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How eco issues are exposing Bulgaria’s freefall

Bulgaria
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Toxic spills in the Black Sea, over construction and a looming water crisis: Bulgaria’s ecological problems are piling up just as EU funds aimed at addressing them continue to flow in. It’s a deepening crisis that could be interpreted as a “litmus test” on how the current political elite is (not) taking the seriousness of the country’s situation. The government’s explanations, and its actions, are questionable, while suspicious ties between the central authorities, municipalities and the oligarchy are brought into broad light and paint the image of a never-ending cycle.

It’s not odd to focus on the eco and infrastructural side of things as sometimes they have a seismic effect - after all, the first cracks of the Communist regime in Bulgaria started with unprecedented mass civil eco protests by concerned mothers in the Danube town of Ruse, who in 1988 rose against the Chlorine pollution coming from a factory in Giurgiu, Romania.

“Smells like lies”

The most recent example of questionable moves and explanations has been a broken sewage pipeline in Varna, Bulgaria’s biggest town on the Black Sea coast. The 3 km pipeline broke in August 2019, and yet the authorities failed to act quickly, which is suggesting that there are darker schemes at work here:  in the space of a year (!)3 million cubic meters of highly toxic fecal water spilled into the Varna lake, which is connected to the Gulf of Varna, on the Black Sea.

The incident was not known by the public until May 2020 and this raised concerns over a major manipulation of the facts about the accident.

According to scarce statements by mayor Ivan Portnih, a member of the GERB ruling party and in office since 2015, the situation is now under control.

However, by the end of January it became known that a new crack in the pipeline caused a toxic spill in the lake. According to Dnevnik.bg and investigations by local correspondent Spas Spasov, often calling Varna “the overtaken city”, the new spill was known to the local “Water and Sanitation” administration as early as January 15 but it was reported to the public by the municipality on January 25. Ivan Portnih, born in a Russian-Bulgarian family in 1976, in high managerial positions in the hotel industry already in his early 20’s, is yet to address the most recent spill.

That most recent spill is occurring just three months after 1,3 million leva (664,384 euro) were spent over reconstructing the pipeline. The municipality is so far delaying another reconstruction of the pipeline and is not answering further questions over the matter, only clarifying that improvements will be made within 30 days after the incident.

The pipeline was built for 5 million euro between 2009 – 2011 by the private company “Hidrostroy”, which has realized over 250 projects since its inception in 1996. That includes the renewal of the road and street network of Varna, for which 250 million leva (127,759 million euro) were invested. Since the early 2010’s one of the company’s managers is ruling party GERB member and town councilor Nickolay Pashov - this has been a subject of critical comments on internal influences between the municipality and the company, which in turn has given “Hidrostroy” a monopoly in the town. The poor state of Varna’s infrastructure despite the renovations has caused protests by local citizens.

The event is also a potential health issue for the 27,000 people who live near the lake. The Black Sea coastal town of Varna, a major tourist spot in the summer, has a population of over 335,000. According to the Regional Health Inspectorate, there are no reasons for worries and the quality of the waters is good. On February 1, the current Minister of Ecology and Waters Emil Dimitrov, initially critical about the attitude of Varna’s authorities, stated that the issue is fixed.

“We went there, it doesn't smell like feces. It smells of lies. It smells like lies for days”, writes local website moreto.net on February 12.

A history of ecological neglect: air, land and water

In Sofia, air pollution has been a topic of debates, especially during the winter. The authorities usually blamed it on solid fuel heating and increased motor vehicle traffic, but the explanations were met with harsh criticism. Promises were made, strategies were drafted but no definitive steps were taken. In spite of all that, the GERB affiliated mayor Yordanka Fandakova, first elected in 2009, managed to keep her job and was re-elected time and again, most recently in 2019, when she won in spite of the heated debates on the city’s inactivity over the air issue.

Elsewhere in Bulgaria, initially small demonstrations against commercial logging and over construction on the seaside were one of the leading factors that triggered the most recent mass protest wave against the government of controversial Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and the coalition between his party GERB and far-righters ‘United Patriots’. The unrest gained a momentum after on July 7, 2020, Hristo Ivanov, co-leader of opposition out-of-government party ‘Da, Bulgaria’ (Yes, Bulgaria), led a protest to the secluded and arguably illegal seaside villa of Ahmed Dogan. The villa, guarded by the National Security despite being private, was seen by many as yet another example of over construction by the seaside, which also blocks public spaces. Dogan is one of the “connected” politicians: founder and chairman of the mainly ethnic Turkish ‘Movement for Rights and Freedoms’ (DPS) party between 1990 and 2013, a former collaborator of security police in Communist times, long associated with oligarch ties (most notably fellow party member and media mogul Delyan Peevski critically mentioned by Reporters Without Borders), and in 2010, acquitted of corruption in a case brought by the Parliamentary Commission regarding consulting fees of 1.96 million leva (over 1 million euro), paid in 2008 and 2009 for advising over hydro-power projects.

Water shortages are adding to Bulgaria’s worries. Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, the local news were preoccupied with the water crisis in Pernik, an industrial town near Sofia and home to 82,000 people. The shortages continued for several months between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, and were caused by the local Studena dam drying up. The minister of Environment and Water, Neno Dimov, resigned and was charged with deliberate mismanagement over the Pernik crisis. Before these events, Dimov was the subject of protests in 2018 after he initially wanted to greenlight mass construction work in the Pirin mountains in an attempt to increase tourist interest. Following the resignation amid the shortages, the position was taken over by Emil Dimitrov in January 2020 - another controversial figure with little to no expertise in the ecological field and as Dimov, part of nationalist ‘United Patriots’ party.

The events in Pernik raised further concerns. An investigation by local weekly newspaper Capital pointed that the dams near Varna, Sliven, Dupnitsa and in the Rila mountains are all below their usual levels. By the same time in late 2019/early 2020, reports surfaced in the Italian media of irregularities in the paperwork, concerning 9,000 tonnes of scrap, from mostly plastic to paper and metal, being transported from Italy to a site near the Bulgarian town of Pleven.

In October last year, the topic of the water crisis became apparent again. Several dams were operating at dangerously low levels, with Minister Emil Dimitrov giving the dry weather as the main reason for the situation.

According to local environmental organizations and activists, deliberate mismanagement and backstage scheming is also at play - from prioritizing industrial needs over the local population, to letting certain dams die out so that funds are released for repair efforts and new construction. The issue is expected to reappear in 2021 as local reports on shortages in the area of seaside town of Burgas are mounting.

“EU, are you blind?”

This was one of the leading slogans of the 2020 anti government protest wave which, unlike previous demonstrations, were not limited to Sofia, but also took place abroad and in medium and smaller towns. The reason is that the EU never hardened enough the dialogue with Boiko Borisov’s GERB party despite the accusations of corruption and criticism, shrinking media freedom and questionable justice system.

Meanwhile, EU funds have flowed in Bulgaria despite the mismanagement of resources, with Varna and Sofia being two of the major examples of millions invested in projects with flawed quality, unclear intentions and unpublished reports, especially in terms of infrastructure and ecology. In the summer of 2020, investigations by Dnevnik.bg reported that through EU-financed projects on revitalization, 50% of the trees in Varna’s center were cut.

As citizens increasingly feel the country is in a freefall, the hopes for improvement are thin but cautiously alive: opposition against GERB is getting stronger, but at the same time there is no clear winner of people’s unrest which gives room for unexpected coalitions or a potential lack of momentum and low voter activity. Legislative elections are expected on April 4, with presidential elections expected in autumn.


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  • Bulgaria’s ecological problems are piling up just as EU funds aimed at addressing them continue to flow in. It’s a deepening crisis that could be interpreted as a “litmus test” on how the current political elite is (not) taking the seriousness of the country’s situation.
  • It’s not odd to focus on the eco and infrastructural side of things as sometimes they have a seismic effect - after all, the first cracks of the Communist regime in Bulgaria started with unprecedented mass civil eco protests by concerned mothers in the Danube town of Ruse, who in 1989 rose against the Chlorine pollution coming from a factory in Giurgiu, Romania.
  • Initially small demonstrations against commercial logging and over construction on the seaside were one of the leading factors that triggered the most recent mass protest wave against the government of controversial Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and the coalition between his party GERB and far-righters ‘United Patriots’.
  • “EU, are you blind?” was one of the leading slogans of the 2020 anti government protest wave which, unlike previous demonstrations, were not limited to Sofia, but also took place abroad and in medium and smaller towns. The reason is that the EU never hardened enough the dialogue with Boiko Borisov’s GERB party despite the accusations of corruption and criticism, shrinking media freedom and questionable justice system.
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