On January 12th, 2022, a violent demonstration over vaccine and mask mandates from the far-right led to an attempt on seizing the Parliament building in Sofia. As this rift between the far-right and mainstream politics continues to grow, the implications of polarization cannot be ignored.
As the COVID-19 pandemic calls for frequently changing policy decisions, a growing resentment amongst people tired of mask mandates continues to pose a threat to the Bulgarian Parliament. On January 12th, 2022, members of Bulgaria’s far-right party, the Vazrazhdane Party, translated in English to Revival Party, attempted to storm the parliament building as they protested COVID-19 restrictions. The growing rift between governmental policy and the wants of the far-right represent a very prominent threat to democratic stability despite the appearance of democratic institutions in Bulgaria.
At the end of 2021, Bulgaria remained the country with the lowest vaccination rates in the European Union. The raging COVID cases that plagued the world in the winter of 2021 and carried over into 2022 were exacerbated in Bulgaria by their low vaccination rates, causing an even greater sense of polarization and detest for mask enforcement. Amongst the European Union, Bulgaria has the highest COVID-19 death rate. Despite all of these reasons to be alarmed regarding the pandemic in Bulgaria, the Vazrazhdane Party refuses to accept the legitimacy of COVID, believing it to be a government hoax. The Vazrazhdane Party also refuses to acknowledge Bulgaria’s participation in NATO (the North Atlantic Trade Organization) and the European Union. They have been associated with Russian and Kremlin sympathizers, making them skeptical of any Western organization that attempts to hold stake in Bulgaria.
The protest originally started as a way to convey frustrations with the green certificate, which acts as a global vaccine passport within the European Union. Due to the far-right ideology the party subscribes to, they find the green certificate to be unconstitutional. The protest escalated into a riot when demonstrators began to move towards Parliament, fighting police officers stationed there to get closer and potentially inside the building. Many officers were injured as the mob approached the Parliament building, with no signs of halting until entry.
Heightened polarization within a country calls for concern as this tends to be a sign of democratic backsliding, otherwise known as the gradual deterioration of democratic practices within a country. The increasing irritation of citizens in Bulgaria with the government’s policies regarding mask-wearing has put polarization at a dangerously high level. While some might claim that this only represents an expression of personal freedoms, a protest with this level of violence and hatred towards Parliament demonstrates a dangerous us vs. them mentality. Polarization becomes a political weapon when it makes it so that each party believes the other is a threat to their countries prosperity.
The strong refusal to follow mask and vaccine mandates from the far-right in Bulgaria may seem like a new problem, but this partisanship actually reveals deep cleavages in society that were present long before COVID-19 tore through Bulgaria. Polarization does not stem from one event, but rather shows a long history of pent up resentments and feelings. In this case, it seems as if the far-right party is sick of government intervention in day-to-day matters, including the presence of NATO and the European Union in Bulgaria’s government.
The January 12th protest-turned-riot symbolizes the increasing anger felt amongst the far-right in Bulgaria, as they are unafraid of using violence to express their frustrations with the government’s mask and vaccine mandates. This goes beyond a reasonable expression of personal freedoms or speech, and demonstrates to the world that the polarized people of Bulgaria could pose a threat to the democratic stability of the country. This protest eerily echoes the occurrences of the insurrection in the United States, with American far-right citizens willing to storm the capital with weapons in order to convey their disapproval of the presidential election results.
In Bulgaria, the United States, and many democratic countries alike, great rifts between political parties and ideological groups threaten to undermine democracy. While this protest may have not resulted in the Bulgarian Parliament being taken over by the Revival Party, it is a strong sign that Bulgarian politics are moving in the wrong direction. When you have a faction of people so willing to defend their political views that they resort to violence and terrorizing the state, you reveal a strong underlying rift between people that runs too perhaps too deep to solve.
The violent demonstrations in Bulgaria against vaccine and mask mandates do not show that Bulgaria safeguards the freedom of speech or assembly, but rather illustrate the widening divide between the far-right and mainstream politics. With great polarization comes gradual democratic backsliding. While Bulgaria might not see their democracy collapse overnight, defenders of democracy should be worried about what the future of Bulgarian politics may hold.