Note from LeftEast editors: The article was originally published on dversia.net in Bulgarian on the 25.02.2019
On January 30 there were dangerously high levels of air pollution in the capital reported, three times higher than the norm. In its latest air quality report, the European Court of Auditors points out that Bulgaria is at the forefront of the EU in shortening life length as a result of the dirty air. As the main reason for the pollution the Court points the domestic heating with solid fuel. For the current 2014-2020 programming period, Bulgaria has not only reduced its investment in tackling this phenomenon, but none of the approved projects have been directly targeting it.
The actions of Sofia Municipality are in a similar spirit of negation of the problem. The mayor of Sofia, Yordanka Fundakova, has removed over 15% or more than 10 km of the tram network in Sofia for the entire period of her management. By contrast, road transport seems to be disproportionately prioritized by the construction of new boulevards.
In the past two or three years, citizens have started to organize themselves and to openly express their dissatisfaction with the dirty air. Unfortunately, poor neighborhoods are cited as major causes, and other real pollutants such as high levels of car use, unbridled construction and mutilated urban transport remain unnoticed. Protesters often call for more control over the poor, and often even for their displacement.
This text aims to trace the protests for cleaner air in Sofia and the evolution of the proposed decisions by the municipality. With suggestions from the demolition of homes burning solid fuel to prison, politicians conceal their unwillingness to fight the real cause of pollution – poverty and the privatization of transport. Instead, they shift the blame to the socially disadvantaged, whose poverty they want to criminalize. In so doing, they oppose the otherwise common interests of protesters and the poor, namely clean air and warm homes, and the “polluter pays” principle becomes the “poor dies” principle.
Vietnamese dormitories and protests
In February 2016, the first protest against the so-called Vietnamese dormitories, where tenants, mostly of Roma origin, were housed in 1993-4 in social housing and today number over 300 families. The protestors from the Krasna Polyana district in Sofia insisted on the demolition of the “illegal municipal ghetto” and the exodus of the Roma. In October 2017, a further protest was held, in which residents complained that the issue was not solved quickly enough, as only some buildings were demolished and the Roma were still there. Meanwhile, the mayor Yordanka Fondkakova promised that an alternative housing will only be proposed to regular tenants who pay their rent and the rest will have to practically go to the street.
On 19 December 2017, six districts, including the Sofia neighbourhoods of Krasna Polyana and Ovcha Kupel, were protesting against the inactivity of the municipality over the issue of the Vietnamese dormitories. The organizers of the Krasna Polyana Support Committee, including representatives of VMRO, a right-wing patriotic party, and the Bulgarian socialist party, BSP, warned against the existence of the buildings months ago and demanded intensified 24-hour surveillance over waste incineration. The municipality is commits to “only” opening more collecting points for used tires and to more often cleaning of the streets. VMRO municipal councilor Carlos Contreras proposes that the “problem” be solved “quickly and forcefully”, with a ban on heating on solid fuel, as the Vietnamese dormitories are municipal property. So in practice he proposes that people should die of the cold.
A new protest against the dormitories was held on February 13, 2018, and this time people add to their complaints another ground for the demolition of the buildings – the asbestos that oozes from them and is carcinogenic. Yordanka Fundukova consoles the citizens that although they can not enter people’s houses to do checks on what they use for heating, by 2020 the blocks will be knocked down. The regional mayor Ivan Chakarov promises that new social housing for the poor will not be built in place of the old ones so as “not to blame us for removing such dwellings to create another ghetto.” Thus, the mayor clearly suggests that the cause of the protests are not the stoves on coal heating, but rather the inhabitants themselves, heated by these stoves, which in turn can only be solved by the displacement of people. A month later, protesters again complain that the demolishing is not fast enough.
After a series of demonstrations, in May 2018, for the first time, Bulgarians from Krasna Polyana and Roma from the Vietnamese dormitories go out on a protest together and demand this time not only for their demolition but also for placing people in an adequate housing. However, this fair request of the citizens did not meet a response from the Sofia municipality, nor was it reflected in the media, perhaps because it does not involve kicking people out on the street. Such protests show another solution to the problems by avoiding the usual discourse of opposing the needs of citizens, but, on the contrary, by uniting them and offering solutions for all.
On 4 December 2018, after three consecutive days of polluted air, the Sofia municipality introduced a green ticket for public transport worth 1 lev. Such was the price of the ticket before raising it to 1.60 leva in 2016. In another major city and one of the most densely populated in Europe, Paris, in case of polluted air the public transport is entirely free because the health of people is appreciated higher.
The measures taken by the municipality to combat the dirty air have already began to include sudden checks inside the Vietnamese municipalities, which only a few months earlier the mayor of Sofia said they could not carry out. In this way, they violate the otherwise fiercely guarded by Bulgarians inviolability of the the home, but Roma obviously do not enjoy such rights. Of the nearly 100 homes checked, only two families used unregulated waste and 27 were heated with solid fuel. On December 5 protesters that the aid to the energy poor should not be in the form of solid fuel but financial aid to their electricity bills and to develop urban and bicycle transport networks. None of these proposals has been taken into account by the municipality, which continues to claim that those that burn waste to be heated are guilty. Yordanka Fundakova even accuses the citizens that by leaving their old tires next to the containers, they help the needy to burn them.
If at the beginning of the protests the municipality claimed to somehow fight pollution by investing in green transport, by the end of 2018 it had already openly demanded for the criminalization of waste incineration. At the same time, however, the Sofia municipality has finally decided to actually build a waste incineration facility worth more than 90 million euros and whose capacity will even require the import of waste. Such a contradiction does not disturb neither the municipal councilors nor the protesters who continue to blame the most fragile in the society for the urban problems.
In Facebook, the mayor Yordanka Fundakova has asked the parliament to consider seeking the criminal liability for the unregulated burning of tires and waste in the open, because citizens have to bear their responsibility when they pollute the air. In this way, the municipality, which made public transport more expensive and inaccessible two years ago, transferred its responsibility for the air quality to the poor, to whom rather than assisting proposed criminal measures. The ruling center-right party GERB also consider the use of the Penal Code in the fight against the fine particles by offering from one to five year jail time for burning unlicensed materials. For the “offenders”, for whom the prison would not be a punishment, namely the underprivileged and those living in inferior conditions, the chairman of the parliamentary legal commission Danail Kirilov proposed 20-30 days of community work in order to be “adequately punished” .
In the last decade, under the management of Fundakova Sofia has lost eight tram lines, and only one will be put into operation. The number of the circulating trams decreased by 25%. In addition, drivers’ working conditions have also deteriorated and it is not an exception for some to work 39 days with only 4 days of rest.
Towards the end of 2018, over 1.7 million Bulgarians live with less than 321 leva per month, which is the official poverty line in Bulgaria, with minimum 602 leva needed to support life. According to the official data of the National Statistical Institute, in 2017 over 30% of the population lives in severe material deprivation. Energy aid from the state is worth 74.83 leva or 374.15 leva for the entire period from November 1 to March 31, and reaches around 230 000 citizens in need. The Agency for Social Assistance encourages people to use pellets that may be more environmentally friendly but also much more expensive. For the heating period 2018-2019 the firewood is on average 60 leva cheaper per month than the pellets.
In October 2018, the government decided to fight the pollution in another way, with the poor again footing the bill. For more than 2.4 million cars produced before 2005, a tax increase of 20-30% was introduced, and vice versa, for the newest cars traditionally owned by wealthier citizens, a tax reduction of 10-20% was implemented. Reducing the tax on new cars is also not justified by the argument that this will encourage people to change their old vehicle with a new one as this is directly dependent on income and not on the desire or the “psychology” of Bulgarians to drive old cars. Thus, in a situation of the decaying national train company BDZ and the underdeveloped urban transport system, the car for many people means work. This fact was not avoided by the finance minister Vladislav Goranov, who just a few months earlier, before introducing the new tax, said that there would be no increase for the old cars because Bulgarians are poor. Of the total 4 million registered cars in Bulgaria, 40% are over 20 years of age, with an average of 10.7 for the EU.
There is a problem with dirty air, but there is a problem with the proposed measures to deal with it. While the solution to the Vietnamese dormitories is really their demolition, for the families living there, the only solution is transfering to another suitable housing. In Bulgaria, social housing has not been built since socialism, although the need for them has not disappeared. The existing ones are badly maintained and the desire of the Sofia municipality to repair them is simply not there. Instead, racism is harnessed as a convenient excuse not to provide for the citizen’s vital needs, but rather to deny and punish them.
For many years, the policy pursued not only in Sofia but also across the country has prioritized road transport, destroying all other alternatives such as trams and trains, which are also the most environmentally friendly. Thus, by withdrawing from public transport services, the state and municipalities pave the way for its privatization and the increased reliance on people’s personal funds. The metro construction in Sofia is an example of a step in the right direction, but at a ticket price of 1.60 leva, it remains inaccessible to many people, especially to those in the poorer neighborhoods, to which the subway does not even go. In the absence of a political will and an interest in investing in clean public urban and intercity transport, the decision for the government and the municipalities can be nothing but punishment for the poor. Penalties for their desire not to die from the cold.
Rositsa Kratunkova holds a Master in Law from the Plovdiv University and currently pursues a Master in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris.