Arguably the first indication that Bulgaria was set for a year both bizarre and beset with turbulence was the strange episode on January 19 in which Movement for Rights and Freedoms leader Ahmed Dogan had a pistol pointed at him on stage by Oktai Enimehmedov. Like so many aspects of the troubled year of 2013, clarity remained still awaited at the close of the year as the trial of Enimehmedov on a charge of attempted murder was still proceeding.
The January 19 incident at the MRF congress made news around the world. The bizarre incident overshadowed the implication for domestic politics – that Dogan, founder and long-time leader of the MRF, handed over the post of party leader to his deputy, Lyutvi Mestan. Screenshot via Bulgarian National Television
On February 5, Bulgaria announced that its investigation into the July 2012 Bourgas terrorist bombing had established a link to Hezbollah’s military wing. Identikits of alleged accomplices were published worldwide and a request sent to Lebanon to hand over the suspects. After a vexed debate, EU foreign ministers declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. But after the Bulgarian Socialist Party government came to power in May, not much further was heard about the issue, about which BSP figures had dissented in the past.
In the first major drama of the political year, Bulgarians voted in a referendum that was, in effect, about whether to proceed with the Belene nuclear power project that had been shut down by the GERB government in 2012. A low voter turnout produced an indecisive result, and the decision passed to Parliament which confirmed that Belene should not go ahead. After May, however, the BSP government pushed the Russian-linked project back on to the national agenda.
February saw the beginning of protests mobilised around high electricity bills, cost of living and dissatisfaction with Bulgaria’s political establishment. Several ‘protest leaders’ turned out to have close ties to leftist and Russophile organisations. Although billed as directed against the political elite as a whole, the protests largely evaporated after the Boiko Borissov government resigned following an incident of violence in Sofia. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
On February 24, Metropolitan Neofit of Rousse was elected Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, as successor to Maxim who had died in November 2012. After a troubled path to the election that exposed bitter infighting in the Synod, Neofit moved to restore a credible position in society for the church, a task not made easier by the controversies that were to follow in 2013, including that around the death of Varna Metropolitan Kiril in July and the initial scandals around the election of a successor to Kiril.
The turbulence at the beginning of the year also saw the first of a series of self-immolations, a phenomenon hitherto unknown in Bulgaria. The death of Plamen Goranov, who died after setting himself on fire outside the Varna municipal building in the Black Sea city, mobilised media and public opinion. Months later, an impromptu monument to Goranov remained in place at the site of his self-immolation. Locally, the incident led to the downfall of Varna’s mayor. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
After the resignation of the Borissov government, diplomat Marin Raykov was called from Paris to take the stewardship of the country pending early elections and the formation of a new government. Constrained by law from amending the national Budget, the Raykov caretaker cabinet did what it could to restore calm and set the country on an even keel, tackling issues including the concentration of state funds with a particular bank. Most importantly, Raykov pledged that the elections would be conducted legitimately.
The election campaign was fought histrionically, with the major tactic of the Bulgarian Socialist Party being to discredit leading figures in GERB such as Tsvetan Tsvetanov. On the eve of the election, anti-GERB media and politicians made much of a store of ballot papers found in a warehouse in Kostinbrod. By contrast, BSP candidate Stefan Danailov’s Cafe Lambo coffee-and-election stand in Plovdiv was an oasis of calm.
With the results in, GERB, although it had won the largest single share of votes, had no allies in the 42nd National Assembly with which to form a coalition. Borissov conceded, and the BSP was handed a mandate to govern.
With the support of the MRF and the tacit support of Ataka, the BSP installed an ‘expert’ cabinet headed by former finance minister Plamen Oresharski. From the outset, it was clear that the political forces of the ruling axis were running the show, including in cabinet appointments, and Oresharski was at best a figurehead.
The June 14 election of media mogul Delyan Peevski, in the middle of the top row, on an election poster for MRF for the May 2013 parliamentary elections, as head of the State Agency for National Security unleashed national outrage. Photo: dps.bg
Tens of thousands of Bulgarians took the streets to demand the resignation of the BSP government and fresh elections. Peevski’s appointment as head of SANS was withdrawn, but the government refused to go, setting the scene for a bitter contest between the ruling axis and anti-government protests that, months later, would continue to have overwhelming majority support among Bulgarians. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
Anti-government protests frequently came up with creative imagery and events, such as the nod to the Delacroix painting and Bastille Day, a gesture of tribute after the French and German ambassadors issued a public statement urging the government to heed the voice of civil society.
Photo: Vassil Garnizov
While largely peaceful, the anti-government protests saw a clash on the 40th day when a busload of MPs was sent in the direction of the protesters. The government denied allegations of police brutality. The incident was one of the few occasions that Bulgaria’s peaceful protests got coverage from foreign media, which at the time focused more on dramatic scenes from neighbouring Turkey. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
Although turnout for the protests declined at the peak of summer, there was new impetus at various points, including after the Constitutional Court ruling that Peevski was still an MP (a further challenge would also fail) and after university students initiated an ‘Occupy’ protest demanding the resignation of the government. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
In November, the issue of police strongarm tactics again was at the fore when police clashed with protesting students. Photo: protestnamreja
November brought the sudden resignation of Hristo Biserov as deputy leader of the MRF and deputy speaker of parliament. A few days later, it emerged that Biserov was to face charges of large-scale money laundering and tax evasion. Biserov is seen, left, with socialist Speaker of Parliament Mihail Mikov, and Maya Manolova.
Bulgaria was among European countries that saw a significant increase in the number of refugees arriving from Syria after it initially seemed that there would be US-led military action against the Assad regime. The issue was seized on by ultra-nationalists who sought to allege a dire plot to ‘Islamicise’ Bulgaria while the government – although coming under fierce criticism for being found unready to cope with the refugee influx – seemed quietly to welcome as an issue with which to divert attention from the anti-goverment ‘resignation’ campaign. In this picture,
Syrian asylum-seekers waiting to be registered with border police at Elhovo, near Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. Photo: UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
The Bulgarian Red Cross and other organisations initiated fund-raising campaigns to assist the Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. International bodies and human rights organisations sharply criticised conditions for refugees in Bulgaria’s accommodation shelters, while in some cities and towns, there were demonstrations by residents who did not want refugees accommodated there. Photo: Ben Melrose/V Photo Agency
In one of the most disturbing manifestations of xenophobia, ultra-nationalist groups started ‘civil patrols’ in central Sofia in response to the arrival of refugees. The police response to these patrols appeared ineffectual, although later state law enforcement and prosecution bodies spoke out against them.
On November 15, it was announced that Bulgaria had secured lower delivery prices for Russian gas and given final approval for the South Stream gas pipeline, signing agreements to that end with Gazprom. South Stream’s official start was marked with a welding ceremony in Anapa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, on December 7 2012. Photo: gazprom.ru
Bulgaria’s Cabinet endorsed on December 11 the Economy Ministry’s recommendations to begin negotiations for the construction of a new nuclear unit at Kozloduy power plant, using Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor design. On December 13, BEH and Westinghouse signed the agreement to begin exclusive negotiations on the construction of unit 7 at Kozloduy. The agreement was signed on the same day that Westinghouse president and CEO Danny Roderick met with Plamen Oresharski in Sofia. Photo: Trygve W Nodeland
Towards the end of 2013, macro-economic indicators for Bulgaria were cause for gloom, as government job creation promises remained unfulfilled. Unemployment was recorded by Eurostat as 13.2 per cent in October, with youth unemployment in Bulgaria breaking the 30 per cent barrier the same month. January to October 2013 foreign direct investment came in at 1.05 billion euro, about 2.6 per cent of GDP against an FDI figure of 4.7 per cent of GDP in the first 10 months of 2012. Toward mid-December, rating agency Standard and Poor’s said that it was downgrading Bulgaria’s outlook to negative. Photo: Leah Sawyer
Throughout 2013 and reaching a fever pitch towards the end of the year, Bulgarians and Romanians were targeted for smears by some British media and politicians who conjured up the spectre of hordes from the two countries going to the UK when EU labour market restrictions end on January 1 2014. British diplomats assured that there would be no discrimination against Bulgarians and Romanians as the British government announced tighter rules on access to social benefits. While Sofia and Bucharest underlined that claims of mass migration were overrated, a poll by Bulgaria’s Alpha Research found that about five per cent of Bulgarians intended quitting the country to work elsewhere in the EU after the end of labour market restrictions. The agency also pointed out that, going by past experience, only about half of those who say that they will leave the country actually do so. The statements of intention to leave were taken as an indictment of the situation in Bulgaria, when the same poll found that a majority of Bulgarians described 2013 as among the worst years of the post-communist era. Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer
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This article was first published on: Sofia Globe