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
"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
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
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
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.
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.