Bulgaria & the EU: What’s to Celebrate?

When the Fireworks Were Over And Everyone Had Sobered Up, The Realities Began to Sink In.

When the clock struck midnight on Jan.  31, and Bulgarians watched another year go by, many were convinced that this time they had more to celebrate. The government’s lavish parties and impressive fireworks marking the country’s entrance to the EU made many forget the hardship this entry had cost them.

On the Danube, enthusiasts from Bulgaria and neighboring Romania met in the middle of the bridge to celebrate their first visa-free visit, while in Sofia the dazzling pyrotechnics displays left many speechless. But when the smoke cleared, and everyone sobered up from all the partying, the realities finally began to sink in.

The first thing that made it into the papers – and into the minds of the Bulgarians – was another two units shut down at the Nuclear Power Plant in Kozloduy, effectively turning the country from the biggest energy exporter in the Balkans into a possible net importer.

Journalists who had written reams explaining how entry into the EU would be the making of Bulgaria traveled to the Danube town to witness the shutdown. Their reports of the teary-eyed unit operators, wearing black to mourn the passing of the country’s energy independence, moved people, and all of a sudden the first wave of protests was born.

The first of many protests to follow, the cause of the Kozloduy united Bulgarians, and they all, along with their leaders, began scrambling for action plans to revive the reactors. The president, the economics and energy minister, Sofia’s idol of a mayor… they all promised that now that we were successfully in the Union, we could renegotiate the terms, even though closure of the units had been one of the core clauses in the Accession Treaty.

It wasn’t long, of course, before an EU official bared his teeth, explaining just how stupid this move would be.

Andris Piebalgs, European Commissioner for Energy, declared that a reopening of Kozloduy’s Units 3 & 4 would send “a bad signal to investors and citizens of the EU, as the country entered the Union under certain conditions and that then the same conditions would be changed.” The outcome remains uncertain, as Bulgaria has not given up and efforts for redeployment continue.

Feeling that they had done something good by starting to worry about the Kozloduy plant again, Bulgarians turned to their usual winter pastime of drinking and reached to gulp down a glass of rakia.

That’s when they froze, realizing that a new excise tax on rakia-distillation meant they wouldn’t be able to make their favourite drink at home anymore; it would be too expensive.

Another funeral followed. This time Bulgarian men buried their rakia-distillers, weeping dearly for their lost best friend. Angry wine-producers gathered and threw tons of rakia and marc onto the streets, saying that with the new taxes they might as well throw it all away, because they wouldn’t have anyone to sell it to at that price anyway.

Needless to say, they also threw some dung on top, to be sure the authorities got their point. “This is an elixir, even the British can’t distil a rakia like this, although they make whiskey!” yelled Ivan Rashkov, from the village of Selanovtsi, during one of dozens of protests.

To add to the winter bouquet of EU discontent, pensioners in Bulgaria found out that their promised pension increase would be delayed. And Thursday became let’s-gather-to-yell-at-Parliament day. They have in fact spent every Thursday there since joining the EU, demanding to finally see a cheque that doesn’t doom them to begging on the streets.

But that’s not all folks…

In comes the very complex problem of the EU Natura 2000 environmental network. Bulgaria has to decide what portion of its territory should be included on the map, thus spared from paved-over “progress.” This one really put the government in a deadlock, eco-activists protesting on one side that the amount of land included in the programme is too little, and hundreds of landowners on the other who want their particular pieces of land off the list.

With posters like “You are dooming us to live in a concrete desert” and “You are dooming us to certain death if you don’t let investors onto our land,” the two crowds clash before parliament on a regular basis. In the meantime the government keeps on pushing back the deadline for mapping out the territories, as they simply don’t know what to do.

All these protests are in the shadow of another action that has managed to unify Bulgaria – a freedom call for the five nurses, jailed in Libya for allegedly causing an  HIV epidemic. No matter which protest you drop by, you can easily spot the “You are not alone” support ribbons, clipped to jackets to show compassion and solidarity with the five. And this is one protest Europe has joined, although little has been done so far. Libya continues to thwart the prisoners and their lawyers, and the death sentences are still very real.

So Bulgaria entered the EU with a loud bang, although many sneered that it had been let in through the back door. But when the smoke had cleared, Bulgarians started to take in the reality. More than a month has passed since all the noisy parties, and people seem to find something new to protest almost every day. On Jan. 16, for example, hundreds of Sofia citizens rallied in the rain because they were overcharged on their heating bills.

And in the whole mess, people somehow failed to notice a report that said that Bulgarians could look forward to reaching the average EU salary… in 2030.

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