Can the power of memes reach Bulgaria’s apolitical youth?

Bulgaria’s youth are disengaged from the country’s politics. But as a new wave of protests sweep the country, could online memes and poster art reach a new generation of activists for the first time?

20 August 2020

Bulgarian politics has an age problem. Youth participation has plunged since 2013: in local elections in Sofia in 2019, just 11 per cent of under 30s made it to the polls. But if Bulgaria’s youth are disenfranchised, then they have good reason to be. The country has consistently ranked as the most corrupt EU state. It is currently placed 111th in the World Press Freedom Index. And if the system that governs you is rigged, then why would you want to participate in it?

But 2020 has marked a change. Demonstrations are ongoing on the streets of Sofia, protesting against corruption and cronyism. Bulgaria’s youth have found a new way to communicate and to express their discontent: memes.

A poster superimposing the head of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov over an image of popstar Drake. The top text reads, "Resigning", the bottom reads, "Reopening nightclubs [amid the Covid-19 pandemic]"

Memes are, in their very essence, distilled, bite-sized chunks of culture.They are as powerful as they are entertaining, partly due to their snappy distribution on social media. They can bypass the country’s more traditional media outlets — largely owned and controlled by Bulgarian oligarch and politician Delyan Peevski — and avoid politically convenient censorship.

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It is no surprise that the footage which sparked the protests in early July — when Democratic Bulgaria leader Hristo Ivanov unfurled a Bulgarian flag on a piece of supposedly public land, which had instead been taken over by oligarch Ahmed Dogan — he did it all on Facebook Live. The video was distributed instantaneously, and three hours later, protesters were already gathering at Independence Square.

But practicalities aside, memes have also made headway in Bulgaria because they are so outlandish and tongue-in-cheek. They are the perfect way of making sense of a country where a nonsensical system reigns. Politics in Bulgaria are complex and convoluted, riddled with oligarchs and companies with dubious ownership and funding sources, all which contributes to the young people’s disengagement with politics. Memes and satire showcase and crystallise this absurdity in one place. Exaggerated for comic effect, it still leaves people to ask: “Is this the country I want to live in?”

A poster for Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite, superimposed with the faces of different Bulgarian politicians. The added images of a drone and stacks of cash in the poster's foreground are also references to a recent corruption scandal.

In particular, clumsy gaffes by Bulgarian politicians have carved a special place in local pop culture — perfect for immortalising in memes. They have spread to a point where young people who do not care about politics per se are aware of a minister’s latest slip-up. These online jokes provide an easy access point for Gen Z who may not have engaged with politics before. From there, it is easy to slip from one meme to another, opening a world of political awareness. Many of these memes now appear on placards at protests.

“The jokes on the posters intrigue people; there is originality and provocation, which makes people think,” says Nelly Afzaly, the creator of one of the satirical posters. “The poster I made is a compilation of many gaffes and if there are people who don’t get some of the jokes, I think they’d dig into it in order to get the reference. It can get people interested and more informed about Bulgarian politics.”

Two posters styled as cigarette packets. The right poster plays on the brand name Malboro to write, "Get out [Prime Minister] Borissov". The warning reads, "His power kills".

Creators like Afzaly are more than happy to fill the demand for more political jokes, memes, and art. The instant gratification of social media and the ease of distribution has also led to constant competition between creatives. This in turn creates a domino effect, as poster artists strive to “outperform” themselves and others. Amid a political system that seems staid and often impossible to change, this constant dynamism is keeping interest alive and fresh, even as protests rumble into their second month.

Of course, it’s shallow to think that young people go to protests only so they can look at protest art. Ultimately, memes will not be the reason for young Bulgarians to take to the streets, but they have surely done a great deal to start that process. The greatest challenge now, however, is to keep momentum. Memes and protest art have perhaps mobilised Bulgarian youth’s engagement, but they cannot be responsible for keeping it. And losing another generation to disillusionment is sure to be a disaster for Bulgarian democracy.

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