The latest political casualty of the wave of protests sweeping through Bulgaria is the mayor of Varna, who resigned his post on Wednesday in response to intense pressure after the self-immolation death of a Bulgarian activist. Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old artist, set himself on fire on February 20th in front of Varna’s City Hall while calling for the resignation of Kiril Yordanov. Goranov, a vocal critic of Yordanov’s alleged ties with a powerful group of businesses, died two weeks later, on March 4th, and became in the interim a powerful symbol among the country’s activists.
Who have much to be concerned about. Bulgaria, which six years after joining the European Union remains its poorest member, is excluded from the Schengen zone over concerns about pervasive graft and organized crime. Though Bulgaria’s debt is significantly lower than other European countries, its rampant corruption has not allowed it to weather the economic downturn on the continent any better. The rise of electricity costs coupled with long-standing frustrations over bad governance has led to a wave of protests throughout the country — resulting in three self-immolations, including Goranov’s. The attention-grabbing tactic — which brings to mind Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi’s role in helping to spark the Arab Spring — has another, powerful local association. Namely, the Czech student Jan Palach’s 1969 self-immolation in protest of the Soviet occupation. (Goranov is now even being referred to as “Bulgaria’s Jan Palach.”)
Goranov’s desperate act, along with the efforts of tens of thousands of demonstrators, has already helped to spark change in the country: Bulgaria’s government bowed to popular pressure and resigned on February 21 and, with Yordanov’s recent announcement, it’s clear that the protests are having an impact even on a local level. Of the many popular responses to the European economic crisis — which includes Italy’s recent election elevating a political party run by comedian Beppe Grillo – Bulgaria’s self-immolations are clearly on the more extreme side. Though the protests have brought about instant, visible change, the political deadlock facing the country is not likely to alleviate grievances any time soon, leaving the door open for further escalation. While not quite at the level of a “Balkan Spring” just yet, the extreme tactics of protesters in a region already known as a powder keg risk not only heightening political tensions in-country but possibly adding fuel (so to speak) to conflicts in neighboring Greece and Romania, also grappling with the volatile popular response to the economic crisis.