Protests Escalate in Sofia

By Margarita Assenova
Violent clashes with the police left 16 injured on July 23, the 40th day of anti-government protests in Sofia. Thousands of people have been participating in daily demonstrations against corruption and are demanding the resignation of the Socialist-led cabinet.  
Tensions escalated on July 23 while three parliamentarian commissions discussed amendments to the budget to allow 1 billion euros ($1.33 billion) to be spent on social programs—a measure clearly intended to gain public support for the embattled Socialist-led cabinet. The protesters blocked the parliament building, trapping almost one hundred members of parliament, staffers, journalists and three cabinet ministers inside. The police tried to lead the parliamentarians out of the area, but the demonstrators did not allow their bus to pass (bTV, Dnevnik, July 23).
In the unfolding chaos, seven police officers and nine civilians ended up in local hospitals with minor to moderate injuries. Video recordings from the night showed a mixed picture of people pushing back the police officers followed by scenes of masked police officers beating protesters sitting on the pavement. At least one journalist covering the events was among those beaten up by the police. As the ruling Socialist party put the blame for the violence on the protesters, the General Prosecutor’s office started a probe on police brutality (BNT, bTV, Trud, 24 Chasa, Capital Daily, Standart, July 24; Dnevnik, July 26).
The protests continued peacefully the next day, returning to their creative approach with piano and violin music in front of the parliament building.  “Kiss a policeman—make him smile!” is the new initiative against violence started by the protest’s Facebook page #ДАНСwithme, aiming to reinforce the non-violent character of the demonstrations.
The government, however, has refused to resign. At a press conference following the clashes on July 23, Socialist leader Sergey Stanishev said that the cabinet would not resign either immediately or in the spring. Prime Minister Oresharski told Reuters on July 26 that a cabinet resignation would be irresponsible, despite the thousands of people protesting in the streets. He admitted, however, that serious reforms could not start because of lack of public support (Reuters, July 26). 
Until the night of July 23, the protesters had tried to avoid violence for almost six weeks by undertaking symbolic initiatives and successfully countering various provocations. After the French and German ambassadors expressed solidarity with the anti-corruption demonstrations, the protesters responded by reenacting the famous Delacroix painting “Liberty leads the people” to commemorate the French Revolution. Three days later, they brought down a symbolic cardboard “Berlin Wall” labeled “MAFIA” in front of the German embassy in Sofia (BNT, July 13;, July 16).
An escalation of the situation was inevitable, however, as the ruling party has remained deaf to the protesters’ demands. Further escalation looks increasingly possible if a general strike unfolds; the main Bulgarian trade union already officially lent its support to the protesters on July 23. A recent opinion survey showed that 60 percent of the population supports the protests.
For now, the protests seem to be spontaneous and without any designated leadership. The people have organized themselves mainly through the social networks. Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), the former ruling party, was unable to assume a leadership position, because many in the protest oppose its policies as well. The traditional center-right took a major blow, failing to pass the 4-percent threshold in the parliamentary elections in May. In July, five of the center-right and liberal parties formed a new political coalition under the name Reformist Block, but there is uncertainty that the protesters would embrace one political formation. Among the protesters are both disillusioned Socialists and disillusioned former GERB supporters, along with center-right followers and many with no political affiliation whatsoever.  

On the initiative of a group of intellectuals, the Reformist Block plans to establish a Citizens’ Council to unite politicians and non-partisan citizens. The Council may serve as the political leader of the protest—if the demonstrators approve of it (BNR,, July 26).