On the 40th day of anti-government rallies in Sofia, the Parliament sent yet another signal of intransigence to the thousands of people occupying Independence Square. MPs from the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms voted in the first draft of a highly contentious budget deal, which sanctioned the emission of one billion BGN in debt, ostensibly to boost social welfare policies.
Experts from Industry Watch, syndicates, and think tanks widely panned the government’s reasoning as weak and opposition leaders like the Reformist Block’s Radan Kanev even called it theft from tax payers. Yet for the events of last night, which led to the first serious clashes between riot police, gendarmes and protesters in Sofia, the details of this economic debacle are irrelevant.
The budget changes were seen as another symbolic threshold that the embattled Cabinet of Plamen Orecharski should not have dared cross in a time when it is widely perceived as completely delegitimised.
The willful deafness it showed not only to people on the street, but to various experts and industry representatives, was seen as intolerable. The consequent siege of the Parliament with scores of MPs, three Cabinet Ministers and several journalists inside, was a logical step in the protesters’ increasingly determined bid to be heard and to shake the government out of its resolve to ignore the masses on the streets.
On social media and in interviews, protesters widely insisted that the protest was peaceful despite the increased police presence, until an attempt was made to evacuate the trapped MPs in a gendarmerie bus, escorted by a group of riot police. The bus attempted to drive through the thick of the rally, with policemen employing shields and batons to try and clear a path. First blood was shed then.
Yvo Bojkov, who livestreamed the protests from their beginning, was among those assaulted by police (his picture, being dragged by police in stabvests and helmets was featured immediately by the BBC) and had to visit a hospital. Then, bloodied face and broken ribs in tow, he returned to Independence Square and continued to film updates. In a phone interview he described the building of makeshift road blocks out of everything from rubbish bins to pavement slates. He talked about people bringing food, water and portable generators for protesters to recharge their mobiles and continue feeding social media with live information.
Bojkov claims most people were obviously nonviolent: “The people I saw dragged away and hit by police were women sitting with extended hands and asking police not to be violent. Provocators did throw objects at the bus and broke the windows, but people were not attacking the Parliament building or the police. Protesters and policemen talked a lot, and I don’t believe the police was against the people. However, unnecessary hitting did occur, I personally now have pains in the chest area and cuts on the face and neck.”
Sophia Koen, 34, advertising professional and mother of two, also told of young men and women sitting and lying in front of the riot-police escorted bus with lit candles and bare extended hands.
It was then and there that riot police forced their way into the crowd to clear a path for the evacuation. It was unsuccessful as protesters had blocked all possible passages out of the square, so the bus circled the Aleksandar Nevski Cathedral once and got the MPs and Ministers back in the building. “Last night was the first time MPs and protesters actually crossed paths. Usually MPs are out of the Parliament by the time people get off work and join the rallies. This time they got really scared and it showed”, Koen mused.
There is a strain of protesters like Bojkov and Koen who feel that acknowledgement should be given to police for their efforts to maintain low levels of violence in a highly-charged atmosphere and that it is important not to demonise the authorites. They believe that it is key to avoid polarisation between protesters and police after the sustained effort of civilised coexistence for 40 days. It makes sense – police and protesters will have to face each other soon again.
And while protesters mostly agree that it was the ill-advised, heavy-handed incursion of the evacuation bus into the crowds besieging the Parliament that triggered the friction, many of them are not ready to be so charitable in their evaluation of police behaviour:
Letyashtata Erato (a pseudonym), the young female protester who became a symbol of the dramatic night when social media was flooded with pictures of her bloodied but smiling face (she took a riot shield to the forehead), said on Facebook: “Police beat protesters everywhere. If anyone thought they are going to duel us with carnations, they should have stayed home.”
Emil Jassim, another protester, shared: “Tonight I saw with my own eyes police beating people with wooden batons. I did not believe this was possible after 1997 (see below)”. Earlier in the evening Jassim reported he was momentarily petrified with shock as BSP MP and former failed Deputy Prime Minister Rumen Getchev, upon leaving before the start of the siege in his own car, “lowered a window and sneered at us: “How much did they pay you today? He genuinely couldn’t imagine tat we protested because he should have been in prison long ago.”
Ivan Bedrov, a prominent journalist, noted in a phone interview that for him the night of 23-24 July was marked by unprofessional, panicked reactions on behalf of government and police alike. Bedrov is adamant that gendarmes and riot police used excessive and haphazard force in their generally mistaken plan to force the bus carrying the stranded MPs though the dense crowds. “The Interior Minister says he takes responsibility for this, but I doubt the idea was his. Orders surely came from the MPs themselves, who felt jittery, hungry and thirsty.”
After the failed evacuation attempt, news of approaching gendarmerie reinforcements spread on Twitter, followed by worried memories of 1997 when police used military tactics and brutal strength to repel protesters who violently stormed the Parliament in another sweeping wave of social unrest.
Protesters requested more people in key places suspected as possible escape routes for the MPs, wished each other courage and reassured each other, that this time they are peaceful and the police will act as calmly as it had been acting in the past 40 days. As time passed though, tweets began mentioning a possible concerted attempt to clear the protests planned for 3 am. It took just as long for thousands of riot police to accumulate in the centre of Sofia in armoured vehicles. National television reported water cannons were also being transported towards the site of protests.
Bedrov notes that the protests have had a positive effect on media in Bulgaria, known for their dependency on powers that be and ruled owners of vast companies with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. He observes that in the past 40 days national television stations, usually subtly pressured by governments to avoid certain subjects, have broken the taboos of mentioning oligarchs and criminal groups close to power by name.
Used to being able to “order the music” in Bulgarian mediascape, political parties reacted with panic when journalists started actually doing their duty: they revoked the press accreditation of a Dimitar Anestev from nation-wide BTV station who, while trapped inside Parlaiment with them, attempted live coverage of their reactions. Then media incurred the wrath of MPs like BSP’s Anton Koutev, who accused Bulgarian public television of “inciting protesters further” by reporting that more people were joining the tense vigil at the Parliament.
In the meantime, numerous reports and amateur videos have surfaced to show policemen targeting people with cameras and hitting and bloodying reporters from Kapital Daily (newspaper) and Kanal 3 (TV station).
In comments today, Ministers and MPs alike spoke with outrage about “groups of provocators who turned the protest bloody” and demanded strict sanctions for such individuals. Plamena Foteva, teacher, 26, expressed doubts that police did enough to isolate such individuals, opting instead for indiscriminate force at times: “If there were provocators, then I am sure what I witnessed points out that police wasn’t greatly interested in dealing with them. My two female friends noticed two men with masks and aggressive behaviour and ran to the policemen cordoning off one of the roads leading to the Parliament to ask them to intervene. The policemen sent them back and told them to keep it down.”
Foteva also takes issue at the widely reported use of barricades against the police (Yvo Bojkov agrees): “Barricades were erected not against police, which we never saw as our enemy, but to prevent vehicles like the ill-fated bus from evacuating the people in the Parliament.” Around 3 am, thousands of people were still blocking possible escape routes and then gendarmerie stormed and hemmed in protesters from each side. Side streets were blocked, street lights were shut down. Foteva recalls: “At one time it looked like there were enough riot police to deal with each of us individually. We felt trapped and pressed from each side.”
For all intents and purposes, it may seem that trapping MPs in the very building they so arrogantly refuse to cede to popular will for change, was an act of desperation on behalf of protesters. A bodily blockage, symbolizing the complete obstruction of meaningful democratic representation Bulgarian society seems to face today. Yet Plamena, Sophia, Emil, Ivan, Yvo and Erato all share the shock of having witnessed such enormous police presence and the determination to be on Independence Square tonight and each night after until Orehsarski’s government resigns and new elections are scheduled. Nothing else to be done, really.
Maria Spirova is an award-winning Bulgarian journalist with over 10 years of agency and long-form experience