A bill amending Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act has raised concerns among prosecutors and mayors, who fear that a change in the status of protected historical areas, now protected as architectural reservations, could ease restrictions on new construction.
Bulgaria’s Supreme Prosecution of Cassation has said that the amendments, drafted by the Culture Ministry and submitted to Parliament, threatened the integrity of historical sites, which would no longer have the highest degree of protection, afforded by their current status as reservations.
The changes would affect some of Bulgaria’s best-known heritage sites, which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year – the old quarter in Plovdiv, the Bulgarian revival towns of Koprivshtitsa and Melnik, as well as Sozopol and Nessebur on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – 19 sites in total.
The Culture Ministry said that the bill only sought to clarify the status of protected areas – the law, passed under the previous government in 2009, abolished all types of cultural reservations (a list that includes architectural, tourist, museum and historical reservations, among others), save archaeological ones. The new changes just took the existing provisions to their logical conclusion, the ministry said in a statement.
The architectural reservations would still benefit from the highest degree of protection under law and would be qualified as “group heritage ensambles of national importance” under the new nomenclature, the ministry said.
But prosecutors warned that the changes lowered the degree of protection – reservations had clearly-defined borders that were difficult to change, whereas “group ensembles” could easily be redrawn and broken down into smaller groups, leaving some areas open to re-development.
Mayors of such protected areas told Bulgarian-language weekly Kapital that they were not consulted during the drafting process, despite clearly being an interested stakeholder in the proceedings. Some, like the local authorities in Veliko Turnovo, were concerned that the historical areas could be in danger, while others appeared confident that the high degree of legal protection would be properly enforced.
Other amendments in the bill, targeting archaeological digs, also came under criticism. Under the new regulatory framework, archaeologists would be hired to consult on major construction projects following public tenders – according to Bulgaria’s national archaeology institute, this is the Cabinet’s attempt to ensure that archaeologists no longer interfere with major undertakings like motorway construction.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, who has made construction of new motorways one of the cornerstones of his domestic policy, has repeatedly lamented in recent years that archaeological digs slowed down construction work each summer.
Vassil Nikolov, one of the country’s leading archaeologists, said that the public tender route aimed to ensure that the “right people” got hired. “The goal is to turn archaeologists into consultants and archaeological digs into construction work, meaning that we would stand on the sideline and observe construction workers destroy archaeological sites,” he told television channel bTV.
The Culture Ministry countered by accusing archaeologists of trying to protect “personal vested interests” and “wishing to maintain the status quo” in which the national archaeological institute had a “virtual monopoly on all archaeological digs”.
(Nineteenth-century Bulgarian Revival architecture in the town of Koprivshtitsa, in central Bulgaria. Photo: mihalorela/flickr.com)