Below is a paper that I wrote for my resistance and social movements course this semester. I am new to this section of anthropology, and a little insecure about it. That being said, if this is interesting to anyone I would love feedback, both critical and constructive about the theories, opinions, and examples that I use in the paper. Overall, I would also love if anyone has something that they contest regarding the information I gathered on the protests, and their feelings about Bulgaria and social movements.
Self-Immolation as Resistance in Bulgaria
On May 25, 2013 I visited Varna, Bulgaria. By then the protests that had heated the winter in Bulgaria had subsided, but they had left behind their material traces, and a feeling of expectation remained in the air. In the evening I went to the city center. The day was bright and warm, and by the end of May, Varna is usually beginning to fill with tourists and weekenders heading to the beach. Instead of the expected crowd I was met with an unusual quiet. Very few people were in the park next to the Obshtina (city hall). In front of the Obshtina was a tent, a few posters, and a large pile of rocks. The posters were mostly in memory of Plamen Garonov, an activist who had set himself on fire during the February protests, and the pile of rocks were in reference to a famous poem by the revolutionary, Ivan Vazov, who worked to free the Bulgarians from Ottoman rule in the late 1800’s. In the poem the mayor of a village gives his daughter to the Ottoman Turks, rather than allow her to be with a poor Bulgarian, an act so evil that it brings drought and famine on the village. In retaliation the people of the village build a pile of stones near the village, and with each stone curse the mayor, until he ultimately has to flee the village. The final refrain of the poem speaks of how the pile of stones continues to grow even after the mayor flees and warns that the people will remember the wrongs that have been committed against them:
От тогава веч минуват
Много случки и преврати
Видеха очи ни.
А грамадата расте се
И камънте върху нея
Че сюрмашки сълзи клети
Лесно не изсъхват,
Злите спомени в душата
Скоро не заглъхват…
Since then have passed
Many incidents and revolutions
Our eyes have seen.
And the cairn grows
And the rocks upon it
Fly without end.
An unfortunate man’s wretched tears
Do not easily dry,
Evil memories in the soul
Are not soon forgotten.
When I left Bulgaria in August of 2012 I had not seen a nation that was poised on the edge of revolution. Being a volunteer with a United States governmentally funded program, I was required to stay far away from the topics and issues of politics, but I suspected that political unrest strong enough to displace the prime minister within a year would have been felt in all aspects of life. Instead what I felt was a general buzz of dissatisfaction, not clearly directed towards any one thing, and definitely not violent or capable of inspiring people to movement. In February 2013 I was not shocked to hear about the widespread energy protests being held in Bulgaria. In my experience Bulgarians have a tendency to protest often, in a peaceful and organized fashion. What shocked me was the news that the protests had taken a turn towards self-inflicted violence. Over the course of two months seven people set themselves on fire in various cities around Bulgaria, only one of whom survived. Due to these extreme acts, coupled with some of the largest protests that Bulgaria has seen since 1996, the Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, along with his cabinet and the mayor of Varna, resigned. What was more unsettling than the actual events unfolding in Bulgaria was the way in which the world accepted the news, as if self-immolation and the resignation of an entire government was common. Although international news sources mentioned the events in Bulgaria no one seemed particularly concerned or even overly interested in the outcomes of the political protests. In this paper I will examine the causes of the protests more in depth, including proposing reasons for the use of self-immolation in Bulgaria, and briefly discuss the future potential of the protests.
On January 28, 2013 protests began in the Southwest city of Blagoevgrad over unusually high energy bills. Bills of some residents doubled and tripled from the previous year’s expenditure and many Bulgarians did not have the money to pay their bills, which included high taxes and fees in addition to a raise in the unit-price of electricity. Over the next month protests spread to the entirety of Bulgaria with thousands of protesters gathering in Varna, Plovdiv, and the capital of Sofia. Protest activity included marching, blocking public streets, throwing eggs and vegetables at public buildings, and burning electricity bills. Protesters made varying demands including the removal of the Bulgarian government, nationalization of energy companies, and withdrawal from the European Union. The most extreme acts of protest included seven Bulgarians lighting themselves on fire. They each set themselves on fire for varying reasons, mostly unclear to the public and media, and of the seven only Dimitor Dimitrov remains alive. Of the seven cases only that of Plamen Garonov took on popular political significance both nationally and globally as his death was compared to that of Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Czechoslovakia in 1969. Garonov had a history of political activism, specifically against the holding corporation TIM (Thought to be a Mafia-run company influencing the private and political spheres in Bulgaria) and the supposed corruption of the recently resigned mayor of Varna. The other protesters were less well known and various sources cite personal financial and relationship issues as the reasons for their self-immolations.
In order to better understand the current situation leading to the protests in Bulgaria it is necessary to briefly review the political history and process of privatization of energy production since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. By tracing the production and consumption of energy in Bulgaria, similar to how Timothy Mitchell discusses the move from coal to oil in “Carbon Democracy,” the hegemonic and repressive forces in contemporary Bulgaria can be made clear. Although an in-depth analysis of energy production is beyond the scope of this paper, a brief analysis is necessary in order to understand the spark that ignited the protests last winter. Bulgarian energy distribution was privatized in 2004, with three foreign companies, CEZ from the Czech Republic, E.ON from Germany, and and EVN of Austria becoming the main suppliers. The privatization was a necessary compliance for acceptance into the European Union, and competition was expected to keep energy rates low for consumers. However, each company distributes power to a different region in Bulgaria which frees them from a competitive structure. Recent price increases were caused by the state regulatory agency allowing for the implementation of a flat rate for electricity consumption as opposed to the previously used tiered system, which significantly raised the costs of electricity for customers who consume less, while lowering the overall rate for customers who consume more. (The Power Brokers) In addition taxes and fees have been implemented by the private companies in order to cover expenses associated with the modernization of the energy grid in Bulgaria and to cover the losses incurred due to energy theft. However, some of these expenses are suspected of including luxury corporate transportation for the foreign companies and other expenses that the people of Bulgaria do not feel responsible for. This is in addition to the cost of switching Bulgaria to more sources of renewable energy and closing two nuclear power plants as per European Union demands. Although Bulgaria has the lowest energy prices within the EU, Bulgarians also have the lowest overall income at around 400 euro per month, making the ratio of the bills to monthly income unbearable for many consumers. (G.K.)
Although the protests in Bulgaria started specifically against high electricity costs they quickly became more general, covering many grievances including corruption within the government and the poor standard of living that many Bulgarians face relative to other European Union member states. As protests continued organization was arranged in major cities such as Slivin and Sofia. On February 20, 2013 Prime Minister Boyko Borisov stepped down from office, along with his cabinet. A letter, drafted by the Civic Initiative Committee and claiming to be the voice of the Bulgarian people, was presented to the president on February 24, calling for constitutional changes. On March 6 Varna mayor Kiril Yordanev left office. On May 12 special elections were held. There was a particularly low voter turnout, of 53%, and although Borisov once again received the most votes no party achieved a majority in parliament, and several parties fell below the 4% threshold requirement for representation in parliament, leaving about 25% of voters unrepresented. (Dimitrova) Currently protesting has stopped although several claims have been made that the protests will continue unless changes are made.
Self-Immolations as an Acceptable Global Discourse
Before examining the general resistance in Bulgaria I want to consider the extreme action of self-immolation that occurred during the period of these protests. The extreme violence makes these acts difficult to consider, and I find myself faced with a similar issue that Emma Goldman highlighted a hundred years ago in her essay, “The Psychology of Physical Violence.” If an academic writes about violence with understanding or intelligence then they are accused of “eulogizing” it, and if they express sympathy with the actor, then they can be considered an accomplice. (Goldman) Because the violence was self-inflicted on the personal bodies of the actors, a bit of sympathy is allowable, however, with the desire to maintain academic credibility the expression of emotion that such action can provoke is limited in this paper. It is exactly that limitation, in both academia and popular media, that I wish to explore, along with offering reasons as to how and why self-immolation is a meaningful and allowable action within the discourse of resistance.
I will begin by an action of my own: the naming of the seven victims of self-immolation. The choice of the title, “victim,” is something that I still debate. While not wanting to strip the men of their agency in the act of self-immolation, I want to highlight the tragedy of their loss against the backdrop of the larger social forces that popularize self-immolation as a valid choice of protest. I chose to use the term victim only because there does not exist a term which fully encompasses such an act of self-harm.
Victims of Self-immolation, and date:
February 18: Trayan Marechkov
February 20: Plamen Garonov
February 26: Ventsislav Vesilov
March 13: Dimitor Dimitrov
March 18: Simeon Simeonov
March 22: Todor Yovchev
May 1: Ventsislav Kozarev
This list is important only because it has not been publicly and prominently compiled. Newspapers, both local and international, tended to report each incident as, “a man from…” as opposed to using the names of the victims. Although this is a standard practice to protect the anonymity of the victims and their families, the question is raised of whether anonymity is necessary when the action was an obvious choice to draw attention to a situation, and what purpose the de-identification of these men serves.
Sherry Ortner’s article, “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal,” is useful in understanding the problems and purposes of de-identification. Although Ortner’s article was a critique on ethnographic style, some of her concepts can be applied to popular media. Ortner argued for an ethnographic stance founded on Geertz’ concept of thickness, including ideas of exhaustiveness, holism, and contextualization. (174) She went further to state that three practices which limit thickness when dealing with resistance studies are sanitizing politics, thinning culture, and dissolving subjects. Dissolving subjects can be done in two extremes, either by dissolving individuals into a group that has a unitary identity and consciousness, or by giving an individual so much complexity that their political will is stripped of them. (Ortner, 174) The lack of identification of these men manages to accomplish both of these dissolutions at once. On the one hand, by simply referring to the victims as, “a man from Bulgaria who lit himself on fire,” the individuals are reduced to a single action, which can be claimed by various political groups in support of the general protests. The men are assumed to have the same political goals and identity of a larger, homogenous group of protesters, which, in reality, does not exist. On the other hand, some articles vaguely refer to various, non-political hardships in the lives of the victims, creating a complexity of will that waters-down the action. In either case, the identity of the man, along with his will, is not sought by popular media. This de-identification serves to perpetuate the romance associated with resistance as opposed to giving actual agency to the victims, which would be useful in understanding their motives for self-immolating, as well as adding to the understanding of the general protests in Bulgaria.
There was one victim whose name was well-known and used often. That was Plamen Garanov. Garanov was the second to light himself on fire, in the streets of Varna. He was a well-known photographer, sports enthusiast, and political activist, 36 years old. Garanov’s popularity and activism before the protests, along with his young age, and that his name means, “flame,” made him a logical choice for the poster-child of the self-immolations. His action was compared to that of the student, Jan Palach, who lit himself on fire to protest the Soviets in Czechoslovakia in January, 1969. This comparison shows a certain level of acceptance, and precedence, of self-immolation during Eastern European winters.
The precedence of self-immolation, which is becoming more globally public, if not more prevalent, is an important aspect to understanding why self-immolation is a choice for protest. According to Tilly, the prevailing repertoire of collective action constrains the path of social movements, and influences its outcome. (Tilly, 25) Although the creative actions of a human are not limited to repetitions of past actions, they are influenced by what has been done before, especially if it was successful. A certain dialogue of action becomes acceptable in the political arena through years of precedence. Actions become symbols that can be placed into categories of valid resistance, or unacceptable terrorism. Self-immolation, through the precedence of Jan Palach, and many other immolations since the 1960’s has become an action that is proven to gain international attention, and is considered a valid form of protest.
Valid forms of protest are increasingly limited by the global hegemony that monopolizes force as a propriety of the state. According to Warner, violence is an illegitimate force, and if a state is strong, then more forms of force and injury are regarded as violent unless they are delegated to officials. In this way the state is able to monopolize force and delegitimize violence in civil life. (Warner, 45) Because protesters are not public officials their actions are considered civil action, despite their political intent, which greatly limits the amount and types of force that they can use. The use of force is not only limited by the local government and state, but internationally through a popular discourse against violence and for human rights. On a global scale resistance, in order to gain legitimacy, must adhere to certain rules of engagement. The global War on Terror over the past decade has helped to solidify those rules of engagement. Whereas historically people could have potentially gained awareness for their cause through acts of destruction of public property, and violent revolutions, those actions now fall under the umbrella of terrorism. In the act of naming a resistive action as terrorism it is stripped of reason and considered illegitimate. In order to call attention to their cause people begin to destroy their own property but ultimately any material destruction can be looked on as an overall public loss, delegitimizing the action. This leaves a single material form of resistance as globally acceptable, which is the destruction of self. One would think that at this point a person would not choose force, or would cease to resist, but Goldman posits the eruption of violence as inevitable, like a thunderstorm, when a society is continually oppressed. (Goldman) Self-immolation not only serves to affirm the autonomy of the self within the public sphere, but also to draw sympathy towards a cause within the acceptable rules of engagement.
Bulgaria as a Space of Resistance
Bulgaria has a strong history of resistance. Beginning with the Byzantine rule in the eleventh century, a peasant uprising in the thirteenth century, and five-hundred years of Ottoman rule until the nineteenth century, Bulgaria has constantly been a space where people have had to find creative ways to live their lives, and maintain their culture, beneath oppression. Throughout the years both overt and covert resistance have had their place, but Bulgaria has not had a large amount of social movements. The question is whether this winter’s protests will actually achieve a change in the basic culture and politics of Bulgaria, or simply fade as another historical moment of overt resistance.
In order to understand the possibility of Bulgarian resistance to invoke change in Bulgaria it is necessary to first consider resistance generally. I will take ideas concerning overt and covert resistance from James Scott, and blend them with concepts of social movements from Charles Tilly in order to form a more complete picture of what resistance is. Covert resistance includes acts of everyday resistance and infrapolitics, whereas overt resistance are acts of force that blatantly stand out against oppression. (Scott). Some would argue that overt and covert resistance is a continuum of expression, unable to coexist, but Matthew Gutmann argues against the danger of dualism, claiming that covert and overt resistance work together, alternate, and transform into each other. (77) He proposes that overt resistance provides more room to maneuver for those who are similarly inclined but more hesitant to act. (Gutmann, 80) In this model the protests in Bulgaria are a form of overt resistance, which followed a stage of covert resistance wherein individual Bulgarians complained about the corruption and practiced avoidance in politics, but did not act out against their leadership. However, where does the concept of social movements fit into this model? I believe that social movements involve both covert and overt resistance, but go beyond resistance to include a focus on change. Tilly focuses on the sustainability of social movements, stating that social movements are sustained interactions between changing sets of challengers and authorities. (Tilly, 25) Arturo Escobar rounds out this definition by connecting social movements to cultural struggles and positing them as a struggle over the control of historicity. (397, 400) He claims that social movements go beyond a struggle of economic survival and are the defense, creation, and reconstruction of cultural meanings. (Escobar, 412) In other words social movements should be sustained through a period of different sets of actors and focus on construction rather than survival or deconstruction. Social movements utilize both covert and overt resistance, but while resistance focuses on short-term changes within the oppressive force, social movements focus on long-term changes to the culture that encompasses both the oppressed and oppressor. In this light Bulgarians have a tendency to focus more on resistance and less on social movement.
In Bulgaria resistance has a higher traditional value than change. Bulgarians take a certain pride in their history of repression. When I speak with Bulgarians most of them will advance a similar notion that it is very important that Bulgaria was repressed by the Ottoman Empire, and yet was able to maintain its language, culture, and ethnic identity as Bulgarian. This is a view expressed by younger Bulgarians as well as older generations, with varying degrees of nationalistic loyalty. Similarly to the importance of endurance through repression, most Bulgarians will identify the resistors during the period of Ottoman rule, the poets Ivan Vasov and Hristo Botev, as well as the revolutionary Vasil Levski, to be the key representation of heroism in Bulgaria. It is important to note that these men were famous for their resistance in the form of creating engagement among Bulgarians through writing, speaking, and fighting physically for freedom, not for restructuring Bulgaria after they won their freedom. It is because of this that I claim Bulgarians have a fascination with resistance rather than actual change, wherein resistance is fetishized as freedom. Bulgarians desire to protest, but do not to act to make changes in their situation. Whether this is because the path to change is without precedent, or because Bulgarians do not actually desire change is unclear.
The pile of rocks that is left in front of the town hall in Varna is a telling material reference to these national heroes, and the historicity of Bulgarian resistance. Ivan Vazov’s famous poem, Gramada, presents an option for protest which is particularly effective because it is entwined in cultural history, making it nearly impossible for city officials to remove without causing public backlash and, in a way, disassociating themselves with a cultural hero. This use of a historic cultural symbol also shows that Bulgarians maintain a certain loyalty with their cultural roots, it is only the actions of the current government which they wish to contest. Erica Weiss makes a claim that we should not look for resistance only on the fringes of hegemonic dominance, but within the heart of the hegemony as people are capable of internalizing certain aspects of hegemony while rejecting others. (Weiss, 586) I argue that Bulgarian’s strong sense of loyalty to the Bulgarian cultural identity prevents them from creating a social movement, while allowing them to resist against a government which they do not view as authentic to the hegemonic ideals.
Another reason that a social movement cannot be achieved through Bulgarian resistance is the complexity of the resistors. The reasons why individuals join together to protest against a dominating force are usually complex and varied. Some join for moral reasons and others are inspired by financial need. Still others join simply to be part of a movement or to make themselves politically relevant within their power structure. In the case of the Bulgarian protests, a common interest of high-electricity bills started the action, but it quickly grew in complexity and by the time that it was a nationwide protest the reasons for protesting, as well as the desired outcomes of the protest were varied. Because the protests started as general protests, as opposed to an organized event, there was a power vacuum created by many voices expressing discontent without concrete demands being made. At that point many leaders could have stepped in to act as the voice for the protests. Committees were formed in several of the main cities and national assemblies were held regarding the protests. However, there was concern among those in attendance at these meetings that there were political representatives in attendance, working to sway public opinion. On February 24 a letter was presented to President Rosen Plevneliev from the Civic Initiative Committee making various demands regarding politics, energy, heating, and water. (Sofia Globe)
When studying resistance it is dangerous to take such demands as the voice of the people that they claim to be. To do so is to fall into Ortner’s trap of sanitizing politics by ignoring the internal politics of a group of resistors and constructing a romantic depiction of only two conflicting forces, the oppressors and the oppressed. (Ortner, 177) The internal politics of the oppressed group in Bulgaria involves issues of racism, class, and urban versus rural. Although all of these political groups may be able to unite momentarily in an act of resistance against, “corruption,” the complexity of the internal politics prevents the group from agreeing on the construction of cultural reform, making the emergence of a social movement unlikely.
The last reason that Bulgarians are more likely to show a single show of resistance rather than concentrate on construction is due to a limiting global discourse similar to the one discussed above. Mainly this discourse takes the form of the occupy movement, which began with, “Occupy Wall Street,” and has grown to, “Occupy Everywhere.” The occupy movement, which I argue is not actually a movement so much as a brand of resistance, has become globally fashionable. Within the movement protestors are called upon to resist oppression and to call attention to corruption and unfairness. What the movement lacks is any form of cultural construction. It is a movement of deconstruction. As this has become the global trend Bulgarians were able to use the momentum of the occupy movement, but once their government resigned there was no plan in place to make changes, resulting in the eventual re-election of GERB as the main party. Although a liminal space was created between the resignation of the Prime Minister and the special elections, it was not acted upon. The relatively low voter-turnout shows a lack of trust in the political system and yet alternatives are not being suggested. I believe that this is partially because of the popular fascination with resistance. Michael Brown highlights a theoretical hegemony within academia dominating research and blurring the complexity of situations, (729) and I argue that the occupy movement has brought that same hegemony into a public space.
This paper has explored the protests last winter in Bulgaria as a form of resistance against what is viewed by many people as a corrupt government. It was my desire to highlight the desperation behind the general protests, and more specifically, the seven acts of self-immolation that occurred during this time of protest, in order to give some reason as to why self-immolation has become not only a valid form of resistance, but one of the only forms of valid physical resistance left in Bulgaria. I then discussed the historical precedence for resistance in Bulgaria and discussed the barriers to creating cultural and political change within the country as an aspect of hegemonic loyalty and global limitations on the discourse of construction. Ultimately it is my desire to call attention to the lack of emphasis on constructive options for public masses, and similar to Michael Brown’s call for academics to look beyond domination and power in their studies (734) I call for a focus on expanding the global vocabulary of resistance to include options of cultural and political construction rather than leaving self-immolation as the best option for political expression.
Brown, Michael J. 1996. “On Resisting Resistance.” American Anthropologist, 98(4): 729-749.
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Scott, J.C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven; Yale University Press.
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Weiss, Erica. 2011. “The Interrupted Sacrifice: Hegemony and Moral Crisis Among Israeli Conscientious Objectors.” American Ethnologist, 38(3): 576- 588.
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