The Nobel-prize winning author Elias Canetti was born in the Bulgarian city of Russe on the Danube in 1905 and would have had quite a few things to say about the protests in Sofia. Better known ironically (thanks to his own autobiographical efforts) as one of British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s many lovers, his “Crowds and Power” (1960) vies with Le Bon’s as the classic treatise on the subject. The book - a strange mixture of anthropology and social psychology and now, understandably, enjoying a new lease of lifewarned of the unpredictable ebb and flow of the crowd. It is, most definitely, not a Marxist take on the subject – for which one should turn to criminologist Matt Clement’s “A People’s History of Riot, Protest and the Law – the Sound of the Crowd” (2016)
Vlad Mitev is a young Bulgarian journalist who also lives in Russe and has a trilingual HYPERLINK "https://movafaq.wordpress.com/category/limba-език-language/english/"Bridge of Friendship blogHYPERLINK "https://movafaq.wordpress.com/category/limba-език-language/english/" which covers political and cultural developments on both sides of that last section of the river Danube. He’s also editor of the Romanian section of "HYPERLINK "https://en.baricada.org/"BaricadaHYPERLINK "https://en.baricada.org/""HYPERLINK "https://en.baricada.org/" , a leftist journal based in Sofia which boasts Bulgarian, Polish and Romanian writers. He and I worked together on an early draft of this piece before deciding to focus on what we each felt we knew best. I’m also grateful for the insights I’ve gained over the years from Daniela, my Romanian companion and conspirator,
Ralf Dahrendorf was a famous German sociologist/UK statesman who wrote in 1990 an extended public letter first published under the title “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” and then expanded as “Reflections on the Revolution of our Time”. In it he made the comment that it would take
· one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in the recently liberated countries of central Europe;
· maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy; and
· 15 to 20 years to create the rule of law.
· some two generations to create a functioning civil society there.
What had in 1989 seemed a bloody Revolution in Romania was later exposed as more of a simple regime change. Personnel and systems remained in place and it was to be 1996 - with the election of Emil Constantinescu as President - before new winds started to challenge the old systems and structures of power. By then the scions of the country's privileged families were being inculcated in the pro-market celebratory doctrines that pass for education in American Business Schools; and the country's (strong) intelligentsia had spent several years quaffing at Friedrich Hayek's fountain.
Privatisation was at last allowed to let rip – with the local oligarchs soon becoming indistinguishable from the politicians.
When Bulgaria’s PM Ivan Kostov was asked why crony capitalism was flourishing under his rule, his revealing comments was
“Bulgaria is a small country. We are all cousins”
Eastern Europe as a whole was offered a deadly deal which has almost destroyed these countries – almost 2 million Bulgarians and Romanians prop up the British and German economies; Bulgaria has the unenviable position of losing its population at a faster rate than any other country in the world - and Romania is not far behind. And the pensioners who are expected to exist on a monthly pension of less than 200 euros a month – when the prices in the shops are at western level.
Austrian and Italian companies have taken over the jewels of the Bulgarian and Romanian timber, banking and agribusiness sectors after the massive privatisation which was made a condition of their membership of the EU and NATO.
That last has meant of course militarisation, high expenditures on military procurement and reduced social spending. Bulgaria recently concluded a deal for American fighter aircraft at a cost of 2 billion dollars – placing it at the top of the global table for increased military spending since 2010 – with a 167% increase (Romania is at 150%)
The Bulgarian protests
But it is the EC Structural Funds with their hundreds of billions of euros which lie behind the ongoing street protests in Sofia - directed generally against the country's systemic corruption and, specifically, against Prime Minister Borisov (who used to be the bodyguard of first the ex-dictator Zhivkov and then PM King Simeon II) as well as the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev - whose raid on the offices of popular President Radev in July raised big questions.
Unlike previous street protests in Sofia, this one has attracted wider support – for example from a previous Justice Minister, Hristo Ivanov who launched a mock incursion on the Black Sea home of one of the country’s political oligarchs
The incident transformed Ivanov’s image from detached intellectual to maverick politician setting the terms of public debate, and his centre-right Democratic Bulgaria coalition doubled its support in the polls. “This was not simply the PR action of the year but of the decade,” said Petar Cholakov, a political analyst and sociologist from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
The two countries separated by the River Danube don't usually have a great deal to do with one another - one is strongly in the EU/Atlantic Alliance camp - the other's 150-year-old ties with Russia still reverberate. But, in recent years, Romania (at least in western eyes) has made significant progress in fighting corruption - measured at least in terms of the number of politicians and ex-Ministers it has managed to put in jail. When Bulgarian activists began to call this out, the power structure tried to defuse the situation by appointing a crony as Prosecutor-General. This is a position which, unlike in Romania, has never been the subject of any reform.
Vlad Mitev’s recent Open Democracy article Bulgarian Protests - battle over anti-corruption gives some of the background to the Sofia protests
The Romanian anti-corruption formula was popular in Bulgaria until 2017-2018. Romanian anti-corruption had gained its fame under the leadership of the former chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Kövesi, now chief prosecutor of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.
As Romanian Chief prosecutor from 2013 to 2018, she presided over numerous arrests of politicians, widely reported in the international press. The “Romanian model of anti-corruption” was lauded in the western media as an exemplary model for delivering justice and building the rule of law. The model of anti-corruption based on a powerful Chief Prosecutor’s office thus came to be seen in Bulgaria as a path towards a European standard of living. The Bulgarian middle class seemed to envy their Romanian counterparts...
But a subsequent article by Mitev in “Baricada” laid more emphasis on the class nature evident in the protests – which the western media has totally failed to pick up -
It is interesting to note that in the earlier wave of anti-oligarchic protests in Bulgaria in 2013 the protesters were called by media and society “the beautiful and the clever ones”, which was a direct reference to the narcissism of their representatives’ and to the abyss that divides them from the “ugly” and “stupid” masses. Romania has an almost exact notion of the same type: “the beautiful and the free youth”, which gets abbreviated as “Tefelists” (TFL – tineri frumoşi şi liberi – beautiful and free youth).
These are important signals that important parts of the overall population feel distant and maybe even ethically superior to these protesting elites, who in turn believe that it is they who hold the ethical higher ground. And these notions have been used by politicians in a divide and conquer manner.
What was imported from Romania was the idea of an unrestrained Chief Prosecutor which suited Bulgaria’s new man Geshev down to the ground – as Mihai Evans explains in a recent Open Democracy article.
As the system is currently constituted there are simply no checks and balances that can rein in the conduct of the Bulgarian Prosecutor General, a position which is largely in the political gift of the government. The holder of this office has effective command of the entire judicial system and can stop any investigation, including a hypothetical one against himself. This has resulted in conduct that reached a nadir in a shocking series of events which saw a senior prosecutor murdered after making strongly worded criticisms of the then Prosecutor General. This appalling episode has never been satisfactory cleared up by investigators or the legal system. The family of the murdered man took a case, Kolevi v Bulgaria, to the European Court of Human Rights whose ruling was that Bulgaria must engage in extensive reforms of the prosecutors office.
Over a period of more than a decade, largely coinciding with the governments of Borisov, it has failed to do so. As a result, as Radosveta Vassileva, a fellow at University College, London’s Faculty of Law argues: “Bulgaria is permanently torn by scandals regarding non-random distribution of case files, abuses of judges and prosecutors who resist political orders, purposeful destruction of evidence by authorities etc.”. In recent years Bulgaria has been repeatedly convicted of violations of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights for failing to ensure the rights of the accused. The Specialised Court for Organised Crime, a parallel system of courts ostensibly established to combat corruption have failed to convict a single politician (in contrast to Romania where dozens have been imprisoned, including the leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party last year). Legal scholars have accused both countries of failing to provide fair trials.
The Sofia protesters’ demand of a reform to the Bulgarian constitution (with the chief prosecutor’s prerogatives being curbed, the political influence over the judicial system curtailed and the judiciary strengthened) certainly suggests a continuing degree of faith in Bulgarian institutions or at least in their capacity to reform and be held accountable.
Pre Covid Hopes of “Normality”
"For a normal Romania" was the slogan used by the campaign of the ex-Mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu in last autumn's elections as he fought to retain the Presidency he had surprisingly grabbed in 2015 from the jaws of defeat. The slogan expressed the dreams of many - not least the millions of younger Romanians (and Bulgarians) forced to emigrate in search of that dream.
Street protests in both countries are nothing new - although only in Romania have they succeeded in recent years in toppling governments. A so-called Social Democratic (PSD) government fell in 2015 as a result of a deadly fire in a Bucharest nightclub which exposed the scandalously lax regulations sustained by the greasing of hands.
Another scandal which engulfed Romania last summer started with the murder of a teenager whose terrified phone-call to the police was totally ignored. The revelation of the scale of the collusion between the Secret Service, prosecutors and the Anti-Corruption Agency in the country (a veritable Deep State) eventually led to the collapse of that PSD government as well - and the re-election in the subsequent Presidential election of the slow-witted but polarising Transylvanian Klaus Johannis
Bulgaria and Romania may have joined the EU in 2007 after a bit of a hiccup but they both still operate under a judicial cloud in the form of The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) which subjects each country to an annual check of its legal and judicial health. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania are happy with the continued EU scrutiny but have at least managed to avoid the threat of sanctions which continues to hang over Hungary and Poland. And both countries have, largely, managed post-1989 to escape the right-wing virus to which they were exposed in the interwar period. For that we should all be profoundly grateful.
But neither country has been able to shake off the legacy of its past - which is much longer than just the half-century of communist influence. The Ottoman Empire had several centuries to engineer human souls – with the Greek Phanariots being given a measure of licence in Romania to exploit the locals whereas the Bulgarians lived under the direct yoke of the Ottomans.
In that respect, Dahrendorf was a bit optimistic in 1990 in suggesting that it would it take only 20 years to embed the Rule of Law and 2 generations (say 50 years) for civil society to be properly functioning!
I’ll continue this post later