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Europe

Bulgarian protests: gearing up for September

They may have reduced somewhat, but protests in the Bulgarian capital Sofia are continuing throughout August, as demonstrators push to keep up the pressure on their government.

The sturdy metal barricade set up in front of Bulgaria's parliament cuts through the busy boulevard. On one side, several policemen stand guard, looking on impassively as cars and busses hurtle past. Their black uniforms and heavy boots mark them out as Bulgaria's anti-riot squad. On the other side of the road, the protesters have set up camp below a monument of the Russian Tsar who wrenched Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. They've draped banners around the pedestal denouncing the government as "mafia" and "thieves" and pitched several tents around the square.

Yoga by the barricades

There's even a piano. A young woman looks on, as her boyfriend picks out a tune. Two women in leggings are laying out several bright pink and blue yoga mats. They call what they are doing, a yoga protest.

Doing yoga at the barricades to bring down the government (Photo: Naomi Conrad, DW Correspondent)

A yoga protest is just one of the creative ways the protestors have been maintaining momentum

"The parliament is going on vacation and we want to get people in charge to do some long and deep meditation," one of the women explains through an interpreter to DW.

Antonyia and Snejinka smile proudly. They want the government to resign – and the one-off open-air yoga class is their contribution to achieving just that.

"Some of my students are politicians, and I've found it's difficult to change their mind. They need a lot of meditation I think," says one.

Antonia sighs. "Politicians are corrupt, it's hard for them to reach enlightenment." The two of them excuse themselves because several women have positioned themselves on the mats. There's also a young man with a tangled Che Guevara-beard, conspicuous in jeans and a faded t-shirt.

The yogic protestors start their "oms" and chanting. They lean forward, united in their cause, for their first sun-salutation. The Che Guevara look-alike stumbles, then shrugs and slinks off to join his grinning friends.

Protestors have to get creative to maintain momentum

In a leafy out door cafe not far from the police barricades, Vladimir Shopov argues that yoga is one possible way of working towards the plan to topple the government. Protestors , who organize spontaneously via social media, have been creative in keeping the protests going, Shopov explains. He's one of Bulgaria's leading political scientists and has been watching as the protests develop.

Demonstrations were sparked in early June when the socialist Prime Minister, Planem Oresharski, appointed a well-known media mogul to head the powerful national security agency. Bulgarians took to Sofia's streets, angry at what they saw as yet another sign of the close and corrupt links between the country's powerful oligarchs and its political elite. The protests grew and were soon demanding the government's resignation.

Protestor holds a satirical sign up in Sofia outside the government building. (Photo: Naomi Conrad, DW Correspondent)

The protests have been peaceful for the most part, but determined

"We have a deep crisis in all major modes of political representation; in the institutions and mechanisms of political representation. People currently have completely lost their trust in political parties," Shopov tells DW.

In the two decades since Bulgaria's transition from communism to a market-economy, oligarchs have established themselves as major economic and also political players. But it's not just the current coalition: The previous centre-right government, too, was tainted with allegations of corruption and nepotism. But the small alliance of opposition parties has yet to produce a viable candidate.

Could civil society be the way forward?

"I don't think we are going to have sufficient political resolution of the current political crisis with just one round of elections. We are really entering quite a prolonged period in which we are really going to completely reshape and completely change the way in which politics is done."

Shopov is hopeful that civil society groups will step in to fill the democratic void by pressuring the government - through social media and the European legislation it signed up for when it joined the European Union in 2007. He also thinks EU pressure might help.

A picture of a protestor outside parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria, smoking a cigarette and wrapped in the Bulgarian flag (Photo: Naomi Conrad, DW Correspondent) DSC00125:Jpeg - Barricades outside parliament in Sofia

Some protestors are happy to just stand and shout, others want to get organized for action

But Stoyan Panchev dismisses the idea with a shrug. The economist is on the way to the square in central Sofia where the nightly protests kick off. He's convinced that the government is trying to siphon off as much money as possible while it can - and that a few stern words from Brussels are unlikely to impress anyone.

'I want to start blocking streets'

"I am getting sick of just strolling around. I prefer occupying, I prefer blocking streets. I think it would be better to go to [the government's] vacation spots or make noises outside the restaurants where they are eating. I'm getting tired of just walking." He explains to DW, that he wants more action from the protestors.

Putting his plan into action, a couple of days previously, he and some other protesters lay down on a street, forcing the police to drag them away. He grins -and his grin widens as he walks past a group of tired-looking policemen sitting on a bench. So far the protests have remained largely peaceful. But there were clashes with police on the 23rd July, when protesters tried to prevent MPs from leaving Parliament after voting on controversial budget amendments. Given the government's unpopularity, Panchev is convinced that it couldn't survive any more direct clashes.

A sign reading Resign now. Red communist Rubbish (Photo: Naomi Conrad, DW Correspondent)

The protestors want the government to resign

"So if we can drag them into a confrontation by barricading and occupying them, we'll topple them down," he finishes with a flourish.

Gearing up for September

Back at the protest site, the sound of drums, whistles and vuvuzelas is deafening. But Panchev is disappointed at the size of the turnout. Some 100 protesters are milling around and a woman is posing for a photographer. She proudly shows off the angry red letters "resign now" which she's painted along her biceps. A small boy is thoughtfully chewing an orange whistle. The turnout is small compared to earlier demonstrations, but August is hot and stuffy in Sofia and most residents have left for the beach.

Organizers are trying to put together timetables to maintain a 24 hour presence on site. They plan to harass politicians at their summer retreats too. It's all building up for an expected show-down in September, when politicians and protesters alike will return to the Bulgarian capital. There's talk of blocking parliament again, preventing MPs from going to work, or even barricading them in. Yoga teachers Antonyia and Snejinka have decided to pitch in with daily yoga-classes to help the cause. These protestors seem to believe that between the yoga and the barricades, it's only a matter of time until they bring down the government.

Naomi Conrad is a DW reporter. She was reporting from Bulgaria with the help of the Robert Bosch Foundation's reporting grant.

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