Mass protests mar start of Bulgaria's EU presidency

Mass protests mar start of Bulgaria's EU presidency
Opponents claim the government decision to allow the expansion of the Bansko ski resort (pictured) will lead to the devastation of thousands of acres of forests.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia January 7, 2018

Bulgaria has been hit by a wave of mass protests in the days after the country took over the European Union presidency. 

Thousands of citizens went out on the streets in several cities to protest against a late December government decision to allow the expansion of a ski resort in the UNESCO-designated Pirin National Park. The protests lasted for several days at the end of December and beginning of January, and more are expected in the coming days.

Many Bulgarians see an opportunity to achieve what they want while Bulgaria is chairing the EU, as the government is desperate to secure a quiet and stable six months and is therefore prone to making compromises. 

Both scientists and the police have already used this leverage to their advantage. A threat by Bulgarian scientists to call a protest during the first event of Bulgaria’s chairmanship led to the government immediately backing down over plans to cut the amount of money it allocates for scientists’ salaries. Meanwhile, police officers have secured an earlier than planned pay hike.

However, the most inflammatory issue at the start of Bulgaria’s presidency is the development of the Pirin National Park. On December 28 the government approved a new management plan for the national park, allowing resort manager Yulen to build a second gondola cabin lift in Bansko, Bulgaria’s largest ski resort.

The construction of a second gondola lift in Bansko has been at the centre of a lengthy dispute between owners of property at the resort and environmentalists, who claim that it would affect protected areas. In November, the WWF and several other NGOs took the Ministry of the Environment and Water to court over the planned opening of Pirin National Park to development.

The December 28 decision provoked outrage and several thousand Bulgarians went out to protest the next day. The protests continued in January when several other cities joined. 

Several opposition parties issued a declaration stating they will not allow excessive construction in the Bulgarian mountains and claiming that the government’s decision was the result of “political blackmail” that will lead to the devastation of thousands of acres of forests.

“We demand revocation of the decision of the Council of Ministers and immediate resignation of [the Environment Minister] Neno Dimov,” the declaration, published on the website of Yes! Bulgaria reads.

However, according to local daily Dnevnik, in two towns small groups of people have organised protests defending the government’s decision.

As early as 2006, at the beginning of Bulgaria’s property boom, the Save Pirin Coalition claimed that deforestation of the Pririn mountains because of intense construction work had resulted in a sharp increase in flooding. Five years later, hundreds of people demonstrated against legislative changes allowing illegal construction to be legitimised. Environmentalists also say that the Bansko ski zone has taken over far more land within the national park than authorised, and that this has been overlooked by successive governments.

Political stability is also under pressure on another front. The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) have initiated a no-confidence vote that is scheduled for January 17. The two main opposition parties claim that the government led by Boyko Borissov has failed to fulfil its promise for serious results in the fight against corruption.

Mass anti-government protests are planned to start on the same day, and are expected to last until the end of January.