Why thousands of people protested as Bulgaria began EU presidency

Why thousands of people protested as Bulgaria began EU presidency
By Chris Harris
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Protesters hit the streets of Sofia to campaign against plans to expand a ski resort in one of the country’s national parks.

What’s happened?


Thousands of protesters hit the streets of Sofia on Thursday (January 11) over the approval of plans to expand a ski resort in one of Bulgaria’s national parks.

Critics say it would see the construction of 333 kilometres of ski runs through Pirin National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Why now?

Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE) says the government approved the plans—which also include introducing commercial logging to the park—on December 28 last year.

Thousands turned out to protest on January 4 but yesterday’s demonstration coincided with the arrival of Brussels chiefs in Sofia for a ceremony marking the start of Bulgaria’s six-month presidency of the EU.

Why are people protesting?

"Pirin is one of Bulgaria's and Europe's greatest natural treasures, home to rare bears, wolves, and centuries-old pine forests, and it's distressing to see the Bulgarian government approve an illegal plan to log it and expand a ski resort,” said Robbie Blake, communications officer at FOEE.

“This scheme would decimate the area, and greatly benefit one company close to the government—and seems to typify a pattern of dodgy developments that serve private interests over the environment and people."

FOEE said up to 8,000 protesters turned out, while Reuters news agency said 'thousands' attended the demonstration.

What does Bulgaria’s government say?

Bulgaria's environment ministry has argued the changes will allow construction in only two percent of the territory of the park, with the aim of boosting winter tourism.

Thursday’s protests also saw a counter demonstration in support of the ski resort’s expansion, arguing it would cut long queues of skiers.

Is this solely about Pirin National Park?

No. While there was an obvious environmental angle to the protests on January 11, there were also people shouting about alleged corruption.

Transparency International says Bulgaria is one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union.

The EU has been pressing the government to take steps to rein in administrative and political corruption for years. Sofia—along with its neighbour in south-eastern Europe, Romania—has been under special Brussels monitoring since it joined the bloc in 2007.

Earlier this month Bulgarian President Rumen Radev vetoed anti-corruption legislation passed by MPs in December, saying it wouldn’t be effective.

The measures in the law, approved by the national assembly two weeks ago, included the creation of a special anti-graft unit, meant to investigate persons occupying high state posts as well as assets and conflict of interest.

"I believe that the adopted law not only does not create an adequate legal basis for tackling corruption but will even make it difficult to fight it," Radev, who won a presidential election in November 2016, said in a statement.

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