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24 Oct 17

Bulgaria’s on a Bumpy Road to Europe

Tom Junes

As Bulgaria readies to assume the EU Presidency, one cannot help noticing that its path to the future is, literally, full of potholes. 

Photo: Viktor Kiryanov/Wikimedia Commons

 

Bulgaria will hold the EU presidency in the first half of next year. It marks the high point of the country's “road to Europe” after joining the EU a decade ago. Public support for the EU remains strong. However, the country remains deeply dysfunctional, which EU membership has not been able to resolve.

Take the roads. Good roads are one of the cornerstones of a modern economy. They also literally connect the country to the rest of Europe.

Traversing Bulgaria by road is still the best way to discover the country. Road trips in Bulgaria and the Balkans have been among my most exciting experiences in uncovering the beauty and diversity of the region. At the same time, travelling by road in Bulgaria can be illuminating for other reasons.

To use Bulgaria's road system beyond areas of settlement, one needs to purchase a vignette. The price for a period of one year is one of the highest within the EU, as it does not apply only to motorways, as is the case elsewhere. Does this mean that Bulgarian roads are any safer and of higher quality? Sadly, no.

Driving from Sofia on the motorway to Burgas, one notices a peculiar traffic sign – a red-rimmed yellow triangle with a black dot in the middle. It supposedly means “high rate of accidents”. The signs can appear in otherwise mundane spots like straight stretches of road. They feed the imagination about what possible dangers one may encounter there.

Crossing the mountains into the plain that leads to Plovdiv, one enters a tunnel where a burned-out car wreck adorns the middle berm in front of the entrance, warning drivers of potential hazards. It might seem a bit drastic and dampen your mood after enjoying the spectacular vistas along the road, but there have been fatal incidents in Bulgarian tunnels.

In February, a beam from the lighting fixture in the Echemishka tunnel on the motorway connecting Sofia and Varna fell down, killing a 64-year-old woman. Criminal neglect was suspected, several officials were fired, and the government announced an investigation into all the road tunnels.

Bulgaria can also boast the infamy of having the deadliest road in the whole of the EU, the route along the Black Sea Riviera from Burgas to Varna. Nationwide, the country also has the highest death rate resulting from accidents in the EU. The annual death toll on Bulgarian roads easily exceeds the total amount of people killed in terrorist attacks in Europe, yet the latter is perceived to be a greater threat by the nation’s political elite.

Unsurprisingly, speeding and overtaking where it is unsafe to do so are the most common causes of these road kills. When it comes to speeding, the problem is encountered more beyond the motorways, where the speed limit is 140 km per hour. If one travels from Thessaloniki in Greece to Sofia, the motorway is interrupted by a “regular” road after the boarder crossing in Kulata until Blagoevgrad, through the Kresna Gorge. Driving on this stretch can be unnerving, especially if one travels after dark when speeding trucks try to overtake you on this one-lane death trap connecting all the local villages along the way. It can make anyone forget the relaxing short breakaway they had on the Aegean coast.

Such “interludes” in the major road infrastructure network tend to stand out. Bulgaria and its roads are part of a large international transit system, the so-called “Orient / Eastern Mediterranean” Trans-European Corridor, the shortest route connecting Western Europe to the Near and Middle East. On this route, the only non-motorway stretch was between Niš in Serbia and Sofia. However, on the Serbian side of the border a new motorway is due to be opened, leaving the 60 km road from the Kalotina border crossing to Sofia, and its unfinished beltway, as the only stretch of non-motorway connecting Brussels and Istanbul. Truck traffic to and from Turkey will thus keep passing through Sofia via an over-congested city transit road during Bulgaria’s EU presidency.

Apart from a lack of seamless connectivity, the Bulgarian road system is plagued by poor quality construction, hence the never-ending renovation work even on recently constructed stretches. It would be interesting to know the details of the tenders and practices of the companies involved in this road construction.

When it comes to “European standards”, a more down-to-earth perspective emerges as well. For some the experience of driving through Bulgaria has been cumbersome. Many EU citizens with Turkish roots travel to Turkey through Bulgaria by car for annual holiday and family visits. In the past years, there have been multiple reports of harassment and corruption by Bulgarian customs and police officers from people who have travelled this way.

The number of complaints sent to national and European representatives has prompted one MEP, Kati Piri, to compile a “black book”, which will be presented to Bulgaria when Sofia assumes the EU presidency next year. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 it was placed under supervision because of its deep-rooted practices of corruption. Piri and her colleagues in the European Parliament are asking whether the EU financial aid meant to combat corruption is achieving any results.

While the problems linked to motorways and inter-city connections are very real, the problems in urban areas are no less. In Sofia, where the start and end of rush hour is hard to predict, traffic is hell. Streets are often jammed due to the multiple bottlenecks throughout the city, leading aggressive drivers to lose the last bit of calm they might have had.

In summer, the city slides into a recurring near-permanent state of reconstruction, and road repairs impede even traffic to and from the airport. While many of the capital's inhabitants escape the city for the summer, the urban landscape in some places turns into something of an un-navigable maze. These municipal street renovations tend to suffer delays, causing even worse congestion once the mass of Sofia's regular urban dwellers return from their summer breaks.

Although these issues are compounded by the current construction of Sofia’s third metro line, certain aspects of the urban streetscape seem to have become mainstays. The numerous potholes on some on the city's main arteries have provoked satirical reactions [as well as cursing], announcing “national pothole competitions” or “declarations as national monuments”.

Lack of adequate drainage on roads causes flash floods during less-than-torrential rains while in some quarters of the city, streets that simply lack asphalt turn into swampy pools. One can only hope that it will not rain too much from January to June during the EU presidency; it could dampen the image of Sofia as an EU capital.

Of course, there have been improvements over the past years and more streets are getting asphalted. Often, though, this infrastructure work is of such bad quality that the newly asphalted roads are in disarray after only one winter. It is not hard to imagine the corruption and mismanagement in these affairs. Some people are probably prospering from this, but it hugely disadvantages the general population.

None of these many problems will prevent me from driving in Bulgaria and exploring the country and region, which I have come to appreciate more and more. However, in light of Bulgaria's upcoming EU presidency, the question of the country's metaphorical road to a brighter future in Europe does present itself. One could well say that it should start with good and safe roads. Literally!

 

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