Bulgarian Archaeologists, Architects Rally against Controversial Amendments to Cultural Heritage Act
Leading Bulgarian archaeologists and architects have staged a protest rally before the Parliament building in Sofia against controversial draft amendments to the Cultural Heritage Act.
The new legislation is designed to accelerate the administrative approval for projects related to Bulgaria‘s cultural heritage such as archaeological restoration or the reconstruction and/or demolition of buildings which are monuments of culture.
This is supposed to be achieved by decentralizing the responsibilities of the National Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties, which is an institution of the Ministry of Culture, and by devolving its powers to the local authorities.
Another highly questionable amendment introduces the principle of “informed consent” on part of the government institutions when it comes to cultural heritage projects.
Unfortunately, a number of archaeological restoration projects such as the notorious restoration of the Yailata Fortress near Kavarna, or of the medieval fortress Krakra in the western Bulgarian city of Pernik where the construction company used cheap plastic materials to restore a medieval fortress wall, have become emblematic of the failure or unwillingness of the Bulgarian authorities to enforce proper standards.
At the same time, a number of buildings with a cultural monument status have been demolished or left to collapse in cities and town all over Bulgaria to make room for new developments.
As up to EUR 300 million in EU funding have been slated for cultural tourism projects such as archaeological restorations, Bulgarian archaeologists and architects are increasingly worried that more botched restorations and demolished cultural monuments will follow as local authorities and construction entrepreneurs are trying to profit by absorbing as much EU money as possible.
About 50 of Bulgaria’s most renowned archaeologists and architects have joined the rally against the amendments of the Cultural Heritage Act.
“Our concern is based on examples such as the destruction of tobacco storehouses in Plovdiv and Harmanli. The amendments stimulate the decentralization of the Institute for Cultural Heritage Monuments, replacing it with local committees in the larger municipalities,” says archaeologist Prof. Diana Gergova, as cited by BGNES.
Gergova is a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a NGO working on the conservation and protection of cultural monuments, which has been expressing criticism and concern over the restorations of archaeological sites in Bulgaria.
“Our second concern has to do with the introduction of the principle of informed consent. There is no way this principle can be applied when it comes to complex projects, and their discussion and approval. Funding in this field is in the millions, and this principle is unacceptable when there are doubts of corruption. In our case, the powers of the professional organizations are being taken away, and it becomes very easy to guarantee the approval of corruption practices to the detriment of the monuments of culture,” Gergova elaborates.
She adds that Bulgaria’s existing system for the protection of cultural monuments has barely been working, and now that EUR 300 million for restoration and conservation are expected to be absorbed, this has led the stakeholders design the new legislation in their interest.
“It seems to me that the extremely slow procedures and the corruption plots have made the legislators seek a way to resolve these problems more efficiently and quickly. However, I have the feeling that the MPs have been misled in this matter since they are mostly economists and lawyers,” Gergova adds.
“Or at least I would like to think that way, and not to suspect some other kinds of motifs. Otherwise, the interpretation that they are consciously supporting a corruption plot would be very bitter, indeed. But I don’t think that they realize the decentralization is now a working solution,” she notes.
In her words, the Parliament has not even arranged a public hearing of the arguments that the archaeologists and architects have against the new Cultural Heritage Act which is why they have resorted to a protest rally.
“I would really like to believe that common sense and the sense of duty to Bulgaria’s history will prevail, and the legislators will withdraw their amendments,” the archaeologist concludes.
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.
An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.
According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.
One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past” (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.