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Mayor Ilko Stoyanov, Source: City of Blagoevgrad

Ilko Stoyanov: Municipalities face the brunt of global crises

Ilko Stoyanov: Municipalities face the brunt of global crises

A conversation with the Mayor of Blagoevgrad on the benefits of decentralisation in the context of a seemingly endless string of problems

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, municipal authorities have been at the centre of what seems like a never-ending cascade of problems. And although many of these problems have been global in their scope, their manifestation has been local.

Nowhere have these issues been more pronounced than in the EU’s poorest Member State -Bulgaria. Bulgaria has the lowest Covid-vaccination rate in the bloc, as well as one of the highest mortality rates. At the same time, the country is heavily dependent on Russian gas imports and has a middling renewables sector. Furthermore, it is located just a couple of hundred miles away from the ongoing Russian invasion and is home to a sizable minority of both Russians and Ukrainians.

To top it all off, on 27 April, Russia decided to suspend gas shipments to Bulgaria, along with Poland, in what EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has described as ‘blackmail’.

Managing all these global crises on the local level is one Ilko Stoyanov, the mayor of Blagoevgrad, a mid-sized city in Bulgaria, located at the foot of the highest mountain in the Balkans - the Rila. Mayor Stoyanov came to power in 2021, after his predecessor’s rights as mayor were suspended by Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court. Stoyanov was elected in July 2021, during the summer lull in Covid-cases. He came in on a platform of modernisation and transparency, as well as a promise to bring renewed opportunities for the city.

However, almost a year in, his administration has faced some of the worst economic and political turmoil on the continent in the last several decades. Yet, he remains a cautious optimist about the future of Blagoevgrad, as he says: “I see 2022 with hope for an end to the crises and as a time to start growing. I do not think it will happen quickly, after all, since we have been in decline for some time, we will not be able to recover in a year. But it is very important to put things on the right track.”

Mayor Stoyanov is also adamant that decentralisation of the budget and responsibilities is the only way for municipalities to actually deal effectively with the situation and deliver on their obligations to their citizens.

Keeping the boat steady in a raging sea

Ilko Stoyanov explained that his main development goals for the city involved creating the foundations of a strategic framework for the future. After 40 years of relative stagnation, he explained that the city had a chance to catch the wave of the whole world coming back to life by developing a nice work environment, implementing green measures and attracting new companies and people looking for high-quality, small-town life.

The shiny and ambitious outlook for the near future was, however, dented quickly, as Covid-cases in Bulgaria started climbing in August, less than a month after his inauguration. They continued to stay high and reached the highest recorded peak in the country in January. Stoyanov said that his city turned out to be a sort of chart-topper when it came to infection rates, as, quite often, it was one of the first to go into the red zone for new cases.

However, he emphasized that any success they had in dealing with the health crisis was due to the city’s health workers. “The municipality helped out logistically, whenever it could, but we owe everything to the people in white and I thank them.”

As soon as the Covid-situation started winding down after January of 2022, Bulgaria was hit by rising inflation and the jump in energy prices. Many municipalities had to institute emergency measures to curb their energy consumption, such as a street light schedule. And there seems to be no end in sight to the energy issue as Russia decided to close the tap on natural gas deliveries to Bulgaria at the end of April.

As Mayor Ilko Stoyanov described it, he had found himself in a very eventful mandate. “The whole world is spiralling in a raging sea. This is why I have tried to organise the local administration and give Balgoevgrad a perspective on the future because the city has the potential to grow. At the same time, keeping with the metaphor, I had to keep the ship as steady as possible.”

At the same time, his optimism for the future of the city in terms of energy seems to be unwavering. He explained that Blagoevgrad is relatively independent of Russian natural gas and this puts it in a unique position. “I can see the good side – this gives us an opportunity for development in the new round of European funding and a chance to develop our potential as a pilot city for green energy in Bulgaria.”

Furthermore, after Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine, a wave of refugees spilt over to the European Union, with a portion aiming for Bulgaria. The city has been very willing to accept them, even going as far as offering Ukrainians vacant social housing with a strategy aiming to offer them quicker integration options. Even more, the city partnered up with the local football team and sent a bus into South-Western Ukraine to evacuate refugees and bring them to Blagoevgrad.

Stoyanov explained that there is a history behind that decision, as Blagoevgrad was built by waves of refugees in the 19th and 20th centuries. He also said that despite its modest population of 73,000 people, it is quite a cosmopolitan place, accepting of people with different cultures and religious beliefs. He also said that the refugees have had an easier time adapting to community life in the city.

“Frankly, the last time I visited the refugee centre, I met a mother with two kids, one was set to start the first grade, the other – kindergarten. These children will become a natural part of the local community in just a couple of months.”

Ten problems every day

Mayor Stoaynov explained that the problems are piling on because the municipality needs to deal with far-reaching global issues on a daily basis. The strategic development goals, as he puts it, are a good way to think about the future, however, the current events are also quite pressing.

“When I go to work on a normal day, there are ten problems on the table and I have to make decisions, I need to prioritise. But the city cannot tackle all these issues, despite the political will. We lack resources. So we start deciding on the issues we can solve and to what extent. And in the context of every issue, one overarching solution always seems to come up – administrative decentralisation is necessary.”

All these global issues have had a hard impact on the local level. Climate change is quite often treated like a problem that should be solved in the city, especially considering that cities are the big polluters. At the same time, cities often lack the necessary resources to achieve the goals they need.

During the pandemic, it fell upon local authorities to manage restrictions and retain healthcare workers in smaller population centres, which quite often lack a lot of attractive opportunities. During the natural gas price hike in early 2022, it was up to local authorities to find a way to keep the lights on and now, during the refugee crisis, it is quite often up to local authorities to find ways to deal with the influx of people.

Furthermore, Mayor Stoyanov said that the negative effects of any situation always reflect on the local authorities, regardless of their power to do something. These are the human-scale problems and every mayor, regardless of place, is the target of popular discontent as he is the closest point of contact and the link between citizens and a country’s power structure.

As he argued for decentralisation, the mayor explained this does not mean political autonomy or a lack of government oversite, or a model that favours bigger municipalities over smaller ones. In fact, quite the opposite, he argues for autonomy to deal with pressing issues, supported by government oversite, as well as a way for citizens to know what happens with their taxes in a direct and immediate way. Moreover, he says that inter-municipal solidarity and cooperation should be the bedrock of decentralisation.

Currently, local taxes are collected by the central authorities based in the capital of Sofia and are later distributed back to the municipalities. But, he added that if municipalities could have more budgeting autonomy, citizens would become more involved and feel they have more control over public funds. And it would require more accountability from officials.

“When an administration has its own budget, all citizens will have more direct control and will say – Mr Mayor, this year you have 100,000 euros. Let’s see how are you going to spend it. There will be more citizen control.”

Finally, Stoyanov explained that community engagement and a sense of ownership over the urban area is a cornerstone of what he sees as a well-run city. He gave a small-scale example with one of the city’s initiatives: ‘Blagoevgrad – our home’ (Blagoevgrad, nashiya obsht dom). The initiative focuses on partnering the city administration with local communities in the city’s residential neighbourhoods. The communities will have a chance to send in ideas for improving their local neighbourhoods and the municipality will offer them a small budget.

“Fostering communities creates more citizen engagement and oversight for the local administration. People have ownership over their surroundings, as they have helped to shape them. And we, as a municipality can help them take matters into their own hands, so to speak. This is a very small step, but it does help to create shared values and build a cohesive community.”

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