Since early July, thousands of anti-corruption protesters in Bulgaria have been regularly gathering at Independence Square in the capital, Sofia, and across other major cities, demanding a drastic reform of the judicial system and an end to political corruption and the cosy relationship between the main political parties and large corporations.
The protests started when, on the 7th of July, Hristo Ivanov – former Minister of Justice, and the founder of the anti-corruption party Yes, Bulgaria! – was blocked by the National Security Agency from prosecuting the illegal privatisation of a public beach. Authorities had stepped in to protect one of the country’s richest men, Ahmed Dogan, who had somehow managed to buy a beach on the Black Sea coast.
The incident sparked outrage across a country accustomed to corruption. Transparency International ranks Bulgaria 74 out of 180 nations in their Corruption Perception Index, using factors such as embezzlement of taxpayer funds and kickbacks for public officials. The Risk and Compliance Portal rates Bulgaria’s judiciary, police and public services as having a high risk of corruption, while Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 111th for media freedom.
In recent weeks, a diverse coalition of protesters have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government and for the ousting of Bulgaria’s public prosecutor, who was effectively appointed in secret, with no opportunity for public scrutiny, chanting, “Mafia out” as they make their way through Sofia.
These allegations are not unique to this government. In 2013, when the current opposition were in power, similar protests called for the resignation of then-prime minister Plamen Oresharski and the Bulgarian Socialist Party for the same reasons. The demonstrations then were initially triggered by the secret appointment of an oligarch, Delyan Peevski, to head the National Security Agency.
Today’s protests are being led by a new generation of activists, who hope the EU will decide to intervene. They want pressure to be put on the government to enact reforms that would bring an end to systemic corruption and the severe misuse of public funds and offices by officials.
Yvo Bojkov is a municipal councillor who has been live streaming the demonstrations from the beginning. “All other legal ways and political channels get nothing achieved,” the 38-year-old told VICE News. “The echo from the street is the only power that can stop this.”
Bojkov is pleased that the demonstrations are bringing people of all political backgrounds together to fight for change. “We have established our common grounds: legality, justice, following the law and righteousness for all,” he explained. “The people are out because of the personified example of illegality through the [Ahmed Dogan] case. This case showed that the division is not between ethnicities, but between people who follow the law and those who do not. Transparency guarantees accountability for politicians, regardless of their political orientation. No one here believes that institutions will do their job, including myself.”
Matthew Stoyanov, a Sofia-based MC, believes that young people are fighting for more than instant change. “The people on the streets are fighting for their own confidence that they can apply pressure,” Stoyanov explained. “That something depends on them. That they exist. This generation has a really strong bullshit detector.”
The 29-year-old is worried, though, that this might all be too little, too late. “I am not even sure if we have time to fuck around for much longer and do things in the peaceful way – but I do still support patience.”
Filmmaker and activist Pavel Bozhilov, 24, has been at the protests with his friends from the very start. “I had no idea how political we all are,” Bozhilov told VICE News, who added he has been trying to get the EU’s attention by organising protests at the German embassy. “The EU has remained silent for now, and by doing so are indirectly supporting [the government],” he said.
“If we don’t react now we are going to accept this as normality, of which I am very scared. Because if we are the daily witnesses of illegality, we don’t only get used to it – we start participating in it. We become accomplices, and I don’t want to be one.”