The case comes at a time when the European citizens' initiative (ECI) "Water is a human right" gathered over 1.9 million in the EU. The ECI demands from the European Commission to make water a public good for all and to implement the human right to water and sanitation as essential public services for all. In Sofia 60,000 signatures backed the question of the citizens’ initiative "Do you agree to terminate the concession agreement between Sofia municipality and "Sofia Water?” However, Sofia Municipal Council refused a referendum on the law proposal in a vote of 38 No- and eleven Yes-votes.
The stated reason for the negative vote of Sofia’s municipal council is that the contract between “Sofia Water” and the municipality has no clause allowing the termination of an agreement by referendum. This means the municipality would have to pay penalties in between 400 million and 1 billion levas (app. 200-500 million euros), according to an evaluation by Sofia’s municipal council.
Another reason for the negative vote is the ongoing political struggle in Bulgaria between the governing and opposition parties, which is also reflected in the on-going anti-governmental protests on the streets. In the case of the referendum, Bulgaria’s major political parties BSP and GERB took sides on the concession contract and suggested fundamentally different ways to solve the case. Nikolai Stoynev from GERB was cited "that the contract is not profitable for Sofia’s citizens, but currently there are no conditions for terminating the fault of the concessionaire. The referendum proposal poses risks." In contrast, BSP councilor Gergana Alexieva assured that her party was going to try all opportunities for a referendum to be held.
The submitters of the law proposal announced to appeal the decision by the council not to hold a referendum. In this view it can be expected that steps will be taken in order to protect the users of the services of the company. Sofia’s mayor Fandakova argues that the contract should be revised and it is necessary to "increase the opportunities for control over the “Sofia water” company. Following this statement "Sofia Water" stated that the company intends to participate in the talks of the working group for a revision of the concession contract. So changes might come about with the pressure that was created by the citizens’ initiative.
Text by Ivailo Georgiev, edited by Cora Pfafferott
Ivailo Georgiev is a member of Democracy International. He lives and works in Sofia.