For over a week mass protests have taken over Bulgarian capital Sofia, attracting over thousands of people every day and reaching 5,000 demonstrators at its peak and still going strong. Flash mobs blocked the main transport arteries in rush hour for three days in a row, marches through the capital were held, summer skiing, planting of flowers and street parties took place. An online petition on has received over 10,000 signatures from across the world. Solidarity protests took place in Paris and London. Protesters include young and old, parents with children, dogs and bicycles.
Slogans read 'We want nature, not concrete', 'No to unlawful law-making' and 'Pardon the inconvenience we are trying to save the last remaining bits of Bulgaria'. A number of environmental organisations loosely held in a Coalition For the Nature have been actively involved in the organisation and campaigning throughout this legislative process but there has been a surge of public support, especially among young people, in the last weeks.
The main catalyst was the adoption to changes to the Forestry Law by Parliament on 13 June 2012. The legislation foresees changes in two directions: it will make it easier to cut down trees in 'protected areas', which will no longer be protected and be open to building without preliminary permission. They allow for construction without changing land use; they also allow for the acquisition of building rights on public land without tender and for an indefinite period (more). According to the protesters these changes have been heavily influenced by a lobby group of selected private interests that are set to win from what amounts to an effective privatisation of the forests.
The beginning of the week saw a counter-protest of a few hundred, which demanded the Prime Minister keeps the law, arguing that it will bring employment and capital to economically poor regions of the country. These were held with heavy protection from the police and amid allegations of bribery and even coercion.
Following the explosion of public anger, the President vetoed the legislation on Saturday, 16 June and has returned it to Parliament for a full review. Environmental activists were invited to a consultation with the Prime Minister on 18 June. However, this consultation did not bring any results, as the government refuses to make any changes to the main contentious point in the legislation - allowing the changes in the use of land to happen without permission. The worry is that Parliament will simply vote the whole law again. There is no possibility for a second presidential veto.
National parks under threat
All this is of course is not only about Vitosha mountain, the oldest national park in the Balkans and the closest protected area to Sofia. These legislative changes concern all national parks, which represent approximately 20% of the territory of the country. Bulgaria has one of the richest natural habitats and wild-life in Europe, which have been included in the 'Natura 2000' network of protected sites, the landmark of the EU nature and biodiversity policy. The background to these protests include a stagnant economy (Bulgaria continues to have the lowest GDP in the EU, and the lowest minimum wage of £120 per month) and mounting public pressure against the centre-right government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov about its close relationship with big business.
Furthermore, this legislation is part of a broader process of privatisation of public goods that is ongoing in Bulgaria and elsewhere - a process that has led to growing environmental degradation and social divisions to the benefit of limited business and corporate interests.
Bansko: a village wrecked by development
It is worth to note here the example of Bansko, a small skiing village in the Pirin mountains in the south of Bulgaria, which has become the main foreign winter tourism destination in the country.
A traditional skiing village with a few hundred inhabitants, Bansko saw its skiing capacity expand with new slopes and skiing lifts being built in 2005 by the same investor that is said to be behind the privatisation of Vitosha. The construction of these was highly criticized for the use of explosives and heavy machinery and causing further erosion and mud slides. The entire landscape of the mountain was altered, as skiing lifts and slopes were built at three to four times the allowed width. Water shortages have become a regular problem.
The employment effect on the local community has been dubious. There has been a large influx of capital but it has been concentrated in the construction business without any other regeneration and development. And because the skiing resort is run by one company, Yulen Ltd. - which offers bundled packages including ski pass, accommodation and food - it has become practically impossible for anyone else to run profitable independent business in the resort. The job creation has also not been at the expected level, with anyone working outside the business framework of the concession owner struggling as the skiing season has been reduced from 5-6 week to 3, currently around Christmas and New Year.
At its peak over 2008 to early 2009, the property development boom in Bansko sold apartments at the price of £980-1200 per square metre. Since then, prices have gone down by over 55% to as little as £160-400 per square metre. Regardless of this price drop, sales have practically stopped. Thousands of apartments remain unfinished or unsold. They were financed through expensive credit loans, but with such a collapse of the market it is difficult to imagine how these will be repaid. The owners of a lot of those that have been finished are having technical problems because if the low standards of building, the high maintenance costs, legal battles with the constructors, etc.
Currently Bansko attracts tourists on cheap package deals mainly from the UK and some Scandinavian countries. The high prices in the resort make it much more expensive for independent tourists than anywhere else in the country, and it is more worthwhile for Bulgarian tourists to go skiing elsewhere in Europe (mostly Austria) than come to Bansko.
The government and private investors are hoping they can repeat this in Vitosha and elsewhere. A growing and vocal number of people are determined they don’t.
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