It is not a motorway that is being constructed through the Kresna Gorge, but a one-way expressway that violates the law and endangers lives
On Tuesday morning, 16th May 2023, the diggers entered the Kresna gorge valley , under the blessing of the caretaker government in Bulgaria, marking the start of the last unfinished section of the Struma motorway, part of Trans-European corridor IV, linking Sofia with Thessaloniki. The works gave a green light of an obsolete and criticized by Environmental Commissioner Sinkevičius Environmental Impact Assessment, allowing for the motorway to pass through the Kresna gorge, which clearly violates European environmental legislation and was rejected for funding by the Commission already back in 2019.
An alternative route that bypasses entirely the gorge is possible but for more than 20 years, the road authorities and Bulgarian institutions systematically failed to develop them and compare them equally – either through a long13-km tunnel, which was selected in 2008 and then rejected, or through the so called “full eastern alternative”, which takes both lanes of the motorway outside of the gorge. 
The gross violation of Bulgarian and European legislation with the opening of the construction works for the Struma motorway through the Kresna Gorge sparked weeks of protests in April and May 2023 from the environmental coalitions For the Nature and Save Kresna Gorge, local people and rafters, citizens, in front of the Presidency in Sofia, the National parliament, in the town of Kresna, and against the diggers as they entered the gorge.
Despite claims that this road connection does not predetermine the route of the future motorway section, the authorities hurried to “save” the EIA decision, which would expire on 23rd May 2023, and signed contracts with two road construction companies already back on 6th April for nearly 600 million euros. It is unclear yet who will fund this project, with Bulgarian authorities hoping again for EU funds.
This start of works validated the deadly route for the motorway both for people and nature, and namely, the lane towards Greece through the Kresna Gorge, and the one in the opposite direction – east of the gorge.
On May 11, 2023, after protests in front of the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, the Minister of Regional Development Ivan Shishkov said that the start of construction activities does not predetermine the choice of an alternative for the construction of the Struma motorway in the area of Kresna and the Kresna Gorge and that this choice is to be made by the Minister of Environment and Waters.
However, the Minister failed to mention that as early as April 6, 2023, in a complete media blackout – 35 days before the protests on May 11 – the Road Infrastructure Agency (RIA) had signed the contracts for the construction of the entire motorway at a cost of nearly 600 million euros. These contracts, concluded under the leadership of the Ministry of Regional Development, completely and finally predetermined that the illegal and dangerous alternative proposed in 2017 would be built.
Moreover, this route would not be a motorway, but a first-class road, setting one-way traffic through the Natura 2000 protected area of the Kresna Gorge. Furthermore, it makes it difficult for local residents to access the regional center of Blagoevgrad (north from Kresna), does not meet explicit European requirements for a compatibility assessment and does not meet European standards for a motorway.
A routhe through the Kresna gorge will not only destroy the habitat and unique biodiversity, but will even endanger the safety of traffic through the gorge, it is in sharp contradiction with the interests of the local residents for access to administrative and health services in the regional centre north – Blagoevgrad, as well as it will destroy established livelihoods in the Kresna Gorge – adventure tourism, winemaking and agriculture.
In addition, the Road Infrastructure Agency, one day after the signatures of the contracts, submitted a project for “optimization” of the Struma motorway route  in the area of Kresna and Kresna Gorge, submitted by the RIA to the Ministry of Environment on 5 April 2023. The Agency’s project includes only the “alternative” from 2017, which is dangerous for the life and health of people as well as the surrounding nature.
On 27 April 2023. The RIA and the contractors agreed to start the construction of the motorway after the Ministry of Environment and Water approves the “optimized” alternative. Minister Shishkov’s response of 15 May 2023 to a question from Green Movement/ PP-DB Member of Parliament Daniela Bojinova makes it clear that the Ministry of Environment and Water had given such approval, stating that there was no need for environmental impact assessments and for compatibility with the European environmental protected areas network Natura 2000.
On July 7, 2017 Bulgaria agreed with the European Commission (EC) to receive the funds for the construction of the Struma motorway lots north and south of the Kresna gorge (lots 3.1 and 3.3) – with the explicit condition from the EC not to build the road junctions to the lot in the area of Kresna and the gorge in order not to predetermine the choice of an alternative.
Environmentalists and local citizens demand an immediate halt to construction activities and remind that:
- In October 2019, the European Commission (EC) pointed out 7 violations of the Habitats Directive in the selection of the alternative and in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) decision issuing for the project from 2017.
- In July 2022, the European Commission stated in a letter to the Ministry of Regional Development.
“the Commission services are still awaiting from the Bulgarian authorities a revised EIA and Compatibility Assessment, including an in-depth analysis of all meaningful alternatives for Lot 3.2” and
“regardless of whether the project is resubmitted in time to the EU for co-financing in the current period, the Commission services are certainly closely monitoring each and every implementation on the spot to ensure compliance with environmental legislation and to take the necessary measures if required”.
They further ask the European Commission to act immediately and stop the destruction of nature, livelihoods and the violation of European legislation.
Notes for editors:
- First dig photos, photo credit: Stratospheric Productions.
- Map of the possible alternatives prepared by NGO coalition Save the Kresna gorge.
- map, which compares the new proposal with the approved EIA in 2017; the map is prepared by NGO coalition Save the Kresna gorge]
On the campaign to save Kresna Gorge:
Saving the Kresna Gorge is a more than 20-year-old campaign – a cause behind which have stood biologists, environmentalists, nature lovers and NGOs. Public figures, such as the alpinist and biologist Boyan Petrov and former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov.
Kresna Gorge is the place with the highest biodiversity in Bulgaria within a very small area – for example, there are 122 species of butterflies per square kilometer.
A total of 3,500 species of flora and fauna can be found. The Gorge is a highly vulnerable and fragile ecosystem on the border of temperate and Mediterranean climates and a very narrow corridor for connection between the two zones. Protected species from both zones live in them along the valley and slopes of the gorge. The gorge is also an important migration route for bears and wolves between the Pirin Mountain and the mountains on the border with North Macedonia.
For local people, the selected alternative in 2017 and carving one-way of the motorway, or rather, the first-class route, will result in no safe local road to the villages of Stara Kresna and Oshtava, to farmland and pastures. All vineyards, gardens and pastures inside the Kresna Gorge under the Road Traffic Act will become completely inaccessible for local people. Kresna’s most valuable agricultural land will be destroyed. It will become impossible for tourists to practice rafting and visit the gorge.
For both people and wildlife, the intense transit traffic on the road through the gorge leads to death and accidents – a problem that can only be solved by moving the transit traffic on a motorway route (with all the requirements and qualities of a motorway) out of the gorge, and keeping the road through the gorge as a local one.
Protest in the town of Kresna, May 2023, photo credit Alexander Popov.
Protest in front of the Presidency of the Republic of Bulgaria, photo credit Alexander Popov, 27th April 2023.