Sideline Report

Author: Rayna Gavrilova

For Rayna Gavrilova, the Sofia demonstrations of early 09 raised questions about distribution of labor between formal civil society organization and informal groups (Photo: Yulia Lazarova/


16th January 2009

Last week I went out to protest. The protest was organized by students, environmentalist, mothers, and farmers. All of them had different reasons to be angry with the state. I was angry that our government failed us yet again, by proving to be the only European government totally dependent for natural gaz supplies on one country: Russia. Probably James Chowning Davies quoted in a Transitions Online article  [1]  was right: we have started believing, naively, that we live in normal democratic states where the interest of citizens and market rules frame our governments.

And when we are betrayed we become very angry. I stayed at the sidelines: supporting fully the requests of the environmentalists, harboring sympathy for the students with no clue what the mothers and farmers wanted.

The protest turned ugly because extremists usurped it. There were claims that some of them were paid to do so. Some participants in past protests declared the meeting a failure because it didn’t have clear objectives. True. The organizers claimed that they were not political. I strongly disagreed - of course they were political, just not partisan. By claiming being non-political you leave all the important stuff to the politicians that everybody hates. The level of organization was mediocre.  I didn’t see many registered civil society organizations helping the organizers: they have other strategies how to work for the public good. The trade unions sneered. The official student organizations withdrew the morning of the protest - God knew why.

National protest in front of the Bulgarian Parliament, January 2009. By Krasimir Yuskeseliev/

Last week I also read a text by a Bulgarian sociologist, commenting on national data from a major representative survey of European values. He had entitled his text “A-Sociality”. He saw in the responses no appreciation, readiness, motivation and practice of anything collective, outside of the family - the No. 1 value for Bulgarians. Zero solidarity, zero participation, zero trust. He saw no society and stated the obvious: if there is no society there could be no civil society.

And then staying at the sidelines of the protest and in front of my computer (before and after) I saw civil society’s new avatar: Civil Society 2.0. Out of the 3000 protesters at the Parliament Square 2000 had arrived when mobilized through a Facebook group. The mothers came mobilized by BGMama, the biggest internet forum of young mothers (and also older mothers, women in general, and effectively, anyone who cares).

Yesterday the protesters were out there again but in much smaller numbers - 500, may be. This time I knew where the big NGOs were: they had formed a coalition, prepared a document and convinced all the parties in the Parliament (both ruling and opposition) to sign a join declaration blaming the practice of buying votes and endorsing specific reforms of the election law. TI, OSI, the Center for Liberal Strategies, the Institute for Market Economy among others were pressing the establishment from the other side - and exactly at the same time. Are we witnessing a new stage in the life of civil society, entailing this time a division of labor?
Labor is rarely aesthetic, regular efforts are needed to prevent it from turning ugly. Such coveted spontaneous activism needs spearheads - how and from where? What will be the relationship between the intelligent, motivated, persistent, professional NGOs and the angry activists? Something is brewing in Riga, Vilnius and Reykjavik. Greek farmers are blocking the border[2]. Is this civic activism? There are clearly many questions - join us in search of some answers!

Rayna Gavrilova is Executive Director of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, based at the Sofia office.
Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.


Comments by readers

Posted by: A reader from CEE

On: Friday, January 30 2009 @ 05:05PM

The text is an important call to re-think our politics. "Something is brewing," as the author writes, all across CEE and Europe at large. It is my hope that the new wave of protest will bring change for a just society. Here is a role for civil society, Civil Society O.2, as Rayna calls it.

Posted by: Dotcho

On: Monday, February 09 2009 @ 04:37PM

Yes, Raina that is all true, and it is true since early 90-ies when we all started this consultancy business… And if you start supporting these young people you will make out of them another NGO, another consultancy business, another group of cooperative and constructive “partners” of the Government. That is why I keep on repeating that one of the few remaining alternatives is beyond the “institutional NGO paradigm”; look for it in the instruments of direct democracy; something which the NGO elite still sees as a populist and unrealistic agenda . . .

Posted by: Nikolai Nikolov

On: Friday, February 13 2009 @ 09:15AM

Bulgarians are prague to die of hunger, diseases and psychiatric zabolyazhaniya.Mnogo thievish to tolerate this government, people in small towns are living dead. If you have bread tomorrow today do not know if I have .. Unemployment is growing every day


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