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Bulgaria: a water crisis or a rule of law crisis?

There are rising concerns that drinking water in the Pernik area has been deviated for industrial use by a local factory and a private hydropower plant with the government’s blessings.

February 11, 2020 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

Struma river near Simitli, Bulgaria. Photo: Kearchos Kapoutsis (cc) flickr.com

Bulgaria is often underrepresented in the international media, so it is very likely that you have not heard that almost 100,000 Bulgarian citizens from the Pernik area have been facing severe water restrictions since November 2019. They have running water six hours a day, but there are serious concerns about its quality. Pernik, a satellite city of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, relies on the Studena Lake for its water supply, but the lake is nearly empty. On January 20th 2020, Emil Karanikolov, the Minister of the Economy, warned that Pernik had only 33 days of water left.

At the end of last year, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov conceded that “Bulgaria’s water crisis” was “the result of incompetent governance,” but whose incompetence and faulty governance should we be concerned about? It is common knowledge that a fish rots from the head down.

The ghost of corruption

Borissov’s GERB party has been governing Pernik on all levels for a long time. Borissov has served as Prime Minister for almost ten years. Pernik has a regional governor from GERB and, until the fall of 2019, a mayor from GERB, too. Pernik’s local water company is co-owned by the Ministry of Regional Development and Pernik’s municipality, which, in practice, means it is under GERB’s control.

In 2016, Lilyana Pavlova, then Minister of Regional Development and current Vice-President of the European Investment Bank, promoted by Borissov, gave a heart-felt speech in which she announced the start of a large-scale comprehensive rehabilitation project of Studena Lake. She deemed the project of the “utmost importance” because the dam had not seen reconstruction since it was built in the 1950s. The project, worth 32 million Bulgarian Lev (16 million Euros), was co-financed by the World Bank and the government. Pavlova also said that the government would invest 150 million Bulgarian Lev (75 million Euros) in reconstructing other lakes, including Luda Yana.

In stark contrast to the PR campaign which accompanied the launch of the rehabilitation of Studena Lake, there is very little information about the current stage of this reconstruction. After public pressure, in January 2020, minister Karanikolov admitted that the rehabilitation had not advanced even though it was supposed to be completed in 2018. In the meantime, journalists have doubts that despite the unique renovation technology Pavlova promised, the lake was simply drained so that basic works could be performed. Studena Lake is not the exception to Bulgaria’s general negligence towards lakes. In November 2019, media warned that the construction of Luda Yana, worth 56 million Bulgarian Lev (28 million Euros), was “a failure”.

The plot, however, thickens. In 2018 Borissov’s government proudly announced that the State Consolidation Company, under the Ministry of Economy led by Karanikolov, would receive 500 million Bulgarian Lev (250 million Euros) for the reconstruction of 400 dangerous dams. Even then, journalists were concerned that this was one of the most non-transparent state companies; their worries seem to have materialised because, to this day, it is unclear where this money went.

When media and civil society do the job of institutions

Yet, there is more to this story than abuse of public funds. Notably, as soon as it became known that Pernik was facing severe water restrictions, investigative journalists started looking for the likely cause of this water crisis. In December 2019, Bivol, partners of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, reported there were illegal catchments deviating water from Studena Lake in an unknown direction.

More recently, investigative journalist Valia Ahchieva, now based at Euractiv Bulgaria, used satellite images to show that the level of Studena Lake had started decreasing much earlier than thought, but the Bulgarian institutions did not take any measures to prevent a disaster. Journalists Georgi A. Angelov and Vladimir Yonchev allege that it is possible that the level of Studena Lake was not measured and that the numbers, which the local water company sent to the Ministry of Regional Development, could be “invented in somebody’s office”. Most of all, there are rising concerns that drinking water has been deviated for industrial use by a local factory and a private hydropower plant with the government’s blessings.

Former national ombudsman-turned-opposition voice Maya Manolova has made a long list of institutions which have contributed to what appears to be a case of gross negligence that led to a humanitarian crisis — from the head of the local water company and the various national agencies whose portfolios touch upon water regulation, through the ministers and vice-ministers in the Ministry of Regional Development and the Ministry of the Environment, to Borissov himself.

Wherefore art thou, rule of law?

In light of the above gruesome picture, which emerges, one can better understand why the water crisis tormenting Bulgaria is a consequence of the rule of law decay in the country.

Instead of taking measures to prevent this catastrophe, Bulgarian institutions were misleading the general public about the gravity of Lake Studena’s condition for months — a practice reminiscent of communist times. After public discontent, and especially after protests in Pernik, which peaked in December 2019, the government decided to seize the opportunity to play the savior by fighting an invisible enemy. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov declared that he would create a “mega water company” worth 1 billion Bulgarian Leva (500 million Euros) which would manage all dams in Bulgaria. Yet, considering plenty of financing went down the drain for the same purpose, how can the public be convinced that this is not yet another corruption scheme? Moreover, this initiative may not bring water to Lake Studena because experts are still debating if a viable solution is in sight.

As was rightfully pointed out by Ognyan Stoychev, the government seems to be focused on sweeping the problem under the rug instead of addressing it at its core. Even GERB MEP (European People’s Party) Emil Radev, vice chair of the LIBE Committee, said he would prevent a debate on the water crisis in Bulgaria at the European Parliament because he thought this would ruin Bulgaria’s reputation. Needless to mention, pro-government media are also engaged in persuading the general public of how much Borissov cares for citizens and how they are lucky that he is personally involved in finding a solution.

In January 2019, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office, which is a political puppet known for selective prosecution, found an easy villain in the face of Neno Dimov, Minister of the Environment, who was blamed for the water crisis because he signed authorizations for industrial use of water. He was arrested at his workplace like a dangerous criminal and subsequently put in permanent custody to prevent him from committing further crimes and sabotaging the investigation, according to the prosecution. All the publicity and excessive measures, however, seem to be a smokescreen.

Dimov has a long track record of failings and has faced vehement criticism by civil society in the past about his climate change denial and his views about construction in the Bansko ski-resort, but in this particular context, he is a sacrificial lamb. Bulgaria is an autocracy in all but name and all decisions are taken with Borissov’s blessings. It is clearly visible that many institutions contributed to this crisis through incompetence, negligence, and even corruption. One cannot help but notice that Dimov is a minister nominated by Borissov’s far-right coalition partner VMRO, too. The Prosecutor’s Office seems to avoid questioning past and present ministers close to Borissov’s heart at all costs. Surely, many Bulgarian citizens wonder what happened to the rehabilitation project promoted by Pavlova or the funds for dam maintenance indirectly managed by Karanikolov.

Grim perspective

I have spilled much ink raising awareness of the democratic decay and the rampant corruption in Bulgaria, but what is truly shocking about the water crisis in Pernik is that it showcases the scale of damage which rule of law decay can lead to. Those acquainted with the Bulgarian context know that the key people responsible for this disaster will neither face legal nor political consequences for their actions and omissions in the short run. At this stage, however, this is not the main issue. The health and safety of more than 100,000 European Union citizens is in danger while there are only temporary and questionable solutions in sight. As information emerges that other dams are in poor condition, the picture becomes truly grim.

When I discuss the murder of the rule of law in Bulgaria with foreign civil society (even the President of Bulgaria’s Supreme Court believes the rule of law at home is almost dead), I am usually told that citizens can always protest and demand change. Bulgaria, sadly, does not have a well-developed culture of protests. What is more disappointing, however, is that even if we are fortunate to see political change, it will take decades to repair the damage.

Dr. Radosveta Vassileva is a Bulgarian legal scholar whose research interests encompass EU law and comparative public and private law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.

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