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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution