By Dr. Philip Dandolov*
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic that brought daily life throughout the world to a grinding halt has inevitably seen a rise in a multitude of conspiracy theories in certain circles. Bulgaria has been no exception: in fact, surveys suggest that conspiratorial thinking pertaining to the origins of and the long-term social and political impacts of the pandemic may be more pervasive and deeply entrenched there than in many other European countries. In a Trend Poll covering the period between 1 and 7 June 2020 that saw 1,008 adult Bulgarians interviewed and is considered representative of the nation as a whole, 43% of the respondents expressed the viewpoint that the coronavirus had been created artificially, so that the pharmaceutical companies could acquire additional profits. Close to 25% of the interviewees agreed with the sentiment that the coronavirus does not actually exist and is an example of a successful hoax. One out of ten citizens saw a connection between the spread of the coronavirus and 5G technology, with university-educated people more likely to subscribe to this theory. The anti-vaccine rhetoric, touching upon Bill Gates’ purported desire to engage in ‘population control,’ also saw its fair share of proponents.
While on the surface this skepticism regarding the medical aspects of the pandemic could be seen as an indication that the government has done a commendable job in terms of not letting the coronavirus crisis spiral out of control and become an ever-present part of ordinary life of Bulgarians, it is also reflective of a serious crisis of trust in the elites. Bulgaria is one of the countries where support for government institutions is traditionally low – as a rule the institutions of the European Union are considered more trustworthy than national ones. Keeping in mind that the EU’s actual handling of the coronavirus crisis has been the subject of a multitude of criticisms, it follows intuitively that national-level agencies would be appraised as even less likely to pass the coronavirus test with flying colours. The general reservations concerning the political institutions in Bulgaria as a whole, coupled with a number of social and political scandals involving the current Borisov government in the months of January and February 2020, have only added fuel to the perception that COVID-19 is from a governmental standpoint a more-than-welcome distraction from reputation-shattering political mishaps. Furthermore, the claims of the Bulgarians who were opposed to the lockdown that the health risks аre exaggerated may stem from their belief that the government’s true worry is that the coronavirus pandemic may bring to light unresolved issues in the health care system, such as the lack of medical equipment and understaffing in Bulgarian hospitals, especially in those outside of the major cities.
Disappointments surrounding the political processes in the post-1989 democratic transition in Bulgaria notwithstanding, the country’s turbulent history that has since 1396 seen it enjoy less than 100 years of true independence has fostered a mentality that is inherently suspicious of the power of elites. Journalist Toni Nikolov has characterized Bulgaria as exhibiting elements of an étatist model of government due to the perception that the state is not a benevolent protector, but a meddlesome manager who does his best to frequently overstep certain boundaries. Thus, in a climate around the world that is ripe for the spreading of general misinformation about the coronavirus, for quite a few regular citizens it is inordinately difficult to see the Bulgarian government as bucking the trend and donning the mantle of a credible source of advice and policy guidance.
In a somewhat unusual twist, after the phasing out of most of the restrictions in May and June, some of the supporters of the government’s approach during the first two months of the pandemic actually moved closer to the conspiratorial camp. They began expressing concerns that the government has become overly permissive by opening malls and permitting the holding of sports events in front of spectators (albeit at a limited stadium capacity). There have been allegations that on certain days the medical professionals may deliberately be doing less testing, purportedly under the instructions of the authorities. The lax approach is attributable to the latter’s supposed reluctance to impose a new tightening of restrictions in case the number of people testing positive per day reaches 100. This actually happened on 10 June when 104 newly infected Bulgarian citizens were recorded; on 16 June when the number reached 112; and on 18 June when 132 people were identified as having COVID-19. The lobby behind the tourist industry, which is among the economic sectors worst affected by the pandemic, is believed to have the necessary pull to pressure the government to paint a more rosy picture of the health situation than the one that corresponds to reality. This need to reassure foreigners is paramount when it comes to Bulgaria, especially given that the country is already believed to be punching below its weight compared to other Eastern European states when it comes to its nation-branding ability.
One of the logical questions, given the conspiratorial leanings among a substantial number of Bulgarians and the unwillingness to give the government the benefit of the doubt, is why protest actions have been rather low-key during and after the months of national emergency. For instance, the protest movements have been largely particized, being mostly linked to the “Vazrazhdane” faction, which is on the political fringe, and seen a turnout in the low hundreds.
One possible explanatory factor is the sense of national solidarity engendered by the crisis and the unwillingness of those opposed to what they deem as a “coronavirus hysteria” to impose their vision of what they deem right on the other members of society. However, another reason is perhaps to be found in the Bulgarians’ experience with recent political protests. While the protest culture in Bulgaria is still regarded as relatively undeveloped in comparison to neighboring countries such as Greece, demonstrations for political causes have become more common since the late 2000s. However, the two most recent mass demonstrations produced mixed results at best. The February 2013 protests against high electricity bills that eventually evolved into a campaign of civil disobedience against the first Borisov government resulted in the latter’s resignation, but did not significantly reduce the support for the GERB party (which received the most votes in the subsequent snap election, though it was unable to form a government). As for the 2013/2014 protests against the Oresharski government that began in May 2013, they were arguably ineffective in their explicit aims, as the government lost its grip on power only when the internal coalition dynamics between the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms saw a significant change. Interestingly enough, conspiracy theories surrounding the motivations of the protesters were also a feature of the media and political landscape over the course of both protest campaigns.
Even if Bulgaria manages to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 and is able to embark upon a path of quick recovery from the economic downturn caused by the health crisis, it is not very likely that Bulgarians’ trust in established elites will noticeably increase. It will probably take a sustained success in the handling of multiple all-embracing issues for the Bulgarian state to see its image undergo a major transformation in the eyes of the general public.
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