Genady Kondarev: Bulgaria's Green Political Space Could Unite in Time
Genady Kondarev works as an expert in EU Funds oversight for Za Zemiata, a non-profit, non-governmental Bulgarian environmental organization which is part of CEE Bankwatch Network.
He is among the founders of the Greens (Zelenite) and holds his membership, even though he does not take part in its governing structures.
In the interview, Kondarev shares some insight into the outlook of Bulgaria’s green parties for the upcoming European Elections and discusses Bulgarian, as well as EU-wide environmental concerns.
As part of Za Zemiata and CEE Bankwatch Network, how would you set out Europe's current priorities in environmentally-oriented politics?
Europe should recognize the climate change as a threat to global and European security at all levels - I'm not just talking about military security, but also everything else that is the texture of our society. We need now a European Parliament that would support very strong climate targets for 2030, because it's a very decisive moment now to set the new goals, as we had did for 2020 (20% down on CO2, 20% renewable energy and 20% energy efficiency). We need to have something much more ambitious for 2030, because the 2020 goals were set too low and in the next decades we'll have to start compensating this. Then we need to have as well strong priorities on climate change adaptation. Climate change is already here, and as it is a global threat, it's already affecting the lives of many people, the local production of small gardeners, small farmers, threatening lives whenever there are serious droughts or flooding. In Bulgaria this is too a very neglected area. We invest very little amounts of European funds in adaptation, except for the rural development plan. Risk prevention is completely neglected, at least for Bulgaria, but also for other Eastern European countries from the ex-socialist bloc.
Europe has to agree more on policies that make common sense. We've seen double standards in Europe, we've seen policies that are completely lobbyist-driven and this is really what is hurting the image of Europe. We have on one side the nice image that Europe wants to create of itself with human rights, with social policies, with thinking of environment and the well-being of men there, but at the same time does things that are completely contradictory, pouring zillions of funds into large, expensive and useless infrastructure at some places and this has to change. Otherwise the countries especially in the Eastern bloc are going to continue falling into the trap of pro-Russian policy - and there is now a strong attempt, an anti-European campaign going on in some countries, we can see it very much in Bulgaria - and in the same time the old members in Europe will continue to encapsulate themselves and try to have this two-gear membership in the Union for countries that follow the rules and the other one which are like second class, to the east especially, do not like following the rules and are net beneficiaries for the European funds.
You mentioned a few problems that Europe is facing ahead of the elections. To what extent are Bulgaria’s green parties capable of representing these interests?
There are three green parties to run at the European elections. Two are old parties: the Bulgarian Green party was founded back early nineties, it was a little passive throughout the years and was not always getting on with the young Greens, then we have another offshoot of the Green Party, which is the Party of the Greens of Mr [Valentin] Simov, which is completely inactive. And then we have the new Greens, the Zelenite, that were formed in 2008, mostly by NGO people and civil activists. The Green party has become a little bit stronger over the last few years as they allowed much younger people to get to main positions into the party, which was kind of a blood transfusion to them, so there could be in the time prospects that they unite the green political space in Bulgaria with Zelenite.
Since their formation Zelenite have been keeping quite straightforward course following the European green policies. They have not prepared a platform which was especially for the European elections. But this is because in their platform there were already many European-oriented policies and many things they can support and implement if they can get into the European Parliament. And this is not just in the field of the green ideas, but also a lot of socially positive things, and very much into the inclusion of people into the decision-making. They are for a much stronger EP, with more decisive power for policies that are introduced by people that have been elected around Europe.
Is the existence of three green parties more a matter of views and ideas or one of personal infighting?
Things are never black and white. By the time I was more active at Zelenite, I had personal fights with people from both the other formations. And I can say that there have been many cases when the reactions were childish and foolish, but in the same time there also were a lot of aspects that really prevented unification at a conceptual level. For between Zelenite and the party of Simov I think there can never be a bridge. I am not sure how this guy is financed, he appears only during elections, we've seen him shaking hands with people that have doubtful international reputation, he appears at conferences without being a member of, for example, the European greens... With the Green Party – yes, there were some personal clashes, but there were also aspects throughout the years that prevented serious talks of unification. It's a party with history, and it’s a party with ruling history, it was part of the Triple coalition, and when we had the Natura 2000 scandals, they were part of government back then and did not basically quit this government without criticizing the issues. They also used to have quite a soft position on nuclear power without keeping the European position that it has to be phased out. The third issue was that its leader, [Aleksandar] Karakachanov, had remained unchanged for twenty years before the party elected a new young Chair – Marina Dragomiretskaya – in 2013. The way it had been rule for two decades is not deemed democratic by Zelenite, who have three chair people that share the decision-making in a more participatory way.
Speaking of traditional and mainstream parties, have you seen any moves by them involving environment and sustainable development?
All the parties recognize the environmental problems as matter of very serious concern. But there is only one big party with a European platform now during these elections. Only the Bulgarian Socialist Party actually had a 6-page program. Some of the things were eye-feathering, but are rather statements and I don't see how they are going to achieve them. On the one hand there is a focus not only on climate protection, but also on resource efficiency, there are chapters on energy... But we can also see contradictory policies sneaking in between. The BSP have been cautious in promoting nuclear power. GERB recognized investments in residential energy efficiency, small-scale renewables, climate change mitigation, waste recycling, but at the same time we can see the asphalt lobby there is very strong. It is obvious that when it comes to transport, this is what it says - only roads, roads, roads, without substantial focus on the cleaner ways of transport. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms recognize the importance of environmental issues, but with no strategies and it alo sounds more like just a statement. The Reformist Bloc's platform sounds more like designed for national elections. There we see a limited scope of things such as energy independence, but unfortunately there is a focus on local fossil fuels and it allows room also for the development of shale gas. We should also always consider the lobby groups that were gravitating around certain parties.
As for green parties, Zelenite have been very active anti shale gas campaigners, anti-GMO campaigners, pro sustainable farming, anti-nuclear and pro-renewable energy and energy efficiency and I expect them to play a strong opposition also to this TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership], which is threatening many of the civil liberties we've had throughout the years. As for the Green Party, Mr Karakachanov has had serious activities in the last few years. We can definitely recognize their fights against the land swaps. They also had serious positions against tax havens and offshore companies, and their young wing is also working now to promote participatory democracy at many levels. Some of their people have been strong in promoting sustainable agriculture in Bulgaria.
You mentioned lobbies. Was the financial dispute that erupted between the National Electricity Company and power distributors caused by a clash between lobbies or rather by lack of a comprehensive energy policy?
I think there were mistakes by the governments and the national regulator, and the legislator, we have to put here, because certain laws are being kept for years and years, the door in the field is kept open until the right people go in through.
We can now compare the Bulgarian energy sector with the situation in Europe. What is tarnishing the image of Europe are the double standards, the use of policies that set them and create a gap between what we claim to be our values and what we actually do. In Bulgaria it's been quite the same - we want affordable energy, but unfortunately there is no cheap energy anymore, prices have been kept artificially low for many years, in the same time contracts have been set with the new capacities that come on-line and with the grid operators in a way that things are often unfair to the final consumer. The final consumer cannot yet have the luxury of a fully liberalized market, we cannot choose our supplier. There was a deadline, January 1 2013, now it is mid 2014 and yet we do not see on the horizon this liberalization for end consumers coming.
Grid operators are private companies, they are profit-driven and this is often used as an excuse to say, “these are the rules of business, if I can get benefit from certain contracts...” Businesses are not supposed to think of social policy or to be like a charitable company. But before the government of GERB stood down, there was an 11% increase of electricity price, and 0% of this increase came from the operators. They have been milking their capacities without being able to actually re-invest properly in the maintenance of the grid network. Then renewable energy was the other one to blame from government. But renewable energy has brought just 4% of this increase. And the other 7% were from fossil fuels. Most of it came from the expensive new coal capacities that were introduced. They were cleaner, with less sulfur oxides, but the scrubbers cost a lot of money. These investments have to be paid back. Bulgaria also promotes expensive co-generation, there are incentives for producing co-generation right now, and the electricity produced in Bulgaria by Sofia District Heating is being sold more expensively than that from large photovoltaic installations. As far as I have seen on the webpage of the National Regulator photovoltaic installations buy the electricity for less than 30 stotinki per kWh, and coal-generated is bought at 33 stotinki. This allows Sofia District Heating to also operate during the summer, but this is also a cross subsidy, because all the consumers in Bulgaria have to pay for the district heating in Sofia.
Karadere is now suffering from a relative media blackout. Is the project moving towards silently being carried out, or there are still ways to stop it?
I really hope that it would be stopped in time. But the combination of BSP and DPS in one government always brings this sort of problems. The timber mafia is an example - whenever they are in power, illegal logging in Bulgaria's forests is skyrocketing. Then we have cases like Karadere, where there are promises that offshore companies will not be able to invest in the project, but there is a gap in the law. Besides the company behind the project claims now it has been putting efforts in Bulgaria for more than 7 years and they really expect to be awarded for their effort. It's really a hideous process. The only way for an end to such activities at the Black Sea is to really set a framework of protected the entire Black Sea coast and to protect the last pieces of wild land that remain there with a management plan similar to the ones of national and natural parks.
As part of an important NGO, how do you appreciate communication between NGOs and the Ministry of Environment and Waters?
I can't say there is no communication. There are also the civil councils that continue to sit in some of the ministries, including the Ministry of Environment and Waters, there are groups that have meeting sessions from time to time on the new operational programs and the European funds. But we see that the facilitation and preparation of these meetings is pretty vague. You get last-minute invitations about this kind of meetings, and their facilitation allows that you could have quite extensive talks. They can last 4 or 5 hours, the minister is gone, the deputy ministers are gone, somebody else is taking the facilitation and this is really killing the process at some point. I cannot say if there are problems in the communications because it is not capable of facilitating or because there is some hidden agenda. We usually have criticism for every government that comes in power, I guess it's natural. But meetings should happen more often. And processes of integrating suggestions from civil society should be done better. An example is the Partnership Agreement, which is now the main document for the EU funds programming, which was signed between the government and the European Commission. And there was a process of public hearings and suggestion to put in the Partnership Agreement. Then there was silence and later we just learned the document had been submitted to the European Commission without knowing if this draft contained our recommendation or not.
If we return to the European stage, do you have any observations on the European Green Party's outlook for the elections? Some experts suggest that traditional parties have been increasingly draining green ideas to attract more support?
You can see the green ideas in any platform you open - and I'm glad on one side. But it might also show something we've seen in the past, a downturn for the green parties. But usually after such a downturn it becomes obvious that this is a mistake for the voters, because the nice words put in a platform without people having the motivation to put their words into action are kicking the green urgencies out of the agenda of the traditional parties and in the turbulence of their daily work they tend to forget about the global threats we are all facing.
Could you comment on the choice for the European Greens' campaign leaders and EC presidential candidates? Jose Bove and Ska Keller are often described as controversial figures.
Well, I had very strong support for Rebecca Harms during the rally for leading candidates because I've seen her in action; she is a very notorious anti-nuclear activist but is also a very organized person. But Ska Keller - I'm quite surprised by the young lady, she's spreading lot of liberal and social ideas and is quite a good transfusion into the European elections campaign. And Jose Bove is very focused on clean agricultural stuff, anti-chemical, anti-GMO campaigning. I am very happy to see a guy promoting food sovereignty. He is not an office person and is a fantastic activist. I'm not sure that they would have been the right choice if they were the biggest party in the EP... but they're not. Greens are very often in opposition and their job is to be the activists there, to be the voice of the consciousness and to put forward progressive ideas. It's crucial to have strong green parties in the EP, especially to counter far-rights.
What do you think would happen with the TTIP if Europe keeps on with negotiations at that pace - will it be signed or rejected?
Reformed and eventually signed, with the hope that this kind of corporate state dispute mechanisms will be dropped out completely. But this sort of agreements is not the way ahead. The world should be going towards more local economy, community based economy – local organic agriculture, energy cooperatives, solidarity and more. I think there is space for that without causing so much harm to competitiveness. And thinking about more and more trade between the continents when there is such liberalized trade policy already... It's just useless. It's the old way of creating growth and jobs. They’ll really have to think of something new because this model is not going to work for future generations anymore. We have to reconsider and reform the whole system and the TTIP can be either a useless or harmful document, especially if it keeps the mechanisms which would allow corporate ruling over the sovereignty of state.
The G7 said this week it would look for energy independence from Russia. Is this a positive signal for the extraction of energy from traditional sources or from shale gas?
Every lobby would interpret it the way it is useful for them. You can imagine that companies like Chevron will see it as their chance. But it's still up to the vigilance of the citizens to prevent this from happening. Energy independence can be achieved in many ways, and the best way is to focus on local solutions and clean energy and energy efficiency. And such world is possible. Russia is very vulnerable because it counts on the exports of primary energy sources to the rest of the world. Even if Europe stops its exports, it can always turn to China and other countries and find its markets but this will not compensate the European markets and this is the weak point of Russia – especially in the short term. Unfortunately this is the weak point of Europe too as Europe did not manage to drift away wisely from Russian imports in the last two decades.
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