Political war of words over fatal floods in Bulgaria’s Varna

Amid the superheated Bulgarian political crisis, it was arguably inevitable that the floods that hit the Black Sea city of Varna on June 19, leaving 10 people dead according to official figures, would result in a war of words between government and opposition figures.

Varna was thrashed by torrential rains, with the residential area of Asparouhovo especially hard-hit. The victims of the floods reportedly included a family of three, while other victims were said to include a young child who drowned in the street outside a police station.

As weather forecasts for Varna predicted that a further two waves of bad weather would pass through the Black Sea city in the early hours of June 20, the politicians were at daggers drawn.

Varna mayor Ivan Portnih, the 37-year-old leader of opposition party GERB in the city, who has been its first citizen since his election on July 15 2013 after his predecessor was brought down in anti-corruption protests, told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television that it had taken several hours for national authorities to respond to the flood crisis in the city.

“Where is the state?” Portnih said.

Plamen Oresharski, the embattled figure who was placed in May 2013 in the prime minister’s chair in the Bulgarian Socialist Party cabinet, announced on June 19 2014 that he had sent interior minister Tsvetlin Yovchev, the interior ministry chief secretary and the head of Bulgaria’s fire safety and population protection services to Varna in response to the fatal flood crisis.

The cabinet which Oresharski nominally heads is seen as being as in its final few weeks after Bulgarian voters overwhelmingly rejected the BSP in May 25 European Parliament elections.

Viewed with wide disdain from the outset of its appointment in May, the self-proclaimed “expert government” has shed what little credibility it had and continues to be the target of popularly-supported demands for its resignation.

Yovchev, speaking to local media, described mayor Portnih’s reaction as “inappropriate”.

The interior minister and deputy prime minister said that the entire police force had been deployed to respond to the flood crisis in Varna, as had civil defence and firefighting teams. “I do not know on what basis the mayor makes these claims. This is looting, abuse of the misery of the people. We are taking all possible steps,” Yovchev said.

Portnih said that he had been in the floodwaters, helping to pull a jeep under which there was a corpse. It was an hour and a half since the torrential rains had hit his city, and “I am curious what the state has done,” he said.

Hours had passed without the state responding, Portnih told local media later.

In a statement on the government website, Oresharski said that he had tried and failed to contact the mayor. Oresharski rejected allegations that the mayor had tried and failed to get him on the phone.

Local media quoted Varna police chief Nikolai Kalthev as saying that an emergency had been declared in the city.

Yovchev said that the state had responded from the outset and while the mayor gave interviews, the state had been taking care of people. “Had he read the plans for crisis response, he would not have reacted so inadequately,” Yovchev said.

Yovchev arrived in Varna soon after midnight, to co-ordinate the rescue operation. Reports said that Oresharski was expected to arrive in the Black Sea city early in the morning on June 20.

Disruptions to electricity supply in Varna hampered the search for the missing, local media said.
Kaltchev told reporters that the cause of death of the victims was drowning.

State meteorologist Ivan Ivanov, quoted by the press office of Varna municipality, said that two new waves of bad weather were expected before noon on June 20, after which the weather probably would subside.

On June 20, GERB leader Boiko Borissov said that he had been shocked equally by the conduct of Portnih, Oresharski and Yovchev in engaging in verbal jousting amid the flood disaster in Varna.

“The right thing to do in this situation is to express condolences because all other comments are cynical,” Borissov said.

He added, however, “I very much understand the mayor of the city is younger, emotional. He’s seen corpses for the first time, for sure. Maybe that it is why this is the reaction”.

Borissov said that the lack of communication between such figures, a prime minister, the mayor of a large city, the chief secretary of the interior ministry and the ministry, was “outrageous”.

Also on June 20, President Rossen Plevneliev called on politicians to refrain from politicking and instead to show solidarity and sympathy to the victims of the tragedy.

Plevneliev said that at this difficult moment for the country, politicians should show responsible behaviour instead of trying to make political capital out of it. He hoped that authorities and institutions would work in co-ordination to ensure adequate and timely assistance to the population.

The President, who has been in regular contact with the crisis staff in Varna, also spoke on the phone with the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva, to discuss opportunities for assistance from the European Union Solidarity Fund to deal with the damage in several regions in Bulgaria.

(Screenshot from bTV)

Related stories:

Ten dead in floods in Bulgaria’s Varna – reports

Three dead, four missing, in floods in Bulgaria’s Varna

Varna, other towns hard-hit as torrential rains cause power cuts, floods chaos in parts of Bulgaria

Emergency declared in three Sofia municipalities after torrential rain




The Sofia Globe staff

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