Tom Junes assesses the prospects of the Bulgarian student protest movement and asks if it has the power to effect real political change in the country.
Since late October, Bulgarian students, demanding the resignation of the government, have occupied and blockaded lecture halls at universities in Sofia and beyond. The students’ actions have come following more than four months of continuous anti-government demonstrations which were provoked by the cynicism of the country’s political class and its perceived endorsement of widespread state-sponsored corruption. The current government prefers to act as if the protest movement simply does not exist. As a result the situation has evolved into a stalemate between the government and its supporters on the one hand and, on the other, the thousands of people who have been taking to the streets demanding not only its resignation, but a basic level of adherence to moral principles and accountability from the political elite as such. Throughout modern history student protest movements have often been a factor and catalyst in political change. The outbreak of the student occupation movement in Bulgaria can prove once again that students as a group can influence the political and historical course of nations and countries.
The Context Behind the Student Protest
The demonstrations that have taken place throughout the summer in Bulgaria are the second wave of anti-government protests in one year. Earlier this year, in February, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets infuriated by energy price hikes atop of enduring poverty, unemployment, and corruption. The protests saw their tragic highlights when seven people committed desperate acts of self-immolation. Under public pressure, the centre-right government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned in disgrace leading to early elections. The outcome of the elections, however, proved a conundrum as both Borisov’s populist party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), and the post-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party, won a near-equal share of the vote thereby cancelling out any prospect of a sound coalition. In order to exclude GERB from power, a minority government under Plamen Oresharski was formed by the Socialists and the party of ethnic Turks with the silent but necessary support of Ataka, an extremist right-wing and xenophobic party, as it was the only other party that had managed to get representatives elected to the National Assembly. It was an improbable alliance that hardly heralded any possible improvement compared to the previous government.
Against this backdrop, as if to challenge fate, with Bulgaria’s political establishment already disreputed for its cronyist practices and shady links to criminal milieux, the coalition underpinning the newly-minted government of Prime Minister Oresharski wasted no time to appoint Delyan Peevski, a notorious media mogul, as head of state security. Almost immediately, thousands of Bulgarians, spurred on by social media, took to the streets in Sofia to protest against the appointment of Mr Peevski. The appointment was swiftly repealed, but the protests continued with demonstrators promptly demanding the resignation of the government. More so, the protesters, galvanised as they were by the perceived arrogance of the new Socialist-led government, were no longer merely demonstrating against the incumbents. As Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev pointed out during the summer, the protest became directed not just against this government, but “against any government that treats people as useless furniture.” Furthermore, there seems to be no end to the endemic scandals of corruption among the political elite. At the time of writing this article, the deputy speaker of parliament, Hristo Biserov, had just resigned from all his posts and presumably fled the country following allegations of document forgery, tax fraud, and money laundering. According to Bulgarian cultural expert, Aleksander Kiossev, who himself has been taking part in the protests, the general feeling of resentment towards all political parties is merely the logical consequence of the fact that people’s patience with the political establishment has run out, overstretched not only by this government but also the previous ones.
Surprisingly, barring one incident of violent escalation in July when demonstrators attempted to prevent members of parliament from leaving the parliament building, the protests have been a carnivalesque and non-violent phenomenon in the form of daily colourful gatherings of thousands of people chanting ‘O-STAV-KA’ [resignation] in front of the Council of Ministers and the Parliament. However, the Oresharski government has chosen to weather the storm and instead of resigning, government officials and ruling party members have either ignored the protesters or relied on paid counter-protesters sent in from the countryside hoping that the summer holiday season would in the meantime wear down the demonstrators’ resolve. While some observers optimistically hailed the supposed mobilising influence of social media or the global impact of simultaneous occurrences of protest in Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere, as the motive force driving the protest in Sofia, the government’s strategy actually seemed to show signs of success as the number of protesters in Sofia gradually started to dwindle.
Students Take the Initiative
However, things changed on 23 October when students at Sofia’s St Kliment Ohridski University initiated a sit-in strike in the university’s largest lecture hall, auditorium 272. On that day, a lecture had been scheduled to be given by Dimitar Tokushev, a law professor and the chairman of Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court. A few days earlier, the court had ruled to reinstate the infamous Mr. Peevski as a member of parliament following the repeal of his appointment as head of state security. It was a ruling that sparked outrage and disbelief – as symbolised by a later anonymous offering of the court on eBay describing it as “most useful for mafia members, kingpins or corrupted members of parliament.” It thus could have hardly been surprising for Tokushev not to expect his students, some of whom presumably were taking part in the protests, to inquire about the court’s decision. However, when he was confronted with a barrage of students’ questions relating to the ruling, he refused to respond and instead fled the auditorium. In reaction, the students staged a sit-in strike demanding answers to their questions seeing it as their moral right. While their initial appeal for an explanation of the legal grounds of the court’s decision went unheeded, news of the sit-in spread, encouraging the agitated students to proclaim an open-ended occupation of the university’s main building, commonly referred to as the Rectorate, where auditorium 272 is located. The students rapidly organised themselves agreeing on some basic rules of conduct for the duration of the occupation and, echoing the demonstrations on the streets, declared the resignation of the Oresharski government as their objective. Within 24 hours of Tokushev’s ill-fated flight of the auditorium, the movement referred to in the social media environment as #Occupy272 and #OccupySU was born.
Since then, the student occupation movement has spread to more universities in Sofia with other academic centres from the Black Sea coast to the banks of the Danube following the capital’s example. At the time of writing, the student occupation movement involves 15 institutions of higher education. From the initial small group of first-hour occupiers of auditorium 272, a nationwide organised student movement under the name Ranobudnite Studenti [Early Rising Students] is emerging that has poised itself against the cynicism of the political elite. Its centre of gravity remains located in the main building of Sofia University where student leaders like Ivaylo Dinev, who meanwhile have become widely recognisable personalities, coordinate the actions of the broader movement. Though the students have blockaded themselves within the confines of the Rectorate, they can count on much sympathy among the university’s faculty, who as Gergana Dineva, Assistant Professor in Mediaeval Philosophy at Sofia University, explains “are trying to support the students in various ways, from organising debates and lectures to writing open letters, critical articles and official declarations.” It is not only in Sofia where the support of the professoriate is apparent, as Dineva points out: “On 28 October we issued a declaration of support for student protesters where we unequivocally state that we take a firm stand behind our students’ demands for the resignation of the government of Mr. Oresharski, the immediate dissolution of the National Assembly, and the calling of early elections. The declaration has meanwhile been signed by more than 600 Bulgarian professors.”
Officially though, the university’s highest collegial authority, the Academic Council, has taken a more reserved stance. Its declaration on 28 October reads: “The Academic Council understands and supports the motives of students who occupied the building of the Rectorate, as a reaction against the lack of morality in political life, the absence of concern for the future of young people in the country and the disrespect for their positions. We are convinced not only that the young people are right but that they should be encouraged to express a civic position.” However, the Council does not support the occupation as such: “We appeal to the organisers and participants in the occupation to search for other forms of protest that do not obstruct the University to fulfil its mission.” Despite the Council’s appeal it has not called for measures to end the occupation nor have the university’s authorities undertaken any steps to do so, thus de facto allowing the occupation to continue.
The Students Impart a New Dynamic on the Protest
With their occupation, the students have not only joined forces with the broader protest movement, but given it a more permanent dimension adding more visibility to the demands with their banners flying from the university’s windows for all passers-by to see.
Though the students see the occupation as a specific and separate student protest action, acts of solidarity with the broader movement is an active part of the occupation. The anti-government protesters on the streets were quick to acknowledge the significance of the student occupation making gatherings in front of the Rectorate to support the students part of their now daily protest routine. Groups of student occupiers then also go and take part in the street demonstrations. Students have also undertaken some flashmob-type protest actions beyond the universities’ premises such as temporarily blocking traffic at nearby intersections. Students from the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts have regularly staged theatrical street performances in addition to joining the occupation. But one of the most prolific student actions took place a few days before the outbreak of occupation, when a small group of student protesters entered the main hall of the parliament and unveiled a banner stating “Are you not ashamed of yourselves?” in front of the gathered MPs and the cameras of the national television. Though their banner was quickly taken down, the students were not arrested but instead invited for a talk with the speaker of parliament, Mihail Mikov. The latter’s open-hearted frankness left a lasting impression when he told the students that he doesn’t “care about the opinion of the people, not of those who are protesting, not of those who are silent, not of those who elected him.” While Mikov can be complimented for his honesty, such displays of cynicism from the country’s political class and their contempt for the people whose representatives they supposedly are, only underline what the students are struggling against. The students who unveiled the banner in the Parliament are in fact those who initiated the occupation.
For more than four months the government has not been moved by the protest on the street, but the occupation strike at the universities could change that. The students’ actions have the potential to break the stalemate between the hitherto non-organised protest movement and the intransigence of the government for a number of reasons. Despite the closed character of the occupation strike, its nerve centre, the university’s main building, is located on the main avenue where the daily demonstrations take place. Since the beginning of the occupation, protesters have gathered there in support of the students. The latter thus provided a new incentive to mobilise, while the occupation leaders have emerged as spokesmen and faces of the protest. Symbolising the young generation, the students are also sending an important message to the broader public. As a group they have chosen to stand their ground together instead of individually seeking better fortunes at home or abroad. Their actions and protest have resonated beyond the academic milieu as even some of Sofia’s older citizens prepare home-cooked meals for the occupiers.
Friendship Networks Are Crucial for the Movement
Apart from reinvigorating the protests, the students have provided the movement with a potential coordinated organisational network and structure. While they make use of social media as a grassroots information source to spread news about the movement, the occupiers’ level of organisation is beyond anything achievable via twitter or facebook. The students set up their own volunteer watchmen in the occupied buildings, prohibited alcohol use, and keep the buildings as tidy as possible. Coordinated action, not tweets or facebook likes, is exactly what the carnivalesque protests during the summer needed more. While social media has seemed indeed to play a role in bringing people together to protest in the centre of Sofia since June, the students’ organised actions are based on more solid bonds between the participants. As one of the occupiers, Manol Glishev, admits: “Social media can be useful, but there is a lot of spam on them as well. As far as the organisation of the occupation is concerned, friendship networks are decisive.” More so, the occupying students make their decisions as a group, and inside the occupied building itself there is of course no role for social media in the decision-making process, as Glishev explains: “When it comes to decisions of strategy, the occupation’s general assembly votes democratically. The guard duty was organised quickly and the security rules accepted.” The collective experience of occupying and organising also creates ties between activists that are more personal and stronger not only compared to participation in online interactions, but also to passive participation in protest marches.
The importance of friendship networks in relation to the strength of social movements has been demonstrated for example by the student activism of the 1960s. Social media can raise awareness of issues, but higher-risk activism needs more than the possibility of rapid mass dissemination of information. It needs dedication and shared experience, which provides the base for the solidarity through which activists can rely on each other. There is also the problem that when it comes to organised protest action a degree of secrecy is sometimes necessary, which is contrary to the open and exposed character of social media. The occupation at Sofia University started from a small group of students who had previously undertaken protest actions together and came intentionally and well-prepared to the Tokushev lecture in auditorium 272 on 23 October. As student leaderIvaylo Dinev testifies: “To parade along the streets does not require any courage, there is not much passion and madness in them [these marches]. An occupation is something different. It tests the mental and physical powers of each one of us. An occupation is about creating a state within the state. […] To implement an occupation madness is needed, to sustain it – self-organisation.” The element of organisation is not limited to the occupation itself, but the students are at the helm of broader protest initiatives as on 1 November, an official university holiday honouring the national enlighteners, when the students and their professors staged a demonstration under the slogan “Wake Up!”. The fledgling student movement brings with it organisation, coordination, democratic process and leadership. The students’ actions therefore might just be the necessary game changer, as they have added a crucial missing ingredient to the broader protest movement.
The Risks and Problems of Student Action
In addition to a strong, dedicated and expanding organisational network, the occupiers run a lower risk of repression as the government is legally restrained by university autonomy to send in police unless explicitly requested by the Rector. The probability of that happening is deemed pretty low, for as Manol Glishev comments: “We don’t trust the police. The police will not protect us, but they do not have the right to enter the University and the Rector would be politically dead if he asks the police in.” The government has nevertheless resorted to other types of tactics. On Sunday 27 October, a group of young thugs led by the youth wing of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and accompanied by a member of parliament broke into the university premises to intimidate the occupiers. Though they did not manage to enter the occupied building as the student patrols had locked the entrances to the building forcing the thugs to limit their rampage to tearing down the student protesters banners, the incident was televised and the footage went viral on Bulgarian social media. The students then appealed to the protesters to support them against such acts of violence, to which the latter responded in large numbers. Inside the occupied building the students have now barricaded entrances with desks and crates, while their guards patrol the perimeters in order to protect themselves from further physical attacks. While some violent incidents have occurred elsewhere as well, the students face threats mainly from pro-government faculty. Speaking to students occupying the University of National and World Economy, its Rector, Stati Statev, who is a known former communist State Security agent, publically blustered that “the only thing that protects you is that I don’t feel much respect for you.” In a demeaning tone he then continued: “At the moment you are just obstructing, you are merely in the way. All else is an illusion.” Statev’s comments were caught on video. In reaction, during a press conference organised by the occupiers at Sofia University, the students issued a demand for his resignation.
Nevertheless, as the students have turned the university into their battleground, the issue of university autonomy has been cited by professors and students who are critical of the occupation stating that the university should not be a theatre of party-political activity. But as Maya Grekova, Professor in Sociology and a senior faculty member who publically supports the occupation, clarifies “autonomy means autonomy from state intervention in the organisation and management of universities, which, according to the law on university autonomy, leaves space for responsible actions in the name of the common/public interest.” In effect, the university setting provides the fledgling student protest movement with adequate protection. Therefore, another widely propagated accusation by government officials and opponents of the occupation is that the occupiers have thrown the universities into chaos, are disrupting the normal functioning of university life, and are preventing the majority of students of getting an education. While it is true that the students have stopped some classes from taking place in the main building, the reality is far from the opponents’ accusations as Manol Glishev qualifies the occupiers’ actions: “The usual programme is replaced by occupational classes that deal with topics such as civil rights issues and political problems.” The impact of the cancelled classes has not led to chaos, as Professor Grekova explains: “I wouldn’t say that there is any chaos at the University as only the main building is occupied and the students there have established an immaculate order. They show an extraordinary maturity both in their declarations as well as in their published texts on the Internet.” Assistant Professor Gergana Dineva adds that “the administration didn’t stop functioning, the lecturers didn’t stop going to work. Only a few disciplines are partially experiencing some difficulties to implement their normal schedule. The university library, which is part of the occupied building, is functioning normally and every student who can show his or her student card can freely enter and leave the building. Planned conferences as well as the state final certification examinations are all taking place.”
The Politics of Occupation
The only way in which the university’s day-to-day life has changed, is that “lecturers and students are now debating the current social and political situation livelier than ever,” as Dineva states. At Sofia University, the professoriate is placed in somewhat of an ambiguous position, but the situation at other universities is definitely worse, as Professor Grekova again explains: “Our situation, that of the professors who support the protest but continue to have classes with students who do not support their colleagues’ protest, is complicated. But the situation is much harder at other universities where, even though students are occupying only one auditorium, the reaction from the administration has been extremely negative.” The government has also attempted to manipulate and provoke the occupiers directly. The Minister of Education invited them to discuss their demands. The occupiers immediately dismissed this move as they want the government to resign and therefore will not negotiate with its members. The Minister then staged a meeting with pro-government youth organisations who denounced the occupation movement. In protest, professors issued a declaration referring to the European Union’s Charter of Students in which they strongly condemn the government’s tactics of ‘lies and mafiatisation’: “The use of such totalitarian practices of control and pressure against those who think differently violates the autonomy of higher education institutions. […] Calling in those who are discontent to such meetings is an attempt at direct party control over all the students and professors who support them and once again delegitimises the current government.”
Apart from the government, and both left and right-wing commentators slandering the students’ actions, other less-politically invested observers have been critical or patronising towards them in the media. Some of them see the occupation as too political while others in contrast accused the students of not stating clear-enough political demands. Much of the confusion arises from the fact that the students have explicitly declared their non-endorsement of any political party thereby presenting the occupation as a form of anti-politics. Anti-politics here means that the Ranobudnite Studenti and their actions are focused upon civic activity within society rather than policy outcomes within the state. However, anti-politics in the current Bulgarian case does not imply an apolitical stance or apolitical demands – as the current government would wish the students to put forward– but a non-party-political position, it is therefore not incompatible with the political demand for the government’s resignation. As Bulgarian sociologist Boyan Znepolski underscored in the weekly Kultura: “Today’s student protest represents a significant social protest in the sense of rehabilitating society against the arbitrary rule of the political class. The demand for the separation of politics from behind-the-curtains clientilism is beyond the left-right divide. For today’s politicians there exists only private interests which they present in the media that serve them as the public interest vis-à-vis the citizens. For them the public interest is merely a media fiction. Therefore, for all citizens for whom the public interest in not merely a media fiction, no matter if they are ‘left’ or ‘right’, the cause taken up by Bulgaria’s students is their common cause and they should support it.”
Although the issue of how specific or how political the students’ demands are seems to be a popular topic for commentators to linger on, it is not the most important element of the occupation. Since the beginning of the occupation, the students have practised a far-going form of participatory democracy, making decisions by voting in a general assembly. University auditoria like 272 are quite adequate to host such gatherings. This inclusive democratic involvement of the participants of the occupation contrasts on every level with their perception of the way the country is run. There is also a strong symbolical notion in that the occupied Rectorate of Sofia University is but a few hundred meters away from the Parliament on the same central avenue. In addition, it is important to underline that the students see their actions through their specific position as students. They have deliberately given their actions a student identity and as such wish to reach out to society. While they have set up working groups to discuss the country’s problems and think up their own solutions, they have explicitly stated their willingness to be part of the debate on the country’s future but only after the government’s resignation. This does not mean that they do not have a position to take as some observers claim. On 9 November the occupiers at Sofia University read an open letter outlining their position on higher education during a press conference they organised: “We demand more autonomy for students, as well as their inclusion in the decision making process. Bulgaria’s youth should be given the chance to take responsibility and make choices that affect the community – in short, to be an active participant in the social contract.” Both the practices of their anti-politics as well as their participatory democracy are vital experiences that provide an important school of open democracy, an example they can spread further in the broader movement.
The Historical Role of Students
Another reason why the student protest movement matters is that there exists a strong historical precedent that testifies in favour of their actions. From a broader historical point of view, student movements have often been at the core of important developments that resulted in political change, in particular if they were aligned with a broader social movement. In most European countries these movements rather belong to the memory of a more distant era like 1968, but not so in Bulgaria. In 1997, during a wave of large-scale anti-government protests students were also at the fore and members of that student generation have voiced their support for the current occupiers seeing common cause with their own struggle 16 years ago. One of the 1997 veterans, Dimitar Bechev, a senior policy fellow and head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, describes the solidarity with today’s occupiers as follows: “Our presence at the University is symbolic, we didn’t come to lecture the students for they are mature enough. We felt it was important to come and show our support. They might come under attack in the media just as in 1997 when we experienced a smear campaign. In such circumstances it is important to show support.” Bechev also stresses the fact that times have changed and points out that members of older generations should not patronise the current generation of students: “They, the students of today, have a different style. In 1997, we had a long debate whether to stage an occupation in addition to the anti-government rallies we initiated. The current generation immediately went for occupation. It is not for us to tell them what to do, we can share our advice, but they are in the driving seat.”
Apart from the student movement of 1997, there have been other instances in recent history during which students in Bulgaria have become politicised such as in 1990. But today’s occupiers invoke another historical symbol of student protest, the near-mythical 1968 student revolt in France. While there are of course differences between the 1960s in Cold War Western Europe and today’s situation in Bulgaria, one can also see how the example inspires. In 1968, students rebelled, radically speaking out against the powers that be. They also practised forms of participatory democracy and they managed to change their societal reality. One of the resonating slogans of the spirit of 1968 was “be a realist, ask the impossible.” Bulgarian students today are echoing that slogan in their demand for the government to resign. They oppose the whole present political establishment, not only the government parties, but also the sole opposition party, GERB, which led the previous government. Nearly a quarter of a century since the end of the communist regime, Bulgaria’s political situation is still far from resembling a true open and transparent democracy, where government is elected by the people and governs for the people. In this sense, many might feel that the students are demanding the impossible, but the young Ranobudnite Studenti are realists nonetheless. They have chosen to make a stand and fight. They are realists, as they know that in order for change to occur they have to demand what today seems impossible, and they have shown that they have the courage to do so. Equally significant is that they, as students, are imbued with a calling, a missionary sense towards society. This is a shared characteristic of student movements that have played important roles in history. Today’s student occupiers seem indeed to be inspired by a sense of mission that as members of the younger generation they can bring about change. A slogan on one of their banners attached to the university’s facade puts it bluntly: “1968-1997-2013… It’s our turn now!”
No Conclusion, but a Show of Strength
At the time of writing, after more than two weeks of students occupying universities, the fledgling student movement decided to test its strength. While recent polls showed that about 60% of Bulgarians supported their protest, similar polls in Bulgaria in the past have been cited when it came to electoral support, and they had a tendency to show continuous levels of support for the political parties in power. However, real support in (fair and transparent) elections is ultimately measured by votes in the ballot box, not polls. With a social movement, its strength is measured by the number of people it can mobilise. Just as the occupation movement was going into its third week, the Ranobudnite Studenti moved to take that step. They launched a call for a national ‘March of Justice’ on 10 November. The date was not chosen haphazard as it was the 24th anniversary of the ousting of Todor Zhivkov, the former long-time communist leader whose demise signalled the end of the communist regime. The symbolism of the date for today’s students’ struggle is especially important as they see the transition as incomplete while many of them had not even been born at the time of Zhivkov’s downfall in 1989. In their public appeal to assemble in front of Sofia University’s main building before heading to the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the students called among others for a “responsible public policy in education, admission to government positions only for proven professionals and an end to state-run media being used for party propaganda.”
What then took place could not but have made an impression on the young occupiers. More than 15,000 answered their call and a massive procession of students supported by Bulgarians of all generations marched through the capital’s main avenues. More so, the demonstration was carefully coordinated by the students themselves. They were at the helm, they were the ones that addressed the crowds, their flashmob routines resulted in the rehearsed enactment of a mock resignation of the Prime Minister, and they had their security guards from the occupation ensure the seamless progress of thousands of protesters. Within just over two weeks the students have channelled with their actions the resentment and provided the existing broader protest movement with organisation, visible leadership and, most importantly, reinvigorated the movement as a whole.
Historians can usually rely on the benefit of hindsight, so it remains to be seen if the emerging Bulgarian student protest movement will make or change history. However, as Ivaylo Dinev, one of the leaders of the occupation and spokesmen of the Ranobudnite Studenti declared when he greeted and addressed thousands of protesters in front of the occupied main building of Sofia University: “We do not address our messages only to politicians. We address them to every person. […] We, the children of Transition, have taken the relay baton. Yes, maybe we were hasty. But we are aware that change needs time and time needs actions. We do not have vain illusions. We believe only in ourselves and the people. We have courage and patience. We have a moral cause and a reason to be here. A reason to get united. A reason to fight. A reason to protest, to go on strike, to occupy. The reason is that we insist on the present in order to have a future in Bulgaria.”
Tom Junes is a visiting fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute in Helsinki and a scholarly collaborator of the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia. In 2011-2012 he was a Geremek fellow at IWM.
© Author / Transit 2013
The quotes from interviews in this article are taken from those conducted by the author in English from 6 to 8 November 2013. The author thanks Maya Grekova, Gergana Dineva, Dimitar Bechev, and Manol Glishev, for their willingness to share their views. The author also wishes to thank Elitza Stanoeva for her assistance, and in particular for her translation of Bulgarian sources.
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