The resignation of the Bulgarian government on Tuesday 19 February amid escalating popular protests provides an illustration of the way in which austerity and neo-liberalism interact — and, more positively, the way in which this can lead resistance.
The protests were sparked by the continually rising energy prices that have resulted from the privatisation of the state monopoly in electrical distribution in 2005, which have doubled and in some cases tripled.
Government austerity has resulted in what the International Trade Union Confederation has called “catastrophic social consequences” and stagnant wages.
Bulgarians earn the lowest average salaries in the European Union (393 euros). By the beginning of 2013 local analysts were estimating that, in some parts of the country, energy costs were approaching 100 percent of the average household income.
The protests began with the symbolic burning of electricity bills in Blagoevgrad in January.
Their demands at the start were purely economic — the renationalisation of private regional energy monopolies, the removal of subcontractors — and born of immediate desperation.
But they soon developed into broader opposition to the governing centre-right GERB party.
Endemic corruption has also been a universal theme — the government’s name has increasingly been used interchangeably with the word “mafia” — but it has also served to unify a broadly populist plebeian critique of a self-serving elite.
It hasn’t been lost on the protesters that it is the same people that are raising the energy prices, cutting the public utilities and taking the kickbacks.