Elderly citizens of Bulgaria’s capital say they can’t remember anything like this even in the 1970s, the time of the Brezhnev Doctrine that followed the 1968 Prague Spring events, when the country was gripped by harsh totalitarian rule.
At 8:00 a.m. on April 25, two days before the arrival of the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the police cordoned off the city center, cutting off its inhabitants from the rest of the country.
Military choppers hover over Sofia as jet fighters and armored vehicles secure the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The capital is blocked, reads the headline in the Standart daily.
“Each meter of Sofia’s boulevards will be secured by policemen, and snipers will be installed on the roofs of the buildings around the National Palace of Culture, where the meeting will be held. The armored vehicles of the Gendarmerie will be ready for action in case of threats, protests, or riots”, the newspaper explains.
Some 35 major boulevards and streets in the central part of the city are deserted. Even parking lots are empty. No traffic is allowed. People have to walk. Those living in the central quarters are allowed to come and go to their homes only upon presenting their ID cards. Their vehicles are stored in other, more peripheral parts of the capital, where Sofia’s citizens struggle with hellish traffic.
Some of the measures involve denying basic human rights. For instance, the home and business phones in the deserted center are switched off. Even the flowerpots on the streets, as well as in the lobbies of hotels, banks, and other office buildings, have been removed. Shops, banks, and other commercial outlets are closed for four days with no compensation for the lost revenue, of course. Witnesses say that on April 25 a column of military armored vehicles was paraded along some streets for no apparent reason other than to scare the annoyed citizenry into silence.
Why the fuss?
The security measures are for an informal NATO meeting being held here April 27-28. Informal, because no decisions are to be made and no agreements are to be signed. Some 36 delegations arrived. Among the high guests are Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the EU’s Javier Solana. But it’s the highest guest, Condoleezza Rice, that the whole fuss is about. The single opposition, antiwar party in the country the nationalist Ataka (“Attack”), planned a massive protest rally against the four U.S. military bases conceded by the current government. While in Bulgaria, Rice will sign the agreement on the 10-year concession of the Bezmer and Graf Ignatievo airfields, the Novo Selo compound, and a munitions warehouse at the Black Sea coast near the town of Bourgas. The government a coalition of a socialist party, a neoliberal right-wing party. and a Turkish ethnic party, all of whom enjoy a notorious reputation as Washington’s puppets, don’t want their puppet master Rice to see how much the local population loathes having foreign military bases on Bulgarian soil.
Ever since the nationalist party entered parliament in June last year, an increasing smear campaign against its members has been unleashed in the mainstream media. Spin and libel, most often naïve and easy to refute, have accompanied every action of the party and its leader, Volen Siderov, whose popularity in polls has been growing. In March, he topped an Internet survey for person of the month.
Repressive measures, meant to thwart the month-long relay of protests organized by Ataka against the U.S. bases around the country, have been implemented. A few weeks ago, a special car “accident” was arranged against Siderov as he was returning from a protest rally. About 11:00 p.m. on a rainy night, his car was hit from behind by a Mercedes jeep driven by a Bulgarian student studying “intelligence sciences” in the UK, while another car stopped in front of Siderov’s vehicle to prevent him from leaving. The car is displayed at the party’s parking lot so that everyone can see it was hit from behind, yet no official steps have been undertaken to clarify who hit it or why.
It has been widely alleged that after being hit by the Mercedes, Siderov’s driver came out and punched the Mercedes owner. After some time, Siderov called the police and on the next day filed a statement asking the authorities to investigate if an attempt had been made on his life. There has been no investigation of the accident itself, yet Siderov’s driver faces triple charges. Siderov himself was accused of having instigated his driver to hit the student.
On April 26, a prosecutor announced that detaining Ataka’s leader on April 27 was being considered over allegations that he lied to the authorities about the details of the road accident. Citing his colleague, chief prosecutor Boris Velchev stated he would consider demanding the revocation of Siderov’s parliamentary immunity a poorly veiled attempt to prevent Siderov from speaking at the rally.
In the meantime Sofia’s mayor, Boiko Borissov, who is in charge of implementing the above measures, revoked his permission for the protest rally to be held in front of the National Palace of Culture, where the NATO meeting is being held. Eventually people were allowed to protest, but at a safe, 2-km distance from the Palace so that the NATO foreign ministers would not hear the rally’s message.
Yet Thursday’s rally happened despite all preventive measures. Some six or seven thousand people managed to overcome the cordons and convened at a park several hundred meters from the freshly built U.S. embassy. Police numbered some 1,500, equipped with machine guns, dogs, gas masks, etc.
After three hours of speeches stating the American boot will never be welcome in Bulgaria, and appeals to the government to resign immediately, the rally marched to the U.S. embassy to deliver a declaration and a petition with 200,000 signatures against a U.S. military presence in Bulgaria. They were kept for an hour under the rain in front the fortress (it truly looks like a fortification of sorts). Then someone came from within and told them their petition cannot be received by the U.S. embassy.
Protests will continue until the U.S. mission receives the petition.