Greens Party Co-Chair Petko Kovachev: Just NGOs Are Not Enough in Bulgaria
Interview with Andrey Kovachev, Co-Chair of Bulgaria's "The Greens" party and number one candidate on The Greens ballot for the 2009 European Elections.
What is the major difference between you and the older green parties in Bulgaria?
There are a number of older green parties in Bulgaria. Ours is called "The Greens", which is the shortest name of all. The major difference is that ours has been set up by activists coming straight from NGOs. We've set it up because the other green parties were not what we believe a green party should be like.
This means that we are a party with a principled position on the issues that we have voiced as NGOs, and do not engage in partisan behavior like the rest of the Bulgarian political parties. For example, when we protest over the destruction of the beach at Irakli, a green party should be with us, and not in a coalition with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is destroying the nature there.
What are your most powerful weapons? How do you plan to attract supporters?
We are new, and we are not burdened with the corruption and partisanship of the other parties. We are people who have a cause, and have come in order to fight for it. This cause is fixing the country and saving the nature. We are going to continue our activities with our NGOs but at the same time The Greens party will be fighting to end the lawlessness and injustice which is all the result of one simple fact - the Bulgarian citizens are out of the government of the country. This has to be changed so that the citizens can be directly involved in the government, and not just through some supposedly representative institutions.
How do most people view you? Do some of them think you are "extremists"?
It depends. Some might try to call us "extremists" but most of the people don't because they have a good common sense. But some of them say, "Why did you become a party, you should have remained just NGOs, I want nothing to do with parties." And some say they hope we would make it because the others have not managed to.
There have been some clashes between environmentalist protesters and locals. What is the attitude of the locals towards you?
In most cases, it's actually the opposite. People are not stupid, they support us, they know what is in their favor. But when the mafia comes over with the big money, they succumb even if they want to support us. I can hardly think of a person in Bulgaria who would not sell their land for EUR 100 per square meter, for example. Even if they agree with us, they would still sell their plot to get - say, EUR 100 000 for a couple of decares.
The real problem is not between the eco activists and the people but between the state and the mafia, on the one side, and the citizens of the other. Because the citizens are deprived of ways to stop all that. Those who sell their lands have no alternatives because the state allows only the mafia ("mutri") business to thrive.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about the "construction mafia". What is its structure? Is it centralized in any way, or is it just various interests working in identical ways?
There are several levels. One of them is the construction sector which creates a large share of Bulgaria's GDP so we should be really careful with it, we can't afford to kill it. The problem is who gives the money for the construction, that's where the money goes for laundering - the mutri, the oligarchs, who construct entities that go bankrupt after that.
We need real regulation of the sector, not to hinder private initiative but in a way that creates sustainability. How? By national planning and iron regulation enforced absolutely strictly. And all administrative services should be at one counter.
Right now we have Ordinance No. 7 for territorial organization that says that the number of hotel beds can be no more than the area of the beach calculated as 8 square meters per holidaymaker. In Nessebar, it's dozens of times above what's allowed. There is the sanction but no one has been enforcing it. And we need strategic planning, sustainable tourism. Not like the overdevelopment now that creates fake advertisements that lure the customers into buying a nice flat but after that they realize they have also bought a view of huge concrete buildings all around. At the same time, the nearby territory is totally empty and barren. We need regulated and strategically planned development.
Has the financial crisis saved a lot of Bulgaria's endangered protected areas?
Partly it has, some of the construction projects are having difficulties with the funding. But this is only temporarily, we can't rely on this. Those people need to be made to understand that they need to do another kind of business, and not business in which they only care about their profit.
Did you really have to form a political party? Are NGOs in Bulgaria limited in what they can achieve?
I have been in the Bulgarian NGO sector for 18 years. I have worked on the NATURA 2000 network of protected territories for seven years, and we have been fighting to force the government to accept it. But right now Bulgaria is clearly heading in a direction where the opportunities of citizens to participate in the government of the country are really becoming limited. This has been happening systematically since 2000.
My prediction is that if we don't succeed now to save the protected areas from unregulated construction soon there would be only a few spots of nature left in Bulgaria. Just as NGOs it would be dozens of times harder for us. That is why we are trying to create this political instrument for that purpose, and also to fix the country because our problems, environmentalists' problems come from crime and corruption, and so do Bulgaria's problems in general.
So you've really reached the level where you can do nothing more as NGOs, and you have to enter politics?
This is a cause to which we have dedicated most of our lives so we have to follow it. In fact, we are the true statesmen in Bulgaria thinking about the interests of the country. We say, for example, that tourism should be developed in such a way that we can protect nature, and develop the local communities at the same time. This is a weird carnival, you see - the roles are swapped - we are the ones who act and think like real statesmen, and not those in power.
You have been confronting extremely powerful political and material interests. Have you received threats? Do you feel threatened?
I personally have not received any threats but colleagues of mine have. For example, in the Strandzha Mountain region. But they have been trying to "buy" me and my organization, to bribe us.
Who has tried to bribe you and how?
All sorts of interested factors. They say, "Don't file your suits, we will give you as much money as you want", or, "We will settle it between each other. Let's set up together a system to monitor nature, and let us build whatever we want."
Are you afraid you can be physically assaulted?
No. If someone does that, they will lose the battle very quickly. Don't think that these people are omnipotent. A lot of people say, "That's a lot of money circulating there, it is scary". It's not exactly like that. The truth is that the public opinion is still the most powerful factor in this country. And so long as this is the case, there is still a chance for a change if the public opinion can be guided in the right direction.
In my view, the great problem of Bulgarians is that they have no idea what has to be done, and they think they simply need to replace one group of politicians with another. The way to change things is through mechanisms for direct participation of the citizens in the government. All European states have such mechanisms except for Bulgaria.
A simple example: right now in the village of Dragichevo, the state wants to sell 1000 decares of forest, the only forest of the village to a company that wants to turn it into a golf course. The people are against that but everything is legal and they have no say.
What sort of mechanism exactly would help here?
Referendum. There's one mechanism. It's on their territory. Without their consent the state should not be allowed to do that, i.e. to sell or swap that land.
With what other political parties are you ready to cooperate with, or to form a coalition?
I don't want to mention any of them right now. Let the traditional parties check out our radical program for direct democracy, let them realize that the "material" is not so bad, that changes are urgently needed, and that what we have now is not a democracy but a "cleptocracy", rule of the thieves. Let them support our demands, and then we would work with them. You figure out on your own which ones are capable of doing that. But I think that without us, none of the other parties would do that. They will recognize all that only when we force them to.
What are your relations with the European Green Party? Do you have their support?
We have just been set up. In order to join such a party family, you need time. We have submitted our application, and we hope that in the foreseeable future we will be members of the European Green Party. We have been working with them for a long time as NGOs, and they know we are people who do our job.
Why have the European Greens been perhaps the most critical European party of Bulgaria during its EU accession negotiations and post-accession monitoring? Is it because they have no Bulgarian member to cushion the criticism?
No, it's just because they are the least "ad hoc" of all European parties. The Greens in Europe are the most open to the citizens, and are not encapsulated. They are really part of the civil society. Every party should be like that but they have succeeded the most in that respect, and that is why they have been critical of Bulgaria, and of anyone, for that matter, by protecting the public interest.
What is the ideological identification of The Greens party?
Ah, yes, there is this really dumb idea that green parties are left. This is complete rubbish, the greens are environmentalists, yes, but other than that they are more like Christian-Democrats. We are a party of small and medium-sized businesses, of professionals, and of independent people, of the highly-educated. One thing is for sure, we are not a party of big business, and we will never be one.
How do you think you will do in the coming elections?
We will do better than our opponents expect. It is a mistake to underestimate us. We are fighting to get representatives in the European Parliament in order to do work that we have been doing so far with Members of the European Parliament from other countries not from Bulgaria. A MEP has a huge power. Nobody should think the European Commission is ideal. It is a bureaucratic structure.
Just the other week we tabled a harsh complaint about the work of a whole department of the Commission, the one responsible for handling NGO petitions in environment matters. The Commission also needs to be controlled. As far as the Bulgarian Parliamentary Elections are concerned, it is all clear. We need to be present there to prevent the shedding of civil rights and environmental destruction.
You have referred a number of cases to the EU institutions. What sort of a role can they play? Have they had any impact on saving protected areas in Bulgaria?
If they have a clear stand, the EU institutions can have a huge impact. For example, recently the territorial organization plan for a complex resort called "Super Perelik" in the Rhodoppes has been revoked under pressure from the European Commission. But for this to happen we actually had to appeal the Commission's initial decision to close the case - a decision of the same department I mentioned above that we have submitted a letter of complaint about.
The truth is that the European Commission can do a lot but because of the bad work of this department in question we still haven't had great results in Bulgaria. As a matter of fact, things are going to happen later. All the violations will be made, they will be uncovered, and then Bulgaria would have to pay fines, while in fact they must start the procedures now in order to pressure those responsible who want to make these violations, and to prevent them from destroying the environment.
You had difficulties collecting the deposit of BGN 50 000 required for taking part in the European Elections. How did you manage to cope with that?
That was an attempt to get us out of the game. We were forced to lead a fund-raising campaign instead of explaining our views and ideas. But we made it, and in the most transparent way possible. The banner with the raised sum on our website was updated daily. I emailed twice all of my contacts, over 800 emails, asking everybody to donate, even BGN 10. The largest donations we had were several donations of BGN 1 000 - 2 000. Now we have to collect another BGN 50 000 to deposit for the Bulgarian Parliamentary Elections, and it is going to be tough.
In a nutshell, what are the latest developments on the construction projects that you have been fighting against?
Let me first mention that we are currently collecting signatures to petition about those, so we are asking everyone to help us.
First, the Strandzha Mountain Natural Park. The Socialist Minister of Regional Development, Asen Gagauzov, has signed a totally illegal territorial organization plan of the Municipality of Tsarevo that provides for construction of almost the whole Black Sea coast of the natural park. They tried anything to overcome the legal status of the natural park, and to make possible construction there, they tried to fire its director. Now this is their final move. We are currently appealing the plan before the Supreme Administrative Court but we don't trust the court so we are also collecting signatures.
The Cape of Emine and Irakli - I have been dealing with that from the very beginning. We are engaged in a very severe battle there - the state is doing everything it can to let the investor Swiss Properties construct there. They've let them destroy the whole river, the coast. Now the Regional Environment Directorate in Burgas has approved the project again, and we have brought them to court again. It's still possible to recover the nature there but if this passes, Irakli will be destroyed.
Kamchiyski Pyasatsi ("Kamchia Sands") - 6 km of wild coast, a biosphere reserve totally destroyed through a land swap scheme. Totally illegal, the land there was privatized through land swaps with three firms that are owned by Reiffeisen Bank Austria. We have no idea whose the money behind those firms is. But they are so powerful that allowing the construction on those absolutely amazing natural beach dunes was proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Ivaylo Kalfin, who is currently heading the Bulgarian Socialist Party ballot for the 2009 European Elections. In Stradzha we had Prime Minister Stanishev and his personal arrangement with the Mayor of Tsarevo Arnaudov, and here we have the Deputy PM Kalfin.
Karadere - the nearby territory - the local people actually just called me telling me there are already security guards there who won't let them go to the beach. This is the great graft scheme of Georgi Stanishev, the brother of Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, who is together with another architect, Norman Foster. They've made a land swap deal with the government, and now starting construction inside the NATURA 2000 network.
The Cape of Kaliakra - here the media tycoon Krassimir Guergov has a project for a golf course, and a large number of wind power generators. If all that is built, nothing will remain of Kaliakra. On the map everything is in red - "built-up areas in future". Another project for an Arabian-style resort complex on the very cape has been given up for the time being, fortunately.
The Pirin Mountain - a natural park, a UNESCO site, a biosphere reserve. What they did in Bansko was not enough- the erosion and the overdevelopment - now they have a project for building ski tracks on all sides of the Bayovi Dupki reserve, a huge project - the whole northern slope of the Pirin Mountain will be covered in ski tracks; what we've seen there so far is nothing compared to what is being planned.
The Rila Mountain - the illegal ski lift at Panichishte has started operating; there are now huge projects planned there. The man behind them is the energy tycoon, Hristo Kovachki, who wants to build a ski complex between Mount Malyovitsa and Govedartsi. All the land swap deals have been made. Just imagine - huge chunks of state-owned land - they just paint ski tracks on the map, carve them out, and give them to him.
Should I go on? All these battles are extremely hard so we do need the support of the people.
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