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Students in Bulgaria Want Their Entire Government to Resign

It's a big ask, but if those in power refuse, they run the risk of a great Bulgarian brain drain.

by Tristan James
07 November 2013, 11:20am

Protesters holding a banner that says, quite simply, "RESIGN" (Photo by Plamen Stantchev)

This week's most ambitious revolutionary news comes from Bulgaria, where a load of students are occupying their universities and demanding "the mass resignation of the current government". That might sound like a big ask – entire cabinets aren't generally known to leave their posts because some angry students told them to – but there have been widespread protests against the coalition government since the summer. Their approval rating has continued to plummet, and now stands at a new low of 12 percent, so it's evident that not many people are supportive of those in power.

The backlash started on the 14th of June, in reaction to media tycoon Delyan Peevski being appointed as head of Bulgaria's national security agency. Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski said that, despite his complete lack of experience, Peevski – who happens to own about 80 percent of Bulgarian media – was the perfect candidate to put an end to organised crime and smuggling in the country. The president Rosen Plevneliev disagreed, claiming that Peevski's appointment had damaged the prime minister's credibility.

The uproar didn't stop there and, after thousands took to the streets complaining of nepotism, Peevski withdrew from the position after just one day, on the 15th of June. This did little to quell the protests – Bulgarians hadn't been happy with the way their country was being run for a while, and Oresharski's decision was merely the catalyst they needed to start voicing their dissent. 

A student inside an occupied university building (Photo by Konstantin Pavlov)

After a few months of demonstrations, the numbers at marches began to dwindle and as the movement lost momentum the student protesters were basically left to fight the battle themselves. However, the students' occupation of the university buildings has galvanised a fresh wave of anti-government dissent. New stats released this week show that 60 percent of the Bulgarian public support the occupations, and last Friday around 2,000 marched in Sofia to accuse the government of having ties with "murky business groups".

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Bulgaria’s political landscape has been poorly organised – its party system unstable at the best of times. Maarten Vonk, a teacher and resident of Sofia says that, within that shaky framework, the government has been allowed to become corrupt: "They have no real mandate and are backed by the fascistic party Ataka," he told me. Ataka (or "Attack", a welcoming name for a political party) is a popular ultra-nationalist party (they came fourth in the last elections) said to be anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Roma and Islamophobic. Essentially, they don't like anyone who isn't white and Bulgarian. So you can see why, if the government does have ties with them, it's in the public interest to oust them from office.

Police blocking protesters from accessing parliament (Photo by Plamen Stantchev)

The prime minister has called the protesters thugs, but Maarten told me, "Of course, it's the contrary – these people are the educated hope of the country." He then went on to explain how the movement's potential failure would damage Bulgaria, saying, "If they don't succeed, a vast brain drain will occur, starting on the first of January." This, of course, is in reference to Bulgaria's young educated population leaving for the UK and seven other EU member states when they open their doors to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens on New Year's Day, 2014.

Backing him up, one protester – Konstantin Pavlov – said: "The government won't respond in any way to the civil unrest. Educated and younger people, especially top professionals who don't see change and who cannot find decent jobs, would consider leaving if this government [doesn't] resign soon."

With a meagre average monthly salary of €300 to €400, living and working abroad is already a pretty appealing prospect. Maarten teaches Dutch and can’t speak for all his students, but says the common consensus is that they will "go to Holland or Belgium, indifferent of the outcome of the protests. They want to make something with their lives – their future. If this country can't give them an opportunity, then with bleeding hearts they'll leave."

Protesters holding a sign that reads: "I want to live a normal life" (Photo by Plamen Stantchev)

So it looks like the people behind the Daily Express' petition to "say NO to new EU migrants" needn't be quaking in their boots just yet about a sudden influx of eastern Europeans invading the UK. The greater concern should really be reserved for Bulgaria – that, like Ireland, it's set to lose a great chunk of its young, educated generation.

However, Prime Minister Oresharski doesn't seem particularly bothered by the prospect of losing the future minds of his country, denouncing the protests as a farce. "I expected a different kind of protest demand from the students – a professional one, about education," he said. "Because education is not in great shape, while their demands are typical political ones." Which seems an odd thing to admit when you've already got roughly 60 percent of the population calling for you to resign.

Nikolay Dyulgerov, a student in Sofia, said the government, unsurprisingly, "don't seem inclined to resign", before telling me the only direct action he's seen is when "a member of the ruling party came to our university with a group of 20 to 30 hooligans who attacked the university building". 

When I asked Maarten whether he thought the protest movement would be successful, he answered, "After the first ten days, I thought they would [succeed]; after 100 days I thought it would be impossible. Now, heading into day 150, I think there is no other option."

Whatever the result, the demonstrations are sure to send ripples throughout the EU come the new year. Even if January the 1st doesn't see a mass exodus from Bulgaria, prolonged protest with no end in sight is never healthy for a country's wellbeing.    

Follow Tristan on Twitter: @tristanjamesme 

More stories from Bulgaria:

The Bulgarian Spring Started In February

I Was Kidnapped By a Bulgarian Human Trafficking Ring

WATCH – Burning Men of Bulgaria