KRESNA GORGE, Bulgaria -- With churning waters cutting through a verdant valley filled with some of Europe's most diverse nature and wildlife, this southwestern corner of Bulgaria has become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers, providing a much-needed injection to the local economy.
But now people living in the region near the Kresna Gorge fear their livelihoods and lives could be threatened as a long-delayed highway project in Bulgaria nears completion, despite years of complaints that the new road will damage one of the country's most pristine areas of natural beauty.
The last section of the Struma Highway -- named after the river that shaped the Kresna Gorge -- is just over 23 kilometers in length but is by far the most controversial part of the 173-kilometer road that, when completed, will stretch from the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to Kulata on the country's border with Greece. The road is a key link in a grander EU highway chain to improve the continent's transport network.
The 18-kilometer Kresna Gorge 'boasts more than 3,500 species of flora and fauna, including snakes, turtles, and bats found nowhere else in Europe,' including golden eagles, griffon vultures, brown bears, and wolves, according to the Bulgarian branch of Friends of the Earth Europe, a leading environmental activist NGO, which has fought for years against the Sturma Highway project.
They and other eco-activists point to the fact that the gorge has been designated as part of Natura 2000, a network of protected areas covering Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.
That designation obligates Sofia to do its utmost to protect the habitat in the gorge, activists stress.
On May 16, Ivan Shishkov, Bulgaria's regional development and public works minister, attended a groundbreaking ceremony at what would be a northern juncture of the section through the Kresna Gorge.
To appease the environmental activists, Sofia has offered what it billed as a compromise. Instead of dissecting the gorge with a two-way highway, it proposes expanding an existing roadway there -- the E-79 -- to handle traffic heading southward and build a new extension around the gorge to accommodate traffic heading north.
However, residents in the Kresna Gorge region and eco-activists aren't thrilled with that proposal either, instead demanding the road entirely circumvent the gorge to the east, the so-called eastern option.
Georgi Ivanov was one of a few dozen demonstrators to greet Shishkov, local politicians, and a construction crew that dug the first dirt at the groundbreaking on May 16 as the press looked on.
Ivanov, who lives in the area, said transforming the E-79, a key local artery, into a major road linked to a highway, would not only damage the fragile ecosystem but complicate their lives. Their battle against the planned artery has dragged on for years.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, Ivanov said that under the government's compromise, anyone wishing to travel north, including to Blagoevgrad, the regional hub, would need to take a circuitous detour.
That would not only complicate transport, including bus routes, but effectively cut off farmers from their land, as well as impacting access for rafting and whitewater tourism, Ivanov claims. 'Therefore, we demand that...instead of having only one direction to the north, lanes should be built in the southern direction as well. And that way, the gorge will remain an alternative local road,' Ivanov said.
Despite breaking ground on the road to the north of the gorge, Bulgarian officials, including Shishkov, insist that a final decision has not been reached on the route of the final sector of highway. He says any further delays could drag the project on for years.
Impact On The Environment
Increased traffic on the nearly completed highway has already 'significantly impacted' wildlife in the region, according to the CEE Bankwatch Network, which has railed against past EU funding of the project, including some 57 million euros ($61 million) lent by the European Investment Bank.
'In recent years, populations of protected bat species have decreased by 92 percent, protected tortoises and snakes by 60 percent, and all vertebrates by 84 percent,' the NGO said in a factsheet.
Following recommendations from the European Commission and the Bern Convention for the Protection of European Wildlife, the Bulgarian government at first agreed to bypass the Kresna Gorge in 2008.
But by 2017, under then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the government pivoted and decided on the current option of combining the current road inside the gorge with a new stretch circumventing it, sparking an outcry that has reverberated beyond Bulgaria.
More than 160,000 people across Europe have signed an online petition demanding that EU rules and laws on protecting the environment be upheld to protect the Kresna Gorge, according to CEE Bankwatch.
The government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, which vowed to fight Bulgaria's deeply entrenched corruption, attempted to overturn Borisov's decision on the highway, with Environment Minister Borislav Sandov signing an order postponing any construction on the gorge section of the Struma Highway until a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been conducted.
He explained his move by saying the European Commission, which has provided funding, had demanded it be reviewed over questions of whether environmental concerns had been addressed.
The Petkov government only lasted six months, however, and collapsed after a no-confidence vote in parliament in June 2022. Ever since, Bulgaria has been rocked by political instability, with the country holding five snap elections in the past two years. On May 22, the center-right GERB party and the anti-corruption alliance led by We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) announced they will form a coalition government, including the unusual feature of rotating prime ministers.
Toma Belev, an analyst in the Environment Ministry under Petkov, said the launching of construction work on the road juncture violated the law. 'The building permit was issued on the basis of the EIA of 2017 during the government of [Borisov's] GERB party,' Belev told RFE/RL, adding it never addressed any of the concerns raised by the European Commission in 2019.
After the commission's criticism, Bulgaria withdrew its application for funding. More than three years later, however, the errors in the analysis have not been corrected, although the European Commission reiterated its conclusions again last year.
In August 2022, the commission stated it still expected the Bulgarian authorities to review the environmental impact assessment and carry out a 'thorough analysis of reasonable alternatives' for the section between the villages of Krupnik and Kresna.
A Green Light?
However, it appears the project might have gotten the green light by the outgoing, caretaker government. On April 6, the Road Infrastructure Agency reportedly signed two contracts worth $658 million to build the controversial highway section, according to a report by the Bulgarian news website Kapital.
There was no formal public announcement of the alleged inking of those contracts, which involve companies that have been awarded hefty highway construction deals in the past.
If contracts have been signed, there is still the question of financing. If the European Commission refused to pony up the cash, Sofia would be forced to dip into its own coffers. A week after reports of the deals, Shishkov announced that construction could begin but only on the northern juncture, which according to his ministry 'does not predetermine the choice of the route.'
The ministry also said that work could proceed without the EIA being completed, a decision that Belev described as 'complete madness.' 'The law does not allow such things at all. They authorize construction without waiting for the EIA procedure. That's a gross violation [of the law],' Belev said.
Shishkov defended his move, claiming he was using the EIA from 2017, whose legality was set to expire on May 23, and that waiting for another EIA would set back the project for another four years. 'If it turns out that this is not a good option, an amendment to the EIA will be made. It's one thing to have an EIA and make an amendment, it's another to start from the beginning,' Shishkov told Bulgarian National Radio on May 19.
RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service asked the Regional Development and Public Works Ministry why the 2017 EIA would be used, given the European Commission had detected flaws in it. The ministry forwarded that query to the Environment Ministry, which only said that approval had been granted in March. Environment Minister Rositsa Karamfilova has said that her ministry has only approved the construction of the road juncture.
Building the juncture, however, only makes sense if the highway is split under the government's 'compromise' option, Belev and Ivanov argue. 'It is only a first step,' Ivanov added. 'They will take their steps one by one and in the end, they will present us with a fait accompli.'
Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Damyana Veleva of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036