Our Bulgarian Board Member Daniela Bozhinova had often told us about the project. Today, we met with Daniela and some initiators of the successful referendum campaign in the town of Pomorie, 20 km north of Burgas.
The Burgas region is located at the sea and tourism is a major business here.
In this sensitive area the company “Transbalkan Pipeline” planned to build a pipeline to transport oil from Bulgaria to Greece. Big tankers should be unloaded on the shores of Burgas and filled again at the Greece coast. In that way, the oil company intended to bypass the Phosphorus where high fees have to be paid. At the same time, the region should benefit: 30 Million US Dollar should be paid to the Bulgarian tax authorities.
Green activists and representatives of the hotel business were strongly opposed to the pipeline. Many threads stemmed from the fact that the tankers should be unloaded four kilometres away from the coast. In addition they argued that the revenue of 30 Million would not have been sufficient.
Community vs. Company
The Secretary of Pomorie reported about the referendum. It was initiated by the city council. During the campaign the different groups who live in the city united all pursuing the same goal: convincing enough people to take part in the referendum and to vote against the pipeline.
Also, they had to make sure that the majority of the electorate voted against the project. That was the main legal requirement of the referendum. In many other communities in the region of Burgas referendums about the project had failed because of this threshold.
The initiators in Pomorie were creative – and everybody proved to be very helpful and solidaric: The Imam of the local mosque allowed one representative of the initiative to explain the cause to the members of his commune – and let him use the megaphone he uses to call for prayers, despite of the fact that this representative is of Christian religion. This is only one example showing how the inhabitants united to challenge the oil company.
In the end the referendum in Pomerie was successful: 99% of the voters said “no” to the pipeline. However, this huge vote did not lead to an immediate end of the project as the referendum was not binding. Instead, a strong public debate followed. In this discussion more and more facts were discovered, and eventually the political pressure was so strong that “Transbalkan Pipeline” had to stop the project.
Bulgaria needs more democracy
Pomorie is ruled by the party “GERB” which now has a majority in the national Parliament. And in the meantime, the hurdles for local referendums have been changed. Unfortunately, this change cannot be called an improvement. Currently a local referendum is only valid when the participation is as high as the one in the last election. In some municipalities this means that 80% have to take part in the referendum in order to be valid. Daniela Bozhinova told him that referendums are about decisions and not about the power in the community council. In that regard we can be happy that the referendum on the oil pipeline took place under the 50%-rule.
Our conclusion at the end of our first day in Bulgaria: A lot of work still must be done for the simple idea that we need a functional direct democracy with simple rules.
We look forward to the next day tomorrow.
Text by Cora Pfafferott & Ronald Pabst