First steps in Bulgaria

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In the last week of February, after days of protests across the country, the Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borisov resigned. Mariya Ivancheva looks at what happened and what comes next.

Over the past two months Bulgaria has been shaken by protests. Since the beginning of February, Bulgarians in most big cities have been out in the streets, protesting against increases in electricity and heating bills. After a few nights of clashes between police and protesters, the government of Boyko Borisov and his party, GERB, resigned. A week of perfunctory negotiations followed. After offering the mandate to all parties in parliament who had already declined it, president Rossen Plevneliev dissolved the parliament and appointed an interim government. The election is scheduled for 12 May, too soon for new actors to emerge. To prevent new parties the first reform of the interim government has been to increase the already high costs of electoral campaigning.

The protests started with clear economic demands. A significant amount of money was charged not on energy as such but through taxes on its distribution. The power distribution companies - privatised in 2005 and sold off to big foreign companies that signed a contract with the state to compensate them in case of loss - have kept prices high through a cartel agreement. Yet in post-socialist Bulgaria any anti-austerity and anti free market rhetoric is either condemned as "communist" (ie evil) or is used by the neoliberal Socialist Party and devoid of any real political meaning. So, not surprisingly the protesters lacked the vocabulary to articulate the situation in terms of a significant structural change. The calls for "a total change of the system" came with no clear political programme - left or right - of what could come next.

The initial élan of the protests has now disappeared, giving way to a number of seriously alarming issues. A few self-proclaimed leaders of the protest have already emerged and split. Half of them just joined the campaign for the parliamentary elections using a marginal party that is hardly going to enter parliament. Those same "faces of the protest" had previously claimed they were not interested in party politics, but wished to change the system. Now they declare that the system can only be changed "from within".

Other recognisable figures have joined forces with the ultra-right anti-Turkish and anti-Roma party VMRO. Parallel with the other extreme right party represented in the national and European parliament, ATAKA, VMRO has recently doubled its support.

Their representatives are now campaigning across the country with populist slogans like "Nationalisation", "Redistribution", and "Security". Sounds progressive, but the leaders of these parties support openly convicted neo-Nazi hooligans, ethnically-biased evictions and racist and chauvinist policies. They see the only beneficiaries of the redistribution as "ethnically pure" Bulgarians. The tiny new left has neither the human nor the financial resources to challenge the increasing hegemony of the nationalists. It is only slowly emerging in the political vacuum created by the ideology of the free market and EU-accession, which the Socialists and all other parties embrace.

At the same time, the poverty and deprivation of many Bulgarian families has been growing significantly. Around 36,000 Bulgarian families lost their houses in 2012 alone, unable to pay their mortgages. Six self-immolations have happened in just over a month. They have been paralleled by an avalanche of less brutal suicides and deaths from stress-induced health problems. Amid the serious stagnation and without an acting parliament, the new government has been unable to do anything but offer cosmetic improvements.

The one-off allotment of 30 euros per family in need - a sum that could hardly cover the increase in the electricity bills of a modest household - is an inadequate measure to save people from chronic poverty.

And while Bulgarians had mostly relied on the incomes of a family member abroad, the crisis looming in Southern Europe, and the negative campaigns against Bulgarians and Romanians in the core countries of the European Union make the prospects for nationals of the two poorest countries of the EU rather bleak.

David Cameron's recent "tougher" measures are just another step in an ongoing campaign against Bulgarian and Romanian citizens: the German plans to block their entry to the passport-free Schengen zone, the Dutch hot-line against workers from the two countries and the French evictions of nationals from Romani origin. The message is clear: the EU is no longer a rich club for all members, and Bulgaria and Romania underwent economic and political adjustment just to get a second-class citizenship: high costs, low benefits.

The next parliament which Bulgarians will elect will most probably be hung, with two or more of the current political actors in an unstable coalition. But what the protests have changed is that for the first time in more than a decade the power of the political class has been seriously shaken. And unless those in power now radically change their course of politics, they will face further waves of protests next winter.