THE SUMMER OF THEIR DISCONTENT

by Anthony Georgieff

In a democracy, leaders and opposition must accept each other's legitimacy. In Bulgaria, they don't

Something has gone very wrong in the EU's poorest state. Because things are so complicated, in an inimitably Bulgarian way, politicians and pundits try to explain what's at the pith of the current crisis through drawing similes with civic turmoil unfolding in places the world knows more about.

This evokes nothing but Egypt, a freshly-shaved and suntanned Boyko Borisov, the former prime minister, said during a rare appearance in the Bulgarian parliament. Borisov, known mainly for his charisma and media savviness when dealing with young female reporters, is hardly an astute analyst of international affairs if his past pronouncements on anything ranging from Barak Obama to Silvio Berlusconi are to be taken seriously. Yet, he is being joined by a number of hacks who intone Egypt and Turkey in their attempts to put the Bulgarian "revolution" in context.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The problems in both Egypt and Turkey are very different from the woes of Bulgaria. The cultural, political and social traditions of both Egypt and Turkey make any comparison with Bulgaria at least farfetched, and of course the presence of a strong religious element in Egypt and Turkey precludes any further discussion about similarities for a simple reason: religion in Bulgaria plays but a token role.

If anyone was to indulge in political metonymy, they would better look beyond the Middle East and much closer at home.

What is at stake in Bulgaria six years after it joined the EU is the fate of democracy in a post-Communist society that neither has any strong democratic traditions, nor has succeeded in installing, during its difficult and at times tumultuous transition, the checks and balances necessary for a democracy to function. From this standpoint, the comparison with former Communist countries similar to Bulgaria would be more appropriate.

In fact, what has been going on here since Boyko Borisov ostentatiously resigned last February in the hope that his party, GERB, would be strong enough to win a snap election, is an almost literal repetition of what happened in Ukraine in 2004-2005, in the events billed as the "Orange Revolution."

Like in Ukraine, the massive street rallies were set off in the immediate aftermath of a ballot claimed to have been marred by massive corruption, intimidation of voters and direct electoral fraud. Like in Ukraine, the protests were concentrated in the relatively educated and well-to-do capital, with only a token support in the provinces. Like in Ukraine, what is at the heart of the protests is civil resistance and in some cases disobedience, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of protestors demonstrating daily. Like in Ukraine, the protestors demand the resignation of the elected government and a fresh ballot as soon as possible - without making any clear political demands in favour of an established political party and without any serious chance of a new party emerging in the process.

In both countries, the background is the same: a failure by a series of governments to implement reforms, thus creating a situation where bureaucracy is outdone only by corruption; and plummeting living standards especially outside the big cities.

Like in Ukraine in the sunset days of Leonid Kuchma, the situation in Bulgaria at the end of Boyko Borisov's regime was almost a textbook example of the Marxist definition of a "revolutionary situation": the masses refused to live the way they had before while the rulers were unable or unwilling to make any changes. With his authoritarian style, disregard for the law, nepotism and mafia methods, Borisov - like Kuchma in Ukraine - could only hang on to power through his excessive apparatus for repression run by his odious righthand-man, former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

The similarities do not end here. In both countries the "spontaneous" protests (in Ukraine and in Bulgaria organised by a number of NGOs and grassroots organisations) were met with carefully orchestrated counterprotests. In both countries, no one could agree on the numbers of people actually participating, with the various media reporting widely diverging figures in keeping with their editors' preferences and their owners' orders. In both countries there were claims of payments being made to protestors and counterprotestors: by "foreign powers" in the case of the former and by "Communists" in the case of the latter. Significantly, in both countries the protests were spearheaded by mainly young citizens claiming allegiance to Western values while many counterprotestors had originated in the provinces and were shipped to Sofia in coaches to swell the numbers. In both countries, the intelligence and security services played a role, there was real or imaginary involvement of "foreign" forces, and in both countries the main tool used to agitate and garner support was the Internet.

In both countries leaders who lost elections claimed victory; and then refused to acknowledge their own failures, protesting the illegitimacy of their opponents instead.

Provided Ukraine, the most important former Soviet republic outside Russia, and Bulgaria, Eastern Europe's most loyal satellite of the former USSR, are so similar, it is realistic to expect that what started in Bulgaria as the "Tomato Revolution" in 2013 will end similarly to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2005.

Will it?

The answer is a qualified yes.

The Bulgarian "revolution," just like the Ukrainian one, will shake things up a bit and will show to the political leaders that their arbitrary actions will no longer be tolerated by a small, but vocal minority. However, it will probably fall short of spawning an overhaul of the political system as such, which is what the protestors in both Bulgaria and Ukraine wanted.

Many people now think that against the background of the absurdities of Plamen Oresharski's appointments, Boyko Borisov's excesses pale. Yet the danger of Borisov coming back with a vengeance has not passed completely.

The best Bulgaria can hope for in the aftermath of Borisov's authoritarianism and during the impasse of Plamen Oresharski's "oligarchy" is a period of what one political scientist termed "creative instability." Five to 10 years of volatility, uncertainty and possibly further plummeting incomes and living standards is the legacy of Boyko Borisov that Plamen Oresharski appears unable to handle. If the Bulgarians are lucky, that period will generate new political powers and a new culture of politics. If they are not, the comparison with Ukraine's Orange Revolution will be complete.

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