With Many Despairing, Bulgaria Heads to Polls
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
VARNA, Bulgaria — Early one morning this past winter, Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old photographer, stood on the steps of City Hall in this once grand and now crumbling port city on the Black Sea and held up a sign demanding that the mayor and City Council resign. He then took a bottle of gasoline from his backpack, poured it over himself and set himself on fire. He died 11 days later in a hospital.
(Photo: Boryana Katsarova)
Since then, five other Bulgarians have died from self-immolation, one as recently as last week. All the others were apparently driven by economic despair. But Mr. Goranov’s death was perhaps the highest-profile political protest in countrywide demonstrations that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov in February. As Bulgarians prepare to elect his replacement on Sunday, it has become a symbol of a despair of another kind — that nothing will change here.
“It’s changed how Bulgarians perceive their society as being in a social and moral crisis,” said Nadege Ragaru, a political scientist at the Center for International Studies and Research at Sciences Po in Paris. “Bulgaria is perceived as lost, desperate, unhappy and having no future. Before, people said, ‘Look, there is no future, everyone is emigrating.’ Now they say, ‘Look, they are so desperate, they self-immolate.’ ”
Few in this city of 300,000 — where the protests in February were particularly furious — say they harbor any expectation that a new government will hear their complaints about corruption, rising prices, declining pensions and joblessness any more than the last. The only mystery seems to be whether the election will usher in a coalition that is merely unstable, or very unstable.
Polls show that despite the protests that led Mr. Borisov to resign, his party still holds a slight lead heading into the balloting.
Bulgarians describe a sense of hopelessness and injustice that permeates the nominally free-market, multiparty system that has come into being since the end of Communism in 1989 and with the country’s entry into the European Union. Friends and acquaintances of Mr. Goranov say that he wanted to shake his fellow citizens out of their inertia.
Mr. Goranov never mentioned a plan to kill himself to anyone, they said, and no one sensed that he wanted to end his life. Nobody seems to know what happened the morning of his death, whether his self-immolation was intentional or accidental, premeditated or impulsive.
Speculation has continued because the authorities refuse to release video footage of the immolation, saying it is evidence in a criminal investigation.
His friends and acquaintances say that Mr. Goranov was clearly disturbed by what he saw as the corruption of the local government. In February, he took mops and brooms to the protests here, as a symbol of the need to “clean up” Varna.
His death has evoked comparisons with Jan Palach — the Czechoslovak student who self-immolated in 1969 in protest of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring — and with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation helped set off the Arab Spring.
Three days after Mr. Goranov died, Varna’s four-term mayor, Kiril Yordanov, resigned. “What else could I do from a European, human point of view other than give my resignation?” Mr. Yordanov said in a recent interview.
Mr. Yordanov was a focus of anger from protesters who accused him of doing the bidding of a powerful group known as TIM, which a WikiLeaks document from 2005 from the United States Embassy in Sofia, the capital, described as “the up-and-coming star of Bulgarian organized crime.” It was, the diplomatic cable said, engaged in “extortion and racketeering, intimidation, prostitution, gambling, narcotics trafficking, car theft and trafficking in stolen automobiles.”
Mr. Yordanov denies any association with TIM, and the group itself, which acts as an alliance of holding companies, denies involvement in illegal activities. “There is not one fact which shows any indication of any criminal activity,” says Zlatimir Zhechev, a lawyer and board member of Varna Holding, one of the group’s holding companies.
But even if its activities are disputed, there is no doubt that TIM is now one of the biggest economic powers in the country. Mr. Zhechev says that its political clout simply reflects the scope of its capital and work force, “like Detroit and General Motors.”
“TIM is like Voldemort in ‘Harry Potter,’ ” said Stella Kostova, an acquaintance of Mr. Goranov from the Varna art scene, referring to the evil wizard in the children’s books who is so powerful that people are afraid to say his name.
Her husband, Pavel Popov, added: “What Plamen changed with his self-immolation was that people stopped being afraid to express the problem: TIM. Even some of the parties are now talking about how TIM should be restricted.”
For his part, Plamen Goranov — his first name means “flame” in Bulgarian — shunned political parties. Still, the government announced a national day of mourning for him, a step that his friends say he would have found disturbing.
“Plamen was a person with a crystal-clear sense of justice,” said Ivan Stefanov, a friend.
After his death, it was revealed that Mr. Goranov, a rock climber, had pulled off a public stunt last year in support of the three female members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were imprisoned in their country. He scaled three 35-foot-tall female statues on the monument of Soviet-Bulgarian friendship overlooking this city and placed colored hoods over their heads.
“Whatever it is that people do,” Mr. Stefanov recalled him saying, “they need to do it with passion and to do it well.”