Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Vitosha Park defenders triumphant as minister revokes permit

Today is a celebration day for many in Bulgaria. First, for the environmental activists who saw yet another struggle turn to a promising stage. It was marked by the decision of Bulgaria's newly appointed environment minister Nona Karadjova to revoke the environmental permit of a ski resort project in Mount Vitosha, near the capital Sofia. Second, and foremost, for all Bulgarians who invested their votes and their hopes in the new government's promises to bring the country back to a rule of law, end corruption, and make the state administration responsible to its citizens and tax payers. But will they be able to celebrate?

The hard-core group of environmental activists in Bulgaria have hardly ever celebrated anything during the last decades of so called transition. These were the times when the country's natural riches were being steadily and systematically transformed into private and corporate assets - like real estate and capital gains for 'investors' of various kind, appetite, and origin. Indeed, the thin group of nature protection activists attracted sympathy and many young members in the past two years, when public outrage grew proportional to the ill-shapen constructions across the country's pristine mountains and sea coast. Indeed, equipped with public support and internet blogs, environmentalists had their small and larger victories. But these felt for them like tiny raindrops in the face of a massive fire of lawlessness, corruption and disregards of citizen's rights to clear environment.

The general public of Bulgaria generously supported the General - Sofia's former mayor Boyko Borissov - in his pledge to bring things back to normal. And to bring the country into Europe - not only nominally as a EU member, but in terms of doing things the right way. But after about three months of 'revision' and 'assessment' of what damage the previous government had had done, the time had come for the new one to deliver the change they promised by their own actions. And the case of Vitosha seemed a lot like a litmus test for their ability to do this.

Although operating from an off-shore company base, the investors in the Vitosha ski zone were well known. Through their connections with the Bulgarian Skiing Federation and First Investment Bank they could be clearly traced back to their previous grand project - Bansko. The ski zone there was constructed within the borers of Pirin, a National Park and UNESCO heritage site, as part of a concession granted in 2001 by then environment minister Evdokia Maneva, and contested by all means and no success in the court by the green activists' group mentioned above. Since then the project was broadly seen as an anti-model of ski resort development which turned the previously existing cosy historic town of Bansko into a urban jungle of unfinished concrete monster hotels with non-existent infrastructure. Uphill Pirin the ski zone went beyond the concession permits and caused serious damage to ecosystems and habitats, ecologists claimed.

The new project in Vitosha berried striking similarities to the previous one. Existing skiing infrastructure mismanaged and abandoned by its its previous state owner was generously granted to the new 'investors' who, like true saviours, were supposed to magically transform it into a glossy money-making resort. But according to the Save the Nature NGOs coalition and the head of Vitosha Nature Park Toma Belev the planned extensions of ski runs was to devastate the natural heritage of the mountain.

The Vitosha Ski zone progressed, in spite of objections and the fact that its development seemed to contradict the park's management plan, approved by Parliament years earlier. Sofia's chief architect Peter Dikov quietly added the project to the capital's urban plan. His act was contested by environmentalists, but was also seen as a sign of support by his former boss Borissov for the project. Maneva's consecutive appointment as a deputy minister of environment, as well as the wave of support for the resort project in certain media outlets made environmentalists and many other citizens expect the business as usual scenario: where money makes everything possible, permits are issued, public opinion gets modified, and critical voices silenced, or just ignored.

But Vitosha is just beyond the government's office windows in Sofia, and the public opinion is different then the one in Bansko and other newly cast resorts across Bulgaria. Today's decision by Borissov's environment minister proves the fears wrong and sends a strong message of hope. In this case it seems Karadjova has acted in line with her party's pre-election promises: to bring rule of law back into nature protection. In their first reaction, the Vitosha Ski investors accused her in making 'irresponsible decisions' and complained that they had not been consulted by her. They also hinted that they might freeze the ski runs for the 2009/2010 season and leave Sofia's inhabitants with no access to their nearest snow slopes. But doing that Vitosha Ski might as well shoot itself in the foot, as the public will judge them by their actions, and not by their promotional articles in convenient news media.

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