In spite of the attempts by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov to quell the protests against the amendments to the Forestry Act with the promise to postpone their publication in the Sate Gazette and thus their coming into effect, several thousand protesters gathered again at the Orlov Most intersection in central Sofia for a third consecutive evening on June 15.
Under the Bulgarian constitution, the prime minister does not have the power to stop an act of Parliament and only the president can veto a law and send it back to the MPs for further deliberations.
The calls of some of the environmentalist groups, who had met Borissov earlier in the day, not to disrupt the traffic were ignored and Orlov Most, as well as the intersection of Rakovski street and Tsar Osvoboditel boulevard, were blocked for a considerable time.
Initially, the protesters seemingly heeded Borissov’s plea to congregate somewhere else instead of Orlov Most and marched along Tsar Osvoboditel boulevard to the square in front of the Bulgarian National Bank and across the Presidency, where they chanted for President Rossen Plevneliev to join them and to veto the amendments.
On the way back, many protesters took unexpected detours through the side streets, which caused considerable confusion in the accompanying massive police force, which included gendarmerie in riot gear, mounted police and flying squads.
All along the route the participants were chanting various slogans, including “Veto”, “Mafia”, “Resignation”, “We want nature, not concrete” and “Tseko, get off of Aleko”, referring to the Bulgarian Ski Federation president Tseko Minev, thought to be behind the offshore companies that operate the Bansko and Vitosha resorts.
The protesters attempted to block Vassil Levski boulevard in front of the Sofia University, but the police intervened swiftly and the march moved on back towards Orlov Most, which was closed for some time.
Apparently obeying Borissov’s order not to use violence against the protesters, the police officers were mostly trying to verbally persuade the people to get back on the sidewalks and to move away from the intersections. Some of the protesters who were sitting down at Orlov Most were carried by the police back to the sidewalks where the majority of people remained until around 10 pm chanting and singing.
The appearance of a crew from private television channel bTV sparked loud jeering from many of the protesters, a reaction to the channel’s biased reporting of the previous protests. Later, bTV said that their camera operator was assaulted and injured by hooligans at the protest.
In spite the overall peaceful protest, Focus news agency reported that eight people were arrested – seven for disobeying police orders and one for throwing a bottle at a police officer.
It remains unclear whether the protests will continue throughout the weekend – some activity in the social media indicates it might be the case – or on June 18, when Cabinet officials and conservation groups are scheduled to resume their talks about the more controversial amendments to the Forestry Act.
So far, the Government has refused to budge on the key provision that sparked the protests in the first place, namely the one that allows authorities to “lease” forest land for a period of up to 30 years to private companies for the construction of sport facilities and infrastructure.
Previously, resort operators would have to buy the land, change its designation and obtain construction permits, a heavily-regulated, costly and time-consuming process. The Cabinet defended the amendment saying that this way the land would remain state property and could be easily repossessed and re-planted with trees if resort operators did not meet their commitments.
Photos: Hristina Dimitrova