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Occupy Alma Mater

Some see the student protests in Sofia as just another Bulgarian hustle, but they could be much more than that. by Boyko Vassilev 7 November 2013

On the night of Friday, 25 October, when their classmates were storming the bars in the student quarter, they gathered at the central building of Sofia University. Then they blocked the entrances and secured the gates with chains. Thus the occupation strike began.


As the students knew, previous sit-ins had changed the course of Bulgarian history. In the summer of 1990 the first occupation of Sofia University brought down the Socialist president. Months later a similar protest forced the Socialist prime minister to resign. In 1997 a protest (again, against the Socialists) included a new occupation of Sofia University and resulted in early elections and acceleration of Bulgaria’s path toward NATO and the EU.


University sit-ins elsewhere – 1968 in Paris and 1973 at Athens Polytechnic – did not bear fruit immediately, but they created symbols and martyrs, and most importantly, they set some rules of social behavior that transformed the life of generations to come.


This time, it all started with the protest of 14 June, which has weakened albeit not yet officially ended. The casus belli was the controversial appointment of media tycoon, businessman, former criminal investigator, and member of parliament Delyan Peevski as director of the State Agency for National Security. Peevski withdrew a few days later but protesters stayed put and started to demand the resignation of the newly elected government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski.


Initially, students had marched with other protesters, and they were in no hurry to occupy university buildings through the exam and vacation seasons.


But on 8 October Peevski was allowed to return to parliament after the Constitutional Court deadlocked on the question of whether he had given up his seat by being sworn in, however briefly, as head of the security agency.


Protesters were outraged – and on 23 October students confronted the court’s chairman, Dimitar Tokushev, a professor at Sofia University. When he entered lecture hall 272, they were ready with slogans and chants. An offended Tokushev left the building and the students occupied the hall, demanding the resignation of the government and “morality in politics.” Two days later, the whole university fell into their hands.


They would soon discover, however, the hardships of rebellion.


Roughly four months had passed since a small but loud group of supporters of Oresharski mounted a counterprotest, demanding instead the ouster of President Rosen Plevneliev, an ally of the former government who has defended the protesters. Now, the counterprotest turned against the occupying students.


On 26 October, young men wearing black jackets and Celtic crosses − a nationalist symbol − along with pro-government journalists and a Socialist member of parliament, confronted the students, but professors and others flocked to support them, and the occupiers held the line.


There are reasons for some hostility to the students. The word “occupation” is troubling in any language – and in Sofia it is not Wall Street that is being occupied, but an academic institution. In addition, the occupiers are a minority; counterprotesters insist that most students want to study. The medical university even organized a students’ referendum just to discover that 65 percent do not support “occupation of academic institutions;” the student councils decided likewise. University occupation has usually been a “center-right” political tool in modern Bulgaria, and their opponents, who support the leftist government, accuse the students of pursuing political aims.


Perhaps they do, but so what? “Politics” is not a dirty word and pursuing political goals is not illegal. And as for polls, a recent one showed that 60 percent of Bulgarians support the students’ protest. As I have already said, occupation is nothing new – and in every revolution, it has been done by a minority. “People who stormed the Bastille and the Winter Palace in Petrograd were few,” said Mihail Konstantinov, a mathematics professor and former elections official. “I advise the government not to crack down on the students but to negotiate with them.”


Indeed, the occupiers are negotiating a meeting with the prime minister, though they have yet to iron out the details.


Both protesters and counterprotesters claim to speak on behalf of the majority, but the truth is that Bulgarians are painfully divided. Some want the government out because it crossed a moral line with Peevski’s appointment; others say you cannot kill a five-month cabinet for the sake of an unfortunate appointment. Some think the previous, center-right GERB government was the worst in Bulgaria’s transition period; others say Oresharski’s uneasy, Socialist-led coalition has outdone it.


The gap divides former friends, even families. I was an occupier in 1990 and can testify that we enjoyed more popular support, although we were also a minority. Yes, there was a division in the early 1990s, but it was not so entrenched. At least Bulgaria had some goals before it: joining the EU, to say the least. Now the goals are behind us but the fatigue is not.


Maybe the most important change is in how people see morality. Today being a student is less a civic notion, more a business project. Campus solidarity has given way to a simple determination to get what you pay for.


To talk about moral issues, values, and dignity makes you suspect, and people look for an ulterior motive. Far from trying to understand a differing opinion, people see their opponents as bought-off or crazy. The yellow press can fabricate an accusation against anyone and many will believe it. Apathy and cynicism reign.


What about those occupying students? Are they too entrapped by hypocrisy and led by hidden interests? Or are they the last forces of old-fashioned honesty? Perhaps we can believe the latter while not forgetting that the former is possible.


They may be a product of these jaundiced times, but the youth are the only force that can change them.

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

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