Occupy Protests, Forests, Oligarchs: Trouble with Rule of Law in Bulgaria
Protests against Bulgaria's new Forestry Act erupted June 13, when people spontaneously blocked the Eagles Bridge in central Sofia. Photo by BGNES
Over the past 10 days, Bulgaria was present in world media largely due to rallies that blocked the center of capital Sofia in outrage against controversial amendments to the country's Forestry Act.
The new version of the law liberalizes the use of forests for wood, and, what is most important, creates virtually full freedom in cutting down public forests to build private sports and recreational facilities.
The center-right GERB government led by Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov has persistently argued that this would benefit Bulgaria's tourism industry.
But thousands of citizens have marched out against what they see as legislation intended to benefit a few shady oligarchs, and pave the way to a new bout of dubious overconstruction and devastation of nature, the likes of which have already occurred along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast and the country's top ski resort Bansko.
Apart from the provisions of the act itself, what gives ground to the protesters' claims is the manner the amendments to the Forestry Act were developed and adopted.
The proposal was dropped by the cabinet in Parliament at the very last working day of 2011, without prior public discussion, and was then rushed through the legislative process in spite of ongoing rallies against it throughout the winter.
What is more, the whole saga began after the Vitosha Ski company that owns the ski facilities on the Vitosha mountain nearby Sofia was given a refusal to expand operations on environmental grounds.
The new Forestry Act is framed in such a way that companies in the situation of Vitosha Ski would not have to face the same administrative hurdles as before and would be able to deforest and construct at will, following a short application process.
Vitosha Ski is held by controversial Bulgarian businessman Tseko Minev, who also holds First Investment Bank, as well as the Yulen ski company that operates virtually the whole Bansko resort.
Minev is also president of the Bulgarian Ski Federation, which has beenreceiving heavy support by the government, and has been concluding contracts with companies dependent on Minev himself, according to a check by Bulgaria's Agency for State Financial Inspection.
The ties of Minev with the Borisov cabinet have been reconstructed in a prioreditorial on the Forestry Act protests here at Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency).
What emerged in the 10 days since the rallies began June 13 shows that the seemingly quite specific case of the forest legislation reaches deep into problems that have long been endemic in Bulgarian political life.
Is the Constitution Dead, Mr. PM?
That problems with the rule of law are rampant and chronic in Bulgaria – a country that acceded to the EU under the so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) for Corruption and Organized Crime – is no news.
In the case of the Forestry Act, issues with rule of law are twofold: the presumed development of legislation intended to serve the oligarchy, as well as cracks in the very workings of Bulgarian constitutionalism illuminated by the way the problem was handled by those in power.
In the weeks just preceding the decisive July report of the European Commission on the CVM, the situation provoked Euractiv to come out with an article entitled "Bulgarians Rise against a Law on Forests Favorable for the Mafia" (this is the English translation of the more direct French title of the piece).
The ties of the Borisov government to Tseko Minev's companies have been well covered, so we don't need to linger on them here.
The second, constitutional tier of issues with the Forestry Act case relates to the long-feared concentration of power in the persona of Bulgaria's PM Boyko Borisov, as well as the latter's disregard for democratic procedure and institutional thinking.
When protesters went to negotiate with Borisov and key GERB statespersons June 15, the Bulgarian PM was quick to pinpoint an innovative – and unconstitutional – solution: he would delay the publication of the law in Bulgaria's State Gazette, thus deferring its enactment until disputes have been resolved.
Of course, the Bulgarian PM has no powers over the promulgation of legislation, and anyway laws, once adopted by Parliament, quite obviously cannot be altered before being published in the State Gazette.
Protesters were better informed about the powers of the Bulgarian PM than Borisov himself, and requested a presidential veto, the only constitutional way that the legislation can be revised after being passed in Parliament.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, widely perceived to be a Medvedevesque puppet to strongman Borisov, obliged by returning the act to Parliament the very next day.
Apparently, the Bulgarian PM was worried with the protests and attempted to delay the enactment of the law to let tensions ease off – he was just confused about the means to do so.
After all, just days ago Plevneliev had imposed his very first veto as President of Bulgaria upon the explicit and widely covered in media order of PM Borisov.
According to the Bulgarian Constitution however, the President is an non-partisan institution completely independent from Cabinet and supposedly representing the unity of the nation.
At the very same hour that Plevneliev announced his veto, Bulgarian Minister of Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov and Minister of Agriculture Miroslav Naydenov staged two separate press-conferences to demonstrate that cabinet has not given up the law in spite of the veto gimmick.
Tsvetanov insultingly linked protesters to organized crime. By the way, PM Borisov had already threatened them that criminals could be sent to provoke conflicts with the police and bloody their rallies.
Then Naydenov did everything to defend the alleged benefits from the new Forestry Act to the tourism sector and local communities, even going as far as to say that small mountain municipalities should rally in support of the act.
In a coincidence that appears all too miraculous, just hours after a group of citizens of the tourist towns of Bansko, Razlog and Dobrinishte announced they intend to protest the veto, which they promptly did, triggering a series of counter-protests.
Very little reflection is needed to realize that Bulgaria's rulers have opted for the highly dubious tactic of polarizing and confronting different segments of society.
Another detail needs to be added here: while protesters in Sofia had to face the onslaught of riot police when they occupied the central Eagles Bridge intersection, police at the site of the counter-protests in effect helped ralliers to shut down traffic on the busy E-79 international road to Greece.
The big point: if your goal is the entrenchment of justice and the rule of law, it is never a good starting point to disrespect institutional procedures and transform public life into a network of informal influence terminating in the domineering figure of the executive's boss, be that Boyko or not.
This truism is brilliantly illuminated by the latest developments in Bulgaria.
The Attempted Simulacra of Bulgarian Media
The lack of genuineness of the said counter-protests quickly surfaced, though the matter was by far not so obvious if you looked at reports by most of Bulgaria's mainstream media.
After all, surprisingly many major information outlets chose to ignore the Sofia rallies opposing the Forestry Act in the first place.
During the initial blockade of Eagles Bridge in Sofia for instance, Bulgaria's most watched television, bTV, did not report on the rally at all, concentrating instead on the obsequious festivities around the concurrent birthday of PM Borisov.
During the second day of blockade, when the event was among the top pieces in Euronews, the Bulgarian National Television devoted to it just a minute-long cursory report.
A string of media attempted to represent protesters as misguided youths having nothing better to do, straight-out hooligans, or mercenary environmentalists funded by shady corporate bodies.
As a whole, information sources also continued paying lip service to Borisov, eagerly embracing and promoting his self-appointed position of benign mediator in the dispute.
At the same time, counter-protests were frequently presented as legitimate and spontaneous events, with the estimated number of participants wildly inflated to be greater than that of those who went out to oppose the Forestry Act.
As it turned out however, counter-ralliers consisted primarily of officers at the municipalities of towns administered by GERB mayors, who made their subordinates go out in protest as part of their work obligations.
Other counter-ralliers included workers at Yulen ski company and related firms, who were also made to go out in 'protest' by their bosses.
This all pathetically culminated when people from the town of Sapareva Banya not only blocked yet again the E-79 under the watchful eye of the police, but then proceeded to kneel down in front of the portrait of the Bulgarian PM – apparently the lone hero who can save them from nature-loving Bulgarians.
When more open-minded journalists tried to interview some of those people, they either refused to speak, or said they did not know what the rally was about, or simply told the whole story.
Issues with media freedom in Bulgaria are no news again, but the Forestry Act case vividly illustrates the dismal effects of the whole situation.
As things stand, many ordinary Bulgarians content with believing the likes of bTV or the daily tabloid Telegraf, especially ones not living in Sofia, might have not learned about the scale of the anti-Forestry Act protests, or might simply believe they are the work of random attention-seeking youngsters.
The only major media with balanced reporting turned out to be the Bulgarian National Radio, with internet-savvy people also turning to smaller news sites and private blogs.
Coincidentally, during the very period of the rallies in Bulgaria and their distorted media representation, respected German edition Die Welt published a piece on Bulgarian media entitled "A Fragile Democracy".
Die Welt concisely described the dependency of a number of major media on the government as and on the oligarchy, with a tagline arguing that "Bulgaria at the tail-end among EU members in the field of freedom of the press".
A Self-Organized Civil Society Emerging
In this overall bleak picture of social and political mores in Bulgaria, what remains uplifting is the scale and vigor, as well as the unprecedented structure of the protests.
True, those are no veritable Occupy-style events, neither in scale nor in radicalness, but they do share a number of important common traits.
First, the rallies against Bulgaria's Forestry Act were not centrally organized by political parties or NGOs, they were formed by loose networks of people communicating via Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
Then, although having as a starting point the issues with the act and having as a chief objective their overcoming, the protests covered a wider ground, with many protesters seeing the Forestry Act as the logical product of a deeply flawed and corrupted political system.
Many cried out not only for Bulgaria's forests, but also against what they saw as the erroneous way Bulgaria's politics and economy have been developing during the last two decades, the so-called 'transition period.'
People who came out to rally were overall young, in their 20s, 30s or 40s, people from the middle class who did not feel their livelihood threatened, but were instead fighting for a deeper, more fundamental social cause.
What is more, this cause united people of very different backgrounds and political agendas.
At the protests, you could see the obvious lovers of the outdoors – skiers and hikers – but also people who were just enraged with the political ways prevalent in Bulgaria.
There were greens, there were leftists who felt not represented by the hoary Bulgarian Socialist Party, a handful of radicals rooting against privatization and for co-operatives – but also throngs of traditional rightist conservatives and liberals who just felt that what is going on in Bulgaria is simply criminal.
A string of spontaneous and free debates took place on the street, Occupy-style, on topics ranging from nature protection and the development of tourism, to abstract disputes on social justice and the nature of democracy, to the pragmatically best actions protesters are to take on the following day.
All those people were also united by the desire to really see citizens at the heart of the decision making process, beyond all murky corporate influences, but also beyond the political correctness of the Western façade democracy.
With this picture at hand, if not an Occupy Movement, you at least have the pre-conditions for the formation of a vibrant civil society geared toward thinking up and putting into work the public good.
But then in contrast you have the counterexample of the "counterprotest" people – people who were not so much misguided, but just had to rally because they were made to do so.
Recall the phenomenon of so-called "controlled voting" made so prominent in the latest few elections in Bulgaria, and you will see that "controlled protesting" is only a natural side-effect.
Apart from direct vote buying, people in whole regions of Bulgaria, especially in small towns, have no choice but to vote for local dignitaries and 'business' bosses who hold them dependent (witness the OSCE report on elections 2011).
If you do not vote for the right person, your shop might have to be closed down, or you might be fired from your job, or just get beaten.
This dire situation can be mended only when Bulgaria develops a socially responsible business, and gets rid of the handful of oligarchs and host of minor local satraps chiefly interested in exploitative development, tax evasion and draining of funds.
That is one of the major causes people protesting against the Forestry Act are fighting for.
As things now stand, one can only hope that the spontaneous movement will help transforming Bulgarian society into a society capable of thinking freely and acting in togetherness.
A first humble, yet inspiring step has been irreversibly made in that direction.
Protesters against the Forestry Act occupy Sofia's Eagles Bridge, June 14. Photo by Borislava Slavova, OffNews.bg
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