Last February most of Southern Europe was reeling under the weight of austerity. It was not uncommon to see the streets of Lisbon, Athens, or Madrid filled with people hitting pots and pans and carrying banners with invectives against mainstream political parties and the European troika. Meanwhile, despite austerity and widespread hardship, Eastern Europe remained largely quiescent. Some viewed this as a sign of the left’s timidity and accused activists from 1990s democracy movements of genuflecting in gratitude for European Union membership rather than challenging recent economic policy. Others noted that Eastern European countries, unlike their Mediterranean counterparts, have a very low debt-to-GDP ratio and can rightfully claim that their economies had already been remolded by Milton Friedmanites in ways that center-left parties in Western Europe resisted. They maintain that the deprivation of the nineties has prepared post-socialist countries for anything and that life behind the Iron Curtain and immediately afterward was incomparably harsher. But recent events in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, show that none of these explanations suffice.
In mid-February Bulgarians took to the streets: first, slow trickles of the cold and economically vulnerable—those who could no longer afford to pay their privatized heating bills, often pensioners subsisting on less than 100 euros a month. Within days, masses of people joined them to protest corruption and continuing poverty in the largest nationwide demonstrations since Todor Zhivkov, the thirty-five-year-incumbent strongman of the Communist Party, was evicted from power in 1989. In every major city, crowds in the thousands took over arterial roads while waving Bulgarian flags or wearing them as capes over their heavy coats. As elsewhere, the anti-austerity movement bred strange bedfellows: young environmentalists shoulder-to-shoulder with pensioners, and anarchist youth in the same vicinity as the xenophobic far-right party Ataka. But the unifying chant was clear: “mafia.”
Bulgarians, regardless of ideology, have diagnosed their entire government as a profit-making machine, with the gears jointly pushed forward by politicians of all major parties and the ubiquitous mutri (mobsters). The mutri first appeared out of the ashes of 1989 as former wrestlers, martial artists, and small-time racketeers. They quickly ascended to the boardrooms of major Bulgarian corporations, such as Multigroup—Bulgaria’s largest company until its CEO was assassinated in 2003. Many Bulgarians see the state as a near-corpse on life support whose minders, the mutri, make phone calls to prospective organ recipients. Starting with the near total dismantling of Bulgarian industry in the 1990s, state companies, political positions, and permissions have been corruptly divvied up with shameful forthrightness while the public looked on in frozen horror.
On February 20 a thirty-six-year-old named Plamen Goranov arrived early to the square in front of City Hall in Varna, the largest Bulgarian city on the Black Sea. Like many other Bulgarians, he had been active in the protests and was particularly incensed by illegal construction on the Black Sea and the destruction of protected habitats by unscrupulous developers. In Varna, a city of nearly 350,000 with a bustling trade in coastal tourism, protests had started the previous summer in response to the privatization of protected environmental areas and had mushroomed after ecological concerns were merged with the wider movement. The protests that filled Varna’s major boulevards for days had focused on dismantling the notorious TIM group. TIM, one of the largest firms in Bulgaria, is widely accused (including by the U.S. embassy) of being a mafia shell corporation started by socialist-era marines, turned mafia, turned businessmen. Despite these allegations, TIM has succeeded in running Varna like a Gold Rush company town and has amassed enough wealth to buy Bulgaria’s flagship airline among many other spoils. On that day in February, Goranov planted himself in front of the City Hall, produced two bottles of gasoline, poured them on himself, and lit himself on fire. He died two weeks later from his wounds.
In the space of a month, five other Bulgarians ended their lives by self-immolation. The new prevalence of politicized suicide in the country gave way to a public debate: first linked facilely to the self-immolation of Jan Palach in Communist Czechoslovakia and later to the hardships of other peripheral European countries facing poverty and austerity. Self-immolators were lionized as martyrs, and shrines were erected for them in front of the government buildings where they ended their lives. Bulgaria’s former president, Boyko Borisov, who came to power with his party Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) initially dismissed the protesters as fringe group leftists and provocateurs, a non-trivial insult in a country where left politics must always be on guard against unflattering associations with Stalinism. But after the widely mourned self-immolations, bred by economic desperation and disgust with growing inequality, protesters could no longer be caricatured as hooligans or social misfits.
Ironically, Borisov, a former bodyguard and karate champion, came to power on a platform of anti-corruption, promising to rout the mafia from their symbiosis with Bulgarian politicians. By the day that Plamen Goranov self-immolated, Boyko (as the former president is known by supporters as well as detractors) had seen protests erupt in every major city while support from the right and center had deteriorated. He abruptly stepped down after a convoluted speech in which he vowed to return and participate in upcoming elections. Though Borisov visually and biographically exemplified the mafia capture of the state, he was not the object of widespread political frustration. His deputies’ involvement in legal imbroglios and a wiretapping scandal were shrugged off with a minimal apology and a disturbing lack of public outrage. For many, he was not the crucial problem and his resignation was simply the lopping off of a lizard’s tail that would promptly reappear.
The late economist Albert O. Hirschman argued that people express their sentiments toward institutions in three fundamental ways: exit, voice, and loyalty. From its post-communist years until now, Bulgaria has been an excellent example of the over-selection of the exit option and minimal use of voice. During the 1990s over a million Bulgarians emigrated because of political instability, poverty, and financial insecurity that culminated in wild inflation and the implosion of the currency in 1996–7. As its financial health slowly improved and it came under consideration for EU membership, the popularity of exit grew even greater. Students, doctors, and businesspeople flocked to schools teaching English, French, and German and began to mentally rehearse their family goodbyes while taking TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams and applying for passports. Bulgaria, whose population is only around 7 million, sometimes seems to be missing an entire generation. Often those who emigrated were the best educated, who decided to try their luck in Western Europe or North America not merely for financial betterment but because of frustration with the slowness of post-socialist reform and disgust with the political dominance of the mafia. Unlike under communism, the state put up no objections because, as Hirschman showed, exit can be framed as abandonment and even disloyalty, but it is often an appealing strategy for political leaders who wish to suppress voice.
As organized crime and corruption have become part of the Bulgarian political process, the mutri have also affected post-socialist culture. Pop folk (chalga) music advertises the nouveau riche “good life” through music videos featuring almost-naked women who have invariably undergone multiple conspicuous plastic surgeries and their heavily muscled companions who drive luxury cars. The term mafia baroque describes the architectural style favored by the nouveau riche: usually, it is an incongruous medley of reflective blue glass, Grecian revival columns, and cupolas. These new forms of culture are disliked by those who chose exit and serve as symbols of a corrupted elite that is unresponsive to mass poverty and pursues its own enrichment with gusto. Many Bulgarians feel that materialistic culture is purposely used by mutri parvenus to emphasize the power shift from communist-era intelligentsia to contemporary oligarchs.
Thus, the chant “mafia” is not just a national lament over political machinations but a battle fought in the cultural field over collective values. Insecurity over “appropriately European” culture is a particularly sensitive subject given the long history of Balkanism as a form of local European Orientalism. Efforts by Balkan elites to achieve “full” European status began with early twentieth century bourgeois reformers and continued through the efforts of Communist apparatchiks. Managing the negative response to corruption in Brussels has become something of a full-time job for some Bulgarian ministers, giving a twenty-first century twist to an old story.
A critical turning point seems to have been reached in the past several years: despite Bulgaria’s ascension to the EU in 2007, organized crime has continued unabated and no corruption panacea from Brussels has materialized. In some cases, EU development funds seem to have primed the pump for organized crime and its political allies, who no longer subsist on local graft alone. Indeed, the EU took the unusual step of freezing hundreds of millions of euros in development funds shortly after Bulgaria joined because of widespread misuse. Open borders also proved to be a shibboleth: universal mobility has been denied through continual exclusion from the borderless intra-EU Schengen Zone. A possible explanation for the recent outburst in political voice is disillusionment with both national leaders and the EU, and the closing of many exit paths as Western European governments administer austerity. Nearly anyone on the streets of Sofia has a saddening story about two kinds of failed citizenship: the first, post-socialist and Bulgarian, denied by kleptocracy; the second, European, quashed by what now seem like perpetual measures to keep Romanians and Bulgarians as second-class citizens.
Since June 2013 protests have started again in most major Bulgarian cities. So far, there have been no more self-immolations nor have protests concentrated on crippling poverty. A coalition government led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) started its first month in office with several scandalous appointments, most notably Delyan Peevski from the coalition ethnic Turkish party (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) as head of the State Agency of National Security. Peevski, the thirty-two-year-old son of a media mogul known for suspicious business practices, was previously dismissed from the pre-Boyko government for “moral failures,” widely interpreted to mean he used his position to demand pay-offs. Brusque and unlovable, he owes his career to nepotism. Street demonstrations forced the BSP to recall Peevski after only one day in office. If he had been allowed to continue his job, one of his key responsibilities would have been, ironically, to stymie organized crime.
For Bulgarians, the flagrance of Peevski’s appointment is an example of what politicians from all major parties feel they can get away with despite the urgent tenor of February’s protests. Other protesters, even more sickened with Bulgarian politics, see the entire thing as an anti-BSP ruse by 1990s pro-democracy parties or Boyko’s party. Given previous acts of political deviance, anything seems possible. Many view street protests as uncoordinated venting or political maneuvers choreographed by elites. In a country in which voice was seen as hopeless and often insincere, protests are met with an incredulous air, while exit is still respected as the default political act. But this did not stop thousands of Bulgarians from taking to the streets for three months and counting, draped in the national flag, with children in hand or cradling an extra-large beer next to a homemade sign. It seems that after nearly fifteen years, grabbing the country’s tricolor flag, a whistle, and a good set of walking shoes and hitting the street has come back in fashion.
Max Holleran is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University.