The group holding placards like "Youth for climate change" in Sofia could have been easily missed.
Since they started in March, the Fridays For Future rallies in Bulgaria's capital have attracted just a handful of youngsters inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden who began sit-ins in August 2018 in front of the Swedish parliament, demanding immediate action to curb the rise in global temperatures.
While many thousands of kids in Brussels or London followed Greta's example, turning her lonely protest into a global phenomenon, in Sofia even the big Schools Strike 4 Climate world-wide event on 24 May failed to draw significant numbers. With the exception of Warsaw, the capitals of the other Eastern European countries only saw moderate to small rallies, as well.
"At least 300 came," says Kalina Zafirova, one of the activists behind the Fridays For Future in Sofia. May 24 is a national holiday in Bulgaria, allowing kids to join the Schools Strike 4 Climate without skipping classes. "I was happy because many students showed up," Ms Zafirova adds. Another young activist, Levente Pribele, who helps to organize Fridays For Future in Budapest, says 3000 people showed up at the 24 May protest. But Mr Pribele believes this is not enough. "In Hungary, people do not really think that such protests can achieve goals," he says.
The few hundred in Sofia and the few thousand in Budapest attending the climate change marches were hardly an impressive force. Judging by the paltry turnout, it seems that the global campaign by Greta Thunberg has triggered little enthusiasm in the East of the EU.
Eastern Europeans' attitudes towards climate change haven't budged, Eurobarometer data shows. And this despite the recent barrage of new scientific warnings like the 2018 IPCC report which concluded that by 2030 global temperatures could rise more than the critical 1.5*C above pre-industrial levels, not to mention the increased publicity due to the students' climate marches. The share of people in the 15 old Member States who think climate change is one of the two most important issues facing the EU reached 18% in 2018, having increased by 50% in just one year. In comparison, only 10% of citizens of the 13 new Members States share this opinion, with their number has increased by just a quarter in 2018. In practice, it is not immigration or the rule of law that divides Western and Eastern EU Member States, but climate change.
Even though the Eastern European countries signed the pledge of EU-28 to make it's economy carbon neutral at the bloc's summit in June, it was not an easy process. Bulgaria was one of the last states persuaded to join. The chasm will soon grow wider as the EU steps up its efforts to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. The discord will become louder with the push for a greener EU agenda after the European Parliament elections in May that gave the Green party and its potential allies from the groups of Socialists and Liberals a stronger voice in EU policy making.
Climate change? Really?
The sceptical attitude of the East Europeans and their slow change of mind are often derided in the West as symptoms of backwardness or eccentricity, exemplified by characters such as the Bulgarian Minister of Environment Neno Dimov. Mr Dimov once derided talk of climate change as left-wing propaganda; even though he is a trained physicist, he claimed that global warming and melting ice sheets will not raise ocean water levels!
Leaving aside Mr Dimov and his ilk, several important factors explain East Europeans' scepticism. Some are practical but some are connected to the particular mind-set in the region.
"There is a lack of education," Ms Zafirova believes, pointing out that environmental and climate change studies are not part of the school curriculum in Bulgaria. Even though the country has an obligation under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement to introduce educational programs, little has been done. This also applies equally to other East European countries where kids have not been exposed to everyday schooling on environmental issues over the past 30 years.
Two other factors, however, play a bigger role and exacerbate the East Europeans' decision to turn a relative blind eye to climate change. First, distrust of long term planning and second, suspicion about greater state intervention in the economy.
As Bulgarian analyst Ivan Krastev explains in an interview with DW, in the 80s most reformers in Eastern Europe looked to the West as the antithesis of the communist system. Now they are unpleasantly surprised that many principles they held dear, such as the state interfering only minimally in free markets, are seemingly no longer shared by Western societies. Now the political arena from Warsaw to Sofia is full of former liberals (just think of former Czech President Vaclav Klaus) mocking the EU's multiannual budgets as being a modern form of Soviet-era economic planning. Climate change policies, which inevitably require very long-term planning, fall victim to this attitude which poisons the debates.
"Communism killed every idea that we can look beyond the horizon," says Julian Popov, fellow at the London and Brussels-based European Climate Foundation.
This explains one of the paradoxes puzzling many Western observers of the fledgling green movement in Eastern Europe. In many countries, mass environmental protests spark easily - from Bulgaria's spontaneous street rallies to prevent construction of a ski resort in Pirin National Park to the Polish marches to prevent the destruction of Bialowieza forest. But not when it comes to climate change. Many otherwise environmentally- conscious people simply don't find enough beef in it to hit the streets in protest.
"In inland countries people cannot clearly see the consequences of the climate crisis, like rising sea levels," says Mr Pribele. "For Eastern European people it is easier to blame bigger and richer countries, because they do not realise the real costs of inaction," he adds.
This is slowly changing though. In Poland, for example, climate change was successfully linked to the air pollution issue. The protesters on the streets of Warsaw and Krakow have something very particular in mind: the reduction of coal-fired power plants will lead to a healthier environment in the short-term, not in a hundred years' time.
It is a financial burden
It is often pointed out that new EU Member States not only want to keep their coal industries but also do not contribute enough to current EU policies to fight climate change. All Eastern European countries have lower targets to reach, both for CO2 emissions' reduction or the share of green sources in their energy supply. Bulgaria's 0.383 billion euro (own calculations) or the Czech Republic's 1.524 billion euro (according to the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators status report) subsidies for green energy producers in 2016 are simply dwarfed by Germany's 24.5 billion euro (according to the EU ACER status report).
But measured as a percentage of GDP, the support given to renewable energy producers in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic is actually a bit higher than that in Germany and four times higher than in France. Of course, some East European countries are far less generous, but so are some West European EU Member States (think of Luxembourg, for example).
For countries that still grapple with serious social issues, this is not a small effort. "We have kids getting asthma now; Brussels wants us to save the world in 100 years' time," many high-ranking East European officials will share when they are sure Western peers are not in earshot.
"It is much more difficult for the post-communist countries to enter yet another (energy) transition as the one that started in the early 90s has not been fully completed and we still bear its costs," says Agata Łoskot-Strachota, a senior fellow at the Polish Center for Eastern Studies.
No, we didn't expect this
When East European countries rushed to join the EU at the end of the 90s, they saw the then 15-nation bloc as the promised land of well-being. No matter what problems they had to endure to get there, the balance of their EU membership has been positive - free movement of people, the possibility to get a job in the West or rapid economic convergence. Now EU climate change policies offer only a painful and expensive transformation which has no immediate benefits.
Countries like Poland and Bulgaria need to substitute 80% and 40% of their electricity generators, respectively, which will have no direct effect on air pollution in the big cities, as power plants are usually far away. At the same time, rising electricity prices have forced many households to switch to dirtier heating systems (i.e. coal and wood) and have increased the percentage of energy-poor families. Close to 40% of Bulgarian households reported in 2016 that they were unable to keep their homes warm - an unpalatable truth indeed.
"Eastern Europe has always positioned itself as a policy taker, understood primarily as a tool for an improved standard of living; climate change is simply not part of this picture," concludes Mr Popov.