Late January, 2013 marked the onset of the ‘Bulgarian spring,’ as the ‘art of government‘ collided with the force of the public will. Tumultuous events were ignited when post-socialist, post-EU accession Bulgaria was hit by dauntingly high energy bills. Public discontent erupted throughout the country; all major cities lit up by strong mass civil protests against the energy monopolies. The economic crisis quickly escalated into a political one. On February 21st, 2013, the cabinet resigned, adding their former political personae to Bulgaria’s political pantheon.
The pantheon, a temple to Machiavelli’s political Fortuna, rather than a shrine to civic virtues, boasts an imposing facade. Visitors, passing through its glitzy doors, can marvel at Bulgaria’s political ‘princes’ and their virtù . Yet, as the citizens wonder around, they will also find some new martyrs and sinners, the pantheon’s recent additions.
Martyrs – Lacrimosa dies illa
March, 6th, 2013 was a national day of mourning in Bulgaria. The country grieved the passing away of the 36 years old Plamen Goranov; many called him ‘the Bulgarian Ian Palach.’ Photographer, mountain-climber, and small entrepreneur, Plamen, whose name means ‘flame’ was young, vibrant and talented. On the 20th of February Plamen self-immolated, in front of the the office of Varna’s Mayor. For more than 10 days afterwards he was in the grey area between life and death. The city of Varna stood a solemn vigil for his recovery… Finally, on the 3rd of March, Bulgaria’s national day, Plamen crossed to the other side.
Goranov’s political message, though perhaps rash and naïve, was clear and uncompromising: he wanted a concrete action undertaken in the name of the public good. His act of self-denial was meant to lead to a public good, when all other means to obtain it via the official channels, such as mass complaints and numerous public protests, had failed.
Plamen was not the only victim. Several more people self-immolated. Their message was not explicitly political; they protested the persistent poverty and helplessness. Psychologists have sought to explain the phenomenon as the ‘quest for heroism:’
‘Destruction is otherwise hidden, squalid, pointless. Imagine some people living in poverty, ruined, unhappy, hopeless, almost nobody knows about them and they will pass away without anybody knowing about them. This is more frightening than to die, showing that you and your peers can no longer live this way.’ 
What is the value of human life? Horrifying, shocking, harrowing, the practice of self-immolation has made a tragic addition to the ‘grammar of action’ of the Bulgarian political protest.
Sinners and Dies Irae
Bulgaria’s acute political crisis is a manifestation of a chronic illness: while navigating the treacherous seas of post-socialist ‘transition’ the Bulgarian Leviathan has fallen prey to its own political and business elites. The state was captured to the advantage of the corporate business via influential political links in the parliament and government. Characteristic of the ‘captured state’ is an excessive exploitation of public resources by the ruling elite. The social costs of the capture have been significant, and Bulgarians are clearly disappointed with the ‘partiocracy’ – the political elite of the ‘transition.’ Consequently, in the angry blossoming of Bulgaria’s spring, the public demanded change of the professional political elite as well as change of the economic model.
Francis Fukuyama linked social trust and the creation of prosperity. Countries with high levels of trust, such as Japan, tend to move quicker up the prosperity ladder, he argued. The level of ‘social trust’ in Bulgaria was captured eloquently by the banners and chants of the protesters. Addressing both the electricity companies and the government, the demonstrators shouted ‘Mafia’ and held banners, reading ‘Mafia,’ ‘People against the Mafia,’ ‘The energy Mafia out of Bulgaria,’ ‘No to the illegal racket,’ etc. The banners and chants reflected the public anger and frustration that after 20 years of ‘transition’ the formula for affordable electricity for the Bulgarian citizens has yet to be found by any of the successive Bulgarian governments.
At the deep core of the ‘Bulgarian spring’ has been the public dissatisfaction with Bulgaria’s post-socialist transition, the manner in which the privatisation of public assets has taken place, as well as at the way in which these assets and essential utilities have been managed. Bulgaria’s social crisis has been measured at 23-years in duration; 23 being the length of the post-socialist period. As elsewhere in the former Eastern Block, ‘crisis imagery obtained overtones of finality and timelessness, and the crisis itself was re-imagined from a temporary developmental challenge into an all-embracing and a-historical condition,’ . ‘Perpetual crisis’ and prevalent corruption have de-legitimized the political elites in the eyes of the impoverished demos. Bulgaria’s political class has yet to re-gain the public trust.
Growing social tensions, caused by an endemic crisis, have been sparked off by acts of individual human agency. In Bulgaria’s new political pantheon Plamen Goranov carried that spark. Although not the only victim of self-immolation, Plamen’s sacrifice had an explicitly political motive. Yet, in the anger of his last dissent he forgot that political, derives from ‘polis,’ wherein the polis is the body of the citizens. Plamen despaired that the polis can and would change, and he chose his last stand as a radical, extreme, desperate form of protest.
The Bulgarian polity will stand stronger, but it will take time to birth forth a community of active citizens in pursuit of the common good, rather than passive consumers of individual ‘political goods.’ The polis needs the ‘quotidian heroism’ of persistent political activism, the slow process of democratic debate, rather than the grand gestures of ultimate denial. What would have happened, if Plamen would have lived? Probably he would have been burning in the activity of one of the new ‘parties of the protest,’ and decried more of Bulgaria’s political ills… Some would have liked the flair and passion of his opinions; others – not. Now we all mourn him.
. Virtù, a concept most notably theorized by Niccolò Machiavelli, centered on the abilities of a leader, which Machiavelli considered as necessary to govern the state. These are not equivalent to moral virtues, but are linked to raison d’État, and include pride, bravery, strength and ruthlessness.
. Lazarova, Irina, ‘The self-immolations fill in the lack of heroes,’ (23.03.2013) http://pressadaily.bg/publication/11770-Д-р-Ирина-Лазарова:-Самозапалванията-запълват-липсата-на-герои, (accessed on 04/04/2013).
. Shevchenko, Olga, Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow, (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2008).