Rival protesters take to the streets during official launch of Bulgaria’s EU presidency

Rival protesters take to the streets during official launch of Bulgaria’s EU presidency
Up to 8,000 people joined a protest against the development of part of Pirin National Park.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia January 12, 2018

Several thousand people flooded the streets of Sofia to join numerous protests during the official ceremony for the start of Bulgaria’s EU Council chairmanship on January 11, hoping to attract international attention and raise pressure on the government.

The Bulgarian government led by Boyko Borissov is facing turbulent days as it assumes the rotating presidency of the European Council. Many people believe it will be easier get what they want in the first half of the year as Borissov is desperate to secure peace and stability.

In an attempt to prevent one of the protests – by police officers – Borissov made a last-minute pledge to secure an additional BGN100mn (€51.1mn) to increase their wages. Despite that, hundreds of police staged several peaceful demonstrations during the day, holding posters on the route taken by European Commission members.

“The base salary of the people taking care of your safety and security is €340,” one of the posters reads.

The largest and loudest protest that gathered between 4,000 and 8,000 people was organised by environmentalists who are against a government decision to allow the expansion of a ski resort in the UNESCO-designated Pirin National Park.

“Thievish company steals mountain”, “Save Pirin”, “Nature can satisfy man's need, but not man's greed” were some of the posters carried by the protesters, among whom was Boyan Petrov, Bulgarian zoologist and mountaineer who has climbed 10 eight-thousanders so far, all without extra oxygen.

“It is sad to start your chairmanship with such a protest,” one of the participants said.

The environmentalists are demanding the cancellation of the government’s decision and the resignation of the Environment Minister Neno Dimov.

“It is not about a second ski lift, it’s about our nature,” one young woman told bne IntelliNews. The same was said by many of the protesters during the demonstration.

Meanwhile, around a thousand people staged a rival protest defending the government’s decision. They arrived by bus from Bansko, where the ski resort is located, and were supported by Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov who has pledged that the government will secure investment in all Bulgarian mountains.

“We want skiing in Bulgaria” and “Green mafia out of Bulgaria” were some of the posters these protesters were holding.

Several other smaller protests were staged in Sofia on January 11, raising tensions in the capital where people had difficulty getting about as large parts of the city were blocked by the police to secure the safe passage of visiting delegations.

The entire European Commission arrived in Sofia for the ceremony and showed strong support for the Bulgarian government. EC’s Vice-President Jyrki Katainen even posted on Twitter a photo showing the EC members in the aeroplane on their way to Bulgaria.

“EU_Commission in a school trip. On our way to meet Bulgarian Presidency,” the post reads.

During the official ceremony, broadcast live by daily Dnevnik, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk delivered a speech in Bulgarian, pleasing Borissov.

Although the prime minister seemed happy during the official events, he is bracing for a no-confidence vote later this month. Initially the two biggest opposition parties – the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) — agreed to file the motion together, but on January 11 the BSP decided to do it on its own, claiming the DPS is supporting the government.

At the end of December, DPS chairman of honour Ahmed Dogan made a public statement, hinting that his party will support Borissov. Many analysts believe the DPS has been an unofficial coalition partner of Borissov since Bulgaria held early general elections in March 2017. The debate on the vote is due to begin on January 17. Mass anti-government protests are expected on the same day.