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.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Death on the lake traced home

Immediately after the news of the terrible life loss in the Ohrid Lake on September 5, 2009 hit me a weird sensation crossed my mind: I knew it! I knew this should happen!
I had never suffered from any sort of professy complex before and felt quite puzzled by this surprising thought. I then realized that it was due to my overwhelming experience with travelling around Bulgaria over the last three weeks. Gross, absurd negligence of human safety and life was what I had encountered uninteruptedly while driving Bulgaria's roads. And it was Bulgarian people I had been observing risking the lives of others, including my life and the lives of my children, and - most shockingly - risking their own lives and their own children too.
How would you call someone who is driving full speed overtaking into a zero visibility curve? Suicidal. Life gambler. Murderer. What if his own wife and kids are sitting in the car? Sick. One thing is for sure - I would not trust such a person to care or be responsible for anyone's safety. Neither if he sells food or toys, nor if he drives a taxi, bus or a train. And certainly not if he sails a boat full of tourists. In any case one would expect that authorities of law - or medical - enforcement should prevent such people from harming others or themselves. In vain. Hundreds of innocent lives had been lost in Bulgaria in the months prior to the Ohrid Lake disaster: in accidents involving cars, buses, trucks, and even a burning train. Each of these cases had been reported widely by mass media and investigated. But little had been said and done to change the culture of neglect and irresponsibility to human safety and health, and to improve the laws and institutions that should safeguard them.
For the record, the boat full of Bulgarians had sank on that day abroad, in Macedonia. But the Ochrid tragedy seemed like a detail of the same bloody panorama of neglect and irresponsibilty to me. To my surprise Bulgarian mass media were not quick to make this connection. They covered neatly the actions and speeches of polititians, followed the checks of tour operators' licenses, and took the striking personal accounts of the surviers. But it was not until today actually that I came across a media report which traces the true reasons for the sinking of the Ilinden from Ochrid into Bulgaria. This was done by Sega daily reporting on Nikolay Apostolov, the head of Bulgaria's Maritime Administration in Varna, who admited that the same irregularities which lead to the Ochrid incident exist throughout the Bulgarian tourist fleet as well. Apostolov has reportedly initiated an inspection of all Bulgarian ferries and other vessels for compliance with existing Bulgarian safety regulations. So there is hope!