On a recent Sunday this month, a few dozen people showed up at a spot along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast armed with hoes and shovels. But what might look like a bit of landscaping is actually part of an ongoing legal battle involving some of the country's most influential politicians.
"We are here to clean the beach of what we think is planted grass," one of the activists explained to the media. "Because, at the moment, it is designated as agricultural land, and now with this grass, if it stays a little longer, everything will be grass. There will be no beach."
Why does it matter?
Currently, this sliver of coastline in Rosenets Park in the Burgas region is marked in the land register as "agricultural land." If the shoreline was registered as a "coastal beach," this would make it a protected area and public access would be guaranteed. All beaches are public property in Bulgaria.
This particular piece of shoreline is near a compound known to be the summer residence of one of the most powerful people in Bulgaria: Ahmed Dogan, the honorary chairman of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). Many people consider Dogan's DPS, a largely ethnic Turkish minority party, to have control over the country's judiciary, including the prosecutor's office.
DPS is generally the third-strongest party, usually polling around 10 percent. Current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov once described Dogan as the "best politician" in Bulgaria.
"Dogan was the first to realize that if he had a media empire and control over the judiciary, he could rule," he said.
The simple question of whether or not the shoreline is a beach or not has turned into a court battle in which one side tries to prove that the shore is a beach, while the other tries to prove that, in fact, there has never been a beach there at all.
Companies and individuals close to Dogan have launched a series of appeals that have delayed decisions in the case. So far, their tactics have succeeded. The shore is still not officially a beach, nor has an order for illegal buildings on the site to be demolished been enacted.
Battle Of The Burgas Beach
The issue first came to light in July 2020, when Hristo Ivanov, a leader of the extra-parliamentary coalition Democratic Bulgaria, and two others tried to land their boat on the shore but were confronted by security guards. It later emerged the security guards were officers of the the National Protection Service (NSO), which is responsible for guarding the president, prime minister, and other high officials.
A few days later, several thousand protesters tried to reach the beach by land, but the DPS organized party supporters to block access to Dogan's property. The police used this as a pretext not to allow the protesters onto the beach. This led to clashes between police and protesters, who managed to reach the shore, which is public property.
In August, the Supreme Administrative Prosecutor's Office announced that it had found a number of violations and lack of permits and design documents for the pier and buildings on the property. It was even reported that evidence of a crime had been established. Since then, however, investigators have not announced any charges or developments in the case.
Whose Land Is It?
Ownership of the land now resides with a company called Hermes Solar, after passing though a company called Straightline. Straightline's legal representative, Kalin Tikholov, is also the architect of the main building on the site. He and Straightline have led the legal fight to block all actions by the state to declare the shoreline a beach, demolish any of the buildings, or make the access road public again, after it became a private road in April 2020, thus denying access to the beach.
At the end of August, the municipality of Burgas issued an order to demolish the main building on the site, which was declared illegal during inspections following Ivanov's beach landing in July. Tikholov appealed the decision, but the Burgas Administrative Court dismissed the appeal because Tikholov had not presented proof of ownership.
On January 7, however, the Supreme Administrative Court accepted that in this case a tax return in which the building was entered was sufficient. It annulled the ruling and returned the case to Burgas for a new hearing, which is scheduled for February 3.
Meanwhile, Democratic Bulgaria leader Ivanov announced on January 18 that immediately before the Christmas holiday a legislator of the ruling GERB party had submitted a bill in parliament that he said was intended to legalize the building. The amendment to the law on fisheries says that buildings already built for seasonal use, bordering on fishing or specialized ports, are not subject to removal and are permissible.
According to Ivanov, the government will probably claim that they want to legalize fishing villages, but "the purpose of this action is not the fishermen. The purpose of this action is this fisherman who has been fishing in the murky waters of Bulgarian politics for 30 years."