On 2 September Bulgarians took again to the streets in a culminating moment of the last two months. Violent clashes between football hooligans and the police obscure an aggravated tension in the country between citizens and a corrupt political class. 

While the parliament was resuming after summer break, protesters called for a Grand National Uprisal aiming not only to regain post-vacation momentum, but also forcing Borisov to resign. 

As it turns out, the Prime Minister once more outsmarted the people.  Officials signaled that the GERB ruling party would withdraw from the government and most of the political parties were sceptical about the idea for a new constitution put forward by Boris Borisov.

Prime Minsiter Boris Borisov

Although the protests commenced early in the morning and the number of protesters was impressive, by the afternoon Borisov gained the upper hand, when it became apparent that his project for a new constitution received the necessary 120 votes and can be proceeded in the Bulgarian parliament.

Bulgarian constitution can be changed only by a Grand National Assembly, the convention of which requires the support of at least 160 of the 240 MPs. Although Borisov knows that his initiative will not have that majority, the processing of the new constitutional project will secure his power by the end of his term in March 2021.

Why Bulgarians are protesting 

For almost two months, protesting Bulgarians have been demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, Attorney General Ivan Geshev, and for new, free elections. 

However, these demands do not exhaust the list of problems that brought people onto the streets, nor do they touch on the essence of the Bulgarian protests. 

This list would include the general and specific toil suffered by the public from warring oligarchs, abuses of power during the takeover of interests and political circles controlling the economy. 

The extent of the corruption is so vast that it requires some self-reflection and juxtaposition with other post-communist neighbours; is it a universal characteristic of the region? 

Sadly for Bulgaria, these processes go much deeper in Sofia than in Warsaw or even Budapest.  

How criminal world came to the picture

It started with a political demonstration by the former Minister of Justice Hristo Ivanov, who upon landing on a theoretically-public beach was once again thrown out to the sea by guards protecting the supposed property of Ahmed Dogan. 

The latter is the honorary chairman of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a political group belonging to Renew Europe. Ivanov used the event to document just one example of abuse by those who stand above the law.

What followed in Bulgaria were the results of years of repression. Protesting is an act of despair, a search for dignity and a source of hope for a reversal of fate in a country kidnapped by organised crime, which has dragged it into an abyss of misery and anguish; a country that was conquered by mafia structures during the political transition. 

Bulgaria became a country that ceased to fulfil its basic functions and transformed into a private farm for ruthless criminals. 

The failed (mafia) state 

Today, Bulgaria’s official government is only a facade, managed by informal structures. 

Since the end of the 1990s, there has been a saying in Bulgaria that all countries have a mafia, but only in Bulgaria does the mafia have a country. 

It seems that all the mechanisms of democracy work perfectly, but neither the formal political divisions nor the formal division of powers are able to stop the informal control of the state by a structure that evolved from criminal groups such as the SIC, VIS or TIM, which fought a war for influence in the 1990s, as described in the McMafia book by Misha Glenny.

The final takeover of the state by mafia structures took place in 2001 with the return of Car Simeon II as Prime Minister. Boyko Borisov, who was previously the bodyguard of the communist secretary Todor Zhivkov, also entered politics with him. 

From bodyguard, to the owner of a security agency, a fireman, a police secretary, a mayor and finally a three-term prime minister, Borisov has overseen and embodied the 30-year history of Bulgaria’s collapse.

A collapse that has been brought about by the takeover by corrupt individuals ranging from former heavy-weighters, wrestlers and other sportsmen to collaborators with the secret service, as well as out-and-out criminals, known as “mutras”. 

They are the backbone of the system, meticulously protected and nurtured by their superiors. 

Their presence can be seen with ease; muscular and ruthless, they drive in exclusive cars, ready to physically deal with anyone who dares enter their parade. 

Institutionalised lawlessness 

The mutras have created their own culture based on “chalga” – a kitchy Bulgarian music style, violence, lawlessness and rudeness. 

These “soldiers” of the Bulgarian mafia not only took over the streets, but violently deprived people of their civilian courage and sense of justice. 

With them, loyalty has replaced competence and dedication to social principles.

Today, in Bulgaria, no one has any illusions that a career is made – not with knowledge and skills – but through nepotism and subservience. 

Protesters highlight that state positions are filled with useful idiots, like the Chairwoman of the Bulgarian National Assembly, whom Borisov called a “stupid Kyrdzhali c-nt”. Their only advantages are a near absolute obedience to their leaders and the willingness to participate in schemes to drain public or EU funds.

Abandon the ship

In view of this widespread pillaging by the next governments, society began to vote with its feet. Since 1989, Bulgaria has lost two out of almost nine million citizens. 

More than 600 localities have been depopulated to abysmal levels, with fewer than ten people living there or officially closed down. 

In 1999, a sliver of hope emerged for those wanting better prospects and to escape the influence of the mafia and corrupt officials when the EU opened up its borders to Bulgarians. 

Soon, Bulgaria became a country of emigrants. 

Protesters have no illusions that the entrenched mafia structures will be overthrown with the current protests. Therefore, the demonstrations are more an act of despair and a hope for the beginning of moral renewal, as the sculptor and one of the leaders of the protests, Velislav Minekov, described the movement. 

Meeting the demands is only the first step, and in fact the protesters dream of an anti-mutra revolution.

Radicalism on the streets

The protests initially pushed Borisov on the defensive. The dissolution of the state coffers as well as a few cosmetic reconstructions of the government were hoped to be sufficient to fulfil the desires of those in the street and allow for the administration to continue until the end of the term next year. 

However, when it turned out that social irritation could not be bought with cheap tricks, Borisov, together with his coalition partners, returned to the old mafia patterns. 

By day, they depreciated the protesters as a mob, and by night, they sent in thugs with support from the police to destroy the tent towns. 

The protesters’ own tactics (i.e., the blocking of key intersections in the capital) were met with counter-demonstrations and provocation by the authorities, in the name of “the right to free movement of citizens”. 

Counter-insurgent tactics 

As part of the counter-insurgency, Borisov has proposed a change to the constitution although the protesters have never requested it. 

The idea was widely criticised by many quarters and the very thought that the mutras would write the constitution scared the protesters.  

Members of the government and the coalition members have also begun to use ruthless language of contempt for the protesters. 

Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov described the protestors as “losers” who returned back home during the summer. Politicians in the power camp call the demonstrators “monkeys” or “degenerates” and the other nationalist Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov threatened to use force. 

Missteps by the EU 

On August 30, the European Parliament held a closed meeting of the LIBE Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG) on the situation in Bulgaria. 

Although Prime Minister Borisov and the Attorney General were invited, the Bulgarian authorities were represented by their deputies. It is known from the leaks that the authorities justified the protests as a response to the intensified fight against organised crime, which is said to have stunned the participants.

The Bulgarian protests have exposed the extremely uncomfortable situation in which the major European political parties find themselves. 

Both the European People’s Party and Renew Europe supported their Bulgarian partners, although they brought criticism to bear that they support the mafia and all its pathologies. 

The question is how long will the EU institutions be able to balance between the need for diplomatic correctness and the accusations against Borisov of appropriating the state and taking billions of euros out of EU funds.

The organisers of the protests have no illusions. If the authorities do not yield, their revenge will be brutal. 

The demonstrators have challenged the model that led Bulgaria to the bottom; only a revolution – moral, civic and uncompromising – can bring the country to the surface.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF