Plamen, a popular name for Bulgarian boys, comes from the proto-Slavic noun polmen, meaning ‘flame’ or ‘blaze’. At 7.30 a.m. on 20 February a 36-year-old artist called Plamen Goranov left his home in the Black Sea port of Varna and walked to the City Hall. He climbed the steps that led to the entrance of the imposing Soviet-era building, which is set in the middle of a park. An armed guard asked him: ‘What are you doing?’ He told the guard he was going to set himself on fire. From his backpack he took out a sign demanding the resignation of ‘Kiro and all the city council by 5 p.m.’; ‘Kiro’ is the nickname of Varna’s mayor, Kiril Yordanov, a former judge who is widely believed to be involved with TIM, a holding company that the former US ambassador James Pardew, in a 2005 diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, accused of involvement in racketeering, drug smuggling and prostitution. After propping up his sign, Goranov took a large canvas sheet out of his backpack, as well as ten-litre and five-litre bottles of petrol. As he was doing this, the guards insulted him, and he responded in kind. After laying the canvas sheet on the ground, Goranov tipped the smaller bottle over his head, flicked open a lighter, and his body lit up in flames. The guards didn’t help him – they went inside to get fire extinguishers – and by the time they returned, about ten minutes later, Goranov had collapsed and rolled down the stairs. He died 11 days later.
After his death, Yordanov resigned, as did the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov, after massive protests denouncing his government’s corruption were met by police attacks on demonstrators. When Plamen Oresharski, of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was elected to replace Borisov in May, he quickly squandered whatever trust the electorate might have put in him by appointing Delyan Peevski, a 32-year-old media magnate, as head of the State Agency for National Security. Peevski, according to the New York Times, ‘helps run his mother’s media empire, which includes roughly 40 per cent of the print market in Bulgaria, the biggest printing press in the country, the fourth largest television broadcaster’ and a large newspaper distribution company. He is also rumoured to have ties to organised crime. His appointment was announced on 14 June and within hours ten thousand people had arrived at Parliament to protest. The demonstration succeeded in forcing Peevski not to take up his new job, so the protesters upped their demands: now they wanted Oresharski to resign. When I visited Sofia at the end of June, several thousand people were still marching through the city centre every night, calling for the prime minister to quit. One Monday I saw protesters in front of parliament throwing rotten tomatoes and chanting ‘Red garbage!’
What the opposition wants is unclear. As is the case in Brazil, Egypt and Tunisia, the demonstrators essentially want a bouleversement of their country’s politics. They’re frustrated by corruption and a lack of transparency in government; limited opportunities for political engagement; soaring electricity costs; a GDP near the lowest in Europe; a brain drain of the country’s brightest young people to universities in Britain and Germany. But the opposition – which doesn’t have a leader or a political party with any level of popular support – isn’t calling for anything beyond the resignation of certain officials. It continues to organise demonstrations every night. Fascist elements grouped around the far-right party Ataka, which has 23 seats in parliament, have joined in and adopted a populist rhetoric of ‘redistribution’ and ‘social security’, grafting hyper-nationalism onto a movement whose main concerns had been transparency and inclusion.
The closest thing the opposition has to a figurehead is Goranov. I met Radostina Petrova, who collaborated with Goranov on photography projects, at the bottom of the steps where he killed himself. A protest was snaking its way around the building, and a pile of stones stood as a monument to the artist’s death, inspired by Ivan Vazov’s poem ‘Gramada’, in which a town’s residents protest against their mayor’s collaboration with the Ottoman occupiers by throwing stones at his house until he flees. ‘Plamen was a hero,’ Petrova told me, ‘and we are a country that doesn’t have very many heroes.’
Yet Goranov’s legacy has been a dubious one. In the past six months at least nine other people have set themselves on fire. Only Tibet and China have higher figures. ‘Plamen was a light showing us a way forward,’ Dimitar Dimitrov, who survived his own self-immolation attempt on 13 March, told me when I visited him at his wife’s cabin in the rural region of Silistra, where he is convalescing. ‘The thing that surprised me most was that the pain hit me instantly,’ Dimitrov said, remembering the day when he walked to Sofia’s presidential building with a bottle of petrol, poured it over his head and struck a match. He did it, he says, because he ‘couldn’t possibly see a way forward for Bulgaria’. Unlike Goranov, he was rescued by security officials who quickly came to his aid. ‘I told them to leave me alone and let me die,’ he said. ‘I wanted to be the light at the end of the tunnel.’
Bulgaria lacks a tradition of opposition or of civic responsibility: its democracy, to the extent it has one, is barely twenty years old; under 50 per cent of people vote; nostalgia for communism is high. Suicide by fire has become one of the few political acts in the country that has some legitimacy. But without a political programme or collective vision such protest risks celebrating the despair it’s intended to counter. ‘Bulgaria is the oldest nation in Europe – we’ve been around for 1300 years,’ Hinko Hincov, the psychiatrist in charge of Bulgaria’s new self-immolation prevention programme, said to me. ‘Maybe it’s time for us to disappear.’
‘Our actions – those of us who burn – have done more than all of the protesters combined,’ Dimitrov claimed. It was noon, he was getting drunk on home-brewed rakia, and insisted we toast the future of Bulgaria. Another man, we’d heard, had just set himself on fire in the industrial city of Dimitrovgrad. But Dimitrov’s optimism didn’t last long. ‘I don’t think things will get better,’ he said. ‘We’re turning our rage on ourselves – at what point will we really make the politicians suffer?’