Bulgaria protests: exclusive interview with the coordinators of the on-going anti-corruption uprising

Day 33 of the protests, Sofia, Bulgaria: Interview with Nikolay Hadjigenov and Arman Babikyan

On August 10, 2020, members of DiEM25’s Sofia1 DSC sat down with Nikolay Hadjigenov and Arman Babikyan from the “Poisoning Trio”, widely considered the initiators and coordinators of the anti-totalitarian and pro-democratic protests of 2020 in Bulgaria.

Below is the exclusive detailed interview:

On July 9, 2020, you used social media to call for a gathering in front of the Presidency building in defence of democracy. Why did you do it? What were your motives?

Image 1: The “Poisoning Trio” in front of the Presidency building, Sofia. From left to right: Arman Babikyan, prof. Svetoslav Minekov, Nikolay Hadjigenov

NH: First of all, we have never had democracy. What we have is an imitation of democracy. On July 3 it became clear that this imitation looks more like Putin’s Russia. A squad of the newly-established security unit at the Attorney General’s office, which has no policing clearance, recently entered the Presidency building fully armed — which is absolutely against the law — in order to conduct a search in two offices and to arrest a secretary of the President. This action infringes every law in Bulgaria. My reproach towards the then (and now former) head of the National Security Service was not in vain. I asserted that if I was in charge of the service, no armed persons would enter the building. Such actions can be accomplished by a clerk bearing a paper folder under his arm. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

AB: That was the formal justification. What Mr. Hadjigenov mentioned was just the spark that ignited the protests. The cause, however — the underlying reason — was an anti-corruption rebellion. It is an anti-corruption uprising that belongs to all the citizens, because they got tired of being the sickest in Europe, the poorest in Europe, under the governance of a state that uses its institutions to crack down on opponents, instead of serving the people.

People pay taxes and are persecuted when they disagree with the powers that be. They are submitted to power not as citizens but as vassals. In this sense the anti-corruption rebellion that literally poured out on the streets is carried by way more serious and deep societal reasons. And that is why the protest is still on-going.

Thousands of Bulgarians within the country and abroad responded to your call. What people do you see at the protests? What do you think has kept them together for more than 30 days? Do the protesters have any specific demands and objectives?

Image 2: Protesters on Nezavisimost (independence) square in Sofia, also called the “Triangle of Power”

NH: In the initial call we said that now is the time for us to gather all together, which has never happened in our country. And probably for the first time in all of our history so far, it makes no difference what ethnicity you are (there are multiple ethnicities in Bulgaria), who you support or who you oppose. None of that matters. We all gathered together to fight for our freedom. The demands are simple: resignation of the Borisov government because of corruption. The only issue where Bulgaria holds the 1st place in the EU is corruption. We are last on everything else. 

The second demand is the resignation of the Attorney General because he is being used like a bat by the politicians in power for crackdowns. And the third demand is a change to prevent this from happening again. We need a change in the system and the fundamental principles of governance, or the Constitution. We demand true democracy, freedom, justice, no corruption. This is a long shot but that was the way to show the people that we won’t stop at resignations. We want fundamental change.

AB: These are the goals, yes. I have nothing to add. Some of them are quickly attainable, and we are on the streets because of them. The others are subject to a process and work of different nature, of expertise and political representation. And we are ready to walk all the way, until the end. 

Apart from initiating the protests, some say you are also coordinating them. What does it mean for you to be on the streets every day?

Image 3: The “Poisoning Trio” and protesters on the Nezavisimost square, Sofia

NH: Well, let me deride the Attorney General. We are instigators of the protest, which is a type of complicity in a crime. For one reason or another we have lit the fire which has been burning for some time. What we have been fighting for 33 consecutive days is to keep the protest entirely civic. Like everywhere else, there is a plethora of interests involved in the protest. There are party interests, business interests. All kinds of interests you can imagine. Keeping the protest civic is our humble victory and I am exceptionally happy for that because this is one more thing which has never happened here before. 

Yes, we invited all parties. All the political spectrum is represented, everybody is here. Nobody intrudes, nobody takes the mic, but everybody is here, all together, which is a brilliant example of unification. Someday, I don’t know whether we’ll be still alive by then, there will be United Europe, European citizens, American citizens…and someday there will be just Earth citizens. But this is too far off.

AB: Yes, this is the great success of this protest. We happened to be a trio providing exceptional discomfort to power. If we were representatives of a party, regardless of its position in the political spectrum, we would be rather quickly “wrapped up” in defending left, right, green, centrist, or any other ideas. We’ve shown to be an exceptionally uncomfortable proposition to power because we were unsuitable for “wrapping up”. Of course, as in every dictatorship, a defamation campaign was launched against us. We expected it. We are moderately intelligent. But what was hard for them to recover from is precisely the fact that all Bulgarians are on the streets independently of their beliefs. The last time this happened was during the World Cup in the United States in 1994.

The President has met with the protesters a few times. How do you interpret his call “Mutri out!”? Who are these “mutri” (mafia)?

Image 4: The President of Bulgaria meets protesters in front of the Presidency building, Nezavisimost square, Sofia

NH: This is a purely emotional appeal, which is not entirely untrue. It is corresponding to the current situation because the actions of the Attorney General are precisely “mutra”-like. Essentially outright banditry. 

This explains the reaction of the President calling “Mutri out!”. It was an extreme reaction to an extreme action. A forceful and extremely illegal action which even the President understood, because our President is more like the German President – he does not confront anyone. His call brought some type of specific charge to the protest initially, since there is no Bulgarian that has not suffered from the “mutri” in power over the last decade. So this phrase was totally understood by the people.

AB: This is how the mafia is popularly called among the Bulgarians. “Mutri” were those who stole people’s cars in the beginning of the transition period that started about 30 years ago. They were impersonating insurers, gluing stickers and collecting money from everybody. That was something like the old bashi-bazouk tax during the Ottoman Empire, but in present times it has turned into a racket: ordinary racketeering. Now these people have become wiser, got rich enough and bought the country. We now vote in a country that was bought a long time ago and its Prime Minister is a high-ranking representative of such an association of “mutri”. 

Hence, everybody understands what and whom this is about. The denotation is simple and the addressee precise. The Prime Minister behaves exactly in this way. If you go out to a protest, he would take hostages on the other side and release them only if you gave up demanding power from him. You will see that today or tomorrow at the very latest, he will get in touch with – or negotiate — with crime syndicates distributing drugs, who will probably occupy junctions throughout the city and demand the resignation of the President. They may demand that the President resigns as a precondition to clearing the junctions. Or ask for an exchange – a resignation for a resignation. In other words, the mockery with democracy will go on and on until this person (Borisov) is in power.

Parliamentary opposition, including other parties and movements, called on their members and supporters to join the protests. After participating in an evening talk show, however, the leader of the parliamentary opposition was whistled at by protesters. What does this signify to you?

NH: This is — in fact — a splendid sign because our country only has parliamentary opposition on paper. And that was the reason Kornelia Ninova, the leader of BSP [the Bulgarian Socialist Party], was whistled at. Because throughout all the years of ruling together with Borisov, they reached political deals, known from his previous mandate as “historical compromises” that represent an historical defecation on the people, their political rights, the law, etc. And people don’t buy this. 

In fact, three of us asked political parties and syndicates, who are the “third leg” of every government in our country, to call their supporters to join the protest. This didn’t work out. As expected, those who responded were the leaders of a civic movement, a former politician from the left of the political spectrum, and a very small, extra-parliamentary party, with one of its co-leaders half-heartedly calling their supporters to join the protest. It’s good that they are both here. But they are not part of  the parliamentary opposition in any way. The opposition came out of the Parliament and said “yes, we are going out on the streets to join the protesters”, and 30 MPs arrived. 

AB: To a larger extent this is a protest of citizens. A protest of the unorganised but worthy citizens who value their personal and civil rights. That is why the majority of people at the protests are citizens, and not organised groups of people. The strength of the protest is in the personal realisation of each Bulgarian that a state is needed that serves them, not a state that terrorises them, impoverishes them, robs them and turns them into vassals. 

How would you interpret the calling “Everybody out!”?

NH: “Mutri out!” has escalated to “Everybody out!” because people realised that all politicians who are in Parliament are there in order to pursue their own agendas rather than serve their voters. They are not there for the people. At one point the protest evolved from “Mutri out!” to “Everybody out!”. This will most likely be the next move but we need to take over the “mutri” first, anyway.

AB: We are aware that there are honourable politicians as well. But the call “Everybody out!” is more about changing the system, a call for its replacement with genuine democracy, real justice, rule of law and fairness that function naturally in the framework of the social contract. Right now, there’s nothing like that here. Therefore, “Everybody out!” is not a call designating specific people, because corruption has corroded not only those in power. 

Corruption has riddled the whole system regardless of whether you are in power or in opposition (or whatever one should call it). Corruption has no colour, it is exceptionally flexible. It is soft like butter. It uses all niches in order to pass through the social tissue. In this sense “Everybody out!” is more like a call to remove a system rather than a specific person. 

How do you anticipate the actions of those in power, and the government, since the beginning of the protest (e.g. the change of ministers, emergency subsidisation of pensions) together with the fact that the Parliament went on summer holiday while so many people are on the streets in Bulgaria and abroad?

Image 5: Bulgarian seasonal workers taking part in the protests

NH: The “mutri” here and the mafia in general are attempting to work in the only way they know – through corruption. They try to buy us, to buy the opposition, and in general to buy everything and everybody. It didn’t work, it won’t work. The banner that appeared the day after Borisov promised 50 lv (approx. 25 Euro) to each Bulgarian pensioner is symptomatic. A distinguished gentleman appeared carrying a huge banner on which it was written: “Borisov, you can shove my 25 Euro up your @ss!”. The poster brilliantly shows the attitude of the people. And this is what even the Bulgarian pensioners — who have been bought so primitively for generations — have understood. 

Meanwhile, we opened a donation account last week, and every evening since then there are 3 to 4 pensioners attempting to offer us their 25 Euro. And because we don’t get cash, we are being forced to ask them to make a bank transfer. But this is an additional example of extremes. You can see the change of attitude now. These are not just frustrated citizens, offering us their 25 Euro. This is a trend. The people finally understood that they shouldn’t be bought despite being offered 25, 50 or 100 Euro.

AB: We are again speaking about actions of mafiosi. They are trying to redeem themselves with our money. This is the way they act during elections. They bribe voters with 25 Euro, 10 Euro or 50 Euro and expect a vote. This one-time “investment” through bribery achieves a 10- or 20-fold return from each taxpayer. And now they are attempting the same trickery because of the protests.

How do you perceive the declaration of full support and confidence of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Borisov’s government on the one hand, and the Bulgarian President’s appeal that the EU should not turn a blind eye to what is happening in the country?

Image 6: Manfred Weber (EPP) and Boyko Borisov, the leader of the ruling party (GERB/EPP) and PM of Bulgaria

NH: The EPP included nothing in their statement other than a call to support their own. We keep an eye on the German media who are on the streets here since day 3. All large German media are here, and they direct horrifying criticisms not only to Boyko Borisov but straight to Merkel. Because, in essence, the corrupted governance of Borisov, albeit “soft” – and that is the reason he is not disturbing Europe – manifests a huge defect in the Union. This is an issue of Europe! First, European taxpayers’ money gets stolen. Second, this behaviour makes us look more like Erdogan’s Turkey or Putin’s Russia. Or in other words — and let me put it softly — it makes us look like non-democratic states, rather than a EU member-state. I mean, this is absurd! Is it possible for an EU member-state to be pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, or generally pro-the-other-shore? There is nothing in common with democracy. 

And now this is a problem for the EU. Such criticisms being directed by large French and other European media to their authorities are not in vain. Speaking to some of the large European media, I was calling for our funding to be stopped and sanctions to be imposed on Bulgaria. Because the EU funds that are absorbed here are just a few billion euros per year. Compared to the GDP of the country such an amount is negligible. But the budget that gets stolen here, the Bulgarian budget, is 10 times that. There is an issue here that concerns the whole Union, and maybe for the first time European politicians realised that this is not an issue internal-only to Bulgaria. Yes, we are a sovereign country and yes, this is an internal problem. But this wound is sticking out of the EU’s back. It needs to be removed otherwise it will turn into a tumour which will practically corrode the whole union.

AB: When GERB joined the EPP, they were an unknown heap of people that promised to the leaders of EPP that they would provide them with 5-6 seats from Bulgaria for their parliamentary group in Brussels. That worked for the EPP. They quickly agreed. But this shows a huge issue also of European political families. The same applies to PES by the way. These people were confident they could dictate Borisov’s moves regardless of the warnings that this person has no established European values. They quickly shut their eyes and swallowed this for more than 11 years. And as it appears, they swallowed it willingly. They got what they needed. Namely, the votes for their European family in the Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. They couldn’t care less about European values.

The battle between Germany and France for the leadership of Europe shows that we have no Brussels. Instead, we have something else. During the protests in Bulgaria the first that reacted were the USA, not the EU. So far we have a single statement by the European Commission spokesperson that — in diplomatic fashion — said that the protests are legitimate and to please preserve tolerance because there is a budget to be allocated in the autumn. In other words, this is a hint that Bulgaria might be sanctioned if power acts harshly towards the protesters. 

And this is one more example where the EU shows that the non-existence of a European government, but just a common Minister of Foreign Affairs who reacts slowly — regardless whether it is about the war in Syria or the protests in Bulgaria — is a model that doesn’t work well. Federal Europe is the answer to what the USA usually asks – “excuse me, whom should I actually call in the EU?” And they don’t know the phone number. We in Bulgaria don’t know it either.  Even if we know remarkably well the role Konrad Adenauer and Hanns Seidel foundations play in terms of the existence of GERB on the European political scene, we also know which officers of BND and the other German services operate under the cover of these otherwise respected foundations, which by the way are funded by the German state and not by private donors. 

So, we are not just some well rebelled protesting citizens on the streets of Sofia. We are well-informed, and if this behaviour of Berlin and the other passive European capitals continues, we can tell even more stories which I suspect won’t be quite pleasant to hear.

You call for radicalisation of the protest. What do you mean? How would you respond to the accusations of people in power that you are pushing for violence and terrorism?

Image 7: The Orlov Most square in Sofia being occupied by protesters

NH: Well, this is complete nonsense. Similar protests haven’t been seen here, nor elsewhere in Europe. These are the most peaceful protests in Bulgaria over the last 30 years or more. Europe has never seen such peaceful protests. Our protest would compare to something like a protest of three-year-old kids in the streets of Berlin. What we are doing is creating a civil society here. We woke them up, we lit the fire, we are winding it up, we are explaining and teaching the people not only how, but what it means to be citizens. And we escalate for these same reasons. We started with whistles and vuvuzelas. Then continued with throwing small tomatoes. Next we escalated to throwing quail eggs, now we throw chicken eggs. We are literally creating a civil society here. 

We guide it hand in hand, step by step, in order to match other countries in Europe. Because the protests in Europe now are extremely peaceful. However, for Europe to have reached such peaceful protests, it had to come a long way. It burns every time, and has burned throughout the ages. 

For example, while I was in Rome recently, there was some misunderstanding between the students and the government. Within two hours the students dug the paving stones out of the central square of Rome, burned out cars, turned everything, broke shop windows and the issue got solved that same evening. The next day the paving stones were set back in order, the trash was taken out and they all moved on. Such situations we have seen on TV and read in books only. We are now teaching the people that this is the way things should happen. The Magna Carta was written about 800 years ago. And Europe has come a long way since then. We, on the other hand, have somehow missed this path. We do this and that, and you could look at it like schooling. We are going forward. This is what we do. 

The accusations of terrorism are entertaining. Our governors are idiots not only in their legal competence, but in general. It is widely known, everywhere in the world for centuries already, what terrorism is. Apparently, we don’t fall in any of the categories and accusations of terrorism. Such accusations are typical of totalitarian countries – North Korea, China, Erdogan’s Turkey is an example closer to Europe, and Putin’s Russia. So, are we terrorists? No, right? Propaganda!

AB: Terror is a special kind of action and presently it is the state which terrorises its citizens. The answer they usually provide is that they have come to power through lawful elections. Well, Hitler came to power through lawful elections as well. But that doesn’t make the crimes against the Jewish, the syndicates, the trade unions and ultimately all German citizens less terroristic on behalf of the lawfully elected German power. The fact that someone has been legally elected, even through vote buying while Europe is keeping its eyes shut, doesn’t make the behaviour of their government any different. 

Look, one of the most-beautiful things that has happened to us is our entry into the EU. We have no illusions about this. But for us, the EU is not just excursions and guest work. The EU is the place where we share common visions of development, of our development together. We were accepted on the one hand due to our willingness to join the EU somewhere back in 2007, and this will is definite until today. And on the other hand because of the fact that after the war in the former Yugoslavia and the conflict in Kosovo, the EU urgently needed to fortify the southeastern flank of NATO. 

Thankfully, these two tendencies coincided and we became a EU member-state. But the civic growth which Nikolay talked about didn’t happen. And this is what is happening now. If the country became a EU member-state back then, the citizens are becoming Europeans today.

On a few occasions people wearing face masks conducted actions that could be qualified as provocations and violence towards protesters and journalists. How would you explain that?

Image 8: Journalist from the Bulgarian section of RFE/RL (left) attacked by by a person wearing a face mask at a conference organised by GERB/EPP, which is the current ruling party of Bulgaria

NH: Totalitarian trickery. There is one and only explanation. We have totalitarianism here, even if it is qualified as “soft”.  However, everyone who has personally experienced it with the lower part of his back can tell you how soft it is. Erdogan started in the same way, softly, with accusations of terrorism first. Then he started to beat them, asserting that the law would be upheld, and then he began using the law as a stick. Erdogan has been learning from Putin for many years already. This is what is happening here as well. 

A week ago, at the conference of GERB, where everybody swore allegiance to the tribal chief, journalists got purposefully beaten. That hasn’t happened here so far. Ever. Journalists got beaten, their cameras and smartphones were taken away, and people that protested got beaten as well. That’s it. 

The time has come for Europe to understand that the mafia has a government in Bulgaria. And this is not just some empty talk. This is the sad truth. The Mafia doesn’t get bothered by the cameras. Hell, the first ones that suffered were the journalists from the Bulgarian section of RFE/RL! This is not some regional newspaper from the countryside. These are the three RFE/RL journalists in Bulgaria that are well-known for many years. That was a well-planned action. And the first message that appeared in the media was that it had nothing to do with GERB. Like, we have paid these people to go to the conference of GERB, to brand themselves with the symbols of the party and to beat journalists. 

Welcome to Russia or the Soviet Union, as you wish, the choice is yours.

AB: Power is in a difficult situation. They have already lost more than 30% of their own supporters. Berlin is falling, if we need a comparison. Right at this moment they are gathering the last remains of the 16-year-olds of Hitlerjugend in order to defend the capital. Something similar is happening to GERB. Many people who support this leader and this party are turning their heads away with discomfort, and leave. That can be observed even by the naked eye. All allies of Borisov are retreating diplomatically and looking the other way. The same people from Berlin that insist on building Nord Stream keep silent when he builds South Stream, in order for more Russian influence to enter the EU. 

The psalms that we are people who want to stop the pro-European development of Bulgaria, and that’s what we also heard, is complete rubbish. On the contrary, the person that conducts Putin’s interests is precisely Prime Minister Borisov. The person that returned to Erdogan’s regime illegally persecuted Gulenists was Boiko Borisov. And Brussels kept silent. 

NH: And they got kidnapped. Note that they have been subject to kidnapping off the streets of Sofia. Kidnapped without due process, without court order, contrary to Bulgarian and European law. They were kidnapped by uniformed militiamen of ours and handed over at the border. These guys disappeared. We don’t know whether they are alive. Probably not anymore. This has to be kept in mind every time Borisov says he shares European values. He doesn’t.

How do you assess the actions of the police on protecting the protesters and ensuring internal order?

Image 9: Protester being dragged by police forces towards the columns of the Council of Ministers building, Sofia

NH: The police are not protecting protesters and the public order. Since day 1 we have established a means to prevent provocations, to keep us away from the police and protect the people, however inefficient this mechanism could have been in the beginning. What the police did during the night of day 3 was that they cut into the crowd of peacefully protesting people, literally snatched whomever they could and dragged them behind the columns of the Council of Ministers building and beat them, etc. This is an old technique used against protesters by any government here. 

Fortunately, this case was recorded by security cameras, and for the first time in more than 10 years while I have been working pro-bono on police violence cases, we have some evidence. I officially asked for the recordings made by the cameras of the National Security Service regarding the case, and my request was officially rejected. Fortunately, nobody died, people were sent to the hospital, they told their story. What has happened can be also seen on the smartphone recordings even at lower quality. So here are the provocations and violence.

From that moment onwards, we haven’t had any issue. Our protest is peaceful, and as much as I would want it, if we were like Greece, Italy, Spain or any other European country, everything would end on the second day. Unfortunately, as I said in the beginning, we are creating citizens right now. We teach them how and why. Obviously, we are not ready yet.

AB: Please note, two-day protests of a few thousand Lebanese people, but not tens of thousands like in Sofia, caused the resignation of the government of Beirut. The resignation will be submitted tonight, while 3 or 4 ministers already submitted their resignations independently, without asking the padishah. Looks like there are more Europeans in Lebanon than in Sofia. 

And finally, what would you say as a conclusion?

NH: Well, in order to be a dignified member-state of the EU and not only a member on paper, as well as to be true Europeans, it’s about time for us to build democracy of citizens which are not only free, but also enjoy the rule of law. We need to win on corruption as much as possible and throw the mafia out. This is it, there’s nothing else.

AB: The generation that comes to Bulgaria, the generation that enters maturity, does not want to live this way, in a country governed in such a twisted way. These are tens of thousands of people graduated by respected universities in Western Europe and the United States, and they know remarkably well what democracy looks like. And it doesn’t look like the way their parents experience it in Bulgaria. We are fighting this battle also for our children. Looks like we have left something unfinished in our lives so far, and it is imperative to bring it to an end. We are still alive, healthy and standing, and will go forward. 

Nikolay Hadjigenov is a lawyer and public figure, and a graduate of New Bulgarian University. Arman Babikyan is a journalist and public figure, and a graduate of Sofia University.


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