CATCHING THE GREEN WAVE

by Konstantin Ivanov

Environmental activism breathes new life into Bulgarian civil society

In Bulgarian, a zelena valna, or green wave, used to mean a series of green traffic lights – something every Bulgarian driver dreams about in Sofia's traffic-clogged streets. More recently, however, a different kind of green wave has appeared – one that stops cars dead in their tracks. A couple of times a year, police estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 people take to the streets in central Sofia to protest against construction on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast and mountains. These environmental activists are primarily young people who not only want to preserve Bulgaria's natural beauty but also to force developers to obey the law. And they are unafraid to ask the European Commission for help when the Bulgarian Government turns a blind eye to lawbreakers.

Bulgaria's latest wave of environmental activism began in the spring of 2006, shortly after a website selling homes in a planned holiday complex in Irakli appeared on the Internet. Irakli is one of the longest beaches on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – legend has it that Warsaw Pact troops honed their amphibious assault skills there. Now dozens of nature-loving young people spend the whole summer camped out at Irakli. Gradually the rumour that this pristine place would be transformed into an extension of nearby Nesebar's concrete sprawl gave rise to a petition signed by tens of thousands of citizens and also created an informal civil movement,

Let's Save Irakli. Owners of agricultural land in the area, eager to sell their property to developers for sky-high prices, also joined the dispute. It soon became clear that this humble stretch of beach had piqued the interest of more than 700 investors. In the meantime, a significant portion of Irakli had been included in Natura 2000, EU's network of protected areas, since it is home to rare bird and turtle species. This designation didn't outlaw construction, but introduced requirements that need to be met or else the European Commission could levy sanctions on Bulgaria. The campaign to save Irakli forced the minister of environment and waters to issue an order suspending construction for a year. The ban was later extended and will expire at the end of summer 2009.

Irakli has become the site of the most serious battle to save Bulgaria's environment – although it's far from clear that the beach will survive in its present form. Riding the crest of the Irakli wave, a new coalition, Za da ostane priroda v Bulgaria, or Let's Preserve Nature in Bulgaria, was formed, which currently unites nearly 30 NGOs and civic groups. The coalition opposed attempts in court to dissolve Strandzha Natural Park, home of Bulgaria's last remaining undeveloped beaches. They also rallied against plans to build a new ski resort near Panichishte in Rila National Park, not far from the gorgeous Seven Lakes. Environmental activists united to fight the construction of new ski lifts on Vitosha, which is the oldest natural park in the Balkans. They also sounded alarm about the small Kartala Resort in the Rila, where Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, in a case of poetic justice, found himself stranded for an hour on a chair lift that was built without the proper permits. The coalition didn't hesitate to complain to the European Commission about the destruction of sites that are parts of Natura 2000, including Kaliakra and Kamchiyski pyasatsi along the Black Sea coast.

According to public opinion polls conducted by Alpha Research in the late summer of 2008, 80 percent of Bulgarians support environmental organisations' efforts to protect nature. So far such public support has remained purely verbal, but at least it proves that the issue strikes a nerve. More than 160,000 people also signed a petition against construction in the Rila. Developers and investors eager to build new seaside and mountain resorts usually dismiss eco-activists as "paid cheerleaders." Depending on the site under dispute, they accuse environmentalists of working for Greek, Turkish, Croatian, Austrian or Swiss interests. For their part, the environmental organisations reply that they were founded in accordance with Bulgarian law and report all their income and expenses in a special register at the Justice Ministry – anyone suspecting them of taking foreign payoffs is welcome to check their financial records. They also raise the question of why most big resort projects are built by offshore companies whose capital is almost impossible to trace.

Environmental activism is nothing new to Bulgaria. Public outrage over environment degradation was a major factor behind the formation of opposition movements during the Communist period. In March 1988, for example, the Ecological Committee to Save the City of Ruse was created. At that time, a Romanian chemical plant across the Danube was spewing out noxious gases that heavily polluted the Bulgarian city. Many local residents attempted to leave the city, yet the government did nothing to solve the problem, afraid of damaging relations with its Socialist neighbour. Another case of eco activism took place in 1989 when an international environmental forum took place in Sofia. Activists from the semi-legal civil movement Ekoglasnost protested against megalomaniacal plans to build new hydroelectric power plants. There were even clashes with the police in Sofia.

In late December 1989 a Green Party was founded in Bulgaria, which was originally part of the opposition coalition the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS. However, in later years it joined forces in parliament with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP. Ekoglasnost underwent a similar change – it registered as a political club and its influence gradually waned. Public outrage over the destruction of nature since 2006 has also caused various groups to try to take advantage of the situation politically. In February 2007 an unknown organisation called Ekoravnodenstvie, or Eco-equinox, sent out an e-mail saying it had placed a bomb under one of the ski lifts in Bansko. The threat turned out to be a false alarm. It remains unclear whether the bomb scare was an attempt to discredit environmental organisations or just a sick joke. Shortly before the local elections in 2007, Bulgaria woke up to hundreds of billboards featuring a green cross and the slogan Zelena Bulgaria, or Green Bulgaria. The new party pulled off several high-profile street protests, but danced around the question of where it got the funds for its advertising campaign. They nevertheless managed to win mayoral and municipal elections in a few smaller towns and villages. In the summer of 2008 Zelena Bulgaria united with the older Green Party, taking the latter's name but adding on the tag "the Bulgarian Greens." At the same time a number of environmental activists who had participated in the campaigns for Irakli, the Strandzha and the Rila founded a new party called Zelenite, or The Greens, whose legal registration is to take place soon.

Sociological research indicates that despite the "green wave," Bulgaria's environmentalist parties still do not enjoy broad enough support to win seats in parliament if elections were held today. Most young people support the green movement because they're fed up with corruption and disregard for the law, the basic problems behind the destruction of the environment. This autumn a delegation from the European Parliament's Committee on Petitions visited Bulgaria in response to dozens of civil complaints about protected areas being destroyed. David Hammerstein, MEP, told protesters that in Bulgaria the environmental activists who had taken to the streets were those who wanted to uphold European laws, unlike those in power. While his words may seem like typical political rhetoric, the threat of European sanctions looks like the only way to force the government to obey the law. Despite small victories in preserving Bulgaria's environment, the threat of huge construction projects still looms over protected areas. The global financial crisis may slow down some of them, but in the meantime, environmentalists' patience may run out – which could lead either to general apathy or to more extreme forms of protest. The green wave has shown that the Bulgarian civil society still has a pulse. The question is, for how long?

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