Bulgarian protesters ready to shake out government corruption

Unlike the austerity-related protests that toppled the last government in February, the latest protests are about Bulgaria's political system, not money.

A man plays a piano in front of the parliament building, which is now protected by a fence after overnight protests, in central Sofia Wednesday. More than 100 Bulgarian lawmakers, ministers and journalists spent the night besieged inside parliament by anti-corruption protesters before police evacuated them early on Wednesday in the latest instability in the southeast European state.

This afternoon, the center of Bulgaria's capital Sofia looks peaceful and calm, with tourists taking pictures and locals enjoying the warm weather. Only the fence cordoning off the parliament building and guarded by policemen reminds of the clashes from the previous night.

Tuesday night, the 40th day of nationwide protest in Bulgaria, hundreds of protesters blockaded the parliament building, trapping more than 100 people including several ministers and parliamentarians inside. And while the blockade was eventually broken early this morning with only a handful of injuries in clashes between demonstrators and police, people on the streets are still angry with the authorities and are ready for new rallies.

Protests are a familiar site in Sofia and other Bulgarian cities this year. In February, the government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov fell amid widespread protests over skyrocketing electricity prices in an economy already crunched by austerity and recession. But “these rallies are very different from the ones that took place in February,” says Emil Gerogiev, a political analyst from the Sofia-based Institute for Modern Politics.

“During the winter the protesters had economic demands, they came to the streets because they didn't want to continue living in poverty. Now everybody wants a profound change in the values of our politicians” whom many Bulgarians see as corrupt and self-serving, Mr. Georgiev says.

He believes the main mistakes of the current government lie not only in unpopular decisions and ill-conceived appointments, but in a systemically wrong policy, which tolerates corruption.

Georgiev's comments are echoed by protesters. “We want a rational decision: a change in the electoral legislation,” says Svetoslav Nikolov, one of several protestors who have been camping in front of the parliament for the last month and a half.

Though a financial specialist by trade, Mr. Nikolov is also leader of the citizen committee Equal in Front of the Law, and recently started devoting all his time to citizen initiatives. He now collects signatures to support changing the Bulgarian election system and other laws in the country, and hopes to achieve a change in the political sphere.

“I hope for a positive outcome, although our politicians don't seem to have reached their adolescence. They are just not ready to make decisions as grown-ups,” says Mr. Nikolov.

Dobrina Alexieva, a fellow member of the citizen committee and a small business owner, agrees that Bulgarian politics are in a profound crisis and need total renovation. “I think that new elections won't change the situation right away. Some time needs to pass to let new players in the political field. People have lost faith in all the current politicians.”

Despite the public anger, the current socialist-led government has said it does not plan to resign. This morning, party leader Sergey Stanishev told journalists that the rallies are being incited by the GERB party of former Prime Minister Borisov in order to destabilize the country. Mr. Stanishev said that the government will continue working in order to find a way out of the current situation.

Protestors have said they are not happy with the government reaction and are gathering for new rallies later this night.

Georgiev believes the protesters will achieve their goals in one way or another.  The main way to end the crisis, he says, is to promote dialogue between the civil society and the authorities. So far common people have not had many ways to be involved in the decision-making process and hold politicians to account, he says.

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