Bold in tough times: Bulgarians organize for liberal democracy

After the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the introduction of pluralist political systems in the latter part of the 20e century, democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law seemed to have taken century, illiberal policies emerged and began their slow but steady progression throughout the region. In Bulgaria, as in much of central and eastern Europe, the last decade has seen a decline in liberal democracy. Media freedom is limited and media capture is at an advanced stage. In 2019, Bulgaria was ranked 111e (out of 180 countries) in media freedom by Reporters Without Borders. This is the lowest score of all European countries except Belarus and Russia.

In June 2019, the government, driven by a strong and anti-liberal citizen movement, withdrew a rights-based national child strategy. In July, the Constitutional Court, yielding to a vast campaign against “gender ideology”, noted that the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on domestic violence and gender-based violence was unconstitutional. In December, intimidated by the same kind of pressure, the government blocked the entry into force of a 2019 law on social services. It would have been contrary to “traditional family values” and would have enabled civil society organizations to participate in the provision of social services.

The tendency to close the space to pro-democracy civil society persists. Human rights NGOs are particularly affected, but now social service providers who are also considered “foreign agents” are under attack. In the fall of 2019, a Deputy Prime Minister called for the ban of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), the largest human rights organization in the country. He claimed that the organization “exerted direct and indirect pressure on Bulgarian magistrates and carried out unconstitutional, illegal, immoral and openly anti-Bulgarian activities”. More than 70 Bulgarian NGOs and 40 foreign and international NGOs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned attempts to ban the BHC.

Against this backdrop, there is a persistent need to rethink and reset rights activism. In Bulgaria, we decided that in order to counter the illiberal trend, it was necessary to reach out to large segments of the public, in a way which would make liberal values ​​more attractive. Leading rights groups have a duty to act as a catalyst for a broader liberal movement, as the current serial attacks on democracy undermine the very foundation of advocacy. This does not mean replacing established human rights work, but rather modernizing itself by mobilizing around a broader agenda for democracy.

By referring to abstract ideas of human rights and promoting democratic values ​​in a rational but expressively devoid of imagination, liberal leaders have lost heart and mind.

To this end, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee spear BOLD (Bulgarians Organizing For Liberal Democracy). This is an attempt to build a measurable, tangible and cohesive fan base through organizing both offline and online. We engaged activists, including youth leaders, to forge and test new communication strategies and improve the response to anti-liberal campaigns. As in many other countries, liberal democratic actors have lost communication battles against illiberal and authoritarian movements. Liberal intellectuals and rights activists have failed to match the much more effective, narrative, emotional, even visceral messages of their opponents. By referring to abstract ideas of human rights and promoting democratic values ​​in a rational but expressively devoid of imagination, liberal leaders have lost heart and mind. Forming BOLD as a club-like constituency to co-create new communication approaches and turn the tide is a small but interesting local experiment that has recently shown promising results.

For example, BOLD organized a public debate to address the question “Can the rights of the child conflict with the rights of their own family?” “. The event brought together seemingly incompatible political groups, including leaders of anti-liberal protest movements who had, over the previous 24 months, successfully blocked all rights-based laws and policies in the area of ​​gender equality. gender, children’s rights and family policy. Before that, the debate had been little more than shouting online. Now, rather than responding to attacks, BOLD speakers have chosen to confidently identify and highlight important common ground. For example, anti-liberal protesters opposed what they saw as intrusive state policies of removing children from their families and placing them in alternative protection, which violated family rights and values. traditional. BOLD speakers amply recognized the existing bad practices in alternative childcare and disarmed opponents by insisting that the best environment for child development and well-being is indeed the family. Then we found out that we had overlapping political demands directed at the government. In the end, remarkably enough, the two sides shook hands, planning the next steps.

In the end, remarkably enough, the two sides shook hands, planning the next steps.

BOLD has created an online membership platform as a tool to mobilize supporters, develop political positions and agree actions. BOLD members register on the platform with unique credentials, and membership is conditional upon referrals from at least two current members or an in-person meeting with existing members. This approach is based on the lessons learned that open online forums dominated by anonymous contributors and bots are counterproductive for the pro-democracy organization. They have often served as a vehicle for advancing hatred and intolerance.

We aim for a model of deliberative decision-making that resolves the tension between depth of discussion and group size, allowing large numbers of members to engage in depth, and advancing discussion through a number of turns leading to decisions. A moderator leads a discussion. All messages are visible to all, and through rounds of comments, a consensus is reached or, if necessary, a vote is organized on the points in dispute. We publish positions containing both consensual and non-consensual views in two distinct parts, rather than hiding from the public the range of opinions among generally like-minded members. Members can post opinions on the substance and the process. The aim is to ensure high quality democratic participation within the group.

Cyber ​​security is a high priority for BOLD as attempts have already been made to gain unauthorized access to its platform, despite the required double checking. It is likely that the bots reacting to the keywords also crossed the security barrier. From the start, we have also explored whether blockchain technologies have something to contribute to our initiative, both in terms of security and transparency, and the accountability of the moderators of each thematic discussion. We are still looking for a partner who could help us in this regard.

BOLD is still in its infancy. We experiment and learn as we develop organizational methodologies and choose actions to take. It is already clear, however, that a strong commitment to a truly deliberative democracy in decision-making, and a willingness to be open-minded and creative in disarming illiberal attacks, will both remain key attributes. in the future.

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