On the evening of November 9, half a dozen heavily intoxicated Bulgarian skinheads set out for a house in the center of the capital, Sofia, where a group of Syrian refugees had found shelter. They broke its front door and windows, and when driven away by the frightened inhabitants they vented their rage on an ethnic Turkish Bulgarian who happened to be passing nearby—and whom they later said they mistook for a Syrian—sending him to the hospital with a badly fractured skull and multiple other injuries. A group of locals sitting at a nearby cafe called the police as they watched the victim’s blood splash on the pavement, but according to local news only one bystander attempted, unsuccessfully, to intervene.
Xenophobic attacks such as this one have become an almost daily reality in Bulgaria, where political and economic turmoil have created a widespread crisis of confidence. With more than six months of continuous daily protests in front of the Parliament, students barricaded in Sofia’s main university since October, and a rising tide of ultranationalism and intolerance, many fear that the European Union’s poorest member will collapse.
The underperforming economy has continued to take a beating, as both the National Electric Company and the National Health Insurance Fund are on the verge of bankruptcy and the specter of deflation hangs over the country. “It simply isn’t possible to make any long-term plans in this situation,” says Boyan Benev, a 29-year old entrepreneur, author, and TV host based in Sofia. “The situation has worsened greatly in the last few months—people have become alienated, one from another, making it harder to work and plan together. It will take years to return to where we were not long ago.”
That alienation has led to profound dysfunction, and a rise in extremism. “Bulgarian society is sliding down the spiral of institutional and political collapse,” sociologists from the Sofia-based polling agency Alpha Research concluded in November, noting that only 19 percent of Bulgarians surveyed said they had faith in the executive branch of government. Lawmakers and constitutional court judges only garnered 11 percent and 12 percent, respectively, and all the major parties were losing ground—with the exception of the far-right.
Ultranationalism has been on the rise in Bulgaria since at least 2005, when a far-right party, Ataka, won seats in Parliament for the first time in more than six decades. But the recent arrival of several thousand Syrian refugees into a country already riven by severe economic and political crises has created a perfect storm. Ultranationalist parties—including a brand new one with alleged neo-Nazi ties that just popped up last month—have seized the opportunity, rallying for the expulsion of all refugees and organizing “citizen patrols” to intimidate foreigners.
“The situation in Bulgaria now is like that in the Weimar Republic in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler,” says Evgeniy Dainov, a political science and sociology professor at New Bulgarian University in Sofia. “The first similarity is that you have a severe problem with public institutions, half of which don’t do their jobs properly while the other half operate as fronts for private interests and tools for suppressing the competition. The other problem is that people are losing faith in the values and in the effectiveness of democracy…" So much so that they're looking for other models of government.
It all started quite differently in late January, with peaceful anti-austerity protests against the previous center-right government—at the time, thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets enraged by a sharp increase in electricity prices. The initial target of their anger was the then-finance minister and former World Bank economist Simeon Djankov, who implemented one of the strictest fiscal policies in Europe, beggaring the average Bulgarian in the process. Bulgarians had been living in poverty long before his tenure, owing in part to a rough transition from communism and to policies instigated by the IMF and the EU for more than 10 years, but Djankov’s belt-tightening policies were, for many, the last straw. (According to a March assessment of the European Commission, about half of Bulgarians suffered severe economic deprivation in recent years, the highest rate of any country in the EU.)
By late February, that government had resigned—Djankov was the first to go—but the protests had grown and turned against all the major political parties and institutions. Angry crowds denounced the perceived links between the mafia and politicians of all stripes, and a wave of at least six public self-immolations—some politically motivated, others acts of profound economic desperation—electrified the country. An inconclusive election in May resulted in a stalemate in Parliament, with none of the new pro-protester parties making it past the 4 percent threshold of votes needed to get into the body.
Following a few weeks of intense haggling, a coalition of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the successor of the former Communist Party) and the ethnic-Turkish dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms managed to prevail and form a new government, aided by the unlikely quiescence of Ataka, but this fragile balance wasn't enough to reverse widespread government paralysis. After a brief hiatus, the protests resumed in June, rekindled by the controversial appointment of an inexperienced 32-year-old media mogul, Delyan Peevski, as national security chief. As with Djankov, Peevski was forced out, but the unrest has only grown.
Not only have Bulgaria's politicians failed to provide a coherent vision for ending the chaos, but they have at times intentionally stirred it. Paid provocateurs and others hired by opposing parties are frequently present at the demonstrations, says Philip Gounev, a senior crime and corruption analyst at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy and a former deputy minister of the interior in the interim government that ruled between March and May. In June, an undercover investigative reporter for the Bulgarian National Television was hired by an alleged organizer for Ataka to protest for the equivalent of $20 a day.
Though many analysts are predicting new elections by the spring, few are optimistic about the future. “Ahead, I see a period of several years of political instability and changes that will prevent the state from functioning properly,” Gounev says.
And yet, some politicians still don't seem to appreciate the severity of the crisis. Last week, photos published online reportedly showed Ataka's leader, Volen Siderov, sun-tanning on a Cuban beach—while, back home, the Parliament was voting on the 2014 budget.
Victor Kotsev is an Istanbul-based journalist who has written for USA Today, Atlantic, and the Globe and Mail.