On Wednesday, March 20, a 41-year-old man in the Bulgarian village of Sitovo paid a visit to his local gas station. There, Todor Yovchev doused himself with gasoline and lit himself ablaze. He died two days later, at a hospital in Varna—shortly after telling doctors he was unemployed and unable to buy bread for his child and he “could not stand it anymore.” Novinite, a Bulgarian news agency, called the man’s death the latest “in the country’s unprecedented self-immolation wave.” Yovchev is reportedly “the sixth Bulgarian self-immolator in the course of just one month.”
After so many iterations of “Occupy” X and This-or-That “Spring,” tumult in Bulgaria has failed to capture international headlines. But something momentous is happening in Sofia. In February, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov was forced to resign after weeks of sometimes bloody demonstrations by thousands of Bulgarians in dozens of cities. Borisov was either the latest victim of pan-European austerity, or a sign of early “Spring” in southeastern Europe.
Then, this week, allegations that the former government was involved in illegal wiretapping stirred the pot anew; several shady recordings, featuring top-level politicians and judges, were leaked to the press. Borisov denies the allegations, but observers are already speaking of a “Bulgarian Watergate.” Just weeks before the next national election, the country’s caretaker prime minister warns that “Bulgaria’s democracy is sick.”
The protests began in January, in response to unusually high electricity prices. Residents of Blagoevgrad gathered in the streets to set fire to their bills. The price of electricity has long been a touchy issue here. Bulgaria’s Communist regime collapsed in 1990, but the power market remained state-owned until 2005—at which point Bulgaria surrendered to liberalization demands and privatized the industry. The government then sold off a majority of the market to three foreign companies, which have effectively functioned as regional monopolies, and electricity prices have risen.
By mid-February, Facebook groups were urging Bulgarians to “Burn down the monopolies!” Protesters fanned across the country: blocking transport routes, lobbing eggs and clashing with police at symbolic sites such as the National Palace of Culture. Their efforts acquired a retro-Soviet tinge, with protesters calling for the re-nationalization of key economic sectors. Dimitar Bechev, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Sofia office, says that nationalizations aren’t likely, as that “will mean compensating foreign investors and a string of lawsuits.”
Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the European Union, which it joined in 2007. The average monthly salary was just 812 leva ($552) in December 2012. The country’s minimum wage is about a quarter of bailout-wracked Greece’s. One in eight Bulgarians is unemployed.
Still, commentators insist that the ongoing protests are not a eurozone-crisis creation, but rather a reflection of Bulgaria’s unique post-Communist transition. In Bulgaria, pre-1989 political forces continued to dominate into the ’90s. (The Bulgarian Communist Party renamed itself the Bulgarian Socialist Party in 1990, and went on to win Bulgaria’s first free multi-party elections in over half a century.) As a result, pro-market moves were delayed—until 1996, when the Bulgarian economy took a spectacular nosedive. In 1997, Bulgaria struck a loan deal with the IMF and embraced serious belt-tightening. And so, when the financial crisis hit a decade later, Bulgaria was able to weather the storm. Bulgarians joke that they didn’t feel the crisis because they have always been in crisis.
One narrative is that these demonstrations are the deathbed thrashes of Bulgaria’s pre-1990 system. In other words: this is the final step in a delayed post-Communist transition. “In #Bulgaria we never fought for our democracy,” wrote Adelina Marini of euinside.eu, in a recent tweet. “We got it by accident in 1989. Today’s developments are a logical consequence.”
Volen Vashev, a 28-year-old working for a software company, is among the 76 per cent of Bulgarians who support the protests, according to a recent Gallup poll. But Vashev admits that he and “most of the friends in my circle—young, well-educated, with stable work—haven’t joined the protests actively.” The protesters’ numbers have waned (at their height, more than 100,000 demonstrated on a single evening). Demonstrators have no identifiable leader, no consistent demands. Their calls remain populist and anti-government. “People don’t care about parties and they don’t trust any of them,” explains Milena Hristova, a Bulgarian journalist.
Parliamentary elections are slated for May 13, though it seems unlikely they will herald a seismic political shift. “In truth, we have been here before,” warns Bechev, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Bulgarian voters have often favoured ‘anti-systemic’ actors pledging to empower transition’s underdogs. This time around, there is no knight in shining armour to rescue Bulgaria from herself.”
In the meantime, the Orthodox Church has taken a firm stand against the self-immolations. “Under no circumstances” should Bulgarians light themselves on fire, one Church leader declared. “Bulgarians must not fall victim to hopelessness.”