Bulgaria Monthly Digest: social protests are haunting Bulgaria4 min read

 In Eastern Europe, News, Politics

– The Bulgarian Northwest is the region with the lowest regional GDP per capita in the European Union, according to a Eurostat study published on February 26th. The GDP of this region amounts to only 31 percent of the European average. By comparison, the GDP of Inner London – West was calculated at 626 percent on the same indicator.

– On February 14th, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted changes to electoral law suggested by the opposition Movement for Rights and Liberties (MRL). Deputies of the MRL and the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party (GERB), and some members of United Patriots voted for a significant increase of the voting threshold, thereby making it virtually impossible for voters to rearrange electoral party lists (read more about Bulgaria’s parliamentary system here).

In reaction, the main opposition party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), decided to leave parliament and not come back until the changes were withdrawn and machine voting implemented (as stipulated by law).

Subsequently, on February 18th, following public pressure, GERB announced its decision to retract its support for the changes . GERB also  declared itself a “people’s party” and reminded voters that it “complies with the trend, the moods and the public opinion.”

BSP, however, has not returned to Parliament, as machine voting is not yet set up in every electoral district. The party is demanding immediate snap elections.    

– Healthcare Minister Kiril Ananiev revealed in Parliament on February 24th that the Bulgarian National Health Insurance Fund owes 145 million Euro to various European countries for medical expenses incurred by Bulgarian citizens abroad. In 2017 alone, 332 Bulgarians were rejected treatment in other EU member states because of their nation’s debts.

– Drivers working for the public transport network in Sofia have started wearing yellow jackets as a gesture of protest, and on February 27th, dozens of workers staged a demonstration in front of the Sofia Municipality building. The drivers are dissatisfied with low pay, understaffing, and poor working conditions, according to Bulgarian National Television. Currently, the average driver earns 1054 Lev (540 Euro, or 610 US Dollars) per month.

– The European Commission (EC) issued its 2019 Country Report on Bulgaria within the framework of the European Semester on February 27th. The document reaffirms that “[l]evels of poverty, social exclusion and income inequality are still among the highest in the EU”. The EC report also notes that “[d]espite improvements in the labour market, the low-skilled, the Roma and people with disabilities still face significant difficulties in finding work”.

– On March 1st doctors, nurses, other healthcare providers, and concerned citizens gathered outside the Ministry of Health in Sofia to protest low pay and poor working conditions in the public healthcare sector. In addition to those in the capital, protests were held in at least ten other towns.

– Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev paid an official visit to Bulgaria on March 4th and 5th to discuss the planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline as well as economic relations between Sofia and Moscow.

Interestingly, during a discussion about trade, Medvedev remarked: “I just got an idea regarding the fact that the Lev is pegged to the Euro: the Chinese Yuan is a good currency too. You might start thinking along those lines. And the market is enormous.”

A few days earlier, General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg had visited Sofia to discuss “current security challenges, including Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”

– The Manhattan Prosecutor’s Office announced on March 9th that it had charged two Bulgarians, founders of the cryptocurrency firm OneCoin, with various financial offenses. The Sofia Globe reported that the office of the US Attorney had lodged several charges against the leaders of OneCoin, describing it as a multibillion dollar pyramid scheme involving the sale of a fraudulent cryptocurrency. Bulgarian citizen Konstantin Ignatov was arrested on March 6th at Los Angeles International Airport and has been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. The Sofia Globe also reported that an indictment had been unsealed charging Konstantin’s sister, Ruzha Ignatova, described as the founder of OneCoin.

– Hundreds of women and men marched in Sofia on March 8th demanding gender equality and more robust measures in the fight against domestic violence.  

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