The economic ills that led to mass protests in Bulgaria earlier this week and led Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to quit aren't going to be easy to address.
Today's peaceful demonstration, involving just a couple hundred protesters, is much smaller in scale than the earlier, violent protests that led to Mr. Borisov's removal. But the young activists say they are just now getting organized and plan to push for major social changes in the coming weeks to fight the corruption and financial woes that plague Bulgaria.
The last week of turmoil in the country – initially a response to high electricity bills and an overall declining standard of living, but quickly evolving into calls for an end to government corruption and major reforms – is in many ways reflective of a shift happening throughout Europe.
Across the continent, residents say austerity measures have cut too deep, and European society – particularly post-Communist nations in Eastern Europe like Bulgaria – is struggling to adjust to a new economic reality that can no longer support a wide array of state-sponsored social services. Now Bulgaria and many of its European counterparts must work to find a middle ground that supports economically sustainable social services, but the process will likely not be without its growing pains.
“There needs to be a balance, otherwise we will face a revolution. But in terms of social policy, this balance will never get back to what it used to be twenty years ago. From now on, and I tell this to my students, they can’t expect to have the same provisions as their parents,” says Emilia Zankina, an assistant professor in political science at the American University in Bulgaria. “There will be a readjustment of expectations, but also a redefinition of the government role.”
Among those who’ve taken to the streets in protest, one of the central frustrations is that many of the same figures have occupied their 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.”
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union. The average resident’s monthly salary is less than $550 per month and has not increased for years. The nation was hit particularly hard by the global recession in 2008, which led to a tenfold reduction in foreign investment.
Like many of its neighbors, Bulgaria has sought to shore up its economy through a number of austerity measures, including freezing government salaries and delaying payments to the private sector.
“Bulgaria is one of the examples that you cannot revitalize the economy with austerity," says Rumen Gechev, director of the Center on Sustainable Development at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia. "In order to restore economic growth, you have to stimulate investments. There is no other way. How will you stimulate investments with austerity? Decreasing the purchasing power of households, not paying the private companies?”
Mr. Gechev adds that there is unlikely to be any serious improvement in the Bulgarian economy without first finding a way to improve citizens’ average income. Low wages are what makes a problem such as soaring electric bills crippling for many Bulgarians.
Jivko Hristov, who spontaneously joined in Friday’s protest, says that his grandmother’s monthly electric bill now exceeds what she receives from her pension. Mr. Hristov, an unemployed plumber, says that even when he had work, many of his clients did not pay him at the end of a job because they simply did not have the funds.
“The Bulgarian people are poor and we cannot pay our bills,” he says. “The problem is that we cannot live like this anymore.”