos: Deyan Georgiev

After ongoing protests all over his country, rallies outside Parliament and police spilling the blood of Bulgaria's people, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned on Wednesday, saying, "For us, each drop of blood is a stain on our reputation, and I cannot watch the building of the National Assembly surrounded." 

The protests that prompted Borisov's resignation started over outrage against the high charges of electricity and heating in Bulgaria, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets on the 10th of February to demand the withdrawal of the electricity companies' licenses. As is usually the case with these things, demonstrations quickly became anti-government and protests in Sofia and other cities started to end in bloody clashes between protesters and police.

After a couple of years of civil unrest in Bulgaria, some protesters were obviously worried that their message was losing some of its gusto. So two people lit themselves on fire to really ram the point home.

Bulgaria's entire electrical grid is privately managed by subsidiaries of foreign companies like CEZ, E-On, EVN and Energo-Pro, who hold monopolies in their respective areas. The people of Bulgaria accuse those companies of altering the readings of the equipment so they can raise the bills, which maybe isn't quite worth self-immolating over, but certainly justifies getting very angry in the streets.   

Instead of directly condemning the foreign companies, Bulgaria's government heaped the blame on to the National Commission of Electrical and Water Regulation, which is supposed to keep an eye on the providers and use their data to set electricity prices. The country's citizens saw straight through the attempts to keep big business on side and, on February the 17th, a week after the first set of protests, the country banded together through Facebook under the slogan "Burn down the monopolies" and again took to the streets to protest.       

A lot of people are calling it "The Bulgarian Spring", because it's quickly becoming clear that the discontent stems from many more factors other than the greedy profiteering of foreign electricity companies. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU, which is never a good start, and the government have pretty much epitomised the word "corruption" for the past 23 years, ever since the Bulgarian Socialist Party came into power.   

Boyko Borisov and his GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) party were elected in 2009 with huge support from the citizens of Bulgaria – Borisov promising to put an end to the corruption that had infected every level of the state, as well as violently fight organised crime, which has thrived in the years since the fall of communism. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Borisov didn't manage to tackle Bulgaria's corruption. He also couldn't handle the health and education crises, both sectors now recognised to be some of the worst in the EU. And his actions against organised crime rarely ever ended with actual sentencing. In some cases, mafia bosses even managed to flee the country for good during their trials, which is less "resolute battle" and more "utter failure".

It's not been a great year for Borisov. There were new corruption scandals, ecological protests and issues surrounding the financing of scientific projects all within the first couple of months. As if that wasn't enough to ruin every single one of his mornings, a declassified file of Bulgarian intelligence from the 90s surfaced recently, containing information that tied Borisov to criminal circles of the time. Mind you, all of that was just topping up what had already been four solid years of controversy for the former Prime Minister. 

All that considered, the 15,000 people who gathered on the 17th to throw eggs and rotten tomatoes at the Parliament building in Sofia were the only kind of bookend Borisov could have expected of his political career. After an hour of hurling food and shouting about how terrible Borisov's rule had been, the crowd moved to Eagles' Bridge, a couple of hundred metres away from the Parliament, and closed down one of the main crossroads of the capital city. From there, they headed to the CEZ headquarters – the company that manages the electric network in Sofia – and threw stones and bottles at the police offers protecting the building.

But violence wasn't what ended up defining that day. In Varna, where demonstrators had been clashing with police all week, some pretty girls gave the police some flowers, which, bizarrely, totally worked. The policemen dropped their helmets and shields and made way for the over 30,000 protesters, who managed to close off another key road.    

The following day, Borisov let go of Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, who was also Deputy Prime Minister and one of the politicians to suffer the most criticism during GERB's rule.

But because firing one man often doesn't fix four combined years of fuck-ups over the entire socioeconomic spectrum, Djankov's sacking didn't appease any of the pissed off Bulgarians. There was still no official statement from Borisov about the mass protests taking place all over the country he was supposed to be in charge of. By the end of the day, Eagles' Bridge was closed off again and some 5,000 furious protesters set off towards Parliament, chanting. "Djankov is gone, now it's Boyko's turn."  

Police formed a protective shield around the building, which in Bulgaria translates to, "Let's stand in a straight line so it's easier for people to lob stones, bottles and sticks at us." Not all of the protesters took them up on their invitation; a significant number wanted to follow the people of Varna's footsteps and appealed for non-violent demonstration. However, a smaller group – mostly consisting of angry young men dressed in black; the Inter City Firm styled by Rick Owens – carried on provoking the police.

Continually antagonising already irate policemen is only ever going to make them retaliate, which is what they eventually did, pushing crowds away from the building, chasing rioting protesters through Sofia's streets and making mass arrests throughout the night.     

On Tuesday, Borisov finally emerged at a press conference to suggest some solutions to the high electricity prices. Maybe it's because vague suggestions are completely worthless, or because Tuesday was the 140th anniversary of Vassil Levski's death (Levski liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and represents the ultimate fight for freedom in Bulgaria), but either way, the demonstrations didn't stop. That evening, more than 5,000 people circled Levski's monument, which is a stone's throw away from Eagles' Bridge and Parliament.  

Some placed flowers on the monument, others set off fireworks and screamed a lot. Different strokes, I guess. After that, it was off to Parliament again, where some of the police had put away their shields, calming everyone down and ensuring there were no clashes. That peaceful interlude didn't last long, though. Protesters headed towards Eagles' Bridge, then, for whatever reason, figured they'd go straight back to Parliament, where police had closed off the road, blocking them in. What a difference a slightly confused walk makes.

That's when the bloodiest, most violent collision between police and protesters so far kicked off in a merry haze of smoke bombs and people being pushed to the ground and beaten by police. The bloodshed was the straw that broke Borisov's back, as the next day – Wednesday the 20th of February – he handed in his resignation.

It's now up to President Rosen Plevneliev to govern the country until the next parliamentary elections in April, and it looks like it's going to be a challenging ride. Despite Borisov's resignation, protesters were back out in force on Wednesday night, as well as groups of GERB supporters staging counter-protests in support of the ex-Prime Minister the same evening and the following day.

The Bulgarian Spring has started, and there's no sign of it ending any time soon.         

Follow Konstantin on Twitter: @mravov, and see more of Deyan's work here.

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People Are Burning Alive On the Streets of Athens

I Dodged Bullets at a Polish Fascists' Riot Party

Europe's On Fire Again

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