Two days in Sofia – The daily protest

Sofia doesn’t seem like a capital city it has the ambience of Worthing with wide roads, quiet shopping streets and low level buildings.

Unlike Worthing it also has huge slab like government offices, magnificent cathedrals and, since February 2013, daily anti-government protests that have brought down one administration and seen six people burn themselves alive.

At times as many as 20,000 have turned out with corresponding protests in cities throughout the nation

In December 2013  the protest has been reduced to about one hundred people they meet at 7pm outside the Presidential Palace armed with whistles and drums then march the mile or so to the National Assembly.  They chant a few slogans, mingle and chat then go home.

I ask what the protest is about. Nicolas a student says: “Corruption. The government is corrupt they must resign.” Several of the other protesters agree, two English words they all understand are “corruption “and “resign”.

The February protests were against electricity prices, monopolies and poverty. The ruling GERB party led by the populist Boris Borisov had come to power in 2009 on an anti-corruption ticket. They implemented austerity measures in one of the poorest EU countries and the poor were hit the hardest.

Boris Borisov

Boris Borisov

High electricity bills triggered nationwide protests involving 100,000 people. Six people died from self-immolation and the Government resigned.

Fresh elections in May saw GERB win 30% of the vote but a strange coalition of  the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the DPS an ethnic Turk party and tactical support from the far right Ataka party formed the new administration.

Smaller protests continued after the election concerning issues that linked politicians, the mafia and big business.

Bulgarians don’t have a lot of trust in the honesty of their leaders. In 2008 a serving MP famously said: “Other countries have the mafia, in Bulgaria, the mafia has the country.”

The coalition elected media mogul Delyan Peevski, 32, – a man without any security experience and a dodgy past – as head of national security. Major protests erupted. Peevski withdrew but the protesters didn’t.

Deylan Peevski_result

Angry at the formation of the coalition the opposition GERB party boycotted parliament. But their time in office is also subject to allegations of fraud, illegal wiretapping and the misuse of EU funds.

Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski may think that the dwindling protest numbers are a sign that the popular tide is turning but Nicolas outside the National Assembly said “It’s because it’s cold and we’re getting tired.”

Two days in Sofia – Sofia vs Sofia

The last game before the Bulgarian league’s winter break is the Eternal Derby between CSKA and Levski Sofia. The meeting of the  two biggest teams in Bulgaria with its history of hostility are played at the neutral Vasil Levski Stadium.

It’s a Bulgarian Cup quarterfinal second leg the first game was goalless.

The stadium is on the edge of Sofia city centre and I’m hurrying to make a weird 4pm Thursday afternoon kick off. The floodlights and chanting make it easy to find and the intimidating ranks of riot clad police helpfully point me to the ticket office.

A half way line ticket is only 14 lev about 7 quid. Nobody is sitting, everyone stands on the plastic bucket seats to keep their feet of the cold ground.

The stadium is the usual Eastern European concrete bowl an athletic track keeping play at a distance. It is only a quarter full but the atmosphere is great. The ultras at either end do their orchestrated singing and choreographed displays.


 My Xperia phone camera’s limitations are more apparent in the low light and when  compared to photo’s from the Levski Ultra’s site.

Levski Ultras

I’m  standing with Levski supporters and their team has the edge in a lively goalless first half. The only player I recognise is CSKA’s Martin Petrov the balding former Bolton left winger. His corner produces the best chance of the half but Mendy’s header is well saved by Illiev.

The sun goes down and the temp drops.

At half time a crowd gathers at the  players exit to hurl abuse at the officials and the opposition. The police raise their shields to form a protective tunnel. The sudden hostility is alarming,  a few missiles are thrown but after the players disappear, the police put away their shields and everyone wanders off together for a warm drink.

CSKA Ultras

The second half is a midfield battle. There is racist chanting from both sets of supporters aimed at the other teams black players. Every time Mendy, the Senegalese centre-back, lingers on the ball a shaven headed man climbs up the fencing in front of me to monkey chant. He is remarkably angry. The police and a few young  kids look on. It’s a bit disturbing.

I try jumping up and down to stay warm but it’s not helping. I’m dreading extra-time but it appears inevitable and duly comes.

I can recall matches with extra time drama. Both teams would recklessly charge forward then be too tired to get back. End to end excitement. Exhausted players missing a succession of simple chances.

The last time this happened was probably in the 1980s. Footballers today are too cagey to go forward in case they find they are too tired to run back. Supporters look at their watches and worry about the last bus.

The only event in extra-time was that my knees froze and stopped working.

So to penalties and Levski finally win 7-6 . As Mulder slots the decisive kick and wheeled away towards celebrating team mates I hobbled towards the exit and headed to the Taj Mahal the best and only curry house in Sofia.