Forty-five people needed hospital treatment after protesters clashed with riot police in the Bulgarian capital Wednesday night, in the largest protest in nearly two months of anti-government demonstrations.
Thousands had begun gathering in front of the parliament building in Sofia from the morning, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev over endemic corruption in the EU’s poorest country. The protesters, who are also calling for fresh elections, were attempting to block lawmakers returning from their summer recess from entering the building.
Organisers had called for the rally — dubbed the “Great National Uprising” — to be peaceful. But scuffles broke out with police during the day, before more widespread violence erupted later at night, with protesters throwing scores of bottles, rocks and homemade firecrackers at police lines and shaking police vehicles. Both sides used pepper spray during the clashes.
Police said Thursday morning that more than 60 people had been arrested during the protests, which Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov described as “organised, deliberate attacks.”
Denica Yotova, programme coordinator of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that Wednesday’s protests were the largest and longest of the daily anti-government protests that have been taking place in Bulgaria for almost two months.
The protests have been triggered by a series of corruption scandals, notably when Hristo Ivanov, a former Minister of Justice and the founder of an anti-corruption party, was blocked by the National Security Agency from prosecuting the illegal privatisation of a public beach by oligarch and politician, Ahmed Dogan, one of the country’s richest men.
“At heart, these protests are demanding a systemic change of the political system in Bulgaria based on actual rule of law, democracy, functioning judiciary, an effective fight against corruption and last but not least, accountability and some level of decency of the ruling class,” said Yotova.
“People are fed up with the impudence of the ruling class in Bulgaria.”
The protesters have the backing of the country’s president, Rumen Radev, who called on Borissov and his centre-right government to resign Wednesday, and appealed to lawmakers to reject the prime minister’s pitch for a new constitution.
Borissov has pledged to resign if parliament approves his plans for a “grand national assembly” that would vote on a new constitution, intended to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and slash the number of lawmakers. But protesters and the opposition see the proposal as a ploy to win more time in power, and insist the government has lost its mandate to initiate any constitutional changes.
“It was not the lack of a new constitution that brought the people on the streets, but the lack of morality in the leadership, the erosion of statehood and the corruption,” said Radev.
Yotova said she believed that the demonstrations would continue until the protesters had achieved their goal of ousting Borissov and Geshev.
“In the protest slogans, you could see how disappointed, angry and ashamed Bulgarians are with their politicians,” she said. “People are quite determined to overthrow the government.”