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They Want It Now

In the era of 'global impatience,' protests learn from one another faster than ever before.

by Boyko Vassilev 4 July 2013

Today, there is no such thing as local protest. For proof, just consider what is happening from Bulgaria to Brazil.


The causes are different. Turks in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir rose up because of a building project, but turned against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s social conservatism. Similarly, Brazilians started on a small scale with Sao Paolo bus fares, but grew into a crowd of 1 million by criticizing poor public services, corruption, and lavish spending on the World Cup – and extracted concessions from Dilma Rousseff, a president with Bulgarian ancestors.


The protests in Bulgaria also took a turn. They were sparked by the installation of Delyan Peevski, a controversial 32-year-old yellow press tycoon and alleged oligarch, as head of the National Security Agency. When Peevski’s name was withdrawn promptly, the marching crowds in Sofia pressed a broader demand: the resignation of the freshly appointed government of Plamen Oresharski and another round of elections.


A compelling issue emerges – and suddenly the whole system slides into the whirlpool. Yes, the causes are different, but the roots are similar. Societal malaise, a community’s desire to protect something important, and global inequality pull the trigger – and people immediately flood the streets.


Style is another common feature. The protesters are urban, young to middle aged, middle class, active on Facebook and Twitter, demanding economic growth but also asking for honesty and morality in politics. The crowds demonstrate in a carnival fashion, forming flash mobs and staging happenings. In Turkey they introduced “the standing man.” In Brazil they used social media to come together. In Bulgaria they followed the Moldovan protesters of 2009 in using hashtags as a tool to organize protests. Two of the most catching were #DANSwithme, a play on the acronym for the National Security Agency, and #ignorevolen, an initiative to ignore the provocations of nationalist leader Volen Siderov, who tried to engage the protesters in open confrontation.


This urban middle-class style became one of the most divisive lines in Bulgarian protests. One of the clichés went that this was the “protest of the beautiful and the rich.” The idea was to make a distinction with the February demonstrations against electricity bills, which rejected any participation from the country’s elite and were deemed a protest of the poor. Now, politicians and pundits are arguing hotly over which protest was bigger – and which was more just.


Does this distinction make any sense? To be sure, some of June's protesters fancy themselves to be among the best and the brightest – those who could emigrate but have chosen to stay and fight for a new set of rules at home. And some of their opponents claim that this is a “protest of the well-fed” which disdains the silent majority of poor people who want Oresharski’s government to stay and introduce a program of social benefits and lower energy bills.


There is also a strong political element here. The February protests were aimed at the center-right government of the GERB party. When they escalated, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned and early elections resulted. As a result the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, supported mainly by Bulgarian Turks and Muslims, formed the center-left Oresharski government. The whole combination was tolerated by Siderov’s Attack party as a way to isolate GERB. Borisov’s party started to boycott parliament and Attack radicalized itself lest it lose the spotlight to the new coalition or the fight among the big parties.


So it is easy to imagine that some of the more recent demonstrators voted for either GERB or the smaller center-right parties who did not manage to overcome the 4 percent threshold for getting into parliament. Just as some (albeit not all) of the February protesters denounce the June protesters or openly support Oresharski’s cabinet.


It would be a good guess if you said the February protest was rather “left” – and the June protest rather “right.” I put these descriptions in quotation marks because in Bulgaria they do not have the usual meaning. Pollsters show that Bulgaria’s “right” is predominantly urban, young, and educated; while the “left” resides in smaller towns, older generations, and less-sophisticated societal branches. One joke sums up the present situation in the Bulgarian parliament: “When you look to your left – there is nothing right. When you look to your right – there is nothing left.” Evidently, the street wants to change this.


Yet the June protests inherited many features of the demonstrations in February. The focal point for both was a key Sofia intersection called Eagle’s Bridge (Orlov most). Protesters block it to deter traffic; they meet, confer, and even dance on it. This was also the meeting point for environmental protests in June 2012.


Older people make other comparisons – with the demonstrations in 1989, 1990, and 1991, which marked the end of communism, and with the winter protests of 1996-1997, which overthrew a socialist government and cleared the way for NATO and EU membership. Now, whole families come to the center of Sofia; parents and grandparents show their children how they protested years ago. The vibe is similar: humor, smart slogans, sophisticated performance. There is only one sad note: the realization that three protest waves and a quarter of a century have not been enough to bring true democracy and rule of law to Bulgaria. The shadow world still exists, shout the citizens, and it’s time to do away with it.


Other nations have similar goals. Protests copy from one another, not only a mood, but also style, substance, even small tricks. For example, Bulgarians owe much to Turks, who preceded them by a few days. Bulgarian TV showed young, intelligent, and lively Istanbul crowds; sympathetic comment was quick to follow, and after that, action. 


This is not new for the Balkans, Europe, or the world. In 1996 Bulgarians closely watched the anti-Milosevic demonstrations of the Zajedno coalition and imported from them whistles, marches, and street shows. Some years later Bulgarians returned the favor: they supplied know-how and NGO-power to the huge Serbian protests of 2000, which finally crushed Milosevic. The result was another protest export: Egyptian activists told me in 2011 in Cairo about the expert advice they received from professional Serbian “revolutionaries.” The kids of Otpor had grown. A decade ago they were eager to learn. Now, they were ready to teach.


The revolutions of the Internet age infect one another with growing speed. A revolt in Tunisia inspires a rebellion in Egypt; the Arab Spring talks to Occupy Wall Street; the Occupy spirit goes from New York to Washington, then to Saint Paul’s in London; the indignados of Spain correspond with the anarchists of Greece. A brave new mood is shaking the world – and demands immediate change; Bulgarian cultural anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev calls it “global impatience.”


In Bulgaria we see that in a Facebook generation that turned out not as passive as it had seemed. On the contrary, it showed an eagerness to hit the streets. They want it all, and they want it much faster than we ever imagined.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly 
Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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