Plamen Goranov – Martyr Of the ‘Bulgarian Spring’

In Varna, a man set himself on fire in protest of the corporate giant TIM, alleged of mafia-esque takeovers of the city's firms

News | Margaret Childs, Kostadin Terzieh | April 2013

A memorial for Plamen Goranov at the site where he set himself on fire (Photo: Slav Nedelchev)

In a desperate act of protest against goverment austerity measures, 36-year-old Bulgarian Plamen Goranov set himself on fire in front of the City Hall in Varna. He is one of six self-immolators in Bulgaria in the course of just one month, the most recent being a 41-year-old man from the village of Sitovo, he remains in critical condition.

At 7:30 in the morning on 20 February, Plamen Goranov arrived carrying a poster calling for the resignation of Mayor Kiril Iordanov and "all members of the local council" by 17:00, municipal workers told the local media. Shortly thereafter, his body was in flames.

Iordanov, the allegedly corrupt mayor of the seaside city, is suspected of murky dealings with the Bulgarian business group TIM, the subject of a Wikileaks cable from former American Ambassador James Pardew to U.S. officials. The cable, headlined "TIM – the New Leader in Bulgarian OC [organised crime]", stated that the conglomerate controlled the city through the former mayor.

Despite Iordanov’s denials, Rossen Plevneliev, then the minister of regional development and now the country’s president, told the press that the city had authorised building on the protected area called "Aleia purva" in Varna’s sea garden area – essentially selling municipal property to Varna Holding, a firm close to TIM.

Eyewitnesses of Plamen Goranov’s self-immolation recall security guards exchanging verbal insults with the protester, who then poured three litres of gasoline over his own head. As his clothes began to burn, he was still shouting. People tried to douse the flames with fire extinguishers, but it was too late. After suffering burns over 80 per cent of his body and severe lung damage, Plamen Goranov fell into a coma; two weeks later, he died of organ failure on 3 March, Bulgaria’s national holiday.

The prologue

The build-up of tensions began with mass protests in mid-January against the energy companies Czech CEZ, Austrian EVN and Energy Pro electricity suppliers in Bulgaria, sparked by high utility bills. The protests grew, with demands for an end to corruption and the resignation of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov.

On 17 February in Varna, Goranov addressed some 30,000 protesters, pointing a finger at those he saw as the real causes of their misery, the corporate mafia-like "octopus" known as TIM.

Three days later Borisov resigned after protesters were injured by police at Sofia’s famous "Orlov Most", the site of a 1997 rebellion. Under pressure from Goranov’s supporters, Mayor Iordanov resigned on 6 March after more than 10 years in office. On 7 March, Bulgaria was denied accession to the Schengen Area. On 14 March, the Parliament was dissolved.

"People feel they have no way out," said German investigative journalist Jürgen Roth in an email, a reporter whose 2008 book The New Bulgarian Demons has exposed the inner workings of the country’s recent past. At the time of writing, eight further suicides had been reported in Bulgaria. Roth holds the EU in part responsible, through its "neo-liberal" austerity politics. Refusing to act against the "catastrophic" social conditions in Bulgaria, the West, he says, has in effect fed the conditions that led to Goranov’s suicide. "Bulgaria has lost faith in democracy," Roth said.

Goranov’s act may have a limited effect on Bulgaria’s politics, however, says Bulgarian journalist Ivo Indjev, predicting instead that TIM will simply become more careful to cover their tracks, and pressures on the media from mafia "omerta" will grow.

A TIM effort

Bulgarian for "team", TIM is also an acronym for the first names of company founders Tihomir Mitev, Ivo Kamenov and Marin Mitev, a conglomerate that in 2003 included over 150 companies and over 10,000 employees. Among TIM’s biggest assets are the Bulgarian Central Cooperative Bank, Bulgaria Air and Chimimport which along with other companies add up to 5 per cent of Bulgaria’s GDP according to Marin Mitev.

"The group cooperates with European and German multinationals, such as Fraport AG in Frankfurt, Allianz Insurance, [European] banks and Lufthansa," Roth revealed. Wikileaks cables identify TIM as involved extortion and racketeering, intimidation, prostitution, gambling, narcotics trafficking and car theft.

TIM CEO Kamenov denied the accusations: "If you have any real proof, take legal action against me," he replied to Roth. "There isn’t a company of the group that was not checked by authorities in Bulgaria." He also resented the intense oversight. "I know how people live in the West and what happens in Bulgaria is a total violation of human rights by police and the tax office," he said. "They go through everything. For me that is Socialism."

A final act of desperation

Goranov’s suicide by fire was the final one in a series of protests. A year ago, he had draped the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship memorial with colourful hoods to protest against the imprisonment of Russia’s Pussy Riot. On 17 February Goranov told a friend he was pessimistic the rallies would have any substantial impact.

"I’d better set myself on fire," he said.

The last two posts on Goranov’s Facebook profile were, "We are sheep, and Kiro is our shepherd," and "We are going hunting for  Kiril Yordanov."

Friends were dismayed at insinuations of mental illness or drug use, and told that they saw his decision as a resolute rejection of the corruption and injustice that have permeated every aspect of social life in Bulgaria. His act, they say, recalls the words of Bulgaria’s martyred national hero Vassil Levski: "If I lose, I only lose myself. If I win, the whole nation wins."

In his honour, Plamen Goranov’s supporters are raising funds for a monument and hope to rename the site Ploshtad Plam, "Flame Square".

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