Blockade of Bulgarian parliament ends, but tensions rage on

Protesters blocked the exits to Bulgaria's parliament Tuesday night, trapping more than 100 people inside. Police ended the standoff, but unhappiness with the government remains high.

Georgi Kozhuharov/AP
Protesters clash with Bulgarian riot police during an antigovernment protest in front of the parliament building in Sofia Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

Bulgarian police broke through a blockade of protesters and released more than 100 lawmakers, journalists, and staffers stuck inside the parliament building in the capital, Sofia, Wednesday morning, ending the latest flare-up of anti-government sentiments in the country but doing little to resolve the overall unhappiness of the public with their government.

BBC News reports that the blockade, which formed Tuesday evening, was the culmination of weeks-long protests calling for Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's resignation over corruption and mismanagement of the government.

The protesters – shouting "Mafia!" and "Resign!" – surrounded the building as parliament sat to discuss a controversial budget amendment.

The Associated Press reports that the demonstrators, numbering several hundred, trapped 109 people, including three ministers and some thirty members of parliament, inside the building Tuesday night. An earlier attempt to escort the officials out on Tuesday failed when protesters blocked off their bus and threw stones at it. Seven protesters and two police officers were sent to the hospital with head wounds, according to the AP.

The current round of protests started some six weeks ago, after the government appointed media mogul Delyan Peevski as head of national security. Mr. Peevski, the son of the former head of the national lottery, has strong political and economic connections in the country, and his appointment to such a sensitive position proved extraordinarily unpopular, the New York Times reported at the time. 

“If you read the biography of Peevski, he personifies all the problems of Bulgaria,” Pavel Antonov, 40, said at a recent protest, referring to corruption, nepotism, organized crime and the abuse of state power.

“He has a very ugly personality: his way of speaking, his behavior, his arrogance,” Mr. Antonov said. “It’s galvanized the people.”

The socialist-led government ultimately backed down on Peevski's appointment. But the Bulgarian public has remained angry at the government; in an online forum on the issue with European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding on Tuesday, many Bulgarian participants "expressed anger at their government, complained of economic hardship and corruption and urged Ms. Reding to help reform their country, the poorest EU member state," reports the BBC. The AP reports that some two-thirds of Bulgarians back the protests.

Reding spoke in support of the Bulgarian public, telling the forum: "We can't replace your government, but we have a responsibility to see that things are going well" and that she would bring their concerns to the EU. She also tweeted yesterday that "my sympathy is with the Bulgarian citizens who are protesting against corruption."

But solutions are not clear, as Bulgaria's political system remains gridlocked. The government has already changed hands once this year, amid an earlier, similar round of protests. In February, the center-right government led by Boyko Borisov fell amid austerity-related protests sparked by skyrocketing electricity prices in the country. But as The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time, government stagnation and corruption also rated high among protesters' concerns.

Among those who’ve taken to the streets in protest, one of the central frustrations is that many of the same figures have occupied the government for nearly two decades now. Activists blame an immobile old guard, rooted in the past and short on new ideas, for many of the nation's ills. 

“We didn’t complete our transition to a democratic country with an open market. The transition failed in this country,” says Panayot Nikolov, an unpaid consulting intern and recent graduate who was among the protesters. “I am part of a new generation and we are waking up.”

And while Bulgaria held new elections soon after in May, the resulting parliament was fractured among four different parties, none of which held a significant plurality of seats. Ultimately, the socialists formed a government with a bare 120 out of 240 seats, but as the Monitor noted, the socialist BSP "is still regarded with great suspicion by many Bulgarians, due to its communist past."

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