Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Interview with Vera Petkantchin

”We have a meeting today, to discuss our demands. Right now there is some sort of controversy, the students want to ask for the government's resignation but the greens want to ask for specific demands”

I'm meeting with Vera Petchankink, active in Citizens for Rila and For the Nature. These are two Bulgarian ecological NGO's fighting for the protection of the Rila mountains. But their struggle isn't restricted to a mountain or to ecological questions in a strict sense. After all, which question is not ecological in a wider sense?

For the nature is one of the NGO's in the coalition behind the ongoing protest movement in Bulgaria. 14th of January a huge demonstration in front of the parliament turned violent. But this is not a violent movement. It's not a desperate movement. It has well articulated ideas about how the society they live in should be run.

I sit back and listen as Vera speaks, passionate and in great detail, about the green movement's ideas.

Feel free
”There are two things we want. We want a majority election system. And we want that the law prescribes a possibility of referendums initiated by the people. Of course,we want many things, but these two is like a summary, something we think will touch the people”.

She tells me about their campaign www.feelfriendly.com, a website constructed by the green movement. It's a kind of ”electric parliament” where people can support the protests and post suggestions for what to change in Bulgaria. It's a great success for the movement and has gathered 70 000 unique hits since it was launched. Vera tells me that they have received many good and positive suggestions from the site. She stresses this – that the suggestions should be constructive and positive towards something, rather than just complaining about the government or corruption.

”Where do you get all these ideas from?” I ask curiously. ”Well, it was a guy who worked with children's civic education who came up with the idea. He works in Smolyan in the mountains and was thinking about ways to give access to all those people that can not come with us to protest at the square.”

The violence
Talking about the protests 14th of January, something sinister comes into Vera's eyes. Seriously, she gives me her account of what happened at the square.

”It was a little strange to see how the protests were covered in foreign media.” Vera continues. ”The focus was only on police aggression and the violence. People abroad must get the impression that these people who demonstrate don't really know what they are doing.” She continues. ”This focus is wrong. We DO have common, and very specific demands. Actually our demands are very positive.”

”What about Bulgarian media?” I ask. I have seen lots of front pages the last week, most of them featuring masked young men attacking the police. ”It's difficult to reach out in Bulgaria. Most newspapers are a very closed circle, built around some politician or businessman.”

”It's different. I think foreign media gives this picture because they don't know the details. I guess the case is similar for Latvia and Lithuania. The way I see it, the main aggression came from the side of the police. Just look at the numbers of arrested! 5000 people demonstrated and 164 were arrested. That's much more than at the demonstrations in Latvia and Lithuania, that were much bigger demonstrations.”

”There was a group of about 50 young people present, skinheads and ultras (football hooligans, that clash with the police on a regular basis). They were armed, with metal pipes, sticks and even knives. during two hours they constantly attacked the police, but the police did nothing to stop them. The organizers several times asked the police to stop the provocateurs, to arrest them, but they took no action. Then, after two hours, the entire demonstration was dispersed violently. They just started beating everybody. You know, they even arrested by-passers down at Orlov Most.”(Orlov Most is a bridge,a bout 800 meters from the square where the demonstrations took place.”

”Now the authorities try to put the blame on the organizers, but actually, according to Bulgarian law the police is required to help us keep order. I think this was all very intentional”

”Why?” I ask.

”I think that the political class saw that this... unification of different groups – ecologists, students, the mothers, farmers etc.was something new that they had never seen before. That's why they had to make it look like violence and chaos. All this people who live in the villages or don't have access to the internet, all they see now are the pictures of riots that he national TV channels broadcast. They get a very distorted way of what happened.”

I want to dwell a bit more on the subject of the movement's relation to media, and ask Vera how they work to get their message accross.

”We contact them. We have a mailing list with all kinds of media, newspapers, radio and TV. They are invited to all our events et.c.” For the Nature's media channels include internet mailing lists and forums. I presume that internet is the most important way to communicate between members but the most successful way to reach out to the general public is to hand out flyers, I'm told. One person with flyers on the right spot at the right time is unbeatable. And people generally like to get the flyers. ”Yes, they usually say that they support our cause” Vera answers gladly.

Vera speaks quickly, she lines up important facts often supported with concrete numbers. It's fascinating to listen, but difficult to write it down fast enough. I guess I should have recorded it. Therefore I asked to come back to a topic we discussed earlier.

The political class
”You mentioned the ”political class” before” I say, ”does this include the opposition or do you refer to the people currently sitting in the government?”

”It's the whole class” she answers without a doubt. ”The opposition parties have long since lost their credibility. You know, they used to be in the government before, between 1997 and 2005 and... yes, things got a little better then, but back then it was so bad, you can't imagine really, it was so bad that it was impossible that things shouldn't get at least a little better.”

”But this is not about changing the government. What people need is a more direct way to control those that are in power. Now they feel so untouchable. There should be a way to know how the MP you voted for is voting in the parliament, and if he is not living up to his promises there should be a way to call him off. Now there is no such way. This is an imperfect form of democracy.”

I also wanted to know more about the connection about the ecological – and democracy issues, why an ecological movement like For the nature is at the center of a movement for political change.

To Vera this connection is rather obvious. ”We work with environmental- and human rights issues. And democracy is a human right issue. The problems that destroy the nature are due to the lack of citizen control over the parliament. Right now, the only thing we cabn do is to find ”good” MP's from different parties and lobby about our proposals for them. We should have a more direct access to these issues.”

”As an example, we gathered signatures for a petition to save the Rila mountains. The petition was eventually sent to the European parliament, but when we had a meeting with our deputy minister here in Bulgaria he didn't even know about our petition. How can we keep him accountable for this?”


The organizers of the protests have deliberately kept political parties outside of the protests, even though opposition parties were quick to state their solidarity with the protesters.

Still the line between the party Zelenite and the NGO For the Nature seems blurry to me.

”It's a little complicated” Vera says ”Zelenite was created by the people who protested earlier. They are not politicians in the real sense of the world, but more a recognition of the fact that we needed to change the political circumstances in order to continue our struggle. Within the movement this party is perceived as a kind of ”necessary evil”

”It's the students who said that they didn't want the involvement from any political party, but I dont know. Sometimes I think the party is a little too shy. I am a member and I support them. At least we have to give them a chance. And i know how the party was started, I know that everything was done the right way. With right I mean the legal way. We collected the necessary number of signatures to found the party etc. You know, when some parties are created all the workers from a factory ”sign” or something like that. We had a tent outside here in the summer where we gathered the signatures from passers by” she says and looks out through the cafe window towards Popa -the small square and crowded meeting place right outside the café.

Stojan Baltov

I want to know more about this protest movement. What brought all these groups together that didn't pay much attention to each other before. Whatever happens, this achievement is an achievement.

”The students are the ones that initiated it. Their movement started when Stojan Baltov was beaten to death outside a discotheque in Studentski Grad. (An area with torn student's dormitories and a high concentration of illegal buildings, bars, discoteques etc. ) The big discontent erupted then, but the problems are old, this was just the spark that started the fire. The students organized a number of marches by themselves. The biggest of these was the 19th of December. It happened to coincide with our demonstration against the Zamenki system”

Vera looks at me. ”Maybe I need to explain this... It's a system called Zamenki, it means ”to swap”. Private land owners can swap their land for state property. This way they swap very cheap land, for example around Vidin in north western Bulgaria, for very attractive land on the Black Sea Coas, or in the Rila mountains, for example.”

”We protest against this. First of all it's very expensive for teh state budget. Through these ”swaps” the state have lost about 8 bn leva (4 bn EUR). And through this system privte investors get acess to land that should be protected form exploitation.”

”The ecologist organizations have campaigned against this for a long time. The state actually offered us to change the law, but at the same time they changed other laws and made exceptions that availed exploitation of areas that had been protected before. So we needed to continue our protests.”

”The 19th of December our demonstration coincided with the student's and the though was born that we should make one big protest together, and the date was set to the 14th of January. Then someone called the farmers' organizations, someone called the mothers' organizations... I don't know who took that initiative.”

”Then we wrote a declaration of our demands.” These are the 35 original demands put forward by the protesters. You'll find them here in Bulgarian, and my own English summary here. ”But the police ruined it all, and our demands were drowned in the reports of the violence. Next Wednesday (21th of January) will be the next demonstration. This time we will make sure to reach out to media with our message before the protest.”

”And I think we need to take a little break. Hopefully we can do some more kind of artistic protest” Vera shines up when she gets to speak about this subject. ”You know, we ecologists have experience from organizing protests, and of making ”artistic demonstrations”. Maybe it will not happen this Wednesday, but it's something that we are thinking of. We want to introduce more positive elements, and less aggression. I don't like when people just shout ”mafia!mafia!”.

"Yes we can!"
Vera has another meeting after hours and as the time is closing in I ask my two last questions. ”What do you think you wil achieve, and what do you hope that you will achieve with these protests?”

”Oh.. please let me start with what I hope to achieve. I hope that we achieve 100 % of what we demand. It is possible. The parliament has already stopped the ”swapping” of forests, for example”

”But we want more. We want a moratorium of all construction in a few specified areas. We know that it's sensless to ask for too much, so we have defined a few places that we want to protect. We want to change the electoral system. Hopefully the changes can be put in place by this parliament, so that they can apply for the next elections.”

”And all of this is achievable. Sometimes it doesn't take many new laws. Like with the referendums for example, actually there is already a law that is not used. It was somehow ”forgotten”.”

”I don't know what the students will say about this, though. So far they have insisted on the governments resignation. But that would change nothing.”

”And the other organizations, the mother's, the farmers...” I ask.

”The mothers support our demands. They want a majority electoral system, and a law about referendums. The farmers are actually several different organizations, small farmers, dairy producers etc. Their demands is more about subsidies.”

”If we can get the parliament to accept these changes it would be a huge success. It would give people so much hope, and a feeling that they could actually control the ruling class. That's what we need. Is better if we can control them than just change their faces.”

We broke up form the table and said good bye. I was, maybe not surprises, but very impressed by these people. Not for asking for the impossible. But for making the impossible possible.

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