Published March 14, 2013
SOFIA, Bulgaria – Disgusted by corruption in his provincial hometown, a 36-year-old Bulgarian quietly doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze. This week, another man — the fourth in less than a month — carried out the same act of desperation in front of the presidential headquarters in the capital.
The dramatic self-immolations, three of which were fatal, bear a striking resemblance to events half a century ago in Eastern Europe when mostly young intellectuals rebelled against Soviet communist rule by setting themselves on fire, demanding freedom and democracy.
A quarter century after the fall of communism in Bulgaria, dreams of prosperity have turned sour in the Balkan country, which is the poorest in the European Union. One in five Bulgarians lives below the poverty line, unemployment is at record levels, incomes are half the European average and bribe-taking, sleaze and a woefully inadequate justice system are part of daily life.
Plamen Goranov, the 36-year-old man protesting against graft in his hometown of Varna, died after pouring gasoline and setting himself on fire in front of a public building on Feb. 20. The harrowing act was captured by security cameras while he stood alone. He became known as the "Bulgarian Jan Palach," after the Czech student who set himself ablaze in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation of then Czechoslovakia.
Despite appeals by Bulgaria's influential Orthodox Church against such desperate actions, two other Bulgarian protesters, one of them a father of five children, followed Goranov's steps, publicly set themselves on fire.
On Wednesday, another man, Dimitar Dimitrov, did the same in front of the presidency in the capital, Sofia. Relatives of the 51-year-old blacksmith, who was in critical condition, said that he had been left without an income after losing his job two years ago.
Security guards at the entrance of the building said they saw him sitting for some time next to a nearby fountain when he suddenly pulled a bottle with gasoline, dousing it over his head and striking a match. They rushed to save him by extinguishing the fire, but he sustained burns over 25 percent of his body and respiratory problems from poisonous gases.
"When you are unable to control the simplest things in your life, like buying food for the family or paying utility bills while the monopolies demand more and more, it is only normal to feel betrayed, left behind helplessly," columnist Mila Avramova wrote in the Trud newspaper. "Then you see the fire as the only way to be heard."
Self-immolation has been practiced through centuries for various reasons, especially in southeast Asia, including as political protest, devotion and renouncement. About 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past four years to protest Chinese rule, sometimes drinking kerosene to make the flames explode from within, in one of the biggest waves of political self-immolations in recent history.
Self-immolations historically are a powerful form of protest, including that of Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in 2010 that sparked the Arab Spring.
The current wave of nationwide protests that has gripped Bulgaria was sparked by rising electricity bills, but gradually grew into public outrage against government corruption and the influence of organized crime on different levels of society. The protests already brought down the country's center-right government as punishment for its inability to fight poverty and injustice.
Although self-immolations are not typical for Bulgaria, experts say they could build an example for possible followers.
Psychologist Dimitar Gronev warned that they could turn into a "social contagion."
"Self-immolation is an act that calls for social response," psychologist Margarita Bakracheva said. "It is not the result of a personal drama, but rather a decision prompted by hopelessness."
One of the strongest examples of personal rebellion against a dictatorship was the self-immolation of Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 on Wenceslas Square in central Prague to protest the Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms — an act that at the time resonated through much of the Communist world.
Inspired by Palach's act, three other Czechs followed his example, as well as opponents of the invasion in Poland and Hungary.
Palach "died because he wanted to shout in the loudest way," said a document signed by late Czech President Vaclav Havel.
During communism, Bulgaria was the most loyal ally of the Soviet Union. All attempts of dissent were suppressed at an early stage by the regime and the story of Palach remained a secret for most Bulgarians until the collapse of the regime in 1989.
AP journalists Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, Darko Bandic in Zagreb, Croatia, and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.