The odds are stacked against them, but activists in Bulgaria protesting to save Pirin National Park from further commercial development say they are not prepared to back down. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Sofia in December in sub-zero temperatures to raise awareness of a back-room deal by the government that could see nearly half the national park sold off to profit-making commercial activity. Powerful vested interests want to ensure that the protestors’ voices are drowned out. But in this tale of David (the protestors) vs Goliath (the Government), the authorities cannot ignore the will of the people. Activists, including Bulgarians from all walks of life, will not be cowed.
Borislav Sandov, the co-chair of Bulgaria’s Green party Zelenite, spoke to the European Greens about his role in the movement to save Pirin National Park. He says a first step must be tackling corruption at its core, which is why, he says “we need to follow the illicit money trail.”
Borislav Sandov: a history of activism
Sandov says he is one of many actors in a horizontal structure who are instrumental in mobilizing the public around environmental issues. The organisational structure of the protests operates on three levels, he explains:
“First there is a base group of colleagues, friends, activists and like-minded people – this is the core.
“The next layer is the social networks where we put energy into galvanizing support among the general public, mainly on Facebook.
“The final layer is about extending our reach to the international level and to people and NGOs which are not necessarily connected to environmental issues. But of course none of this would have been possible without having won the trust of the people.”
His activism dates back to when he was vice-chair of the student union at Sofia university and created a “university club for environment and sustainable development” just as Bulgaria was joining the EU. One of his first battles, he says, was defending the EU’s Natura 2000, which was created to establish a network of nature protection areas within the EU. Despite a government push to reduce the amount of Bulgarian territory corresponding to Natura 2000 to only 9 percent, he fought to boost that figure to include a total of 34 percent. He counts this as one of his biggest achievements.
Sandov says his activism has been inspired by a long tradition of protest within Bulgaria and a deep sense of attachment to nature and freedom.
Bulgarians, Green at heart
“Bulgarians hold Green issues close to their heart. It’s infused within our poems and songs, even the national anthem.
“The green in our national flag symbolizes nature. And in the Bulgarian language, the word for nature derives from the notion of ‘origin’ or ‘family’.
The first environmental demonstrations in Bulgaria’s history date back to the so-called ‘Ruse Mothers’ protest in 1987/88. The protest took place after extremely high levels of air pollution were recorded in the town caused by a Romanian chlorine factory on the other bank of the Danube river in Giurgiu. People in the town began to suffer from an unidentified lung disease for which doctors coined a new term: “Ruse lung”. According to an academic paper on environmental groups in Bulgaria by Andrew Blowers and Pieter Glasbergen, 86,000 children and 62,000 adults were outpatients of the hospitals, suffering from respiratory, skin and allergy problems. Sandov says this incident became a touchstone of the nation’s conscience, sparking grassroots protests that later led to the forming of the Ekoglasnost (Ecoawareness) group that started to gain momentum as a vital campaigning organisation. It organised the first big protests in Sofia that precipitated the end of the totalitarian communism regime.
Several Green organisations continued to be active in the 90s and early 2000s, but most of them disappeared. When Bulgaria joined the EU, Zelenite was one of several groups to emerge and lead the agenda on environmental protection, climate change and anti-corruption.
Its latest challenge has been trying to save protected areas of Pirin’s National Park shoulder to shoulder with civil society and citizens.
A national treasure at stake
One of the contentious issues has been the building of a second ski-lift in Bansko in the Pirin National Park that the government claims will ease overcrowding. Officials say the lift will also benefit local people by making the site more attractive to tourists. However, Sandov says the government’s claims are hollow and will only benefit some of the country’s oligarchs. According to official statistics by the concessionaire, the lift is only affected by overcrowding a few days of the year in high season.
The rest of the year, the lift operates at below capacity. Sandov fears it could also open the door to development in other protected areas of the park after a controversial management plan was passed by the government. The current skiing zone is contained within an area equivalent to only 0.6 percent of the total park. The new plan could pave the way for construction in as much as 48 percent of one of Bulgaria’s natural treasures.
Bulgaria is one of the most biologically diverse countries of Europe. A third of Bulgaria's land area consists of forests, which include some of the oldest trees in the world, such as the Baikusheva pine (located next to the ski-resort in Pirin) and the Granit oak. According to Sandov, new commercial development “eating into the mountain” in the protected area would not only be an eye-sore, but disrupt nature’s delicate balance.
“The mountain range in the Pirin National Park currently has 100 days of snow per year. In a decade, it will be down to 40/45 days per year as Bulgaria gradually becomes a Mediterranean climate zone.”
In 2014, the Bansko ski zone was hit by severe flooding and Sandov warns that more extreme weather could be on the way as a direct result of climate change.
The first step to redress the problem, he claims, is to understand the obscure forces obstructing environmental interventions, often in the interests of personal financial gain.
A Bulgarian ‘Game of Thrones’
As the country began its stewardship of the rotating EU Council presidency on 1 January 2018, Greens/EFA co-president MEP Ska Keller drew attention the country’s dismal record as the most corrupt country in the EU, according to Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.
Today our co-president @SkaKeller urged Bulgarian Prime Minister @boykoBorissov & @EU2018BG to take the fight against corruption in #Bulgaria and the EU seriously. #SavePirin pic.twitter.com/26N76VcoR5— Greens in the EP (@GreensEP) January 17, 2018
Sandov says Keller’s smart and perfectly timed intervention at a European level had a big impact in Bulgaria, where there is “no real opposition in the national parliament”.
He believes that the presidency of the rotating council “can help bring back trust that political change can happen through representation.”
However, he thinks the real enemy of change is corruption, which, he says, must be tackled at the core by following the money trail.
Sandov says he believes the government is misleading the public about the ownership of the ski-lift concessionaire ‘Yulen’, which is officially owned by a company called “DUC Nominees” headed by Cypriot individual, Georgios Georgiou. However, Sandov believes the Cypriot’s name is a front for something more sinister. A recent investigation by the award-winning Bulgarian investigative journalism site Bivol in collaboration with the Romanian ‘RISE Project’ reveals that Georgios Georgiou is “destitute” and received nearly BGN 1.2 billion in loans from Bulgaria’s First Investment Bank (FIB).
Looking more closely at the management structure at FIB shows that Tseko Minev, one of the co-owners of FIB is also Head of the Bulgarian Ski Federation, indicating that Minev would stand to personally gain from such heavy investment in the Bansko ski-zone enlargement project. Despite this blatant conflict of interest, Sandov says this is considered “business as usual” in Bulgaria.
The investigation also reveals that according to current entries in Bulgaria’s Trade Register, Georgios Georgiou’s “DUC Nominees” owns British Virgin Islands’ registered “T.A.K. Services Limited”, which has links to the organized crime group known as "The Killers".
It continues to reveal the murky connections between the ‘Yulen’ concessionaire, the Bulgarian First Investment Bank – FIB, and ‘The Killers’ organised crime group. ‘The Killers’ are wanted for theft of 26 million euro provided by the European Commission to the Romanian Agency for Payments and Intervention in Agriculture (APIA) for food supplies to the poor.
In an attempt to highlight corruption in Bulgaria, the Greens in the European Parliament released a report calling for renewed ambition by the European institutions to tackle the problem.
JUST OUT: Our new report shows that much more ambition is required in the fight against #corruption both within #Bulgaria but also at EU level.— Greens in the EP (@GreensEP) January 24, 2018
Read our findings & recommendations here ➡️ https://t.co/QUKnjweOOf pic.twitter.com/wZa7yodwqN
Threats, accusations, and recriminations
Fighting against corruption and vested business interests in Bulgaria does not come without risk.
“It’s not like the 1990s, says Sandov, when body guards would come knocking at your door but they have other ways of piling on the pressure.”
People who have lived under a totalitarian regime, he says, are more easily manipulated and the government takes full advantage.
“We are attacked in the media as the ‘Green mafia’ in an attempt to vilify and isolate us – and it does have an impact in a negative way.”
In 2016, Sandov was found guilty of insult for calling Lachezar Tzotzorkov, the chair of a control board of a copper mining company, an ‘oligarch-poisoner’ on his personal Facebook account.
Initially, he was charged with defamation as part of the same court case, but those charges were later dropped after Sandov was able to provide definitive evidence that the mine was indeed polluting a nearby river. His sentence? A total fine of €2.250, of which he needed to pay €1.500 to the complainant and €750 to the state.
In an article published at the time, the European Greens, condemned the attack as “unjustified, repressive and illogical” and highly disappointing with regard to freedom of speech.
Although unacceptable, he says, it is a risk that comes with the territory.
Bulgaria’s Goliath feels the heat
After over a decade campaigning on environmental issues, Sandov does occasionally look back and see how far the Green movement has come. He counts his blessings that he has come this far relatively unscathed, and feels inspired by the determination of the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to save Pirin and end corruption. It’s what keeps him motivated.
It is evidently an uphill struggle against a government that has the weight of its powerful institutions on its side. But as in David and Goliath, size and strength don’t always count for everything.
Even though the odds are against the protestors, there are signs that things are shifting. The Pirin cause has spread from being a local issue to winning the support of activists across Europe and celebrity backers Jared Leto and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
And it seems Bulgaria’s former Goliath is starting to feel the heat.
Responding to co-president Ska Keller’s criticism, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov felt compelled to label himself as a “green man”.
Sandov reiterates that now is a golden opportunity for the citizens of Bulgaria to air their grievances now that Bulgaria is chairing the rotating presidency of the EU Council.
“We must talk about corruption and let Europe know that this also affects them and that Bulgarian politicians cannot act with impunity. We need to know who is pulling the strings and put a stop to it.”
We, the European Greens, commend the work being done by Zelenite, Sandov and his colleagues at their own personal risk in mobilizing people for change in Bulgaria and internationally. In March 2017, European Green Party co-chair Reinhard Bütikofer and committee member Evelyne Huytebroeck met with Borislav Sandov and the Zelenite party to show their support. On 8/9 February Greens/EFA co-president Ska Keller will also meet demonstrators in the the capital Sofia and the Pirin National Park.
We believe that it is our responsibility, as Europeans, to preserve our natural heritage as our legacy to future generations.
This article can viewed in Bulgarian HERE