Bulgaria’s litany of hate: five things leading politicians said about Roma
19 May 2021
The latest scandalous outburst from leading far-right politician Krasimir Karakachanov about ‘the creeping gypsyisation of society’ serves as a timely reminder of the prevalence of anti-Roma hate speech in Bulgaria, and of the challenges ahead for the new 10-year EU Roma Strategic Framework.
One welcome result from the recent and wholly indecisive Bulgarian April 2021 elections was the dismal performance of the extremist VMRO party. VMRO, a former coalition partner in government with GERB and Boyko Borissov did not even cross the threshold to get into parliament. However, Borissov’s years of co-habitation with far-right forces, and the appointment to high office of thuggish racists who openly espoused anti-Roma hatred has left a grim legacy.
Over the past few years Bulgaria has witnessed heightened inter-ethnic tension, and without any rebuke from Brussels, high-profile politicians made frequent resort to racist hate speech and incitement against Roma. Below is a sample of what passes for political discourse in an EU member state:
- Down but not out, and still smarting from his party’s drubbing in the April general election, far-right former deputy Prime Minister Karakachanov made a call on 13 May 2021, for the ‘unification of patriotic formations’ against the ‘creeping gypsyisation of society’. He insisted this was not an ethnic term, but referred to
“a part of society (that) has learned very well that it has rights, but does not want to learn that it has obligations. They – this part of the society – very clearly, highly and eagerly want to use the social funds, but they do not want to pay a penny in with hard work and effort.”
- Karakachanov, leader of the ultra-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO-BNM), is no stranger to racist controversy, and as Deputy Prime Minister in January 2019 declared:
“Gypsies in Bulgaria have become exceptionally insolent. Several days ago, they beat policemen. Two days ago, they beat a soldier. This cannot continue. The tolerance of Bulgarian society has run out. […] The truth is that we need to undertake a complete program for a solution to the Gypsy problem.”
This provocative call came against a backdrop widespread civil unrest, with mass attempts to storm Roma neighbourhoods by racist mobs, and was directly followed by demolitions and destruction of homes owned by Roma.
- Tensions again rose in 2020 with the outbreak of COVID-19, and on the 13th May, two UN Special Rapporteurs on racism and minority issues expressed 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.”
On 18 March 2020, far-right MEP Angel Dzhambazki publicly called for a complete shutdown of Roma neighbourhoods: “Think about whether or not the ghettos will turn out to be the real nests of infection” because ‘Gypsies have a very low health culture’ and ‘have no personal hygiene’. On a radio interview, where he condemned those organisations which defend Roma as ‘anti-Bulgarian traitors’, Dzhambazki stated:
“If you leave the gypsies free to walk up and down and probably spread the infection, it is mild to say ill-advised, mild to say irregular, mild to say beyond any logic. Gypsies are engaged in begging, theft and prostitution.”
- Dzhambazki, a leading light in the extremist VMRO party, has long been notorious for anti-Roma hate speech, and statements he made in 2018 included reference to Roma as ‘primates’, and stated that Bulgarian society has “conveniently taught them not to work and leaves them unpunished for paedophilia, prostitution, drugs and whatever other evil doings you can imagine.”
In comments referring to inter-ethnic clashes, he stated: “The Gypsies are free to kill Bulgarians in domestic disputes. This is part of their lifestyle. That excuses them. This is part of their gypsy uniqueness.” As for European Union recommendations for Bulgaria to step up efforts on integration, Dzambazki retorted: “Tell me something about integration. About tolerance. About ‘liberalism’. About ‘humanism’ … And I will tell you how to use a rope.”
- In an open letter on 29 May 2017, nearly 400 Bulgarian human rights activists and intellectuals, denounced the appointment of Patriot Front henchman and then Deputy Prime Minister, Valeri Simeonov, a "pronounced supporter of fascist and neo-Nazi ideology" to lead Bulgaria’s council on integration. In December 2014, Simeonov told parliament that
“part of this (Roma) ethnicity” had become arrogant, presumptuous and ferocious humanoids, ready to kill in order to steal a few leva … Why did people who worked during the time of socialism 25 years ago, sent their children to school, and contributed to the creation of public goods, have now turned into arrogant, presumptuous and ferocious humanoids, demanding wages without labour, demanding sick-leave benefits without being sick, child benefits for children that play outside with pigs in the street, and maternity benefits for women with the instincts of street bitches?”
Simeonov also asserted: “It is an undeniable fact that a large part of the gypsy ethnicity lives outside of any laws, rules and general human norms of behaviour. The laws do not apply to them, taxes and charges are incomprehensible terms, electricity, water, social and health insurance bills have been replaced by the belief that they have only rights, but no obligations and responsibilities. For them, theft and robbery have become a livelihood, violation of the law – a norm of conduct, childbirth – a profitable business at the expense of the state, and the care for their offspring – is teaching minors how to practice begging, prostitution, theft and sale of drugs”.
Two years later, a three-member panel of Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court acquitted Simeonov of hate speech charges related to the above comments in the National Assembly.
European Commission President von der Leyen's very welcome and declared commitment, at the launch of the new EU Roma Strategic Framework, to "replace antigypsyism with openness and acceptance, hate speech and hate crime with tolerance and respect for human dignity" faces daunting challenges in key member states. The latest report on Bulgaria by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović provides a sense of just how daunting it’s going to get between now and 2030.
In her report on Bulgaria, published in April 2020, Commissioner Mijatović noted with alarm “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." She noted that hostility is also reflected in the predominantly negative media coverage of minorities, who are often associated with criminality or presented as posing a danger to moral values and national interests.
Noting with ‘regret’ that some “high-level officials have used their position as a platform to further fuel antagonism and intolerance in Bulgarian society”, Commissioner Mijatović called for the authorities to react vigorously to incidents of hate speech, including by high-level politicians, and for a "political and cultural shift in the way minority groups are treated and portrayed in Bulgaria." Unhappily, for minority groups in Bulgaria, the prospects for such a political and cultural shift seem remote right now.