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Students invoke spirit of ’68 in fight to rid Bulgaria of corruption

Protesters blockading Sofia University tell how nepotism is crippling their government

The young men and women milling around the halls of the occupied Sofia University know exactly who they seek to emulate. Under the heading “1968”, a banner painted in the bold red and green of the Bulgarian flag unfurls from a second floor window. “Now it’s our time,” the sign declares.

“In 1968, the students in France said ‘stop’, this world is not what we want,” says Ivaylo Dinev, a 24-year-old anthropology student. “We now are in the same situation,” he tells The  Independent, adding hopefully: “When the students rise up, every parliament goes down.”

Mr Dinev speaks from inside what he calls “the free territory of the students”. Here behind the grand university façade and past makeshift security checkpoints, hundreds of young people are painting banners, erecting barricades and stockpiling food in the latest wave of a campaign which has become the most sustained anti-government protest movement in Europe today.

With the latest opinion poll showing most Bulgarians support their blockade, the students are preparing for the long haul. “When we started the occupation we were about 50 people and we thought, if we don’t get support from the outside we will stop,” says Mr Dinev. “Now we understand that the time is right.”

For 147 days, disparate groups of Bulgarian citizens have been camping out in Sofia demanding the government’s resignation and an end to the corruption and nepotism they say plagues the state. Bulgaria’s protests have endured, perhaps because people have more reason than most in Europe to fear that their future lies in the hands of a tiny elite.

The poorest nation in the European Union is also rated one of the bloc’s most corrupt, with only Greece faring worse in Transparency International’s corruption index. Global sympathy for the protests also reaches beyond the usual leftist groups. Soon after protests began – sparked by the appointment of a controversial businessman to head the national security agency – the French and German ambassadors in Sofia published a joint letter stressing that the “oligarchic model” of government was not compatible with EU mores.

And now the movement has a new epicentre. At the end of October, students at Sofia University barricaded themselves in and declared they would not be moved until the government resigned. About 500 students are now taking part, Mr Dinev says, and other universities across the country have joined the shut down, injecting new life into the protest movement.

The Independent was given access to the occupied Sofia University, where banners hang from every wall. “#Resign” is the most popular slogan in a revolution spread on Twitter and Facebook. Mattresses are pushed to the corners of lecture halls where excited students gather. Mountains of bread, boxes of apples, and an ample supply of toilet paper are logged and stored. Desks and crates barricade the entrance doors, where Mr Dinev says some “hooligans” tried to get in. Students now guard the perimeter gates, collecting signatures of supporters and supplies donated by citizens, but making sure only students can pass. Each night they discuss their demands.

Protests have already toppled one government this year. In February, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov resigned and new elections in May brought to power his Socialist replacement, Plamen Oresharski. It only took one month before the appointment of MP and media mogul Delyan Peevski to the security agency sent people back on to the streets. The government swiftly withdrew the nomination, but the damage was done. To the protesters, it was yet another example of the nepotism which has concentrated power among a small group of businesspeople and politicians since the fall of Communism in 1990.

“The party system is not like Western society, stable with financial support for clear electoral policies,” says Tihomir Bezlov, a senior analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. “They are very weak and very dependent on financing from these oligarchs.”

This business elite has been allowed to buy most of Bulgaria’s newspapers and TV stations, crippling media freedom. The US State Department’s human rights report says it is “routine practice for owners to dictate the media’s editorial content”. The report also notes that “officials in all branches of government often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity”, with perpetrators of corruption rarely prosecuted.

So every night protesters wave signs decrying the “Mafia” government outside the university. One poll this week found that 60 per cent of Bulgarians are in favour of the movement, and President Rosen Plevneliev, of the opposition GERB party, supports the protests.

Prime Minister Oresharski has rejected calls to resign and is mostly ignoring the protests in the hope they will fade away. So far there has been no movement to evict the students.

Mr Bezlov thinks the students may struggle to match the government’s resolve and resources, but believes the protests are the start of a succession of movements which will eventually bring about real change. And the young people, it seems, are willing to wait.

“What is really important is the birth of the civil society, because no matter which government will come, it’s the same situation, and we will react,” says Gabrielle, a 23-year-old arts graduate. “We know it will be long, but we are going to fight, we are not going to give up.”