Bulgaria Monthly Digest: water crisis and Turkstream launch6 min read

 In Eastern Europe, News, Politics

On December 21st, a state of emergency was declared in Pernik, a mining town in Western Bulgaria about 25 km away from Sofia. Water restrictions had been imposed there in mid-November and later became increasingly stricter due to deepening supply problems from the Studena Dam. An investigation by Valya Ahchieva for EURACTIV.bg showed that the local and national authorities had known about the lowering volume of water in the dam, which had begun in August. By the end of September, the water in the Studena Dam was less than one third of the maximum volume, and in November, that quantity again halved. However, the Ministry of Environment and Water continued to allow regular supply to the Stomana Industry steel factory and the Bobov Dol private thermal power plant., Household provisions, however, were limited. It wasn’t until the scandal erupted on November 19th that the Ministry suspended the water supply to industry. Nine other Bulgarian towns are at risk of similar water crises or suffer from different supply problems, bTV reports.

– The Minister of Environment and Water, Neno Dimov, was taken into custody on January 9th and was later charged with “deliberate mismanagement” of the water crisis. He was also grilled by the Prosecutor’s Office over a scandal concerning “imports of waste”, mostly from Italy. Over 9000 tons of scrap with questionable permits were found in January near Pleven, and more in Varna and Burgas in recent days. The Minister’s detention and the unfolding of his case were extensively televised, and  witnesses testimony was made public by the Prosecutor’s office. Some have interpreted this approach as a publicity stunt by Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, whose seven-year mandate started this January amidst protests, Balkan Insight reports. Dimov is the first active minister in contemporary Bulgaria to have been detained.He remains in custody

– A ceremony in Istanbul marked the launch of the TurkStream gas pipeline on January 9th. The event was attended by the presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Serbia, as well as Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. A month earlier, Vladimir Putin had accused Bulgaria of deliberately delaying the building the pipeline on its territory and said Moscow could find ways to bypass Sofia if needed. However, the ceremony seems to have passed rather smoothly. When asked by journalists upon his arrival from Istanbul whether President Putin had commented on the planned NATO logistic center near Varna (Bulgaria’s Black Sea major city), Borissov replied:

“The conversation on this topic was rather frivolous. Tomorrow, he [Putin] told me, I’ll start a big [military] exercise in Black Sea. I told him that I’m busy and that’s why we [Bulgaria] won’t have one. The F-16 Block 70 [fighter aircraftaircraft] haven’t arrived yet [from the U.S.]. He praised me for [buying] them, for them being, indeed, very good jets. Of course, Erdogan praised his [Putin’s jets, Russia’s SU-57], because that’s what they [the Turkish government] bought. Such bragging was about who has what planes. At the end Vučić said, “I bought the rockets so that I can take planes down.””

– For the first nine months of 2019, remittances sent to Bulgaria officially surpassed foreign investment in dollar value,according to the Bulgarian National Bank, bTV reports. From January to September, Bulgarians living abroad sent 922 million Euro to their families, mostly from Germany (190 million), the U.S. (171 million), and Spain (110 million). Previous data from Eurostat and the World Bank, however, suggest that the money sent to Bulgaria from workers abroad could be much bigger – up to 2.13 billion Euro in 2018.

– 34% of Bulgarians could not afford to keep their homes adequately warm, the highest percentage in the European Union, EU statistics agency Eurostat announced on January 6th, citing figures for 2018. In contrast, the lowest shares – about 2%- were recorded in Austria, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Estonia, and Sweden. According to another Eurostat survey, published on January 20th, 1/3 of households in Bulgaria had been unable to pay utility bills (heating, electricity, gas, water, etc.) on time due to financial difficulties.

– In the night of January 13th, a strong explosion in a housing block in Varna destroyed several apartments, killing two people and injuring seven others, including three children. In the flat where the explosion occurred had lived a 66-year-old former serviceman and the woman with whom he had been cohabitating. The man had received recently a restraining order because of domestic violence, and was seen carrying his luggage out of the apartment the night before the incident. On January 16th the regional prosecutor announced that the former serviceman had bought around 30 liters of gasoline and 11 liters of propane-butane two days before the explosion. Experts have been appointed to investigate how the flammable substances were ignited. It has been confirmed that the victims are the woman and her ex-partner. According to UN Women, 23% of women in Bulgaria have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime. In 2018, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court declared the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence incompatible with the country’s constitution.  

On January 15th, the Regional Inspection for Environment and Water in Pernik warned the town’s residents that there had been an excess of contamination of sulfur dioxide in the air twice above the norm. The Inspection pointed to the nearby thermal power plant and the practice of heating houses using coal and wood and sources of the contamination.  

– At a meeting between the mayors of Pernik and Sofia, the Prime Minister, and several other ministers on January 18th, it was announced that Pernik is to be supplied with water from the Belmeken Dam via the Sofia network. The plan is to transfer water from the Belmeken Dam (about 100 km from Sofia) to another dam from which, via the existing supply network, it will flow to a new special bypass pipeline – yet to be built – to Pernik, the Sofia Globe reports.

– The Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev has notified the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that two Russians with diplomatic immunity have been carrying out espionage, the Prosecutor’s Office said on January 24th. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said that the Russian ambassador would be summoned to the ministry on Friday and the two diplomats would be declared persona non grata, the Sofia Globe reports. The announcement comes less than three months after one of the first secretaries at the Russian embassy in Sofia had to leave the country after being identified as involved in espionage, and after, in September, the head of the Russophile movement in Bulgaria, Nikolai Malinov, was charged with espionage. 

Main sources: The Sofia Globe (EN), Balkan Insight (EN), Dnevnik (BG)

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