On the evening of Tuesday 16 July, the 33rd day of the anti-government demonstrations in Bulgaria, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the German embassy in Sofia. There, in a symbolic gesture, they built a ‘Berlin Wall’ made of cardboard boxes.
Then, with a good shove and much cheering and applause, they proceeded to tear it down.
Peppered with Bulgarian flags, as well as a few German and European flags, the crowd of protesters sung ‘Ode to Joy’, the European Anthem, after the wall fell.
The wall – which had the word ‘Mafia’ and the names of the political parties in Bulgaria’s Parliament written on it – symbolised the government’s ties with murky oligarchs, Bulgarian press agency Novonite reported.
Reinhard Krapp, Germany’s deputy ambassador, addressed the crowd saying: “I am most impressed that so many people came to this embassy.”
“It’s a sign that there is a very living civil society [in Bulgaria],” the diplomat added, visibly moved by the symbol.
Watch videos of the the construction of the wall, its tearing down, and the aftermath
Credits: Yvo Bojkov
Credits: Asen Genov
Credit: Vassil Garnizov
Credits: Yvo Bojkov
The tearing down of the replica of the Berlin wall was actually a thank you note to the German ambassador.
On July 8, the French and German ambassadors, Philippe Autié and Matthias Hoepfner, issued a statement saying that “an oligarchic model has not place” in the European Union, where Bulgaria is its poorest member. The ambassadors also said the rise of Bulgarian civil society was “excellent news [that] deserved to be listened to”.
The joint statement was an unprecedented instance of major European governments commenting on the situation in Bulgaria. “The French and German ambassadors’ joint statement is as clear and as strong as it gets – even unusually strong for a diplomatic document,” Bulgarian author Iveta Cherneva told euronews.
“The protestors have applauded the fact that France and Germany stand strong for democratic values and are willing to stick their heads out and really confront the new government and Prime Minister Oresharski,” Cherneva wrote in an email, “The ambassadors have won our admiration for being willing to stand for what’s right instead of keeping a low profile.”
On July 17, Autié visited the demonstrations in Sofia and talked to some of the protestors, local media report.
”Europe, where are you?”
To thank France’s ambassador, on July 13, a group of demonstrators had re-enacted ‘Liberty Leading the People’, a 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting, complete with 19th-century costumes and antique rifles.
“Europe, where are you? Freedom! Revolution!” screamed Tania Ilieva, the model playing the mythical role of the bare-chested goddess leading the revolutionaries in Delacroix’s painting, AFP reported. Ilieva brandished both the Bulgarian and European flag as thousands of demonstrators chanted “Resignation!” in front of the government’s offices.
One of the organisers of the “tableau vivant”, spoke to AFP about their motivation “We want to congratulate France for the anniversary of the Big Revolution. [Delacroix’s painting is actually a reference to the 1830 July revolution, not the French Revolution’s Bastille Day]. We also want to thank France for understanding our protests against the oligarchic form of government”. Demonstrators also thanked the French ambassador by gathering in front of the French embassy in central Sofia.
On the same day, the Dutch ambassador Karel van Kesteren showed support of his European colleagues and said in an interview that Bulgarians “protest in the name of ideals and principles”.
“The Bulgarian state is not neutral but is the tool at the service of specific interests,” van Kesteren added. “People insist so that European values are applied: transparent processes, honest and competent people nominated for high-ranking positions, supremacy of the rule of law, freedom of the press.”
Van Kesteren also said that Bulgaria’s current political climate challenged the country’s joining the Schengen area.“When you want to give the key to your neighbour, you have to trust him,” the diplomat said.
Belgium’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Anick Van Calster, also voiced her support for the protestors, saying: “The best solution [to end the political crisis] would be the one which is widely supported by the public.”
No public actions have yet been taken to thank the Dutch and the Belgian ambassadors.
In the meantime, the leader of the Bulgarian extremist nationalist Ataka party, Volen Siderov, a de-facto legislative ally of the majority in parliament, called on Bulgarian Foreign Minister Vigenin to take action against foreign diplomats in the country, Novonite reports.
Similarly, Bulgarian Socialist Party MP Tatyana Burudzhieva told local radio K2 the German and French ambassadors should be recalled as any other country would have already done so.
Domestic political situation in deadlock
The repeated appeals to Europe, the ambassadors’ comments and the strong reactions they triggered, underscore that, after weeks of daily anti-government demonstrations, there is still no end in sight for the political crisis in Bulgaria.
Over time, the protesters’ demands have broadened, from the cancellation of a controversial nomination to calls for the government to resign, as well as the end of what they call the oligarchy and the Mafia’s meddling with the country’s public affairs.
The domestic situation is deadlocked. The embattled minority government, backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party and its allies, refuses to budge while GERB, the main opposition party, has repeated it will not attend parliamentary meetings unless they concern Election Code amendments or a date for new snap elections, Bulgarian press agency Novonite reports.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev recently hinted at new elections: “Continuing demonstrations take place in Bulgaria and I have yet to see a politician (…) take the situation into account and clearly tell the nation what needs to be done,” Plevneliev said in a broadcast speech in early July.“If nothing else can help, if no attempt to find an agreement is made, then the only democratic solution is to organise elections.”
But Plevneliev’s power is limited, The head of state decides election dates, but he cannot organise new elections unless the government resigns or the parliament agrees to dissolve itself.
The EU, divided along party lines
On a European level, politicians and institutions are divided, to say the least, on a response to the political crisis in the EU poorest member state.
On July 2, a plenary debate on the situation in Bulgaria turned political. The conservative EPP group denounced what they see as a “socialist double standards” and European socialists “turning a blind eye to glaring breaches of human rights”.
“For the European Socialists, human rights can be violated if they are violated by a Socialist government,” said Manfred Weber MEP, Vice-Chairman of the EPP Group, in a statement. The EPP underlined the contrast with “the deliberate aim [of the S&D group] of humiliating EPP-led governments.” On the same day, the previous debate saw the S&D attack the EPP-backed Hungarian government.
The conservatives also criticised the reliance of the BSP-led majority “on the parliamentary support of the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and anti-EU party” Ataka, as well as recent government appointees.
The EPP is not alone in its criticism of the European socialists. Their leaders are a regular target of signs and banners in the demonstrations. The leader of the Party of European Socialists is the Bulgarian Sergei Stanishev, who is also the leader of the BSP, the main party backing the government.
“We are disillusioned with the European Parliament’s Socialists — an institution, which is supposed to be a beacon of European Democracy and instead compromised on their European values,” Bulgarian author Iveta Cherneva told euronews. “By supporting the socialists in Bulgaria which can only stay in power if they are in coalition with a party advocating for getting out of the EU,” she added.
On June 22, the PES leadership, including European Parliament S&D president Hannes Swoboda, gathered in Sofia for the party’s Council, as several hundred people assembled to protest against Stanishev.
The PES Council was seen by many as a show of support to Stanishev, the BSP and the Bulgarian government. Novonite reported that they expressed strong support for the efforts of the Bulgarian Socialists and the Oresharski cabinet in their efforts to overcome the political and economic crisis in Bulgaria.
S&D president Swoboda, contacted by euronews, denied it was a show of support. “The Council in Sofia was dedicated to the preparations of next year’s European Parliament elections,” Swoboda wrote in an email. “My support for any government or sister party is never unconditional. The government of PM Oresharski has indeed made some mistakes, as I have publicly raised following the appointment of Delyan Peevsky as head of the DANS.”
In addition, he notes that “many of the people in the streets demonstrate because they have lost faith in the government and often more generally, in the political system. It is the job of the government and all political actors, including the opposition, to give the people back their faith by taking their concerns seriously and working towards the improvement of the living conditions in Bulgaria as well as the political system.”
The S&D president dismisses the criticism voiced by the EPP and others, and pinned the blame on EPP-backed conservative GERB party.
“Ataka is not part of the government and I sincerely hope and expect that the BSP will honour its assurances not to form an alliance with Ataka,“ he warned, before adding: “The underlying problem to the current situation is that GERB continues to boycott the parliament, effectively giving Ataka much more power than it should have, according to the elections’ outcome.”
For the Austrian MEP: “Unless GERB returns to parliament and assumes the responsibility many Bulgarian voters have entrusted in them, Ataka will remain in this asymmetrical power position.”
Beware of the fundamental rights crisis
The European Commission, poised to release an oral report on Bulgaria’s progress in the spheres of justice and home affairs on July 18, appeared unlikely to comment on the political situation.
“The verbal presentation (…) will be factual and will not comprise any political assessments,” Mark Gray, a EC spokesman said. Gray also dismissed suggestions that the EC will recommend a postponement of Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen border-free area by at least a year due to its unsatisfying progress and raging political crisis, according to Novonite.
Bulgaria is bound to remain in the EC’s focus. European Justice Commissioner Vivian Reding is expected to start a two-day visit to Bulgaria on July 22.
Portuguese Green MEP Rui Tavares, who took part in the July 2 plenary debate on the situation in Bulgaria, said: “We see a very worrisome situation with a pervasiveness of corruption and organised crime with politics.”
He advocates the pursuit of the monitoring of the Copenhagen criteria – criteria countries must meet to enter the EU – after a country enters the EU. “We were very naive, as if the entering countries would always have good democratic behaviour,” he told euronews in a phone interview.
There are solutions. In case of violations of European values by a member states, Tavares mentions a solution evoked in a report on the situation of fundamental rights in Hungary, for which he was rapporteur. It would consist of a mechanism where the Commission would force member states at fault “to focus exclusively on issues of democracy and the rule of law in order to obtain cooperation on the many other files for which it is in negotiation with the Commission” the Green/EFA group said in a statement. Progress would be monitored by a permanent discussion between the member states and the European institutions
“My worst nightmare would be a fundamental rights crisis in the European Union where European Parliament political groups would have a gentleman’s agreement” and not attack each other’s problematic governments, Tavares concludes.