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YOUNG: Now, if you had a problem with a planned highway, you might call city hall, or even protest. But during Soviet rule in Eastern Europe such political expression was rare and risky.
To this day, many East Europeans do not see the people as having much power. That's starting to change in Bulgaria, where Matthew Brunwasser reports on a generation of environmental activists re-shaping how Bulgarians view government.
[CHANTING, BANGING SOUNDS]
BRUNWASSER: On the streets of the Bulgarian capital, you're starting to see scenes like this one a lot more often.
BRUNWASSER: These young environmentalists are shouting, "we want nature--we don't want concrete."
Young Bulgarian environmental protestors in the "let's make noise for nature" march through the center of Sofia. (Photo: Claudia Yi Leon)
They're marching through the city center, banging pots and spoons. The protest is called "lets make noise for nature."
[CHANGING, PROTEST SOUNDS, METAL BANGING]
BRUNWASSER: There was an environmental movement here during the Communist era. In fact it was the only organized political opposition to the regime.
People called it "eco-glasnost" ... it protested mainly against nuclear power and pollution from neighboring Romania. The movement gradually became irrelevant and has few connections to activists today.
[SOUND OF WAVES AT A BEACH]
BRUNWASSER: Instead today's Bulgarian environmentalists trace their roots here, to the Black Sea coast.
BRUNWASSER: It was here on a beach called Irakli, that a young generation of environmentalists stepped in to fight a proposed vacation village. Most Bulgarians didn't believe it was possible for citizens to do anything about unchecked development. There was a sense that Irakli was the only place left untouched on the entire Black Sea coast. The protestors won a year-long ban on construction and a movement was born.
[SOUNDS OF A CROWD]
BRUNWASSER: Genady Kondarev, at 27 a movement veteran, says that after the lies of Communism and rocky ride of capitalism, Bulgarians have already lost a lot.
KONDAREV: And the one thing that they can touch they can feel they can see is the Bulgarian nature. They know this is something beautiful, they know it's a treasure that we have.
Genady Kondarev, candidate for parliament, in the Greens' information tent in the center of Sofia talking to voters. (Photo: Claudia Yi Leon)
They know their grey cities, they know their Communist architecture, the grey blocks, the slowly decreasing spaces and gardens between these blocks. And they miss it; they want clean air. They want these normal things that should be actually a basic human right.
BRUNWASSER: So in what represented a major decision on strategy, the new environmentalists decided to form a political party, the Bulgarian Greens. It's a shoestring operation, so there was little money for ads like this one.
[RADIO AD IN BULGARIAN]
VOICEOVER: We're the greens. You know us from the protests to defend Irakli and the mountains. We've had our victories, but we want more... to preserve the nature of Bulgaria, unique in Europe for all its magnificence.
BRUNWASSER: The party had the funding to air this commercial on the national radio exactly three times. So the Greens mainly reach THE people by speaking to them directly, often from information tents they set up on streets around the country.
BRUNWASSER: An accordion-player busks at an exit to the Sofia metro, near where Genady Kondarev is handing out fliers. He decided to run for parliament with the new Green Party. One passerby is clearly agitated.
[AGITATED VOICES SPEAKING IN BULGARIAN]
BRUNWASSER: Kondarev is stoic.
KONDAREV: No, he thinks that we haven't done anything enough for the environment. He's asking for this wild beach Irakli. He thinks that we have been sponsored by some people: this is the usual voter who equals everyone in the politics to the mafia.
BRUNWASSER: It's good that Kondarev knows how to speak patiently. Many Bulgarians are totally unfamiliar with the concept of participatory citizen politics.
[KONDAREV SPEAKING BULGARIAN AS HE HANDS OUT FLYERS]
BRUNWASSER: Dimitar Buchkov stops to chat. He says the Greens represent hope for the future.
BUCHKOV: Someone must care for this nature. Because the rulers in the country, they would like to accumulate more money for short time, they would like to be millionaires or billionaires in a night. This is terrible. And that is why we have to kick them out of the power.
Supporters gather to agitate for the Bulgarian Greens before the elections. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)
BRUNWASSER: In deciding to form a political party, these environmentalists are directly confronting post-Soviet apathy and passivity. Their message is: take political responsibility for yourself, and don't just complain. At the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, political analyst Ivan Krastev explains that the Greens are not simply asking for something from the state.
KRASTEV: This is good. The fact that they made a political party, the fact that they decided to run, I find this extremely extremely positive development.
BRUNWASSER: Krastev says that the Greens have practically introduced voting to Bulgarian youth, who are almost totally apolitical.
KRASTEV: They are trying to tell people, look there is a public good. And because for the last 20 years the idea of the public good has disappeared from Bulgarian political life, its always been the interests of us against the interests of others, I find the energy coming from the green movement much more important than the votes than they are getting.
[SAMBA BEAT PROTEST]
BRUNWASSER: The greens have clearly made politics fun. But when the votes were counted in recent parliamentary elections, the party got 22,000 votes, less than the 1% they were hoping for. That would have won them state support, like an office. No one expected the 4% needed to enter the Parliament. Yet Kondarev says the campaign has made them tough, and taught them how to fight.
Genady Kondarev bangs spoons in the march "lets make noise for nature."
KONDAREV: I think everyone believes now that this party is an alternative, that this is a way to bring change in Bulgaria. And everyone from left to right is trying to flirt with us, trying to get us on their side.
BRUNWASSER: Everyone is trying to get us on their side now, he says. The big parties in Bulgaria now have environmental planks in their programs. And all are eager to harness the energy of the earnest young Greens. Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, youth, and concern about the environment are healing the political wounds of Communism. The Greens say they have just gotten started.
For Living on earth, I'm Matthew Brunwasser, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
[PROTEST MUSIC, WHISTLES]