Bulgaria: Roma inclusion and the far-right threat in the EU’s own Absurdistan
20 October 2023
There was something sadly unsurprising about the news from Bulgaria, that the notorious Professor Atanas Mangerov, parliamentary advisor to the far-right, overtly racist and anti-EU Vazrajdane (Revival) Party, is leading an EU-funded project on inclusion and empowerment of minorities in Boychinovtsi municipality.
Mangerov acquired a degree of notoriety during the pandemic for treating those who wanted to be cured of COVID-19 with teas and soups for the sum of BGN 200-300 (EUR100-150) per examination. As the Kliuki.bg news portal reported, the infectious disease specialist has now surfaced as an expert on Roma integration.
His company Scientific Innovative Solutions, will receive a total of BGN 59,500 (EUR 30,371) from the municipality, and activities will include holding discussions with young parents on the importance of schooling and bathing their children, as well as meeting with 30 local Romani students to convince them of the virtues of finishing high school, and provide them with advice on safe sex and contraception in a module whose stated aim is to “stop once and for all the practice of Roma girls becoming mothers as early as 12-13 years old.”
Bulgaria’s absurd takes on Roma inclusion, Roma radicalisation, and the ‘ethnicization’ of Covid-19
This absurdity calls to mind former premier Borissov’s 2017 appointment of Patriotic Front henchman, Valeri Simeonov, to lead the national body on ethnic integration issues. This move prompted protests from human rights groups against the “pronounced supporter of fascist and neo-Nazi ideology” being put in charge of Roma inclusion. Simeonov, who speculated about creating ‘modern concentration camps’, infamously described Roma as “brazen, feral, human-like creatures” and Romani women as having “the instincts of stray bitches.” His subsequent conviction for hate speech was later overturned on appeal.
In another Roma-related scandal, anti-racist MEPs protested in 2020 against the use of EUR 1.7 million from the European Social Fund (ESF) to train 480 police officers to detect radicalisation in Romani neighbourhoods. The project – "Expansion of the Expert Capacity of the Ministry of Interior for Prevention of Aggressive Events in Society, Corruption and Radicalisation" – served only to reinforce anti-Roma racism, and created a new dangerous stereotype of the Roma as posing a threat to the national security of Bulgaria.
What made this notion of 'Roma radicalisation' even more outrageous was that Prime Minister Borissov was heading a coalition government that included radically racist ministers from the far-right Patriotic Front; ministers who habitually advocated violence against Bulgaria's Roma, and routinely engaged in racist hate speech with apparent impunity. The European Commission found nothing amiss with this use of structural funds.
However, so extreme was the situation in 2020, that Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović called out “the rampant intolerance manifested towards minority groups in Bulgaria”, and “deplored the climate of hostility against Roma, in particular against those who had to leave their homes following rallies targeting their communities in several localities.”
This climate of hostility became more acute during the pandemic – VMRO chief Angel Dzhambazki called for “the closure of Roma ghettos everywhere” and described them as the “real nests of infection”. The curfews and lockdowns of Romani neighbourhoods prompted two UN Special Rapporteurs to express deep concern “at the discriminatory limitations imposed on Roma on an ethnic basis that are overtly supported by Bulgarian State officials as part of the broader measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” They warned that “authorities should not exploit the pandemic to further exclude Roma and portray them as criminals and contagious.”
The over-securitised and ethnicised approach was harshest in Yambol, where the Romani neighbourhood of "Raina Knyaginya" was fully quarantined and blockaded for 14 days. On 13 May, a helicopter sprayed nearly 3,000 litres of detergent to ‘disinfect’ the neighbourhood. In April 2022, the Bulgarian Commission for Protection against Discrimination ruled that the Yambol municipality had acted in a discriminatory manner against Romani citizens.
Scandal, crisis and the rise and rise of the far-right Revival Party
July 2020 in Bulgaria was marked by the beginning of a series of mass protests against Borissov’s ruling GERB party, which was beset by scandals including kompromat photos of PM Borissov, lying asleep with a handgun nearby, and drawers full of bundles of EUR 500 notes and a few gold ingots; and the ‘Eight Dwarfs’ scandal, named after a downtown Sofia restaurant in which alleged extortion deals took place, involving numerous crimes committed by magistrates, lawyers, police officers, along with dodgy dealings linked to the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office.
This unrest was the prelude to the 2021-2023 Bulgarian political crisis, which saw the country face five elections over two years. The fifth election in April 2023 saw Borissov’s GERB-SDS coalition back on top again, but unable to form a government. In June, after fraught negotiations, Parliament voted to approve a new GERB-SDS and PP-DB (We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria) government with Nikolai Denkov as Prime Minister.
Borissov’s former coalition partners, the far-right VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-BND) saw their vote collapse in the May 2021 elections, and their Bulgarian Patriot alliance failed to secure a single seat. In July 2023, Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection against Discrimination fined VMRO-BND and prohibited them from publishing content on their website that incites ethnic hatred. Typical headlines included ‘Gypsy domestic crime can and will be broken only with an iron hand’ and ‘These animals must be butchered to the bone!’ Over the years, such articles had been written by leading party figures, including MEP Angel Dzhambazki, who in April 2022 was fined €2,000 for giving a Nazi salute in the European Parliament.
With the decline of VMRO, the new star of the far-right is the Vazrajdane (Revival) Party, which in the 2023 elections secured 37 seats and 13.58% of the popular vote; and is led by Kostadin Kostadinov, who has described Romani people as ‘parasites’ and ‘non-human vermin that has no place in Bulgaria’.
According to Kapital Insights, Vazrajdane's electoral successes can be traced to a campaign orchestrated mainly over social media that focused on opposition to anti-Covid measures such as vaccinations and mask mandates. Vazrajdane is now using the same channels to propagate pro-Russian propaganda, and is the most active political group on social media right now. According to one expert, “the number of people who engage with their content is astounding. They hold close to 60% of the online engagement with content from political figures online."
In the face of what it described Vazrajdane's increasing advocating of violence and employing illegal tactics to achieve its political objectives, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee submitted a petition to the acting prosecutor-general in July 2023, called for the banning of the party. The BHC denounced Vazrajdane's antisemitism and spreading of hatred towards refugees, Roma and members of the LGBTQ+ community, stating that "the use of unlawful means to achieve political ends, including the use and incitement to violence, cannot enjoy the constitutional and legal protection of freedom of expression and freedom of association in a democratic society."
And now in 2023, a parliamentary adviser to this neo-fascist Revival party, an individual who is no stranger to public scandal, has been awarded thousands of Euros from EU structural funds, to hold discussions and meetings with local Roma to promote empowerment and inclusion. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.