THE PAPERWORK: Borissov's legal challenge filled several folders worth of documentation.
A month after the Cabinet declared a state of emergency in Sofia because of the capital city’s refuse problems, the issue still seems to be a hostage in the fight between the two most powerful parties in Bulgaria, one chaired by Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and the other by Sofia mayor Boiko Borissov.
Less than two months ahead of the elections for Parliament, Stanishev’s Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Borissov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (abbreviated as GERB in Bulgarian) refused to join hands to solve a problem directly affecting the well-being of more than 1.5 million people.
Refuse has been a serious issue for Sofia since June 2005 when refuse bins remained full for more than two weeks after the city refuse site in Souhodol reached its limit and locals demanded its closure.
Since then both the city hall and the Cabinet have been pulling in different directions, each following its own political agenda, always presented as in people’s best interest.
When the Cabinet declared the state of emergency in Sofia on April 9, GERB saw it as the BSP’s way to discredit Borissov as incompetent in dealing with refuse collection in the city. Stanishev’s response was that he had acted on the basis of reports by the Health, Environment and Regional Development Ministries. They said that the refuse situation in Sofia presented a danger to people’s lives and in such cases, the law allows the Cabinet to declare a state of emergency in any part of the country where such a threat to health exists.
A crisis headquarters was formed and the Cabinet started spending budget money to empty refuse bins all around the city at such a pace that sometimes bins were emptied several times in the space of two or three days.
To distance themselves from the refuse trucks of the companies hired by the city hall, the crisis headquarters’ trucks had a sign on them saying "Emergency Headquarters" just so that Sofians knew who was doing the "dirty work".
Through all this, Stanishev insisted that the Cabinet was only doing its duty to help Sofians deal with the problem. Repeatedly, he urged the city to co-operate.
At first Borissov seemed ready to agree, but quickly turned around and decided to challenge the Cabinet’s decision in court.
The result was that the crisis headquarters carried on while city hall remained a mere observer of its actions.
Sofians were just glad that they were no longer living among bins overflowing with refuse, and seemed to pay scant attention to what the two strong men of the day, Stanishev and Borissov, were arguing about.
Twenty days later, the crisis headquarters announced that its work had come to an end, but when many thought that it would simply dissolve itself, as the law requires, it seemed keen to stay in business and even suggested legislative changes.
One such change was to give the Cabinet the right to intervene in all matters related to refuse, which currently are the prerogative of municipalities, not the Government. In other words, if such an amendment is adopted, the Cabinet would have the right to take decisions overstepping local authorities’ duties. This would in effect limit the independence provided to municipalities in the constitution. The change also would give the Cabinet the right to deal with parts of municipal refuse sites, built with European Union funds, where it could store refuse in times of crisis such as that in Sofia.
This amendment was presented as merely a way to improve communication between the Cabinet and all municipalities, but somehow there was an inescapable feeling that the fact that Sofia is run by GERB was the real reason for the proposals.
Indeed, refuse sites are an issue for many of the big cities in the country but unlike Sofia, other city halls have responded by building new ones or expanding their current refuse sites. Such is the case with the fastest growing city of Varna on the Black Sea or the second largest city, Plovdiv. These cities are using EU money to pay for their response measures, and with the amendment put forward by the crisis headquarters, the Government would control how municipalities used such refuse sites.
Then there is the issue of the several hundred thousand bales of Sofia refuse currently stored in Kremikovtzi borough. The city hall started baling its refuse after Souhodol refuse site was closed down in 2006 and baling of refuse was seen as a temporary solution while a refuse processing plant is built. But a refuse processing plant has not been built, and bales have started having a negative impact on the environment, prompting the European Commission to give Sofia and Bulgaria a deadline of the end of 2009 to clear all baled refuse from the Kremikovtsi temporary site.
To do so, Sofia started sending the baled refuse to several other municipalities’ sites. The most recent such deal was with Lovech municipality, where local city councillors agreed to take 50 000 tons of Sofia refuse in exchange for seven million leva. Plovdiv and Silistra are the other two municipalities that agreed to take Sofia’s baled refuse.
Borissov negotiated the deals directly with the city halls, and if Parliament adopts the proposed amendment, he would have to negotiate with the Cabinet.
Meanwhile, in another example of a lack of co-ordination between the state and the city hall in Sofia, the crisis headquarters said that Sofia would have a new refuse site as of January 1 2010. This was a direct attack on Borissov who spent 2008 trying to negotiate with Souhodol residents about reopening Souhodol’s refuse site for a year until the launch of the new refuse plant. The crisis headquarters refused to say where this refuse site would be, which prompted media speculation that it was yet another election stunt.