Would these public eruptions have happened anyway? Maybe, maybe not.
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Protests follow a reverse pattern. In happy times they differ; during pandemics they have a common, albeit not always visible, denominator.
The killing of George Floyd triggered the “Black Lives Matter” protest in the United States. In Serbia, citizens are demonstrating against President Aleksandar Vucic; in Bulgaria they are demanding the resignations of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev.
History will inevitably note that the protests happened amid a coronavirus pandemic and a hot debate about how to handle it. U.S. President Donald Trump has been criticized for failing to react early and consistently. Serbia introduced one of the toughest lockdown rules, including curfews, but suffered one of the highest death tolls in the Balkans.
The Bulgarian government managed to contain the epidemic early, with milder measures. But it eased them abruptly, and the numbers of the infected then rose far above lockdown levels. In mid-July, that put Bulgaria among the most affected countries in Europe. Intended to please everyone, this change of course did exactly the opposite. It disappointed the majority, which had supported the lockdown measures, while those who had opposed them already were angry.
Government reactions to COVID-19 have inevitably influenced the protests. A direct link was most evident in the Serbian case. Demonstrations against President Vucic’s rule date back to 2018; opponents already had decided before the pandemic hit to boycott parliamentary elections. Then the lockdown came; postponement of the elections until 21 June; an easing of the restrictions beforehand (opposition supporters claimed Vucic wanted people to get out and vote); and a spectacular victory for Vucic’s For Our Children alliance, with 60 percent of the ballot. The epidemic exploded shortly thereafter, and hospitals exhausted their capacities. On 7 July authorities tried to reinstate curfews, and protesters stormed the parliament in Belgrade. A mixed crowd – from urban liberals to ultra-nationalists – joined forces against Vucic on issues ranging from lack of democracy to mourning for Kosovo.
Although Bulgaria’s protesters are also “a coat of many colors,” the situation is slightly different. The protests’ focus is corruption, embodied by a series of scandals in June and July. The main targets are three public figures: the center-right Borissov, who has held power for nine and a half of the last 11 years; businessman and parliamentarian Delyan Peevski, whose controversial (failed) appointment to head the National Security agency prompted a protest in 2013; and the recently elected Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, whom protesters see as connected with the first two and thus unjust and biased.
The context is not easy to explain. Peevski does not come from Borissov’s party. Though he almost never goes to parliament, he was elected on the ballot of the Movement for Rights and Freedom, which attracts mainly the votes of Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims, calls itself “oppositional,” and dwells in the liberal wing of the European Parliament. Since the Supreme Judicial Council elected him in October 2019, Geshev has embarked on an anti-corruption campaign, aimed at ministers, advisors to President Rumen Radev (an opponent of Borissov), and many of Bulgaria’s super rich, whom he sees as instigators of criticism against him. While briefly in opposition, Borissov supported the 2013 urban demonstrations against Peevski and the Socialists. Today, Socialists protest against him and Peevski, along with urban liberals.
It is evident that Bulgarian politics has deep structural problems. But would such an eruption have happened without the pandemic? Maybe not. COVID-19 has led many Bulgarians to anxiety, stress, and economic ruin. Lockdown brought or kept many at home; otherwise they would have worked or studied abroad. Hence, public scrutiny for injustice peaked – a recipe for anger.
There are also emotional reactions. Social anthropologist Haralan Alexandrov shared on Bulgarian National TV his observations on young protesters, the backbone of the movement: “[They] enjoy a festive experience … an experience of a restored community. This is a sharp psychological necessity post-lockdown.”
Will all this clean up the mess or deepen it? Previous pandemics have changed societies, for good and for bad. The problem is that we see the outcome only decades later. Contemporaries are left to act immediately and decisively. This is like families: good decisions seem alike; each failure fails in its own way.