Democratization has not been kind to the beauty and natural resources of Eastern Europe. Mafia barons, shady tycoons and organized crime, in collaboration with corrupt officials, have taken over for development public parks, entire coasts and pristine forests. I am helping civic associations in Varna, Bulgaria, fight back. It is an uneven struggle, with local media being owned by a national crime syndicate, and the entire city hall rumored to be on organized crime's payroll. A half-million city in the EU is ran as an authoritarian enclave. More below, even more available here.
by Nikolay Marinov - Yale Political Science/Uni Mannheim; consultant for NGO advocacy group "Varna Disha/Varna Breathes"
The Black Sea town of Varna, Bulgaria, has been gripped by protests. All attempts to quell local grievances have failed. Why? What does this mean for the future of the city, and for democracy in Bulgaria? How can we help? As one of the many participants in the dramatic events of the last few months, let me try to shed some light.
After Bulgaria's admission into the European Union, many of us decided that the problems of the country will finally be dealt with. Access to European funding, and the new rules that come with membership in the European Union were supposed to push forward the democratic and economic development of the country. The city of Varna, a metropolitan area of about half a million people, is a poignant illustration of the naïveté of this view. A few steps around the city are enough to convince you of the gravity of the problems facing the city. Sidewalks are overran by cars, dog feces and pot-holes. Green areas are untended and consist mostly of dirt or weeds. Jobs are becoming scarcer, foreign investors are fleeing. The story of the Sea Garden - the city's iconic coastal park - have much to say about the origins of the city's decay.
Start of the Civic Movement, April 11, 2012
In April 2012, a local-area newspaper headlined ``Construction will be allowed in the the Sea Garden in Varna”. The new zoning law, making its way then through the local government, aimed to permit construction in large swaths of the park. These are mostly the areas, where - after democracy came to Bulgaria in 1990 - some people managed to erect palatial residences, while claiming that these are buildings for ``public'' use. (These buildings feature tall fences, private guards and certainly look unwelcoming for the general public.) The new zoning law aimed to turn these exceptions into legal and acceptable norm, while officially allowing construction on the remaining green areas.
Shortly after that a group of concerned citizens got together, mostly on facebook, to sound the alarm over the problem. We were surprised to see that our letters were met with indifference by the government and the media. We learned lesson number one: the media in Bulgaria tend to be close to those in power and to organized crime. The new illegal construction in the park, also known as "Yordanov" quarter (the city's mayor is Kiril Yordanov), is said to serve local power brokers close to organized crime. It is telling that even now, many months after the campaign to save the park became national news, there has not been a single case of investigative reporting invoving those buildings. No one has dared to ring the bell of one the new buildings to ask after the public use of their cocktail areas and private pools.
Mass Protest against a Zoning Law
After the media quit on its traditional role in a democratic society, we decided it is time to protest. Even as everyone in local government was trying to hide the details of what zones in the Sea Garden will be subject to construction, we managed to take shots during local city council meetings. These shots proved the last straw. Varna was up in arms. Then, and only then, did the problem become national news.
This takes us to the dramatic city council vote on the new zoning law of July 4th, 2012. Acting under personal orders by the prime-minister of the country, Boyko Borisov, the local parliament passed a complete ban on construction in the Sea Garden. While local and central governments in Bulgaria are independent, Borisov's party has most of the seats in the city council, and the mayor, giving him direct levers over local politics.
Is this a victory? Beyond doubt, but... The citizens of Varna expected to see an effort to trace the roots of the problem. We expected a conversation about why the new zoning law had assumed away more than half of the city's iconic park. For example, it is widely believed that the organization charged to work on the zoning law, "TPO", is corrupt, its decisions driven by kickbacks and shady deals. In this view, the story of the Sea Garden is merely the tip of the iceberg in a zoning law riven by other examples of the same types of self-serving zoning decisions. The new zoning plan, for example, provides for the development of the beach of Pasha Dere, one of the few remaining pristine areas around the city and a favorite getaway for generations of Varna people.
There was no conversation whatsoever about what got the city into convulsions of civil disobedience and protest.
What is more, those same committees within the city council who worked to chop off Varna's favorite park are not only intact but were just recently given a new task. They are to apportion the EU funds designated for the city's development over 2014-2020.
What's next: Citizens have to block the cars from the park
Illegal construction is hardly the only problem of the Sea Garden. For years, the authorities have allowed cars to drive in the park, causing consternated parents to yell after children running in front of speeding vehicles. We did not wait on the mayor, we organized a civic blockage of all entrances of the park, for an hour. After the media picked up the news, the minister of the interior called the mayor and ordered him to rescind the existing, illegal orders, regarding traffic in the park. This time again, all progress was made via the national media and government, with zero initiative by the local authorities.
The mayor did not completely fullfil his promise to cooperate with the law, allowing local `park residents' to drive on the alleys (built for walking) and permitting restaurants in the Sea Garden to have cars access them -- conditional on parking space being available. Now restaurant owners are felling trees in the park to make room for parking lots, a clear violation of park rules.
A new chain of hotels and condos on Varna's beach
If the story so far illustrates a style of governance that lacks in transparency and respect for the public interest, the ultimate example of that must be the construction now underway on the beach areas of the Sea Garden of Varna. The private firm "Holding Varna" is building what it calls “Alley 1”. The Holding is one of the many economic projections of TIM, an organization that a leaked wiki cable by US Ambassador to Bulgaria Purdew characterizes as an "organized crime group", "involved in a wide range of criminal activities, including extortion and racketeering, intimidation, prostitution, gambling, narcotics trafficking, car theft, and trafficking in stolen automobiles", one "thought to have connections to Russian organized crime." TIM controls grain production in the country, two of the three national airports, and much of the local economy. The start of the project can be traced to a legally-controversial decision by the state to hand over a large piece of the city's coast to the private investor. Without any public discussion of the project, the investor is building what could be an extensive network of hotels in the area. The city of Varna has approved the development, and actual construction is just around the corner.
Of what, though? As of now, this is an issue that the citizens of Varna can only conjecture about. One may think that these projects would naturally belong in the public domain. As things are, the projects are among the best kept secrets in the entire country. We only know that the city council put in the zoning law the designation ("Оз"), allowing for, say, a 10 story hotel to be legally built there. When we asked the city about access to what has been approved for the area, the city gave us a firm “no”. We were told that the information is of no public concern (this is a quote).
Imagine that the local authorities in Geneva, Toronto or Venice had decided to erect something new and fairly sizable on their coastal areas. Imagine that, without auction, or any public debate, they were to hand over to a private investor the right to build. Imagine also that all the documents are approved and construction commences without any of the plans being public. Finally, imagine that the city told concerned citizens that asking about the construction plans is not their legitimate business.
What would happen? Protests? Resignations? Outcry?
Why are the people of Varna not charging the city council over this as we speak? There is fear in the city. During the debates surrounding the new zoning law, many citizens came to express their opinions. Yet, the city council voted not to give the floor to any one present. What is more, half of the room was filled by stout young males in black t-shirts (some of them here). People like that always show up when the interests of TIM are potentially threatened.
I can only add to that a personal detail. After I convinced myself that the mayor does not intend to seriously address any of the park's problems, I decided to take part in a demonstration against the city's policies. Code-named "operation produce", the action called on participants to throw rotten tomatoes at the mayor during the festivities around the celebration of Varna Day, August 15. No actual tomato throwing occurred, but I did show a banner stating my dissatisfaction with park policy.
What is interesting is that during the protest, a cohort of stout young male citizens walked toward us.
On the following morning, the house at which I was staying - certainly not public knowledge - woke up to a bag of rotten tomatoes deposited at the front door.
The point is, the city of Varna is ruled by fear. If you have business with the city, you may want to watch out. If you do not have business with the city, but voice your objections strenuously enough, sooner or later you may get a message. Smear campaigns against political opponents are the rule. The fixing of tenders for city services, with resulting poor service and sky-high costs, is a public secret that repeatedly draws national media attention to no effect. All local print media is tied to the political and business elites. Those newspapers invariably praise construction in the Sea Garden, and characterize voices of disagreement as ``sore losers'', business competitors, even when the people in question have no obvious business interest at stake. The sad state of media freedoms in Bulgaria recently became a topic of EU concern.
The style of politics this goes along with evokes Tammany hall machine politics in US history. Except that, this is a country member of the European Union, and it is the 21st century. We have a city of half a million in Europe that is arguably governed by fear and intimidation.
The results are not hard to see. The comparison to another Black Sea town on Bulgaria's coast, Burgas, is telling. Unlike in Varna, thrash in Burgas is picked up reliably, there are no potholes and that city's coastal park is green, growing and car- and construction-free.
One could argue that precisely the success of this machine politics ushered in the latest episode of hope in city history. Attempting to chop off the Sea Garden, a historical symbol, was an overreach. Building a massive "Alley 1" project on the Garden's beaches is both time-consuming and an obvious magnet of attention. With these projects, the city managed to get people to the streets, and shattered its media comfort for good.
The eruption of a spontaneous civic campaign to save Varna's iconic park is noteworthy. It is not EU policy or foreign pressure - even as those may help - that are driving change in the city. It is citizens' groups themselves, challenging the odds of organized crime and machine politicians. The people of Varna want rules, competition and democratic processes. The national and local government continue to ignore those simple demands at their own political peril.
The presence of social media allows civic campaigns to get the word out to others, and to pass information that would otherwise be censored. One of the reasons our campaign was so successful is that we started informing the local people about what was really being voted on in the city council. While legally obliged to inform the citizens of any important changes to the city planning, the municipal authorities have found a way to meet the legal requirement while leaving the burden of information gathering on the citizens themselves.
- A civic flag springs to life in the Sea Garden. (Note the condition of the `green' areas.)
How can I help and what is next?
The people of Varna, and of Bulgaria, need help. By informing yourselves of the campaigns underway, by following the websites dedicated, even signing up for email updates, all of us can help a lot. Making a small donation can go a long way toward helping civic organizations challenge the odds against them. I know well the work of "Varna Disha" for saving the park: more info here. Other organizations on the local level include СОПА (Stick).
Other organizations fight comparable attempts nationally to sideline the public interest for private gain, often destroying nature in the process. The include Зелени Балкани (Green Balkans) and ЗаДаОстанеПрирода (For the Nature).
The next stage of the campaign to save Varna's park is to pressure the authorities into organizing a referendum on the boundaries, zoning and types of development allowed in the park and its coastal areas. Success in that democratic venture would reset the course of Varna, and possibly of Bulgaria, toward the direction EU accession was intended to take it into.
The summer of 2012 remains the start of the Civic Awakening in Varna, Bulgaria, with Living Flag Flashmob on the Black Sea Coast and protests to present day.