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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times