Data shows why Bulgarian protests did not succeed

Policemen sitting in front of protestors in Sofia

Bulgaria’s citizens are protesting for more than a year already and the unsatisfactory passivity of the politicians perpetuates the movement. Still, people are hoping to achieve the desired change and the end of corrupt structures in politics and economy and reinforce social policies to fight poverty and inequality in the country. Nevertheless, only minor steps have been taken and the awaited shift is still missing.
I have asked myself, what might be necessary in order to build up the necessary pressure for a change and why Bulgarians are still struggling with their own destiny. Looking at the scientific literature and the data provided for Bulgaria, it seems to be clear what is missing.
(Note: In order to understand the context, it might be useful to check the Wikipedia entries on the protests, if no background knowledge is present: beginning of the protests and ongoing protests against the current cabinet)

A “powerful” protest – what is required to achieve political change?

In the history of social movements, it has been methodologically difficult to grasp the outcomes of protests, but there have been different approaches that support the idea that social movements are related to dissatisfaction of the representation within a democracy and the demand for diversification of political decisions (Kitschelt, 1993). Especially, weak institutions, unclear rules of the game and divergent opinions of the institutions and the democratic representatives perpetuate disagreement of the citizens and sceptic attitudes regarding the democracy (Kitschelt, 1993). Taking this to account, the logic conclusion is that a certain stability and strength of institutions is required in order to be capable of adopting the demands made by protestors. A particular openness of the political system is important for the successful communication of demands (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander, 2004). The role of the state structure and the political framework has a wider impact on movements regarding the scale of liberties and democratization, the more transparent and free a democratic system is, the more power can a movement gain, since there is a lower risk of violent oppression or the simple ignorance by politicians (Amenta and Yung, 1999).

Learning from the American labour movement, on the side of the movement it is furthermore necessary to work within a significant level of organization to construct strategic means and tools to increase pressure and identify clear goals, which support the identification of the movement members and to reflect on their real surrounding (Martin, 2008). While formulating the goals, it is crucial to address state-related objectives and real policies that can be implemented, in case the movement is anti-governmental (Amenta and Yung, 1999), but rather narrow goals are likely to be successful or when implemented during times that are perceived as a crisis (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander, 2004). This could be a reason, why protestors willingly create crises through eventually violent methods, so they achieve a tense atmosphere, which would favour change.

Moreover, active and distinctive organizers of movements are key actors since their organization with supporters and the construction of a collective identity helps to stabilize the movement and motivate the protestors, especially when in less organized and financially weak movements there is rather a dependence on man power than on other resources (Martin, 2008). The organizer, or leader, should as well be responsible for strategic bargaining with the addressed party to have a concentrated agenda (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander, 2004). Pointing out this dependence of human resource to participate in actions, it becomes clear that a collective identity is required in order to experience solidarity with the other participants of the movement and create responsible attitudes in order to decrease fluctuation (Polletta and Jasper, 2001). A collective identity has the ability to strengthen the ties between the protestors and unleashing ideas that can be determining for the success of the movement, like a creative strategy and formulation of demands. Furthermore, the focus on the goal and the work can increase, leading to the maintenance of the necessary man power, as mentioned above.
Since spill-over effects of social movements and social dynamics can be expected (Meyer and Whittier, 1994), a strong civil society is required, in order to support the activists as representatives of a common idea, offering a productive and reinforcing the movement, or at least a supportive public attention, supportive environment and perhaps even culturally biased values in favour of the protestors (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander, 2004).

Summarizing briefly the core aspects, on the side of the government and the state, the criteria of the level of democratization and the institutional strength have been identified, while on the side of the protestors a strategically significant level of organization, the articulation of concrete state-related goals and policies, distinctive organizers (or leaders) and a collective identity is required. In addition, the environment has to be supportive, open and active enough to reinforce the movement – summarizing the aspects underlying as civil society.

The Bulgarian protest movement since 2013 – a powerful movement?

In order to check if the above mentioned criteria is being fulfilled in Bulgaria, I checked data from different sources.
When analysing the institutional strength and the level of democratization, several factors have to be taken into consideration: Firstly, the indicators draw a relatively stable picture: according to the World Bank (2013), Bulgaria reached on the legal rights index 9 out of 10 (1 = weak, 10 = strong), addressing the strength of bankruptcy laws protecting borrowers and lenders. Additionally, the Freedom House (2014), labels the Bulgarian system as free, but states that the press is only “partly free” – this supports the finding that Bulgaria ranks only 100th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders, 2014). Furthermore, in the Democracy Indices published by The Economist and the Austrian Democracy Ranking Association, Bulgaria reached in 2012, the 54th place out of 167, being categorized as “flawed democracy” (The Economist), and 41st out of 104 (Democracy Ranking Association). Flawed democracy refers to weakness in the governance, political culture and civic societal participation in spite of fair and free elections and the protection of basic civil rights. Both indices show that Bulgaria is below the average of the European Union and lacks governmental quality. Strikingly, in the Corruption Perception Index the country ranks 77th out of 177 (Transparency International, 2013), pointing out the difficulties in the fight against organized crime. Institutions are supposedly weakened by the corrupt structures and de facto cannot function properly.

Taken from: Civicus Civil Society Index; Bulgaria's performance of civil society
Taken from: Civicus Civil Society Index; Bulgaria’s performance of civil society

The evidence given from these indices support the assumption that Bulgaria partially lacks institutional strength, transparency and deepened democratization processes, although formally law and governmental structures appear to work. Especially the lack of freedom of press is a problem, since public attention can only be created in favour of the stakeholders. The supposed influence on media as well blurs the participation opportunities and the voices of the people. This shows that with a focus on the governmental framework, the criteria for a successful political movement cannot be completely fulfilled. Adding the criterion of civil society, a relatively poor picture is being drawn, taking the Civicus Civil Society Index into account: the index portrays four dimensions with several sub-dimensions: 1. structure (breadth of citizen participation, depth of citizen participation, diversity of civil society participants, level of organization, inter-relations, and resources), 2. environment (political context, basic freedom and rights, socio-economic context, socio-cultural context, legal environment, state-civil society relations, private sector-civil society relations), 3. values (democracy, transparency, tolerance, non-violence, gender equity, poverty eradication, environmental sustainability) and 4. impact (influencing public policy, holding state and private corporations accountable, responding to social interests, empowering citizens, meeting societal needs). On a scale of 0 to 3 (3 being the best), Bulgaria achieves only 1.1 points for structure, 1.5 for environment, 2.2 for values and 1.5 for impact (Civicus Civil Society Index, 2009).

Especially the poor performance of the structure with the underlying factors reflects a reality, which is difficult for the realization of movements due to a low level of organization and breadth and depth of participation in social means. Moreover, the relatively low score in the category of environment stresses the lack of a supportive surrounding for a focussed and strong movement. There have been counter-protests in favour in favour of the government and BSP, and in spite of the rumours about “bought” protestors, it has to be taken into consideration that especially the older generation spent the majority of their lives during the socialist system, likelier sympathizes with this political attitude. Both, the influence of the past and the weak level of civil society, show that it is difficult to construct a collective identity. Still, exactly the creation of a collective identity is crucial to maintain to number of engaged people.

The level of organization and leadership are as well related to the aspect of collective identity. The movement in Bulgaria is highly decentralized, using social media to organize events and protests, without having a real leading key figure. The fragmentation is visible in social media, where several communities are mobilizing for the same cause (protest against the government), such as the Protest Network or the student’s community of the “early risers”, which are even cooperating in events. Furthermore, on the height of the protest, parties as well supported the anti-government protests (e.g. The Greens, 2013) or were even newly founded for the parliamentary elections in 2013, such as “Bulgarian Spring”. This diversification on one hand enables different peers to participate in the movement and mobilize a broader part of the society, on the other hand, more cooperation and clearly structured approaches are necessary, to increase effectiveness of the whole movement.

The level of organization determines the clear formulation of strategic demands, especially for long-term negotiations. The initially reinforced protests in 2013 that led to the resignation of the Borisov cabinet and later the withdrawal of Peevski as head of DANS, rather contributed to these developments through a massive emergence of protestors, expressing angrily their general discontent, than a structured and strategic demand on particular policies. Still, no clear leaders can be identified, therefore it can be expected that there is no structured frame to channel the ideas of the protestors.

Analysing the factors in relation to the Bulgarian case, it is evident that there are weaknesses in the structure of the movement, but on the side of the environment and the political system as well regarding the ability to accept such outer factors. Nevertheless, the protests can be a change to develop a more politicized society as a first step towards a developed civil society and a chance to pressure the government and act for an intensified fight on corruption.

So – what does that mean?

Bringing people into power is a difficult process. Several criteria have to be fulfilled that reflect on the strength of the state, the institutions, society and the dynamics of the emerging movement itself. The Bulgarian movement that started in 2013, might be the first significant step for the people, especially for the young generation that has been directly affected by the failed policies and misled outcomes of the transition era, to rearrange the civil norms towards a participative community. Cooperation should be the premise of the ones engaged into the protests, in order to form a clear structure with a real political agenda, but as well revitalise solidarity among the protestors and the passive part of the society.

While it is difficult to strengthen the institutions, fight corruption and challenge the government to act according to the people’s will, a powerful implementation of policies can be achieved through strategically well-chosen means that build up pressure. Surely, it is difficult to measure the extent of contribution of the protestors to the political events, nevertheless if the collective uproar was turned into a collective identity, focussed objectives could lead to the increase of influence and consequently to more power. Partially, it has shown powerful structures, but due to the fragmentation of incentives in the first months of formation (poverty, discontent with the government, fight against organized crime, energy prices), the clear line is missing to focus the movement towards a clear goal.


Sources and further readings:

Amenta, Edwin and Michael P. Young (1999): “Democratic States and Social Movements: Theoretical Arguments and Hypotheses”, in: Social Problems, Vol. 46, No. 2 (May, 1999), pp. 153-168.

Burstein, Paul, Rachel L.Einwohner and Jocelyn A.Hollander (1995): “The Success of Political Movements: A Bargaining Perspective”, in: J. Craig Jenkins and Bert Klandermans (eds) The Politics of Social Protest. Comparative Perspectives on States and Social Movements. London: UCL Press Limited. Pp. 135-144.

Democracy Ranking Association (David F. J. Campbell / Paul Pölzlbauer / Thorsten D. Barth / Georg Pölzlbauer) (2012): “Democracy Ranking 2012 Scores”, available at: (accessed: 03/06/14).

Kitschelt, Herbert (1993): “Social Movements, Political Parties, and Democratic Theory”, in: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 528, Citizens, Protest, and Democracy (Jul., 1993), pp. 13-29.

Meyer, David S. and Nancy Whittier (1994): “Social Movement Spillover”, in: Social Problems, Vol. 41, No. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 277-298.

Polletta, Francesca and James M. Jasper (2001): “Collective Identity and Social Movements”, in: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 27 (2001), pp. 283-305.

The Economist (2012): Democracy index 2012. Democracy at a standstill. A report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, available at: (accessed: 03/06/14).