Protests sweep Bulgaria following a self-immolation in Varna

Government resigns as high electricity bills force people onto the streets.

Bulgaria erupted in protest last week, as a campaign against high electricity prices morphed into a general collection of protests against corruption and abuse of power.

 

5 March: People attend a vigil outside the city hall of Varna, on the site where Plamen Goranov immolated himself

The spark for the progression of the protests was the self-immolation of 36-year-old Plamen Goranov, an amateur photographer and rock climber, in the town square of Varna on 20 February. Goranov's move prompted the Varna protestors to turn their focus from their bills to the long-term mayor, who they accused of corruption and favouritism.

 

February 24: Protesters shout slogans during a protest in Sofia

The day after Goranov's stand, the Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov, submitted his government's resignation, saying "the people gave us power, and today we are returning it". His last-ditch attempt to cling to power had involved pledging to cut electricity prices by 8 percent, and even promising to revoke the license of the Czech power supplier CEZ.

But Borisov's government has presided over many of the corruption scandals which have angered protestors. In just one example, the nominee of the state electricity regulatory commission—which sets the price of electricity, itself an unpopular body—was accused of selling cigarettes illegally online.

 

21 February: Outgoing Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (R) leaves the parliament in Sofia

Two days before Borisov's resignation, his finance minister, Simeon Djankov, stepped down to try and take heat off the government. Djankov was the architect of Bulgaria's austerity programme, which—naturally—lies at the heart of many of the country's problems. His resignation did little to sooth tempers. Reuters quotes one protestor:

"We can't take it any more. How can I have a bill for 200 levs for electricity and all the job offers that I find are for salaries of 300 to 500 levs per month?" said jobless Monika Vasileva, 25, among a crowd in central Sofia.

 

March 5: Miners shout slogans during a protest in downtown Sofia

Even Borisov's resignation has not put an end to the crisis. On Sunday, waves of protests again swept Bulgarian cities, hitting Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, Blagoevgrad, Ruse, Sliven and Varna. The protestors demand the interim government heed their demands, but are faced with the problem that, while Borisov's party has lost much support, the opposition Socialist Party has not made equivalent gains. With no-one to turn to, and a movement united more through opposition to the current government than support for any future one, the protestors have a difficult task ahead. Borisov, meanwhile, was reportedly hospitalized with “high blood pressure and general weakness”.

Protesters wave a Bulgarian flag as they block a road in Varna. All photographs: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism