This is my contribution for the print edition of The Economist on the government crisis in Bulgaria, available here
Desperate demonstrations against an ephemeral government
SIX people have set themselves on fire in Bulgaria in less than a month. Three have died. The death by self-immolation of Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old amateur photographer and rock climber, especially shocked the public. Mr Goranov has become Bulgaria’s Jan Palach (the student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia), a symbol of the protests that have rocked the country in recent weeks. “You fired up our courage and love for freedom”, said one banner at the national day of mourning following his death.
Self-immolation is not a new phenomenon in Bulgaria. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical charity, Bulgaria, a country of 7.3m people, had an average of 7.4 self-immolations a year between 1983 and 2002, most of them politically motivated. Yet this wave of protests—and individuals’ willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for political goals—is worse than any previous one since the collapse of communism. Bulgarians have been worn down by rampant corruption, mismanagement in both the public and the private sector, useless bureaucracy, high unemployment and poverty. “The deep-seated cause for the political crisis is poverty,” says Kristofor Pavlov, chief economist at UniCredit Bulbank in Sofia.
The protests have already brought down the government of Boyko Borisov, who resigned last month, ostensibly because, in his own words, he “won’t participate in a government under which the police are beating people”. In early March Rosen Plevneliev, the president, announced a caretaker cabinet led by Marin Raykov, a former ambassador to France (who will also double as foreign minister). On the day the president announced the interim government a couple of hundred protesters threw toilet rolls at the parliament building and carried brooms and signs saying “Let’s sweep out the trash”.
The new government of mostly competent technocrats cannot do much before the general election on May 12th. “We will try, with the limited resources and little time at our disposal, to help the most vulnerable parts of the population,” says Deyana Kostadinova, deputy prime minister and labour minister. Unemployment went above 12% in February, its highest since 2005. More than 22% of the population live below the official poverty line. The average monthly wage is €400 ($517).
The question is who will win the election in May—and whether the winners will be able to restore calm, stick to Bulgaria’s policy of fiscal austerity and finally clean the Augean stables of corporate Bulgaria. This would help the country to secure much-needed European Union (EU) funds. Until now it has been a laggard in absorption of EU money.
In the first opinion polls since his government’s resignation, Mr Borisov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) held a slight lead over the Socialist opposition. According to Gallup, support for GERB was at 19.7%, down from 22% in February; support for the Socialist Party fell to 18.6% from 22%. Mr Borisov’s resignation (widely seen as a tactical move to preserve the political capital that GERB had left) seems to have paid off. More worrying is the rise of the far-right nationalist Attack party: its support jumped to 5% from 1.2% in February. Attack will be the election’s wild card: none of the main parties wants to form a coalition with the extremist group.