Last month, Bulgaria became the next country in which fiscal austerity was rejected. Until the end of 2012, at least on the surface, this poorest member of the EU, with a GDP of $51 billion, and with slightly more than 7 million inhabitants, seemed like a success story, at least compared to the majority of its neighbors. It looked like an island of tranquility; a showcase where austerity and social stability went hand in hand.[i] Unlike Greece, Serbia or Romania, Bulgaria did not have to look to the IMF or other international lenders to fill in its budgetary gaps. It had a low budget deficit of below 3%,[ii] and a disciplined government which was able to resist any pressure for major pension and salary increases. Since 2009, it had a one party government led by the center-right party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB). The relatively weak opposition in the Parliament allowed GERB to pass its legislation without too much difficulty. The country had a popular Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov who, even after his government resignation in the wake of last month’s protests, remains perhaps the most popular leader in post-communist Bulgaria.
The spontaneous social protests, which erupted in late January 2013, were set off by the fact that the price of electricity had become unbearable and for some, the monthly electric bills exceeded their salaries.[iii] Energy prices in Bulgaria have been very high since the fall of communism. Due to lack of other heating options, Bulgarians turned to electric energy because they are able to control its usage and limit its consumption according to their needs. In brief, the hike of electric prices combined with increased consumption during the cold winter months brought public outrage to the streets, which resulted in government resignation and were followed by disorderly political crisis.[iv] The anger of the population remains so prevalent that even with the new interim government and the fact that the price of electricity was reduced,[v] the protests and the cases of self-immolation persisted.[vi] The price of electricity was only the last drop in the bucket. Despite the populist slogans under Borisov’s leadership, squeezed by 12.4% unemployment,[vii] mounting indebtedness, low wages, spiraling cost of living, poverty and despair, Bulgarians had lost their patience.[viii] [ix]
The analysis of the situation in Bulgaria leads to striking parallels with other Europeans countries, which have embraced budget cuts for the sake of appeasing the markets or inability to access international credit. All these countries face unstable governments, high unemployment, social protests, populism, and rapidly rising popularity of the extreme right or extreme left political parties. The results of the elections of February 25th in Italy are the latest evidence that the population, if given the ballot, does not support harsh austerity measures[x] imposed by what they perceive as a dictate from overbearing Berlin and aloof Brussels.
Yet Bulgarians do not blame Berlin or Brussels for their misery. For the most part, they remain staunchly pro-European. At most, they attribute the austerity policies to the ex-Minister of Finances, and Deputy Prime Minister Simeon Djankov, a World Bank expert, who with Borisov’s blessing, tirelessly and stridently imposed rigorous budgetary restrictions. As a result of Djankov’s efforts, the financial discipline brought Bulgaria high praise by the international institutions. Since 2009, soon after GERB came to power, Standard & Poor’s elevated Bulgaria’s outlook from “negative” to “stable.”[xi] Moody’s later upgraded the outlook on Bulgaria’s government to “positive”, the only upgrade awarded to an EU member since 2008.[xii] Nevertheless, the improved financial outlook did not bring any improvements for the life of the ordinary Bulgarian citizen. The monopolies and entrenched special interests groups continued to thrive while the general population saw its already meager incomes plummet and jobs and salaries disappear. Lately, even Bulgaria’s now ex-Premier Borisov acknowledged that building infrastructure, one of his favorite pet projects, is not going to help an impoverished and jobless population.[xiii] Therefore, his priorities, if he runs again, would turn to job creation and improvement of the standard of living, slogans associated with the left in Bulgaria.
Yes, in some sense Bulgaria is undergoing a “revolution”. It is experiencing a birth of social consciousness and a civil society, without a hidden agenda or connection to political parties, at least for the moment. Unprepared, surprised by its sweeping power and empowered by social media and mobile technology, this popular uprising accomplishes something it barely thought it was capable of – rising and fighting for what the ordinary citizens believe in: ending austerity, cleaning up corruption, and redistributing of wealth. Whether this anti-establishment social movement will remain confined to Bulgaria and will stay peaceful is yet to be seen.
[i]The World Bank, Bulgaria Overview, accessed on 03/04/2013, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/bulgaria/overview
[ii]Finance Maps of the World, Highlights of Bulgaria Budget 2012: 02/09/2012, accessed on 03/02/2013, http://finance.mapsofworld.com/budget/bulgaria/
[iii]The New York Times, After Bulgarian Protests, Prime Minister Resigns, 02/21/2013, accessed on 02/21/2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/world/europe/bulgarian-government-is-reported-set-to-resign.html?_r=0
[iv]The New York Times, Resignation Fails to Soothe Bulgarians, 02/22/2013, accessed on 02/23/2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/22/world/europe/22iht-bulgaria22.html
[v]REUTERS, Bulgaria cuts household electricity prices by 7 pct, 03/05/2013, accessed on 03/05/2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/05/bulgaria-government-electricity-idUSL6N0BWINH20130305
[vi]BBC News, Bulgarian politics back on the streets, 02/28/2013, accessed on 02/28/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21592373
[vii]Sofia Globe, Unemployment in Bulgaria 12.4% in January 2013, as youth unemployment hits 28.3%, 03/01/2013, accessed on 03/02/2013, http://sofiaglobe.com/2013/03/01/unemployment-in-bulgaria-12-4-in-january-2013-as-youth-unemployment-hits-28-3/
[viii]REUTERS, Bulgarian dies of self-immolation, protests intensify, 03/04/2013, accessed on 03/05/2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/04/bulgaria-government-idUSL6N0BW9O520130304
[ix]REUTERS, Political uncertainty deepens in Bulgaria as thousands protest, 03/03/2013, accessed on 03/03/2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/03/bulgaria-government-protests-idUSL6N0BV31C20130303
[x] The Guardian, Italy votes against austerity leaving EU in turmoil, 02/26/2013, accessed on 02/28/2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/26/italy-election-austerity-eurozone-turmoil#
[xi]Novinite, Standard & Poor’s Upgrades Bulgaria’s Outlook to Stable, 12/01/2009, accessed on 02/25/2013, http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=110627
[xii]Moody’s, Rating Action: Moody’s changes outlook on Bulgaria’s ratings to positive from stable, 01/21/2010, accessed on 02/28/2013, http://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-changes-outlook-on-Bulgarias-ratings-to-positive-from-stable–PR_193487
[xiii]Standart, Бойко прави ляв завой, 03/06/2013, accessed on 03/06/2013, http://www.standartnews.com/balgariya-politika/boyko_pravi_lyav_zavoy-180196.html
Photo credit: AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff