Green Revolution: How Ecoactivism Made Bulgaria Care Again
by Dimiter Kenarov
Environmental campaigners have shown they can fight the system - but how far can they fix it?
On the afternoon of 13 June, 2012, about a thousand people gathered at the Eagles' Bridge, a busy intersection in downtown Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, bringing the traffic to a standstill.
"Sorry for the inconvenience, but we're trying to save what's left of Bulgaria," read one of the protesters' signs. A group of young men and women sat in the street, while others sang, danced or rode bicycles between honking cars and buses. "We want nature, not concrete," was the recurring chant.
The flash mob had been organized on Facebook in protest against the National Assembly's decision to change the country's forestry law. The amended law would have eased the expansion of ski resorts into state-owned forests.
The police arrested a few people, but efforts to contain the rallies proved futile. The next day, the number of protesters had doubled.
Bulgaria's Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, stood firm, insisting that nothing could stop investment in winter tourism. Much of the government-friendly media dismissed the protesters as "ecologists".
On the third day, there were over 4,000 people at the Eagles' Bridge. "We are not ecologists, but citizens," the new signs read.
Facing political contagion from the spiraling protests, the newly-elected president, Rosen Plevneliev, vetoed the Forestry Law and returned it to the National Assembly for another round of negotiations.
The law was revised and officially ratified in early August, in accordance with the protesters' demands. It was a significant victory for Bulgaria's eco-conscious citizens - but it was not the first one.
Over the last few years, civic movements have mushroomed in the country, dedicated to resisting what they regard as threats to the environment.
Some have opposed unbridled construction on the Black Sea coast. Others have fought against the cultivation of genetically-modified crops, or campaigned against gold mines and the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Together, they have provided an antidote to widespread disillusionment with the democratic process, and have made institutions more responsive to public pressure. For many observers and participants, environmentalism has resurrected long lost hopes of a robust civil society in Bulgaria, one of the poorest states in the European Union.
"There is a break in the system," says Vasil Garnizov, an associate professor of anthropology at the New Bulgarian University who has studied the environmental movements.
"Whether it is permanent, or whether it will truly reconfigure the situation, remains to be seen," he says. Garnizov, who is also a former deputy minister of regional development and public works, believes the new activism has encouraged Bulgarians to ask who runs their country.
"The most important question has been put on the table - who makes the decisions: citizens or oligarchs?"
Children of the transition
The period after 1989 - the "transition" from communism to capitalism - has not been kind to Bulgarian nature.
Ironically, the economic collapse of the country initially allowed some natural habitats to regenerate. Wildlife flourished as heavy industry, until then reliant on the Soviet Union's cheap raw materials and export markets, began to shut down. Market liberalization and the plunder of public resources by political and business elites, however, soon reversed the gains.
The real-estate and construction boom that preceded Bulgaria's accession into the EU devastated many protected areas in the mountains and along the sandy beaches of the Black Sea coast. Studies by the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation indicate that in the period between 2002 and 2007, the country lost more biodiversity than in all the preceding 20 years.
The environmental movements emerged in response to the rampant destruction of nature. A powerful coalition, For the Nature, uniting 21 non-governmental and civic organizations, was established in 2007, giving rise to a series of campaigns, many of which have so far proved successful.
In 2009, for instance, a motley alliance of environmentalists, beekeepers, chefs, and parental organizations fought against attempts by the government and corporate lobbyists to introduce genetically-modified crops. Their efforts resulted in a highly restrictive law that virtually banned the crops.
The green movement also pushed for the expansion of Natura 2000, the European Union's network of protected areas, to include 34 per cent of Bulgaria's territory. The initial government proposal had included only five per cent.
But perhaps the biggest success came in January this year, when Facebook campaigns helped bring thousands onto the streets of Sofia and another 15 towns to protest against the controversial practice of fracking. The National Assembly responded by imposing a moratorium on fracking, the only such measure in eastern Europe.
"Beyond the green movement, I haven't seen anyone in Bulgaria use the instruments of civic activism so effortlessly," says Svilen Ovcharov, a lawyer who has played a key role in environmental legal battles that have proved to be an important, if less visible, counterpart to street action.
Some have called the phenomenon "green civil society" and a "new Bulgarian uprising", drawing parallels with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in western Europe and the United States. Others have made comparisons to Ecoglasnost, a Bulgarian ecological organization founded in 1989, which developed into the first dissident movement to openly oppose the Communist Party.
Environmental law 'too strict'
Not everybody is pleased, of course. Critics argue that too much focus on the environment slows down Bulgaria's economy, especially in the poorer regions.
"Environmental regulations in Bulgaria are way too strict and present a serious burden for businesses and investors," says Philip Tzanov, a businessman and president of Nature for People and Regions, an association that promotes ski development and says it represent the interests of regional communities.
After the Eagles' Bridge events, Tzanov's association helped to organize a counter-protest in defense of regional development, bussing hundreds of residents from small mountain towns to Sofia.
Many of them were elderly and impoverished and carried their own signs: "Jobs, business and investment are not dirty words"; "Give a green light to tourism"; "Don't give in to ecological racketeering".
The counter-protest in Sofia may have lacked the spontaneity of the environmental events, but it brought home an important point: the vast majority of people in Bulgaria are still mired in poverty and see environmentalism - rightly or wrongly - as an additional obstacle to their own economic recovery.
Yet, there are signs that the green movement is spreading beyond the middle-classes in the capital.
In the small town of Krumovgrad, in the Rhodope Mountains, the vast majority of residents have spoken out against a proposal to build an open-pit gold mine nearby.
Inspired by the events in Sofia, mass rallies were held in early July in Varna, a town on the Black Sea coast, to protest at plans for private construction in the largest public park. As public pressure mounted, the town council reversed its decision.
"I certainly think the recent events created something like a community," says Radosveta Krastanova, an expert on the country's green movements. "I'm not sure what to call it exactly: maybe environmental communities, in the broadest sense of the word. People who share a common vision and common values."
'Party' Is a Dirty Word
Despite the success of the green movements in Bulgaria, the popular enthusiasm has so far failed to translate into votes. The utter disillusionment with electoral politics, which Bulgarians see as inherently broken and corrupt, has alienated many voters, especially the young.
It is one of the reasons why political parties have had virtually no representation at environmental rallies - and why any hint of political campaigning has been met with outright hostility by participants.
"The rejection of political parties and politics in general is overwhelming," says Toma Belev, a forest engineer and perhaps the most recognizable face of the Bulgarian environmental movement.
This deep distrust of politics has, in turn, presented a challenge for new reformist parties which hope to lure younger voters. The Greens, an environmentalist party founded in 2007, has been active in the public sphere, generating fresh ideas and policies on a range of issues from environmental protection and sustainable agriculture to alternative energy, eco-tourism and LGBT rights.
However, in the 2009 parliamentary elections they garnered only 0.52 per cent of the vote.
"The problem in Bulgaria is that 'party' is a dirty word. We understand that and have often had to hide our role in campaigns, so that we don't drive away participants who dislike political parties," says Borislav Sandov, co-chair of the Greens.
Nonetheless, Sandov strongly believes in the need for political representation. In his view, independent civil society groups and political parties could cooperate in pushing through reforms by working from both outside and inside the system.
Whether green parties can attract a bigger following in Bulgaria still remains uncertain, but one fact is beyond doubt now: a new generation of Bulgarians has finally found its voice after years of social collapse and the loss of common values.
"The fight for the air, water, and forests has proven to be the only viable form of solidarity," says Garnizov, from the New Bulgarian University. "All other forms of solidarity - social and national - seem to have failed."
Dimiter Kenarov is a Bulgarian journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.