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Varied faces of Bulgaria's anti-corruption protests

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Sofia (AFP)

The anti-corruption protests that have been roiling in the streets of the Bulgarian capital Sofia for the past six weeks have united people from across the country and all walks of life.

The faces of the protesters are as diverse as the country itself and they all share one aim: forcing the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as a first step to cleaning up public life.

- The man who lit the fuse -

An inflatable boat had a starring role in sparking the wave of protests last month when Hristo Ivanov landed the craft on a beach on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast.

While the beach is ostensibly public, in reality access is controlled by a well-connected lawmaker, and a fracas soon played out between Ivanov and the politician's security.

The bearded, blue-shirted Ivanov says the incident was the final straw for many Bulgarians.

"Before people voted with their feet and left if they didn't see a future in Bulgaria," says Ivanov, who was himself a minister in a previous Borisov government before starting his own anti-corruption party.

Those who have had to return because of the pandemic "cannot tolerate the arrogant impunity of the 'untouchable' elite," he says in front of a protest camp between the presidency and government headquarters.

- The telegenic activist -

One of the faces Bulgarians have become most used to during the protests is telegenic 48-year-old lawyer Nikolay Hadjigenov, who can often be seen addressing demonstrators.

Frustrated with what he saw as the prevailing lethargy in Bulgaria, he and two friends became an activist trio who throw out suggestions for new protest actions.

The group has coordinated street blockades, traffic go-slows, even tomato-throwing at certain politicians -- anything to try to keep momentum going.

"We have lit a spark and for the first time civil society is emerging in Bulgaria," he tells AFP with a smile.

The trio also publicised a protest at the German embassy.

"EU funds are being syphoned off under their noses and they are pretending not to notice," he says, pointing out that Borisov's party belongs to the powerful centre-right European People's Party (EPP) grouping.

The EPP also counts German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as a member.

- The hacked-off mother -

Seeing news reports about oligarchs' luxury villas brought home to 50-year-old Vera Ivanova how wide the gulf was between their life and her own.

The mother of a 25-year-old disabled son, Vera has been in the streets demanding the removal of an elite she says has "stolen" her life.

The 420 leva (211 euros) that the two of them receive per month are "just enough to make ends meet", she sighs.

She says she can't afford the renovations to her house needed to accommodate her son, who has cerebral palsy.

"Mothers are hostages and don't have any choice but to leave work" in order to care for their children, says Ivanova, sporting a black T-shirt with the name of the NGO she co-founded with other mothers: "The System Is Killing Us."

The health and social care systems are in urgent need of reform and "corrupt to the core," she says.

- The determined businessman -

Georgi Georgiev, 47, is a small business owner from the country's north-west, the most deprived region of what is anyway the European Union's poorest country.

It is precisely those areas that are most in need of EU development funds, but many residents complain they never see the benefit of the cash.

Georgiev blames entrenched corruption.

"We have to get rid of this mafia and create a civil society which will be more vigilant towards the next leaders," he tells AFP on Sofia's iconic Eagles' Bridge, the focal point for many of the protests.

He has become part of a group of protesters who will brook no compromise with Borisov's government.

They comprise NGO workers, lawyers, IT experts and others who have created a space to exchange ideas which they compare to the famous Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park.

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