Bulgaria’s Archaeological Sites Might Be Headed for Disaster, Protesters against New Cultural Heritage Law Alarm

Bulgaria’s Archaeological Sites Might Be Headed for Disaster, Protesters against New Cultural Heritage Law Alarm

A group of archaeologists, architects, artists, and restorers protesting against the newly adopted Cultural Heritage Act before the Parliament in Sofia. Photo: BGNES

A group of archaeologists, architects, artists, and restorers protesting against the newly adopted Cultural Heritage Act before the Parliament in Sofia. Photo: BGNES

A group of Bulgarian archaeologists, architects, and artists have staged a new protest rally in downtown Sofia against newly adopted amendments to the country’s Cultural Heritage Act which they fear may lead to irreparable damages to numerous archaeological sites and other historical and cultural monuments.

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.

Under the new law, six commissions made up of three municipally appointed experts each, based in six cities throughout Bulgaria (Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna, Veliko Tarnovo, and Pleven) will be in charge of evaluating and approving archaeological, historical and cultural projects in their respective part of the country.

Another highly questionable amendment introduces the principle of “informed consent” on part of the government institutions when it comes to cultural heritage projects.

The new protest rally of archaeologists, architects, restorers, and artists has been staged before the building of the Bulgarian Parliament, after the controversial law was adopted at second reading.

Another similar protest rally was held by the archaeologists and architects in March 2016 when the amendments were adopted at first reading. The demands of the protesting archaeologists and architects have not been met by the MPs between the two readings of the law, which is why they have called upon Bulgaria’s President Rosen Pleveneliev to veto the new Cultural Heritage Act (the Bulgarian President, however, has the power of suspensive veto).

The protesting experts are extremely worried that the legislation amendments will be very detrimental to Bulgaria’s surviving cultural heritage monuments because they will marginalize further the professionals from the Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties, and will give enormous power in the hands of officials with questionable credentials from the local authorities boosting the opportunities for corruption, abuses, and institutional failure and neglect.

Their grave concerns have been fueled by a number of already notorious botched archaeological restoration projects such as the notorious restoration of the Yailata Fortress near Kavarna, 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, or the Ancient Roman ruins of Serdica in the very downtown of Sofia, the so called Sofia Largo project.

In other cases, proposed restoration projects have caused public scandals such as the discussion of a project for the Nebet Tepe settlement and fortress in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. 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.

Cases like those have become emblematic of the failure or unwillingness of the Bulgarian authorities to enforce proper standards in the protection and restoration of archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments.

Part of the problem lies with the availability of EU money for cultural tourism projects which are seen by unscrupulous individuals in Bulgaria’s government and business sector as money making opportunities rather than policies designed to preserve a cultural heritage of global importance and a means to sustainable regional development.

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.

Representatives of the Association of Restorers and the archaeological community believe that the new Cultural Heritage Act has opened the door for investor and political pressure on the local authorities.

“The intentional closure of the National Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties started 10 years ago, and the Institute has already been reduced to a staff of 40 people who have been in charge of 40,000 monuments. Thus, they have been accused of incompetence and inconsistencies, which is an argument to be used for the shutting down of the institution,” artist Vlado Rumenov from the National Gallery of Arts in Sofia has told the Dnevnik news site.

Rumenov adds that the opinion of the professionals in the respective fields has been neglected during the public discussions of the new legislation.

For example, the Cultural Heritage Forum, a NGO, has proposed alternative solutions such as boosting the staff of the Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties, and establishing regional branches of the institution.

The protesting experts are certain that the changes cannot produce positive results, not least because the national archive on the cultural monuments is based in Sofia, and is not available in a digital or online format.

“The most valuable trait of the monuments is that they are authentic, a testimony of past ages. When they are dealt with in a non-professional manner, there is a grave possibility that this authenticity might be lost,” says architect Valentina Edreva, who has been working on the preservation of architectural monuments for more than 40 years, as cited by BNT.

She has pointed to the ongoing restoration of the 9th century Great Basilica in Pliska, which was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) between 680 and 893, as an example of a potentially damaging project.

“Our entire architectural heritage is in extreme risk after [the adoption of] this law. There is an opportunity for destruction, an opportunity for corruption which has been sought. That is why people who are ignorant with respect to [the matter of] this law have been working on it, and are expected to be well paid. I cannot believe that the Parliament would like to destroy our cultural heritage, and to do that with a law,” Prof. Velislav Minekov from the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, an outspoken critic of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and the present Cabinet, has declared.

The protesting experts think that the National Institute for Cultural Heritage Properties should be preserved, provided with more resources, and improved as the proper institution to take care of Bulgaria’s numerous archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments.

Background Infonotes:

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.

According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.

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 future 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.