While Bulgarians hold their breath, weeks before the parliamentary elections, preparations within the Bulgarian Green Movement party, known as The Greens (Zelenite), seem to be in full swing. Mr. Borislav Sandov took the time on the 26th of February to talk to Global Green News about the political situation in Bulgaria, the state of democracy and freedom of speech in the country, the rampant corruption, and the Green party’s position on the rapidly developing political situation and the upcoming elections.
Media and freedom of speech:
Q – You have been pretty outspoken when it comes to expressing your opinions and talking about freedom of speech and democracy in Bulgaria. How would you describe the situation of freedom of speech and democracy in Bulgaria today?
Since Bulgaria has joined the European Union, some of the most visible parts of democracy have been dramatically decreasing
It is arousing. Democracy is arousing, which is very strange, because we are now part of the European Union, and everyone is expecting that the standards and level of democracy would increase. However, strangely, in the last 10-12 years since Bulgaria has joined the European Union, some of the most visible parts of democracy have been dramatically decreasing, for example, media freedom.
We joined the European Union in 2007. At the time, Bulgaria was ranked 36th on the journalists without borders scale for freedom of the press. Today, we are in the 111th place on the same ranking list. So, this is a huge problem.
This is also a result of the European Union funding programs because some of the funding money goes for advertising the European Union’s programs, but the way the funds are distributed in Bulgaria is very bad. The European Union gives money to the central government who then distributes it to the media outlets to promote some of the European problems.
Abuse of Power
As you might guess the central government gives the money to those media outlets who support it. Some of the outlets that received European funds have even spread fake news! And they are part of the propaganda and misinformation campaigns that are happening in Bulgaria.
The other part of the problem of freedom of the press in Bulgaria is that some of the oligarchs started their own campaigns through media, in order to silence their opponents. I was one of the examples of this, by being the first Bulgarian to be found guilty for insulting one of the oligarchs because of a Facebook status that I wrote on my personal Facebook profile.
This is also related to problems with how the justice system functions in Bulgaria and how it is occupied by oligarchs and powerful people from the political sector.
Back to my story, there was this chair of a control board of a copper mining company who started a campaign against me as an act of revenge because the Green Party of Bulgaria, managed and won a court case against a plan to expand a mine the company has in the center of Bulgaria. So, it was a kind of revenge against me as the Co-Chair of the party using a Facebook status that I wrote, saying that he is poisoning the water there. Basically, the poisoning was proved by institutions and regulators in Bulgaria. So, I was found not guilty of defamation, but guilty of insulting because he is a very important person.
Q – Can we then say that the problem is that the media is divided between privately funded by oligarchs, outlets, and government-funded outlets that spread propaganda?
Yes, correct. That’s the problem. There are only a few independent media, mainly online, where you can find real content. All the others are propaganda-style media, and this is a big problem because without free media democracy does not work and it decreases.
Q – Last summer, the country witnessed a lot of protests. Many observers have described the protest movement as the “Grand National revolt” in Bulgaria. Meanwhile, a lot of government officials have described the protesters as “scum” and as people, and I quote here, that need to “be put in place”. Where does the Green Party stand in regard to the protest movement?
In the very heart of it, the movement began to protest environmental issues. We were organizing the environmental protests as part of a green movement, not only was the Green Party involved but also NGOs and citizens who were a part of a very strong and big movement in Bulgaria.
Later on, some other groups joined, and then the general prosecutor went to the presidential office, arresting two advisors to the president, which was seen by many people as a direct attack on the Constitution because the presidency is an independent power in Bulgaria. Another spark to the protests was the scandal when another oligarch built an illegal private mansion on the seaside and occupied the beach and the nearby territory.
This oligarch was protected by the national guards who are paid by our tax money
Interestingly enough, this oligarch was protected by the national guards who are paid by our tax money. The national guards were protecting him because he is a former leader of one of the parties, and due to that former leadership, he still had national guards to protect him.
This is where Cristiano, who is one of our partners in the coalition and the leader of the Yes Bulgaria party, managed to organize an important event on the seaside to protest the constructions.
Such problems and scandals brought many people together and spread a general sense of anger toward this mixed model of oligarchs and powerful figures in power and in the justice system, like the general prosecutor‘s office. It illustrated how the state could be captured by corrupted people.
Q –Do you agree with the claim that Bulgaria does not have a protest culture and that even if a change was to come, Bulgaria will need a lot of time for an actual reform to occur in the country?
The civil Society in Bulgaria is quite strong
I disagree with such a Thesis. The civil society in Bulgaria is quite strong, but the media does not give enough attention and coverage to it. Furthermore, the government does not give money to any independent NGOs in Bulgaria. They subsidize NGOs who are part of the system, which contributes to the problem of the lack of representation.
However, there are many activities, and actions that happened in the last decade, which show the strong impact the civil society in Bulgaria has. A crucial point to mention here is that the green movement has been a key component of civil society. Green activists were among the people who took to the streets along with mothers from the countryside who were protesting air pollution. The mothers started protesting after many children’s deaths occurred due to air pollution. This movement happened by the end of the totalitarian regime in 1988– 1989 and protesters were then beaten and put in jails. Later on, in the 90s, the green movement became political.
The movement witnessed different levels of activity until the beginning of the 21st century, where a second wave of the green movement started. I was a part of it. Back then, together with my colleagues and university students, we created the university code for the environment and sustainable development. Many other civil society groups appeared and worked on protecting Bulgarian beaches and mountainsides from harmful or illegal constructions where the government, for example, was trying to build ski resorts.
In 2007-2008 a coalition of NGOs and civil society groups was formed and called For Nature. A year later those people created the Green Party. The party was first called Zelinete, which means the greens.
In the last decade, we organized two major protests against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organism), we worked on stopping a second nuclear power plant construction, we worked to stop fracking and we were the second country, after France, to ban fracking in the world.
It was due to massive protests where thousands of people marched and mobilized in different events. We also protected national parks, many different costal locations, and many other natural places and habitats. Basically, we were active on many levels advocating for both environmental and social causes. For instance, in 2013, Sofia witnessed daily protests for 404 consecutive days after an oligarch was assigned to a position as a national secret service director.
In my opinion, this shows how alive civil society in Bulgaria is. Unfortunately, we live in a sort of bubble here in Bulgaria. There is a lack of media coverage of the Bulgarian civil society’s movement, advocacy, and activities.
Q- It seems that you are optimistic and that you believe in Change in Bulgaria, so with the elections approaching, how long do you think the people will keep on protesting in the streets?
There are not many people protesting at the moment mainly due to the Covid–19 situation and restrictions. Even though the second wave has almost ended, we are expecting a third wave. Besides, people are realizing that change could not happen only by protesting in the streets and we need to make a change through elections.
People need to kick out those who are corrupted and elect candidates from the opposition to power. The last parliament suffered from an immense lack of representation problem due to the lack of opposition voices in it.
Q- You have said before that Bulgarians are “angry” with their government. What is the Green Movement party doing to contain this anger?
The Prime Minister is following an authoritarian and populist style of governance
People are angry because of the way of governance in Bulgaria. The Prime Minister is following an authoritarian and populist style of governance. He, for example, travels every day with his jeep and goes live on Facebook by himself which means that there are no journalists there.
There is no one to ask him questions or to criticize him. People are angry because of this way of governance. People are also angry because they see how regulators and prosecutors are not independent. The whole system is not independent.
People see footage of public officials posing with piles of money and gold next to them. Or recordings of the prime minister issuing official orders and instructions with his phone, ignoring the parliament and all the public institutions.
People are, of course also angry because of the corruption and untransparent decision-making process. There is a populistic and corrupted way of governance and an absence of prosperity. People are desperate to see some of the EU legislations implemented on the ground in Bulgaria
As for us in the Green Party, we are part of the probably most active group of protesters in the street, and the most recognized Opposition Coalition, Democratic Bulgaria. We are proposing different reforms, providing an alternative to the people, and trying to prove that another and better way of governance is possible.
We are trying to promote ideas like the Paris agreement, the European Green Deal, and the national plans for recovery and resilience as the right alternative for the current harmful policies. We are consistent and we have been advocating for our principles for 10 years. We base our positions and future plans on experts’ opinions, legitimate national and international studies, and policies and scientific knowledge.
Q – How would you describe the water crisis in the Pernik area? And how involved is the Green Party in finding a solution there?
The water crisis in the Pernik area is, mainly, an issue connected to climate change and problems related to the lack of experience and political management on a regional level. It involves the politicians, of course, and the environment minister, who is under home arrest at this moment as a result of the charges of deliberate mismanagement brought against him about half a year ago.
Q – So, would you say the problem in the Pernik area was more of a corruption issue than it is a resources crisis?
Yes, it’s very simple. Unfortunately, it is more about corruption, because it is a huge dam, and usually, with similar degrees of water increase in the past years, there was no problem. However, last year, there was a construction issue.
In order to make the dam more efficient, they had to build it underwater, but it would have been more expensive if you do it underwater. Now, we have found some information that they didn’t build anything underwater because it would have been more expensive. So, this is mainly a corruption issue. But of course, climate change is also involved in this because they did not expect that there would be three or four months without rain!
Q- How is the situation, in the Aleppo area today?
The prosecutors, after huge efforts from the Green Party and the coalition, declared in the previous weeks that the construction work there is illegal, so we consider this a win for us as activists and for Bulgaria as a whole. Although, of course, they could appeal, but we are expecting the second court to confirm the initial decision because the constructions are clearly illegal. They must be destroyed, and the natural space must be recovered.
This is not the only example of illegal construction by the seaside by the way, but it is only an example of the illegal activities there. Unfortunately, Bulgaria does not have sustainable models for tourism. We have great potentials for tourism. Not just seasonal summer tourism but also winter and cultural tourism.
Unfortunately, none of these potentials are properly invested in. Instead, our tourism models are producing illegal constructions that destroy nature and produce poor revenue which comes from tourist activities like selling cheap alcoholic products.
We do not invest in eco-tourism, like birdwatching, and small villages cultural events and beautiful nature. We are a small country that has greatly diverse landscapes, from the high mountains to the seaside. We come in second place in biodiversity in Europe and we must invest in and protect our nature and natural habitat instead of destroying it.
the European Union is maybe the most progressive and green union in the world
Q – Almost 14 years after Bulgaria joined the European Union, do you think that the country has benefited from joining the union?
In general, we are benefiting because the European Union is maybe the most progressive and green union in the world. The step also helped increase our GDP, provided the opportunity for many people to travel abroad without visas, and to exchange ideas and mix with other European citizens and return with an expanded horizon and more open mentality and durable thinking. So, in general, the country is benefiting from being part of the European Union. However, there are also some negative aspects.
Being part of the European Union as a poorer country, one receives a lot of money that is not always spent in the right places. When the money is distributed by a corrupt central government, this money sometimes results in destroying nature, or as we talked about the media earlier, it results in restricting freedoms. So, there are some negative impacts. However, we are, of course, working closely with our colleagues in the European Union and different countries on how to improve the situation and stop the negative impacts.
We are working on implementing more green policies, and more democratic and human rights preserving policies. All in all, I am hopeful that we have the potentials needed, we belong to the European Union, also traditionally, because Bulgaria was a part of the European civilization for centuries.
The middle class is suffering
Q- Some argue that the Bulgarian middle class has suffered a lot of losses because of the step to join the European Union. Obviously, the Green Movement Party was a strong supporter of joining the European Union. Do you agree that the Bulgarian middle class has suffered from joining the union? how is the Green Movement Party supporting middle-class Bulgarians?
I agree that the middle class is suffering. The middle class is suffering
. but mainly due to corruption. Because the money that comes from the European Union and is supposed to support small enterprises, better regulations and infrastructure ends up going to corrupt people who are becoming very rich, and at the same time, the lower-income groups, are still the same and even losing money.
The solution, of course, is to have a wider middle class and to try to cut the big distance between the very rich and the very poor. However, unfortunately, because of corruption, and because of the lack of transparency and lack of independence among regulators and the justice system, the middle class ends up losing.
Q- How do you reach out to different citizens from different age groups, and social classes? And how did the COVID-19 situation impact your activism and campaigns?
We are trying different ways of communication. Of course, one of them is social media. As I said, the traditional media outlets are in most cases corrupted and dependent. So, we are focusing alternatively on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, in order to reach out to the people, spread our messages, and propose our narratives. But also, we are present on the streets with info material and we try to approach people. It is for sure important for us to maintain social distance and all the necessary measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, being physically present on the streets is vital for the movement.
For example, we used to build stages, hold street speeches, make discussion circles, and build small info kiosks in the central and busy city areas. Other than that, we used to hold professional conferences with different topics of interest, for example, agrarian and agricultural, or IT and technology or tourism topics and we invite different experts and associations to the discussion.
The pandemic has affected all of our physical activities
A challenge we face is to reach out to people in rural areas, in the countryside, small towns, or coastal areas. It is significantly hard due to the lack of recourses, funds, and logistics. The pandemic has affected all of our physical activities and forced us to concentrate more exclusively on social media and electronic ways of communication.
Q- Given the difficult situation that the party is in, and given the tense political atmosphere in Bulgaria right now, with the elections approaching, how prepared would you say are you for the elections? And how do you evaluate your chances?
We are well prepared. The mobilization is high. Among the participating parties, the three parties of our coalition are well mobilized. We registered early for the elections. At the moment we are preparing our candidate lists.
It was an intensive period of time, where we had to talk to and motivate different people in cities and rural areas to join our lists. We reached out to different people from all components of the civil society and not only from the party bases.
So, mobilization is quite high on our side. We expect that even if participation percentages were low, that we could come up with a good result. The polls are showing that, as Democratic Bulgaria, our ratings are between 6% and 9% and we expect to get at least 20 to 25 representatives and members of parliament. Nevertheless, As greens, we are expecting to have four to six members of Parliament, but it is not sure whether the next parliament will stay long.
It is going to be hard to form a new government
We are approaching a political crisis because other opposition groups and parties have also very good chances of reaching the threshold which means that at least 20% of the votes are going to parties and Coalitions that will be represented in the parliament, and who are not part of this the current parliament.
This shows that it is going to be hard to form a new government. Neither the current government coalition nor the opposition forms a majority government. Therefore, there probably is going to be an unstable government of minority supported by parties with diverse agendas.
Q- What are the key points in your program for the upcoming parliamentary elections?
We have a common program with the other parties of the democratic Bulgaria coalition. Frankly, All the issues that we suggested were accepted as part of the coalition program. We share common positions toward significant topics such as the European Union and the climate agreement. So, our main points of focus are to reclaim the power and independence of governmental institutions and regulators, have an independent justice system, solve the corruption problems, work on the Green deal, work towards having free media, and implement a recovery plan for Bulgaria to get out of the pandemic and work on balancing the gap between the poor and the rich.
To achieve these goals we are determined to improve the national education and health care systems. One thing the pandemic has shown us is how important these are for the future of our generations. Our program works on realizing transparency, radical modernization, and a fair transition to clean energy.
Furthermore, our program is concerned with transportation and mobility and focuses on facilitating alternative ways of transport like cycling, walking, and trains to take the place of cars as the main transport medium. It focuses on digitalization. Which is another topic that the pandemic has shown how vital it is and how behind our system is with it.
This radical modernization is a central part of our program and we have the best experts in these fields like IT, energy, and mobility experts. There must be an urgent change in the way the government handles topics like urban planning and dependency on cars. We need to form an innovative modern, digitalized, and expert-oriented government.
Q- Who does the Green party support in the presidential elections?
We still do not have an official decision about who to support or who to nominate as a candidate. The current president Rumen Radev is a part of the opposition voices. It is however worth mentioning that the presidential institution in Bulgaria is not powerful. It is more or less representative. Nevertheless, the president does not have real power.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, is selected by the parliament and they are the most powerful figure in Bulgaria. The presidential institution has no such power, but they have wide public support and respect for what they represent.
The current president already mentioned that he will run for a second term, he has a good reputation and has large support so far. Yet, the Greens as well as the coalition, Democratic Bulgaria still have no official decision about who to support or who to nominate.
In addition, if the next government was not able to stay for a long term, there might be a second parliamentary election at the same time as the presidential election and then the situation could get even more complicated. For now, we are closely monitoring the situation but still have no official position in regards to the presidential elections.
Infrastructure and health system:
Q- Do you think that Bulgaria has the infrastructure for an advanced and efficient railway network as well as transportation methods?
Yes, we do, but the problem is that in the past 10 years the government destroyed many of these infrastructures. They are cutting some of the tram lines in the capital instead of organizing busses.
Just like in the polluted air crisis we have been breathing corruption and misgovernance for a while now and this needs to change. In the Green party, we are trying to reach this change by implementing good plans to modernize our cities.
Q- Government officials were proud to announce that everyone in Bulgaria who would like to be vaccinated could have access to vaccines, however, I sense a tone of dissatisfaction with your talk about the health system, why is that?
It was just a populistic move. The vaccines are over, these “Green corridors” government officials were talking about, only lasted three or four days. It was just a populistic move to try and cover that Bulgaria does not have a good vaccination plan and that there are delays regarding the vaccine delivery from the pharmaceutical companies.
They tried to hide the fact that Bulgaria has one of the lowest vaccination levels. To distract the people from all the negative statistics in Bulgaria, they made this populistic move to open the vaccination for everyone which resulted in forming long queues in front of the hospitals and they ran out of vaccines after a couple of days.
Q- Finally, do you have any last words or comments that you would like to make today?
“I would like to reach out to all those who think green, to wish them good health and a better future and wish for them to be more motivated. Yes, I talked about how difficult the situation in Bulgaria is, but we keep on being optimistic because of the green wave that is happening all across Europe, so I expect that in these elections we will have our first green MPs in Bulgaria as it happened in some other neighbor countries and when it comes to European union we have already five countries with green representatives in the government. So, it is a wave and we are all a part of it as greens and not only as Bulgarians.”
This Interview has not been edited for content.