2014 was a year of protests: from Ukraine to Bulgaria, from Bosnia to Macedonia. Some protests had dramatic consequences: in Ukraine, after snipers took aim at a crowd of demonstrators, the president fled the country and a new era began. Other protests triggered early elections, as in Bulgaria. And some protests, such as those in Bosnia, made headlines for only a moment, changing almost nothing.
Let us begin our end of year newsletter with some reflections on protests, and two new ESI publications.
Bulgaria: Pessimism and ProtestBulgarians are the least happy people in Europe. At least according to the latest World Happiness Report that ranked Bulgaria 144th out of 156 nations, behind Iraqis and Afghans, Congolese and Haitians. Last year Bulgaria made international headlines when young people killed themselves in spectacular ways in public places. In March 2013 a young man set himself on fire in Varna to demand the resignation of the mayor. Five others did the same in early 2013. In November 2014 a woman tried to set herself ablaze outside the president's office.
Bulgaria also remains the poorest EU member state, with the GDP per capita less than half of the EU average. Almost a quarter century has passed since Bulgarians first held democratic elections in 1990 and began their transition. Within the European Union Bulgaria has long been cited as an example to illustrate the limits of the transformative power of the EU.
Today more than eight in ten Bulgarians (84 percent) tell Eurostat that corruption is widespread in their country. Has the process of EU enlargement as a motor of change failed in Bulgaria, as the conventional wisdom in many EU capitals suggests?
In a new essay in our 12-part series "Return to Europe Revisited", supported by ERSTE Stiftung in Vienna, we take a closer look:
Bulgaria's pessimism is also not the pessimism of an apathetic society. Dissatisfaction with the present instead turns into a motor for further change and transformation. In recent years Bulgarians have increasingly taken to the streets. There have been protests against shale gas exploration, the construction of a new nuclear power plant, amendments to the forestry law favouring the timber industry and planned construction in the "Strandzha" natural park. In early 2013 there were mass demonstrations against a rise in electricity prices and against the mayor of the coastal city of Varna. In summer 2013 tens of thousands demanded the resignation of a newly appointed head of the State Agency for National Security. These protests continued until mid-2014. What is striking is that these protests had an impact and are driven by the desire to catch up. As Georgy Ganev, a Bulgarian economist, explains, "Once a Moskvitch was better than a Trabant or a Zaporozhets. Now an Opel is much worse than a BMW." This is unlikely to change any time soon. For now, there is still a lot of life left in Bulgarian pessimism.
Bosnia: Protest and Illusions
A group of protestors in the city of Bihac called itself "Bosnian spring." The people, one observer noted, "had been sleeping for two decades," but had now woken up. "Politicians have been drinking our blood", one protestor told a journalist, "If we shed some of their blood in the process, so be it." In fact, nobody died, although hundreds of people, among them a large number of police officers, were injured.
One year later it is obvious that the February protests did not change Bosnia. They did not change the debate on its economy. They did not bring about the rise of new parties. They did not bring legislative change. Why?
After February citizens' assemblies sprang up in city after city. And they formulated demands. In Tuzla protestors called for the "establishment of a technical government" of people who had never been in government before, to be chosen by "workers and students." This government of experts was to annul the privatisation of a number of specific firms in the canton and to "return factories to workers… to start production in those factories where it is possible." Other demands focused on paying outstanding social security contributions to former workers in socially owned enterprises, and to look better after the interests of veterans. As we argue in a new report, this was a thinly veiled call to return to the golden era of socialist self-management:
The biggest challenge for leaders in Bosnia in 2015 will be to carry out reforms in the face of strong illusions about the causes of the Bosnian development crisis.
NEW Rumeli Observer on a winter of discontent:
Bosnians care but will protests change things?
Bosnians care but will protests change things?