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Bulgaria

Time is up: corruption and its economic consequences

For weeks, thousands have been taking to the streets against corruption and nepotism. Bulgaria may be the poorest country of the European Union - but its problems are different to those of Spain, Portugal or Greece.

A protester waves the national flag during an anti-government demonstration in front of the parliament building in Sofia (Photo: REUTERS)

Protesters against the government continue to take to the streets in Bulgaria

Kiril has been part of it since day one. It was only on three days that he didn't make it to the protests. "The politicians have crossed the line. It's enough. We demand a radical change in political culture," says Kiril Todorov, a systems administrator from Sofia.

Pressure from the streets is rising. It's day 42 of the protests in Bulgaria, and its masses aren't waning. Be it young or old, rich or poor, with or without a degree - it's a protest of a disappointed people. "The worst thing is that over the past years, people have become increasingly apolitical and indifferent, along the lines of 'politicians do what they want and I can't do anything about it anyway,'" says Miladin Hadziev, a biologist from Sofia.

Kiril Todorov, systems administrator from Sofia, holding up a poster at a demonstration.

Kiril Todorov: "The politicians have crossed the line."

Miladin admits not to have been interested in politics at all in the past. But that has changed: "This awakening of our society that we can witness here and now, at this square, that's the biggest success of the protest movement," he says.

Political self-indulgence

The public mood eventually tipped over when Delyan Peevsky was appointed head of the Bulgarian security agency. The 33 year-old is an influential and powerful media mogul, said to be involved in illegal business who maintains links to the mafia. "At first I thought his appointment was a joke; some Facebook comments consisted solely of question marks - people were speechless," Kiril says, "but the politicians were serious. An absurd reality that surpassed even our most absurd imagination."

On the night of June 14, 2013, the first spontaneous demonstrations formed in the center of Sofia. When Peevski resigned his post the following week, it was too late: the flame of protest was lit.

For years, Bulgaria ranked at the low end of Transparency International's corruption index, making it one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Since the fall of its communist regime 23 years ago and its successive transformation from state-planned to market economy, behind-the-scenes networks have formed, consisting primarily of members of the former communist nomenclature. Still today, they control decision making processes within the country, meandering in a grey area between politics, justice and the economy.

Protesters clash with Bulgarian riot police during an anti-government protest in front of the parliament building in Sofia 
(Photo: AP Photo/Georgi Kozhuharov)

Clashes between protesters and the police caused injuries on both sides

Examples of corruption within politics come easy, such as a public call for proposals that then made the front pages a few years ago: "It was about the purchasing of technical equipment for government institutions," says Todor Galev, economist at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based independent think tank. "The technical requirements matched 100 percent the bid of a certain company. Basically, the authors of the call for bids had copied the description of the hardware from the files of that company - including their formatting and errors."

In Bulgaria, it's happened on more than one occasion that public works have been assigned to companies without previously offering equal chances to everyone.

Over the past years, there have been several cases where family members of public servants were given preference when it came to the allocation of subsidised land. "It is thanks to investigative journalists and organisations that many of these practices have been brought to light. But it's a fact that after those cases were published, none were followed up by legal action," Galev says.

The economy recovers

"In the first days of the protests, politicians tried to appease us by saying they would lower prices for electricity and raise pensions and salaries. They didn't get it, that this wasn't what we demanded," Miladin says; he joins the protests every day now.

The demonstrations are coming at a time when the Bulgarian economy is making noticeable improvements. "This past year has been a good year for direct investments from abroad; for the first time in three years overall investment rose and exports, too, saw good development - despite the crisis in Europe. Even the labor market doesn't suffer from many job losses any more," says Latschesar Bogdanov of the non-government organisation Industry Watch.

A young girl waving a Bulgarian flag during a protest march.
(Photo: BGNES)

As tensions are rising, protesters are set to continue their activities.

The country's banking sector is stable, with last year's budget deficit ranging at one percent of the gross domestic product. Bulgaria's debts are the second-lowest in the EU. But no matter how commendable the numbers, it remains the poorest country within the Union, with minimum salaries barely reaching 200 Euros per month ($265): "While western European countries focus on stable growth, we need fast growth in order to receive positive recognition. There's still lots of catching up to do," says Bogdanov.

But according to the economist, Bulgaria's protests are of a different nature compared to those in Spain, Portugal or Greece: "In those countries, for years politicians promised stable social benefits, rising salaries and other benefits. Then, when everyone realised that the state isn't able to shoulder all this, protests erupted - against the austerity mandate of the governments," Bogdanov says. Bulgaria didn't make any cuts in social benefits, not even during the crisis. "That's why this protest isn't of any economic nature. The majority of the demonstrators has a job and isn't reliant on social benefits."

Protests at a dead end?

But what's next? The protesters do not intend to give up, and for the politicians, resignation is not an option. Tension on both sides is rising. There isn't any concrete, political alternative that the protest movement is offering - then again, that doesn't seem to be its purpose either: "We're not naïve. We know that the situation is not going to change overnight," Miladin says, but: politicians - former and future ones - would now know for a fact that they are facing a confident, new civil society, which is going to watch them closely.

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