“The role of the young and active people is to create the future of the country. Enough with the one that our grandparents created! We need many changes and we want them now.” Alexandra Nikolova is a 20-something Bulgarian, co-founder of Bulgarian startup Eventyard. She and her team are currently split between Sofia and London, but that doesn’t stop them from being among the many, protesting against the country’s current government and in favour of reforms.
Let me make this clear: This is not going to be a political analysis. If you’re interested in one, you can gohere, here, or here. We, at inventures.eu, have made it our goal to talk about the people in startups, about entrepreneurs and their motivations to do what they do. So we figured taking a current development from one of our focus countries was a good occasion to hear their voices outside of our regular news and profile stream.
Will you #ДАНСwithme?
First things first – you still need the background.
It was 14 June when the newly elected government, a coalition comprising the Socialist and the ethnic Turkish party, made the first of a series of controversial appointments, naming a media mogul as the country’s Chief of National Security. Within the same day, thousands of Bulgarians responded to the decision (which was later withdrawn) by taking to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. Social media, as their main tool for communication, soon emerged with a new trending hashtag: #ДАНСwithme, a pun in itself. ДАНС (or DANS) is the cyrillic abbreviation for the State Agency for National Security, which, in turn, sounds like “Dance” in English.
If this one appointment was only the trigger, the protests since turned into a daily routine against the government and its practices in general – the most recent controversy sparked from its decision to revise the 2013 state budget, requiring a BGN 1-billion loan. (The veto by the president was later overturned by parliament). #оставка (resignation) has therefore been gaining prominence as well – for over two months. 17 August was Day 65 of the demonstrations.
Note: The current government came to power after a disappointing 53% of Bulgarians went to the polls to cast their vote in early elections in mid-May. The early elections, in turn, followed the previous centre-right government’s resignation in February.
Young, working, and driven
Photo credit: Flickr, Sabina Panayotova, http://www.flickr.com/photos/saaabina/9187354736“Most of my friends and the young active people I know are protesting every day,” says Alexandra, referring to the peaceful blockade of the Parliament and the area around the National Assembly. And that’s how it’s supposed to be, she believes, as the young, who work and create business in the country will be the ones to drive the economy in the months, years, and decades to come. “The most active people here [in the protests] are either mainly self-employed or quite [professionally] experienced people, who know how to change the environment around them,” she says.
Co-founder of Sofia- and California-based startup Vertigo, Deyan Vitanov, shares a similar view. “What these protests are showing is that there are many young people out there, who are socially involved, have demands and are willing to express them,” he tells inventures.eu. Originally Bulgarian, Deyan moved to the US for his MBA about seven years ago, and in order “to learn how business is done in Silicon Valley.”
Bozhidar Iliev, co-founder of Bulgarian startup MaistorPlus, adds that apart from being “socially involved”, the protesters also “know what they want.” “The past 60+ days have really made people think about what is good and what is needed,” he says. Personally, he expresses his disagreement with the government’s corrupt practices and its “hard-to-explain and absurd” appointments.
Bozhidar’s physical presence at the demonstrations, though, is not always one to count on. “I’ve been to the protests several times, but I’m not among those who go there every day.” His tight work schedule is what keeps him busy, hesays.
If you’re not into ‘dancing’, then #workwithme?
But even for those with busy schedules there was a way to protest and work at the same time. Or pro-work. betahaus, one of the local coworking spaces, launched a joint initiative together with others from the Sofia startup scene where for about two weeks straight, they set up their own work camp in front of the Parliament, and encouraged professionals to relocate their operations.
“The goal of #workwithme was to bring together all those young and working individuals who wanted to show that you don’t need to be hungry or out of a job to be in the streets and protest,” Angel Spasov, curator at betahaus, tells inventures.eu. Since the beginning of the demonstrations, the government has been trying to spread the idea that the protesters are not working professionals and therefore not in a position to make educated statements. On some days, there were up to 40 people working outside, which to Spasov is a sign of a strong civil society. “I firmly believe in the social potential of the startup community – and not only in their professional and financial contributions.” The fact that people from different professional backgrounds come together over the same cause creates a certain bond, he says.
Life after the protests
It’s quite safe to say that this moment hasn’t come yet. If you ask Alexandra, she would probably tell you it’s because the government is still in power. “We’re protesting to take the government down,” she says on behalf of her team. “People are changing and it is something we need to do now. Not earlier, not later. Now.”
Both Deyan and Bozhidar are of the opinion that the most effective way to (try and) settle things is by setting a date for new elections.
“I believe in elections as a means to democracy,” says Deyan. Yes, society should be there to exercise pressure when it comes to “controversial, verging on absurd decisions”, but this should be relatively rare. “I’m against protesting for the sake of protesting,” he says, as he voices his concern that the demonstrations are supposed to lead to changes, and such do not appear to be in sight. “I can only hope for alternatives to emerge some time soon.”
In the long run, prolonged political instability naturally increases the chances of a negative impact on the business climate in the country, and although Bozhidar understands the odds, he does not seem concerned, especially in regard to the startup scene. “The startup scene is one of the most progressive ones at the moment, with the fast developments in the IT sector.”
The protest badges on Alexandra’s bag Photo credit: Alexandra NikolovaOn that note, Alexandra and Eventyard’s philosophy seems to fit quitewell. “Our idea is to keep our startup Bulgarian, so we can contribute to the business and startup community,” she says. “Of course, living abroad for a while is a very important thing to do. There are so many good practices and ideas you can get and apply in Bulgaria.”
At the end of the day, though, whether in London or Sofia, the team seems to preserve their bond to their homeland. “We do what we can,” Alexandra says. “Our team members in Sofia attend the demonstrations; I, on the other hand, haven’t taken off my protest badges from my bag, so everyone in the London tube can see them and wonder.”