The last few weeks have seen thousands of protesters hit the streets of Sofia every Thursday, demonstrating against the Bulgarian government’s approval of plans to expand a ski resort in one of the country’s national parks, Pirin Mountain. Pirin is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to rare bears, wolves, and centuries-old pine forests. The rallies started off as an environmental dispute, but now the demonstrators appear to have been joined by anti-corruption and rule of law activists.

On January 11th the demonstration coincided with the arrival of Brussels chiefs in Sofia for a ceremony marking the start of Bulgaria’s six-month presidency of the EU, causing headaches for the prime minister Boyko Borisov, who appealed several times for the country’s stability “not to be shaken”.

“They want our country to fail now. We are pulling ourselves into a tar pitch bowl”, said Borisov just before Christmas and he urged Bulgarian opposition parties “to show some rationalism for these six months (of the presidency)”.

Violation of the environment

But in December 2017, the government of Bulgaria passed a plan to allow construction activities in 48% of Pirin National Park, situated in the South Western part of the country, near the border with Greece and Macedonia. The move goes against current legislation and is seen as a violation of its status as a protected space. After what many felt was the government’s failed response to address the public outcry, environmentalists initiated an international outreach campaign in an effort to pressure authorities to uphold the law protecting the natural heritage site.

Pirin National Park was established to protect biodiversity in Bulgaria’s second highest mountain range, an area considered to be one of the most well-preserved natural habitats in Europe. The park spans over 403 square kilometres (around 156 square miles) and contains breathtaking landscapes that range from rocky barren peaks to lush forests and glacier lakes to virgin rivers. It is a home to numerous threatened flora and fauna species, such as the golden eagle, brown bear and chamois. Locals tell stories that the Balkan lynx (an animal long thought to be extinct in the country) is still roaming in the park’s territory.

Due to its precious natural wonders, Pirin was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. This status added to its world fame as a tourist destination, which is a trait valuable to many small and medium-sized businesses in the surrounding area. However, as the adjacent town of Bansko’s ski resort began hosting winter sports competitions and attracting numerous foreign tourists with its low prices, the sporting complex started to rapidly expand in an unsustainable way.

Make way for ski

Since 2001, the Bansko resort has developed way beyond its allowed territory. Hotels, ski tracks and their supporting facilities have already encroached into the nearby national park by over 160 hectares, causing soil erosion, biodiversity loss and pollution to sources of drinking water.

Despite the fact that new construction would downgrade the park’s natural defences against climate change, on its last session of 2017, the Bulgarian government expanded the territories open to construction from 0.6% to 48% of the park — including the zones set aside for the protection of forest ecosystems. Activists fear that this will open a gateway which will lead to the expansion of the ski area, threatening centuries-old forests with logging and further invasion of detrimental activities.

“This scheme would decimate the area, and greatly benefit one company close to the government—and seems to typify a pattern of dodgy developments that serve private interests over the environment and people”, say representative of Friends of the Earth Europe.

But Bulgaria’s environment ministry has argued the changes will allow construction in only two percent of the territory of the park, with the aim of boosting winter tourism. Protests of the environmentalists also met a few counter demonstrations in support of the ski resort’s expansion, arguing it would cut long queues of skiers.

But pro-nature demonstrations are not solely about the Pirin National Park. There are also hundreds of people shouting about alleged corruption.

According Transparency International, Bulgaria is one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union. Brussels has been pressing the government to take steps to rein in administrative and political corruption for years. Bulgaria, along with its neighbour in south-eastern Europe, Romania—has been under special Brussels monitoring since it joined the bloc in 2007.

Bully tactics from TV boss

Outrage has also been sparkled because of a decision of management in the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) to change the status of a beloved show about culture. The Bulgarian National Television new programme manager Emil Koshlukov, a well-known Bulgarian politician and talk-show host, put pressure on “The Day Starts with Culture” show. According his words the show is far too elitist and the language used in the programme is not appropriate for the wide public.

He has also accused the show’s team of laziness and not working hard enough. The producers of the show have retaliated by claiming that Koshlukov is lobbying certain guests to be invited and forbids the invitations for others. They have also claimed that he has imposed censorship over the questions that are discussed on the programme. On January 21st, dozens of  people went out to protest in front of BNT’s office in Sofia in order to express their support for “The Day Starts with Culture”. These protesters joined in the environmentalists demonstration on Thursday, 25th January. People who fight against  corruption, iniquity of the monopolists and others also joined in.

“Yesterday’s protest was good for a number of reasons: people acted normally, in good heart, without unnecessary worries; and several protest topics had been put together. Nature protection, the need for justice, the disgust against censorship and the awareness of the problem of corruption are together. This is how it will work. We care not only about Pirin. We really are citizens of against the Mafia”, says the journalist and anti-corruption activist Manol Glishev.

Milen Marinov
Bulgarian journalist and devoted to the European cause.

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