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Green Revolution: How Eco-Activism Made Bulgaria Care Again

Dimiter Kenarov Sofia

Environmental campaigners have shown they can fight the system – but how far can they fix it?

Where rebels once fought for cities from the forests, activists today say they are fighting in cities for control of the forests.

On the afternoon of June 13, 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 protester’s 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 organised that same day on Facebook in protest against the National Assembly’s decision to change the country’s forestry law. The amended law would have effectively removed curbs against certain types of logging, and permitted the expansion of ski resorts into state-owned forests, without changing the status of the land.

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, at first stood firm, insisting that nothing could stop investment in winter tourism. Much of the government-friendly media simply dismissed the protesters as “ecologists”.

On the third day, there were as over 4,000 people at the Eagles’ Bridge. “We are not ecologists, but citizens,” the new signs read.

Facing political contagion from the spiralling 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.

Protests against fracking brought together Bulgarians from a range of backgrounds.

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 effective antidote to widespread political apathy, and have made institutions more responsive to public pressure.

“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?”

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.

ACTIVISM FOR EXPORT

Bulgaria’s green activism has also spilled across the Danube into neighbouring Romania, a country that has many of the same economic, social and environmental problems.

After pressuring their government to impose a moratorium on fracking, Bulgarian activists launched the first Facebook campaign against shale gas exploration in Romania. Both countries share aquifers that risk being polluted by fracking. The Bulgarian activists helped the Romanians with documents and know-how.

Their efforts bore fruit in March this year, when Romanians took to the streets in numbers unseen since the fall of communism in 1989. The protests were largest in the north-eastern town of Bârlad, where fracking operations had been planned.

The demonstrators – including many who had been mobilised through local authorities, churches and trade unions – demanded a moratorium on fracking similar to the one passed in Bulgaria.

As protesters took to the streets in Bucharest, shale-gas exploration became the subject of a national debate.

The contrast with the years immediately after communism is stark. During the so-called “transition” period, public resources were plundered by political and business elites. As a result, many citizens withdrew from civic life, deeply disillusioned with the democratic process.

“The environmental movement is the first one that has managed to bring people out in the street and effect change to some degree,” says Borislav Sandov, a co-chair of The Greens, a young party that has been involved in the recent campaigns in Bulgaria.

“The environmental movement has become one of the main pillars in the fight for democracy.”

‘Green shield’
 

Environmental politics have unique roots in this small Balkan country. It was the Independent Society of Eco-Glasnost, an ecological organisation founded in the spring of 1989, which developed into the first dissident movement to openly oppose the Communist Party.

That same year, it organised the first public rally in Sofia against the regime and submitted a petition calling for greater openness on environmental issues. Aside from ecological concerns, there were also demands for social reforms, democracy, and human rights.

“Eco-Glasnost was first and foremost a dissident organisation. We achieved a lot on environmental issues, but environmentalism was also the shield, in the positive sense of the word, behind which we protested against totalitarianism,” remembers Alexander Karakachanov, one of the leaders of the movement.

“Of all the dissident organisations, Eco-Glasnost was the first one to liberate the public mind and show people that change was on the way.”

The movement enjoyed immense popularity in Bulgaria during the political changes in 1989. Later, it was closely associated with democratic reforms and became one of the constituent members of the Union of Democratic Forces, an umbrella organisation which was a major political player for more than a decade.

Despite its initial success, however, Eco-Glasnost soon disintegrated into bickering factions and gradually lost its political clout and grassroots support. With the economic situation worsening and public debate hijacked by raucous ideological battles between “communists” and “democrats”, Bulgaria’s first crop of environmental movements went to seed.

Children of the transition’

The new wave of activists regard nature as the last shared resource to have escaped plunder.

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 liberalisation, however, soon reversed the gains.

The real-estate and construction boom that preceded Bulgaria’s accession into the EU devastated many of the protected areas along the sandy beaches of the Black Sea coast and the country’s mountains.

Centuries-old pine forests in the Pirin Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were destroyed to convert Bansko, a picturesque village, into a mega-size ski-resort. An inquiry by the Ministry of the Environment and Water later concluded that the resort had illegally expanded by more than 50 per cent of its originally assigned area.

Bulgaria is riddled with corruption. It is estimated to have the largest “grey” sector in the EU, accounting for about a third of the economy. Bulgaria is also the most investigated country for abuse of EU funds, according to the European anti-fraud office, OLAF. Through unchecked and often-illegal development, corruption has taken its toll on nature.

Studies by the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation indicate that in the period between 2002 and 2007, the country lost more biodiversity and natural landscapes than in all the preceding 20 years.

The environmental movements emerged in response to the rampant destruction of nature, which is often viewed as Bulgaria’s last public resource. A powerful coalition, For the Nature, uniting 21 non-governmental and civic organisations, was established in 2007, giving rise to a series of campaigns, many of which have so far proved successful.

“It was very difficult for a single organisation to tackle the most difficult cases. At a certain point we realized we had to work together to achieve success,” says Konstantin Ivanov, head of communications and marketing at the Bulgarian branch of WWF, one of the coalition members.

“Environmentalism is in the best position to unite people, regardless of their political or other differences.”

In 2009, for instance, a motley alliance of environmentalists, beekeepers, chefs, and parental organisations 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 genetically-modified crops from the country.

The authorities in Bulgaria have executed a series of U-turns in the face of mounting protests.

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 practise of fracking, for the exploration and extraction of shale gas.

The National Assembly responded by imposing a moratorium on fracking, the only such measure in eastern Europe.

“These have not just been protests, but complex campaigns involving various instruments [including media publicity and legal action],” says Svilen Ovcharov, a lawyer who has played a central role in environmental legal battles that have proved to be an important, if less visible, counterpart to street action.

“Beyond the green movement, I haven’t seen anyone in Bulgaria use so effortlessly the instruments of civic activism, generally speaking,” he says.

Some analysts have called the phenomenon the “green civil society” and the “new Bulgarian uprising”, drawing parallels with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in western Europe and the United States.

GREENS FADE IN GREECE

Greece has had a strong environmental movement since the end of military rule in the mid-1970s. Opposition to nuclear power galvanized citizens and forced environmental issues onto the policy agenda. In Thessaloniki, green parties scored substantial victories.

In 2002, Greece’s various green factions united as The Ecologists Greens, a party which achieved success at national and European levels. In 2009, the head of the party, Michalis Tremopoulos, was elected to the European Parliament, the first ever green MEP from the Balkans.

The recent economic crisis has, however, diverted attention from environmental to social and financial issues.

“We lost many of our green supporters,” says Michalis Tremopoulos. “People struggle financially and don’t care so much about environmental problems anymore. We lost the connection to our voters.”

The crisis has also changed the government’s approach to the environment. Desperate to fill empty state coffers, a number of highly controversial projects have been given the go-ahead – including plans for a large gold mine on the Khalkidhiki Peninsula. Protests from locals have had little effect.

“Foreign multinational companies want to devour Greece now,” says Maria Kadoglou, one of the leaders of the anti-mining campaign.

Just as environmentalism in post-communist Bulgaria and Romania experiences a renaissance, the movement appears to be declining in Greece – a country with a far longer tradition of democracy and civic engagement.

As the Bulgarian green movement has grown in scope to include a wider demographic of young, tech-savvy, mostly middle-class professionals, its impact on government decisions has increased.

“Today’s battle is not taking place in forests for control of the city squares, but in city squares for control of the forests,” wrote Georgi Deyanov, a university student, in a widely publicised essay that became the unofficial manifesto of the forestry law protests at Sofia’s Eagles’ Bridge this summer.

“We are against oligarchies, which remain beyond the law and monopolise all spheres of economic, political and public life,” he continued. “We are the children of the transition.”

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. They say excessively strict regulations hurt business and investment, resulting in higher unemployment.

“The demographic and economic catastrophe in the mountain regions is terrible,” says Philip Tzanov, a businessman and president of Nature for People and Regions, an association that actively promotes ski development and says it represent the interests of regional communities.

“Environmental regulations in Bulgaria are way too strict and present a serious burden for businesses and investors.”

After the Eagles’ Bridge events, Tzanov’s association helped to organise a counter-protest in defence 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.

“There is a huge gap between these two cultures,” says Garnizov, the associate professor in anthropology.

“The Bulgarian administration has a long way to go before it has the capacity to control the conflict between the absolute imperative of environmental protection and the absolute imperative of economic development.”

But there are signs already that the green movement has started to erase the old social and geographical borders. In the small town of Krumovgrad, in the Rhodope Mountains, the vast majority of residents have spoken out against a Canadian company’s proposal to build an open-pit gold mine in the vicinity.

In Varna, a provincial resort town on the Black Sea coast with a history of corruption scandals, mass rallies were held in early July in protest at plans to permit private construction in the largest public park. The protesters had been inspired by the success of similar demonstrations in Sofia. As public pressure mounted, the town council reversed its decision.

Graffiti in Bucharest portrays money as a monster running amok through nature.

According to Radosveta Krastanova, an expert on the country’s green movements, the focus on the environment points to a renewed desire among Bulgarians for community and communal spaces in general, both wild and urban – something that has nearly vanished in the past 20 years.

“I certainly think the recent events created something like a community,” she says. “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 popularity and success of the green movements in Bulgaria, the enthusiasm has so far failed to translate into actual votes during national and regional elections.

The utter disillusionment with electoral politics, which Bulgarians see as inherently broken and corrupt, has alienated many voters, especially the young.

“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.

Of course, the crisis in political legitimacy is a familiar trend all over Europe, but it is especially acute in Bulgaria. A survey by Eurobarometer found that just 17 per cent of Bulgarians trust their parliamentary institutions, compared to 28 per cent on average in the EU.

It is one of the reasons why political parties have been virtually unrepresented at environmental rallies – and why any hint of political campaigning has been met with outright hostility from participants.

“The immunity to politics is very serious and people do not like to be identified with political parties,” says Petar Kardjilov, a doctoral student in crisis communications and an active participant in environmental rallies.

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 often we’ve 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.

Others, however, fear that any direct association with mainstream politics would taint the grassroots ideal, as political deal-making and compromises would become inevitable.

The future looks hazy for a movement that has so far renounced mainstream politics.

That there are several environmentalist parties fighting each other over the right to represent the tiny green vote does not exactly help any of them win wider public trust. And while the green movement has been thriving, political environmentalism has fallen into a slump.

“One of the fundamentals of green parties is that their work requires time, it relies on a cumulative effect, which may be felt in ten or 20 or 50 years,” Radosveta Krastanova, the environmental scholar, says.

“But political logic is reversed: you have to provide an immediate result, right now. Environmentalism functions against the logic of the political system.”

Whether green parties can attract a bigger following in Bulgaria remains uncertain. However, environmentalism has already had a tangible effect on the country’s political discourse. Having gauged the strength of public opinion, some mainstream parties have started to adopt greener agendas to appeal to voters.

Most importantly, a new generation of Bulgarians seems to have finally found its voice after years of social collapse and a loss of common values that had allowed the powerful to operate without checks and balances.

“The fight for the air, water, and forests has proven to be the only viable form of solidarity,” says Vasil Garnizov. “All other forms of solidarity – social and national – seem to have failed.”

 

Dimiter Kenarov is a Sofia-based journalist. This article 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. It was edited by Neil Arun.

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Dimiter Kenarov

Dimiter Kenarov's journalism has been published by Esquire and The International Herald Tribune, among others.