Mirela Ivanova: The Bulgarian Revolution? Contextualising Political Apathy


It is perhaps a little surprising that Bulgaria has never had a popular revolution. During the 20th century the country swung between left and right, one extreme to another, and never quite achieved stability or security. The enforced nature of these shifts of regime, contributing to Bulgaria’s interrupted development, comprises the roots of the country’s current problems. In 500 years, Bulgarians have not once been ruled by governments fought for, and established by, the mass of the people. Rule by the Ottomans, the San Stefano Peace Treaty of 1878 (which followed unsuccessful peasant risings in Stara Zagora in September 1875 and the April risings of 1876), the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1919, and the Soviet Union’s invasion and Communist coup d’etat in 5th of September 1949, represent a series of regimes and compromises whose composition and nature were decided outside Bulgaria itself. In the 19th and early 20th century, Bulgaria was given a territory drawn up by the Russian, British and Ottoman states. Treated as historically and culturally irrelevant, Bulgaria’s Austrian monarch, for example, was chosen as the best compromise between Russian and Ottoman influence in the Balkans. In each case, Bulgarians have had governments corresponding to the current balance of forces of the major world powers.

Alongside this process, however, Bulgarians managed, at certain conjunctures, to construct a sense of national identity and territorial unification. On winning a war against Serbia in 1886, the Bulgarian principality was able to integrate the Ottomon region of Eastern Rumelia into its remit, while Bulgaria’s formal independence from the Ottoman Empire was announced on the 22 September 1908. During the Balkan Wars at the beginning of the 20th century, the Bulgarian parliament began to move away from traditional Conservative and Liberal politicians, to those of the Progressive Liberal, National Liberal and Democratic parties. This process gave birth to delayed governmental institutions, a state bureaucracy, and parliamentary democracy.

The First World War, however, saw Bulgarians fighting in alliance with the very same oppressors who had suppressed them for 500 years. Bulgaria suffered the most casualties (as a percentage of heads per population) of any warring nation, despite having already suffered the losses in the Balkan wars between 1912 and 1913. In March 1919, the Bulgarian delegation to the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, were told that none of their delegates were actually invited to the treaty signing conference. The treaty, eventually signed by Aleksander Stamboliiski in November 1919, left 600,000 Bulgarians outside the country’s borders, demanded 2.25billion in reparation payments, and the transfer of over 58,000 heads of livestock to be paid to Greece and Romania. The Second World War saw Bulgaria swing from the far right to the far left, ending in the paradoxical position of a winning loser. After declaring its official neutrality, the Nazi state offered the country some of its lost territory in 1919 and pressured Boris III to declare war on Britain and America. Given the country’s complete military impotence beyond the Balkans, the war declared on America and Britain, led to the uneven contest between American, British, and Bulgarian forces – which saw the American bombings of the capital Sofia in 1943-4. Boris III did manage to protect the Bulgarian Jews until his suspicious death in August 1943. His death came only fourteen days after his private meeting with Adolf Hitler in which he announced his wish for Bulgaria to leave the war. Less than a year later, Russia also declared war on Bulgaria and occupied its territories, forcing it to declare war on Nazi Germany, a move which was quickly reciprocated. Thus Bulgaria had, by the end of WW2, been at war with every major world power. The transition to Communism was imposed and driven from above. In September 1946 a disputed referendum was held under USSR supervision saw 4.2million votes (91% turnout) granting a 92% majority for a People’s Republic.(1) The Tsar was sent into exile and plebiscite was permanently abolished.

The next 52 years saw Bulgaria undertake rapid industrialisation, while its regular ‘democratic’ elections held only one name on the ballot paper. The man on the ballot, Todor Zhivkov, resigned after 35 years in power in November 1989. By this time, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria had undertaken the Gorbachev model and was slowly heading towards its own capitalist conversion. Zhivkov’s resignation was met by a short period of mass demonstrations culminating in the 1990 election of another Socialist government. This Socialist government, however, battled the economic legacy of the communist republic through the freeing of economic markets. Although there was an availability of money, stock shortages caused rapid inflation. Lukanov, the new president, resigned amid scandals regarding his supposed illegal acquisition of property.(2) By 1994, another Socialist government led by Zhan Videnov oversaw inflation of 1,000%. Videnov resigned only two years later, unable to cope with the economic hardships. What followed for the modern Bulgarian state was a series of alternating centre-left and centre-right governments. This led to increasingly uncomfortable coalitions and a rather brief cameo appearance in parliament by the last surviving heir of Boris III, and refugee from the Second World War – Simeon Saxo Cobugh-Gotha. Simeon was prime minister in a 2001 coalition government whose (undelivered) premise was an 800 day reform period to restore Bulgaria on the world scene. This essay is not the place to re-evaluate(3) the overall effect of socialism on the Bulgarian state, its institutions, and people. Neither is it the place to dispute or defend things like Stamboliiski’s agrarian efforts prior to the Second World War, the racial superiority policies of Zhivkov’s rule, or to consider the 1990s economic crisis. What remains important, however, is that the current situation in Bulgaria is considered not in terms of its neighbours, nor its Western counterparts in the European Union, but in its own right. Bulgaria today must be contextualised before it can be understood.

Given the long tradition of passivity or enforced acquiescence, it is understandable why the January and February riots – which spread across 54 cities and encompassed all major trade and student unions – were a defining moment in modern Bulgarian history. It is only in the context of the inefficient democratic processes and the countless scandals of state corruption, that the falling voting figures, as well as the riots, can be accurately interpreted. There undoubtedly has been a secular decline in Bulgarian trust in parliamentarianism. Since the first free elections in 1990, voting turnout has fallen from 90.2% to 51.33% at the emergency elections held on May 16 2013, after the resignation of GERB – the centre-right leaders – on February 20th 2013.(4) The fact that less voters took part in the emergency May elections than those in 2009, however, is not the product of political apathy. The results of the 2013 elections need to be thoroughly reconsidered.

The four parties which entered parliament were exactly the same as in 2009. The centre-right GERB, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the ethnic minority and civil liberties party of Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the far-right and nationalist ATAKA, dominate the current parliament, as they did before May 2013. At first sight the statistics are depressing reading. They suggest not only apathy, but a genuine political ignorance and conservatism. Given the historical failure of parliamentary governing, however, the elections can say much about the current Bulgarian political mentalite. The January and February riots and strikes were a product of long term pressures elevated by a short term crisis. These pressures have gathered since the restructuring of the Bulgarian economy in the 1990s. The building of new, post-Communist institutions, however, has been insufficient for the functioning of a corruption-free democratic system. This situation is the background to why the workers and students took to the streets. The elections themselves were carried out at too short a notice for any new party to rise to the forefront of Bulgarian politics. Thus, working with a limited bag of bad seeds, there was very little the votes could have done to cause a fundamental change of outcome. Rather than universally sticking to the same party, Bulgarian votes have (in a number of unexpected ways) shifted considerably since 2009. The GERB gained 7% of the Socialist vote since 2009, and the Socialist party gained 3% of the 2009 vote from the right wing ATACK.

The May elections saw GERB win the most votes, but fail to gain a workable majority. Given its recent resignation, GERB was isolated from the other three parties in parliament with no chance of a coalition. The pressure put on parliament through the strikes produced one of the most ludicrous parliamentary coalitions known to modern Europe – a government comprised of the socialist BPS, the nationalist ATACK (on a platform of racial purity and hatred for Turks and Roma minorities), and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (the party with the entire ethnic minority vote in Bulgaria) led by Lyutvi Metsan, a Bulgarian of Turkish heritage. The emergency elections failed to change the face of the democracy Bulgarians, but succeeded in paralysing the political system further.

The parliamentary results for those parties which failed to cross the 4% mark and enter parliament were also poignant. The new coalition of the ‘Greens’, for instance, got 1.5%(5) of the vote. Their electorate base was primarily urban (54% in the capital), active working age (56.5% ages 31-60) and the university educated (66.7%).(6) Thus, environmental concerns are growing in significance amongst the active population, and the Greens offer a platform for young, educated, professionals which Bulgaria has never offered before. One must again consider the limited scope of parliamentary polarisation in the context of the modern Bulgarian parliament. Bulgarian democracy is still in its adolescence. The elections of May 2013 are but a temporary arrangement that can grant time for parties like the Greens to build up the funds for a full campaign. The strikes gave birth to a wave of new political horizons, even if it was not enough to exorcise relics like the BSP, whose shadow over left-wing politics is still a problem for the birth of a new Bulgarian left (44% of the BSP voters were over 60 years old).(7) To allow for the growth of new parties, new faces, and a new politics, traditional parties like the BSP need to be challenged. Rather than being a failure, however, a contextualisation of the Bulgarian strikes and emergency elections can show that the events of 2013 may only be the beginning of a long term stabilisation.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw Bulgarians as a passive audience to their country’s governmental changes, largely imposed by world powers from above. A critique of Bulgarian political apathy is misplaced when without considering the numerous writings and rewritings of Bulgarian borders by external and superior militarily forces. The concept of democracy is in 2013 as fresh as it was in 1908. Yet the idea of politics representing the people is considered with just as much anxiety and trepidation. Bulgaria’s political history gives little faith for those seeking political redemption. It is in this context that we must consider the protests and elections of 2013. The Bulgarian people, for the first time in decades, have risen for political change. From a people disenchanted with parliamentary processes, the strikes, protests, and the elections, mean more than a simple exercise of democratic rights. It means that the threshold of passivity to outside rulers and influences has been broken. Although this may not mean another glorious French or Russian revolution, in its own quiet and subtle way, the recent events in Bulgaria indicate that the Bulgarians’ acquiescence has finally come to an end. •

Mirela Ivanova is a first year student at Wadham College, Oxford. She makes regular contributions to the Oxford Student and Oxford Culture Review.

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1   Ред. Гюзелев, В. Голяма енциклопедия България, том 10 (2012, Книгоиздателска къща “Труд”, София (Ed. Guzelev, V. A Big Encyclopaedia of Bulgaria, Volume X, (2012, ‘Labour’ Sofia))

2   He was assassinated outside his own home in 1996.

3   See Mazower, M. The Balkans (2001) and Mazower, M. The Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th century for a good introduction

4   For full breakdown of results see http://www.cik.bg/

5   Ibid.

7   Ibid.

One comment

  1. Fascinating read, this could prove useful!

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