The Bulgarian middle class wants to be getting empowered by the anti-corruption fight

The Barricade’s Vladimir Mitev was interviewed by the Danish organisation Democracy in Europe on the Bulgarian protests: their demands, the comparisons between the Bulgarian and the Romanian anti-corruption fights and protests, the role of the new left and its democratic innovations.

Democracy in Europe (DEO) is a Danish NGO, which aims to make nuanced debate on the EU and promotes participatory democracy. Vladimir Mitev was invited by the DEO to give an interview, screened within an event, which mixed political education and discussion on the political and social situation in Romania and Bulgaria. It took place on 26-27 September 2020. 

Zlatko Jovanovic: Vladimir Mitev, thank you for accepting this interview and for being with us. I’ll go directly to my questions. Can you please tell us a little bit about your work and about the Barricade – the news outlet you have been working for? And perhaps a couple of sentences about your blog – the Bridge of Friendship?

Yes, I am a Bulgarian journalist focused on international news and analysis. I’ve been doing this kind of work for eleven years. I was born in the city of Rousse, which is on the border with Romania and just 75 km to the south of Bucharest. I’ve always had a natural curiosity towards Romanians. Even though I lived in Sofia before, I used this geographical advantage of mine to learn Romanian. Various turmoils happen in life, so at a certain point I had to return to my home city. Then I started the Bulgarian-Romanian blog “The Bridge of Friendship”. It is a blog that aimed at making Bulgarian and Romanians more familiar with one another. But over time it expanded its mission. Now it has a lot of content not only in Bulgarian and Romanian, but also in English and in other languages – German, Polish, etc. It is in fact this journalistic initiative which allowed me to practice the type of journalism I like in my hometown. 

Bulgaria is a very centralised country. You just can’t do a lot of things outside of Sofia. But with this blog I proved I can do things from Rousse and they are meaningful not only on a national, but also an international level. 

This blog started in 2015. At a later time in 2016 after a period of freelancing for me, my colleagues from my previous job – Tema Magazine – started the Barricade. It started with the support of a Polish publishing house, called Strajk.eu. It had the vision to be a regional media, so they wanted to have sections in the different languages of the region. Given that I was acquainted with most of its team and I had the experience with my blog, they approached me and I created their Romanian language section. I was dealing with that section almost immediately after the launch of the Bulgarian section of the site, but mostly after the summer of 2017. It expanded a lot in Romanian, too. We used to have many different authors from Romania, who were leading experts on social affairs, activists, etc. But the Barricade has been in a financial crisis for two years and we just can’t have the richness of voices which we used to have before. We are now a small team and we rely a lot in Romania on our author Maria Cernat. 

The Barricade is a cross-border media. We have the capacity to provide original viewpoints on Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and other countries. I hope that this interview will bring a little bit more attention to the Barricade. I believe it has the capacity to explain our region to the people outside of it. 

That’s bringing me to my next question concerning the protests in Bulgaria, which have been taking place in the summer. The 2020 protests in Bulgaria have not received much coverage in Denmark or the majority of Western media. The majority of Danes are not familiar with the protests. They have scarce knowledge about them. The fact that the protests have been mutating since they started in July 2020 doesn’t help the poorly informed public to understand what has been going on in your country at the moment. Can you point out some of the most important issues and some claims that have been made by the protesters? What is at the core of those protests?

Sure, I have been writing on the protests ever since they started. They started out heterogeneous. There were all kinds of currents in them – nationalists, liberals, left-wing people. It might be difficult to understand what is going on there. 

But I think in a way it is also very clear. The demands are very simple: the resignations of the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Sometimes demands for machine voting and a provision for a free and fair electoral process are added to them. But I believe that what is most important in these demands is related to the judicial system. Maybe I need to give a bit of a context for your listeners. 

It turns out that the judicial system is the entity through which various disputes can be resolved and people, politicians, or economic interests can be taken out of the game. That is why all over our region – in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the judicial system becomes very important and it becomes important who controls it. And just let me expand a bit the background here. The most vocal part of the protest is the Bulgarian middle class. These are people who live in the big cities, mostly in Sofia. They are often professionals, mostly younger in age. My interpretation is they have had the feeling that the kind of anti-corruption fight we had in recent times has not been empowering them. It can be seen well, if we make a comparison with Romania, where anti-corruption was also a big issue. 

There is a belief, especially among the protesters, that a certain oligarch – Delyan Peevski has important influence in the judicial system. There is also the doubt that our anti-corruption fight has been in fact a capture of the state institutions by one group of oligarchs in order to take out another group of the oligarchs. The middle class thinks that it is an elite, because it has access to technocratic knowledge, because it has contacts with the West, etc. I believe it wants to take power. At least that might be one possible explanation. So it wants the anti-corruption fight to empower it and not the part of the oligarchy, which is affiliated with the government right now. 

Of course, there are different ways to look at the protest. I think this one is the most important one. You can have the plot, related to the distribution of European funds, which is related to the Multiannual Financial Framework of the EU (2021-2027). It is important who will write the rules and who will distribute the funds. You have the issue of the so-called Russian energy projects. There are all kinds of stories. But I think that the most important is related to the judicial system.

It is interesting that you spoke about Romania. There seem to be some big differences between the two countries, even though there are also some similarities with regard to anti-corruption and protests. For instance, the Chief Prosecutor of Romania Laura Kovesi had the support of Romanian protesters, while the Bulgarian protesters turned against the Bulgarian chief prosecutor. You already explained why that is in terms of the middle class. Can you develop a bit more your arguments and put them in perspective? Why is there a difference between these two countries?

I believe there is one key – the middle class. It is notable that Romania has a strong middle class. You can see that especially if you live in Rousse, which is close to Bucharest. Romanians are probably one of the nations that travels most in our region. So this financial and political empowerment of the middle class has been taking place in Romania. And also, the Bulgarian protesters seem to be fond of what Laura Kovesi – the current head of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, was doing while she was head of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate in Romania. I believe that the Bulgarian middle class has envied the Romanian one and wants the empowerment, which has taken place in Romania to take place in Bulgaria, too.

I certainly can’t comment on specific cases in Romania, but in general the political elites that were connected to the transition period, have been replaced through anti-corruption. As a result, we have a lot of young professionals, including in Romanian state institutions. Also, there is a party – Save Romania Union, which is generally a party of young people and the middle class in politics. It takes somewhere around 20% of the votes. So it is a strong party. 

The protests which are going now in Bulgaria are led by a similar party called Yes, Bulgaria. But its influence in Bulgarian society is smaller. So, I guess here we can see some signs that what has been going on in Romania has been wanted in Bulgaria by the middle class, too. Some people argue that Bulgarian anti-corruption is being done in a corrupt way. What we used to have as anti-corruption had its most famous cases against economic elites. In Romania, the criticism against their anti-corruption fight is that corporate structures have been left untouched. So the corporate institutions and their employees – the young professionals of the middle class, have been empowered. But in Bulgaria it hit, for example, the businessman who used to be the richest Bulgarian for some time – Vasil Bozhkov. As a result, he fled to Dubai and had his national lottery business taken over and closed by the state. 

I think here we can see an important difference between Bulgaria and Romania. Maybe some experts could build on that and discuss why this difference exists. In my view, it is because the middle class didn’t feel empowered by the kind of anti-corruption which we had. 

That is very interesting. I have read a number of your articles. You have published one of them at Open Democracy, which many people in Denmark would know. One of the topics which you have written about is that protests have been used differently by different groups. But interestingly, the new left and organisations such as Factory Autonomy, The Orion Grid and others – anarchists, feminists, have used the protests to apply some concepts of democratic innovations. Can you talk a bit about these organisations, about their activity and how they use democratic innovations in their struggle?

Yes. Certainly. First of all, Factory Autonomy is a left-wing cultural centre. It develops a lot of grassroots activity, like cultural events, political discussions. It has a lot of activities associated specifically with the grassroots. The Orion Grid is another organisation, which has a little bit more of an educational profile. It is an NGO. It has a lot of initiatives and courses, which uplifts the level of political culture of the people, especially in Sofia. There are other organisations too. Maybe I should mention Food not Bombs, which is an international organisation, but has its people in Sofia. 

They have been doing different things. If I have to say in short – they aim at recovering or rebuilding the social fabric on the ground at the protest. Some examples are: they make an ecosocial assembly, which is a kind of citizen assembly, where people gather in circles, discuss and have consensus decision making. This initiative seems to be aimed at a certain empowerment of the common person. They are open to everyone. They listen to what people have to say. In Bulgaria, maybe also in the region, there is always some kind of suspicion when somebody is open to the masses. When you approach somebody and ask him or her to say what he or she thinks, there is suspicion that there is manipulation behind that. I can’t say these initiatives advance quickly or will have a great effect, but they contribute to solidarity between people. 

Other examples are related to political education. Until the 2nd of September, the protests were located at the Eagle Bridge’s square in Sofia. There were no cars there. It was a free zone. And various courses on political education took place there. There were cinema screenings. Food was cooked and distributed in a communal way. It is this type of activity, which you don’t usually have. 

Under normal circumstances in Bulgaria, people are withdrawn to some private circles. And if I have to name an innovation in these protests, it is that truly free spaces are created, where anyone can join and be part of what is going on. 

Very interesting. I was thinking about something you said. You used the phrase “social recovery”. What do you mean by that and why did you use exactly this term?

I need to open a new chapter of the interview here. I don’t know how familiar the Danish public is with what transition was in Bulgaria, in the eastern part of the EU, and also beyond the EU – in the eastern part of Europe. Basically, it is related to a certain destruction of the social fabric, with certain traumas which can be seen on a psychological level, on an economic level, on a social level, and on an educational level. I remember that Bulgaria used to have very good education in the 90s, but in recent years it has had very poor results in education. Bulgaria was also a well-industrialised country. It used to make a lot of electronics, including computers, before 1989. A lot of industries, which were developed at that time, were simply destroyed in the times of transition. There is nostalgia related to that past. I don’t suggest that we have to be nostalgic. I look at the new left in Bulgaria or in the region as a force which can try to heal the wounds of transition. Transition has been a dehumanising process. The new left, which I mentioned, can also be seen in the figure of Vanya Grigorova, who is an economic adviser in one of the two labour unions in Bulgaria – Podkrepa (Support). People like her have been promoting labour rights and writing about them. She has recently written a book on labour rights in Bulgaria. 

I think that the new left is not looking at a change of property. Usually, the left is accused of wanting to make a revolution and take over property. The Bulgarian new left is a left which is humble. The representatives of this left are looking at certain tax reform, which could introduce a non taxable minimum amount of income, so below a certain level of income no one will pay income tax. Bulgaria is a specific case, where there is no such minimal untaxed income.

Another issue for the new left is the fight against stigmatisation of people with handicaps and minorities. In Bulgaria there has been a discourse that the people who receive social benefits are parasites. It is stigmatizing and it is not true. These social benefits are very minimal and you can’t live on such an income. There are ever stricter requirements to receive such benefits. 

As a result of transition a lot of dissatisfaction has appeared in Bulgarian society and this frustration has been directed against its poor members. Here I see the role of the new left and that is why I speak about recovery. Harm has been done to the people, especially to the common people. It is complicated to recover from those harms. But I believe that those Don Quixotes who look for such healing should receive support.

That’s very interesting. Now let’s go a little bit back to the protests. The violent clashes between protesters and the police on the 2nd of September 2020. What happened? What are the consequences of the cleaning-up of the protest camp at Eagle’s Bridge? Where are we now with the protest? Where are we standing at the moment? 

These protests had been going on for some 74-75 days. One could have had the feeling that in the beginning Boyko Borissov was really in doubt whether he should continue to rule or not. But after that he recovered his position. He gave certain financial gestures to different parts of the population, especially to the state employees, who are his voters, and to the unemployed, too. 

There is a feeling that there is a divide and conquer game. The middle class has generally more income, it has free time to do things outside work. It is not so tired. I believe some people can be frustrated with the government, but may consider the protesters even more unpleasant. And that happens for various reasons. We are not perfect. Everyone can be despised. I can’t give all the details, but certainly there is a division between people who are relatively well-to-do, and others who are downtrodden. I believe Boyko Borissov uses this division in order to remain in power. 

In this context given that he hasn’t resigned and some greater effort is needed to take him down, the relaunch of the political season (the reopening of the parliament’s activity) took place on the 2nd of September. The organisers of the protest called these protests  “The Big People’s Revolt”. They were branding this date as an important one, in which everyone should go to Sofia and put pressure on the government to go. In its turn, the police called on support from various parts of the country. So there were a lot of policemen in Sofia. 

I speak based on TV accounts. Various politicians have suggested a number of hooligans had been allowed that evening’s protest. They were not checked by the police upon entering the protest zone. Their pyrotechnic stuff was not confiscated. So they were allowed in to the protest, they mixed with the crowd, and on the evening of September 2nd they started attacking the police. That attack went on for one hour. Police were withstanding various explosions for one hour, accumulating frustration toward the throwers. And at a certain moment an order was given that the square and the protest should be cleared. By that time the hooligans had already left. So the people who were arrested and beaten as a result of this order, at least by their own accounts, were not those that had been throwing those firecrackers. That was a traumatic episode. 

The protests have had ebbs and flows. There was a second grand revolt after the 2nd of September. I think that now there seems to be certain repetition of the protest. If something repeats 75 times, it can certainly repeat for 150 times, without certain change. The change which has been observed is that European public opinion seems to be more concerned. The European media shows greater interest towards Borissov and the protests. Der Spiegel  recently wrote that Boyko Borissov has been too subservient to Erdogan. This criticism – on corruption, on other stuff, step-by-step gets greater. 

I think it also matters that given that we are a member of NATO and the EU, and that the protests are prolonged, it matters what will happen in the presidential elections in the USA. Maybe as a sign of those results there will be some outcome in the Bulgarian protests too. We will see who will prevail and what will be the balance in the future parliament. 

Photo: “Let’s break the mafia state!” – a protest banner in Sofia (source: Nikolay Draganov)

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