Note from LeftEast editors: The article was originally published on dversia.net in Bulgarian on the 10.09.2017
At this year’s summit of G20, the newly elected French president Emanuel Macron stated that the problem with the slow economic development of Africa was civilizational. As an example, he noted that African women gave birth to 7-8 children, in which he saw a negative economic effect without accounting for its economic roots–the reason must be the “innate backwardness” of the people.
Similarly, in Bulgaria the problem with the social and economic segregation of the Roma is viewed as civilizational, which can have negative consequences in the future such as becoming a burden to the social system. This segregation, however, is not examined in the context of the economic changes in the past 30 years and the proportionately growing fascism. Thus, under the pretext that it will fight the profession “socially disadvantaged” and the so-called “gypsy terror”, the government justifies cuts in social spending and the curtailing of labour rights, it increases the police methods of governance, which eventually reflects on us all. By radically eliminating its redistributional policies during the last twenty-five years, post-socialist Bulgaria has become the poorest country in the EU with the largest inequality gap.
Paradoxically, one of the government’s top priorities is to curb the nearly-nonexistent lasting dependence on social security. Only in 8 years, from 2007 till 2015, the poorest Bulgarians benefiting from the social safety net have diminished by 77%, largely because the conditions for qualifying for it have become nearly impossible.
But how did things get to this point, where the Roma are being depicted as a “gangrened wound”, a subject who does not know the laws and is even with a different “cultural DNA insoluble in our civilization”, a comment recently made by the influential sociologist of the postsocialist “transition” Andrey Raychev? This text will review the anti-Roma protest since 2011 onwards, showing how the growing inequality in the country correlates with the growing mystification of its causes, which are attributed to the Roma ethnic group. The latter is simultaneously seen as privileged and thus part of the elite and also as a “parasitizing microbe” on the hardworking Bulgarian people—a view extrapolated by another influential sociologist and now member of Parliament, Ivo Hristov.
The first serious anti-Roma incident is connected with the events of 24 September 2011, when protests broke out in the Plovdiv village of Katunitsa demanding the eviction of the prominent Roma family of Kiril Rashkov (who became known in the media as King Kiro). The occasion for the skirmishes was the murder of an ethnically Bulgarian boy by a close associate of Rashkov. Following the incident, enraged ethnic Bulgarians burnt several houses and cars of the Roma boss, an act defined by the then Chief secretary of Police Kalin Georgiev as “controlled violence” and “part of the strategy for preventing more serious consequences”. At the same time, representatives of the local Roma community who had no connection to Kiril Rashkov stated that the conflict was not ethnic, which was reaffirmed by the father of the murdered boy. Rather, the conflict had the marks of class struggle, which was evident from the attacks against Rashkov’s property. The lack of ethnic characteristics of the conflict is also reaffirmed by the fact that the protests against the notorious Roma family were supported by the other Roma living in the village who had also suffered from their feudal hold over the neighborhood.
Yet mainstream Bulgarian society saw the event as a protest and a riot against the Roma ethnic group as a whole. Between the 25th and 29th September there were protests in the whole country during which racist slogans were chanted and there were pogroms against the Roma. The most massive protests took place in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas and comprised mainly of motorcyclists and football hooligans around 18-30 years of age, later called by the Chief secretary of Police “vagabonds and marginals”. Although the protesters waved the Bulgarian flag, sang the national anthem and chanted the traditional moto “Bulgarians—heroes” along with “The gypsies into soap”, the protesters stated that they were not nationalists but merely wanted everybody to follow the laws. On 29th September there was a protest of 300 Roma after a Roma man became the victim of a hit-and-run attack. This protest did not receive the same media attention.
“The elite and the activists”
The political, media and intellectual elite defined the conflict in Katunitsa as ethnic despite the statement to the contrary by the actors in it. Since the protests broke out at the beginning of the municipal and presidential election campaigns, some contended that the events were used for political purposes. For example, the leader of VMRO, the nationalist successor of the historic party Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, and presidential candidate Krasimir Karakachanov offered to reintroduce labour service in the military, community labour for the inability to pay communal bills (such as water, electricity) and voluntary squads for the protection of the property of the citizens. His competitor Volen Siderov went even further and promised to reinstate the capital punishment and the free use of firearms for the protection of private property without bearing any responsibility. As an additional measure for dealing with “Roma crime” he suggested to expel all Roma who have settled on state and municipal property and to demolish the “ghettoes” with bulldozers. Needless to say, the proposals for the protection of private property as a means of tackling the “gypsy question” are quite odd, considering it was ethnic Bulgarians who burnt down the property of Kiril Rashkov, who later threatened to sue them for one million leva. The prime minister Boyko Borissov defined the case as criminal and called on the parties to behave seriously, worried that slogans such as “Turks out” and “Gypsies into soap” will make a bad impression in Europe.
Similar extreme opinions are also voiced by representatives of the Bulgarian intellectual elite. Martin Karbovski, a well-known journalist and TV host, stated that the conflict is ethnic because it was not a precedent, and Ognyan Minchev and Petar Volgin, a prominent political scientist and journalist, respectively, see the excessive tolerance, the corrupt political system and the easily manipulated “gypsy” as the main problem. The influential journalist and TV host Kevork Kevorkyan lamented that the TV broadcast the outright Roma ugliness seeking sensational effect rather than focus on real injustices. As an example he pointed to the lonely grandmothers, who were being raped in the villages quite “undoubtedly” by Roma but who were too ashamed to speak.
Several actions against hate speech followed such as an investigation against a facebook page threatening the life of King Kiro and a material published on the website Dnevnik condemning all coordination facebook groups that preach racist and xenophobic messages. By contrast, the TV host Slavi Trifonov condemned the authorities for letting the Roma live “outside the law” for 20 years.
The following year 2012, Bulgarians staged anti-Roma protests in the whole country under the slogan “Never forget, never forgive”—a slogan associated with the victims of the Holocaust yet surreptitiously inverted in the context of ethnic relations in post-socialist Bulgaria. The same year the then minister of social affairs Totyu Mladenov justified the freezing of the maternity leave payments, which was 240 lv at the time, with the fact that the Roma “drank” all the children’s allowance. The following years austerity measures took hold of the country, bringing “meatless pizzas” and an economic crisis in the local banking sector, which led to the bankruptcy of the fourth largest bank in Bulgaria, CCB (Corporate Commercial Bank).
In December 2014, a few days before the Holy Christian holidays, the Bulgarian parliament spewed out racist speech for the first time, speech otherwise uncommon among the political elite, which otherwise claims to be civilized. The first to set the tone was the Reformist Bloc—a coalition of five parties none of which is officially nationalist. Paradoxically, it was the coalition itself that insisted the most on including nationalists in the government. Thus the biggest party in the country that has been governing for the past 9 years, the centrist GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), entered into a coalition with the conservative right-wing coalition and the nationalists. The then-minister of healthcare Petar Moskov first began to dehumanize the Roma by calling them “brutes” and implying that they were less intelligent than wild animals. Ten days later the leader of the ultra-nationalist party NFSB Valeri Simeonov added to this racist animalistic discourse by calling the Roma “uppity, brazen anthropoids, entitled to wages without working, entitled to disability pensions without being sick, children’s allowance for kids who play with pigs in the streets, maternity leave payments for women with the instincts of street bitches”. With such vulgar racist discourse, Moskov managed to increase policing and surveillance in the hospitals by introducing fingerprinting identification for patients. Just two years later, in December 2016, it emerged that the Director of the Military Medical Academy, whose complaint had initiated the whole episode, had diverted millions from the hospital with unprofitable leasing contracts, allowing a private company to use its medical equipment for prices way below the market ones. No one protested that the laws should be followed by everyone.
On the 23rd May 2015 a mass fight between Bulgarians and Roma broke out after disagreements over loud music. The next day an all-male protest took place, during which Bulgarians blocked the road with a patriotic cordon on the road, complaining that the Roma have gone completely out of control. The men set fire on the road and did not allow a minibus full of Roma to pass. One Bulgarian man suggested to “kill all the gypsies,” and another lamented that the “gypsy” ethnic group had become larger than the Bulgarian population. A reporter from BTV did not miss the chance to repeat an all-time cliché that the Roma are only being used for their votes during elections in return for the comfort not to pay their bills. This supporting argument was further developed by Valeri Simeonov, who adds that the conflict was ethnic and could spread across the whole country because the “gypsy” was constantly privileged by the Turkish party DPS. Residents of the city demanded the removal of 100 illegally constructed houses and threatened with riots. In the meantime, the traditional fascist protesters arrived–motorcyclists and football hooligans conducted a mass protest on the 2nd June (a national day of mourning the fallen Bulgarian revolutionaries) overflowing with flags and revolutionary songs. Claims that the Roma do not follow the law and were too privileged, together with the overdozed patriotic pathos, concealed the real situation of segregation. For example, 160 kids from the Roma neighbourhood would not have had access to education if it was not for a small bus to drive them in several rounds—since all other companies refused. A few days later locals from the Roma part offered Bulgarians to join a roundtable and discuss the issues of the city. In September the municipality began to demolish their houses without a clear plan where to accommodate the homeless people for the approaching winter.
Just a few days later, on the 13th June 2015, skirmishes broke out between Bulgarians and Roma in the Sofia neighbourhood Orlandovtsi again because of another disagreement over loud music. The next day around 100 ethnic Bulgarian locals held a protest. Stones and bottles started flying towards the Roma houses as if the protesters forgot that these objects can cause severe damage and even kill. The only force preventing larger pogroms was the police, yet theydid not take serious measures to stop the violence and one woman-officer, Anna Vitanova, posted on facebook that she just dreamt of “having her hands untied.” In the meantime, the party DSB (Democrats for strong Bulgaria) demanded an increase in traditional policing and punishing measures and more police posts in the areas with ethnic tension, which oddly enough were considered to be the Roma neighborhoods forgetting the fact that conflicts happened outside them. After years of defending exclusively the interests of business and endorsing privatization as the only possible road to economic prosperity, the right wing party elevated private property as a supreme value, more valuable than human life, one that justifies all police actions. The local authorities decided again to demolish unlawful Roma houses, a response which had by now become traditional “remedy” given to the Bulgarian people when such conflicts arise, as if it would miraculously bring betterment in the everyday lives of Bulgarians. The same year the Roma NGO Integro published a study of TV shows that focused on the Roma. The results demonstrated that the Roma are presented as criminals in 85% of the shows airing on the nationalist networks SKAT and ALFA TV, in over 50% of the broadcasting of the supposedly liberal Nova TV and TV7 and in about 30% of the shows on BTV and the national television, BNT. Anti-Roma racism spread by the media and politicians implants the image that the Roma are some kind of an abnormal life form worthy of disdain and severe oppression. This naturally leads to cases like the one with the 17 year old Mitko from Ovchepoltsi, who was beaten and recorded by the ethnic Bulgarian Angel Kaleev simply because he said that the Roma and the Bulgarians are equal. Kaleev was charged and convicted by the regional prosecution of Pazardzhik for hooliganism and minor bodily injury—because according to the indictment, racism in Bulgaria does not exist.
On 2 May 2016, a new clash arose, this time because some Roma and Bulgarian had a scuffle over a yield sign on the road. A massive fight broke out, followed by protests where people threw improvised handgranades, stones, and water bottles against the police. The protesters complained that the police provided protection only for the Roma and not for the Bulgarians, and threatened that they will take matters into their own hands if things do not change The media pointed out that there are nationalists among the protesters and in the meantime someone threw a bomb at the TV crew of BTV. In the meantime, a facebook group called “The truth about Radnevo” appeared, in which activists from the neo-Nazi network “Blood and honor” posted videos of Hitler, which contributed to the escalating violence. The protests continued over 8 days and concluded with the expected demands– harsh sentences, demolition of illegal houses and a neighbourhood police officer.
In November 2016 a Bulgarian man was arrested for the brutal murder of an elderly Roma couple—Asen and Vasilka. The night before the murder the man said he watched a video on facebook of a Bulgarian song that according to him summoned him to go out and kill gypsies. The man further stated that the victims were good people, they had given him a loan of 80 lv. According to his appointed lawyer Ivan, the murderer, was acting as a revolutionary and felt politically motivated to kill Roma people.
As if by an established ritual a few days before the Christmas holidays, on 14 December 2016 a new protest was organized in Gurmen. This time some Bulgarian parents were concerned that the Roma are spreading diseases. Although at the protest the parents faulted the Bulgarian institutions, which very successfully antagonize the population, they fail to articulate any specific demands towards them. Instead, the Bulgarians channeled their anger towards the Roma and reinforced their already dehumanized image by comparing them to parasites, who come to school only for the free food.
Six days later over 200 Roma protested in front of the Municipality of Sofia demanding assistance for legalizing their houses and more money for infrastructure in the Roma-populated areas. One of the protesters stated: “Not all gypsies are the same. Some are scientists, cultured, working. My child goes to kindergarten every day, my husband works, I work, we pay our bills. I want to integrate in society. I also want to live as a normal person and not being stomped on like a gypsy my whole life.”
The latest serious anti-Roma activity dates from 26 June 2017 when a fight broke out between several Roma residents and rowing coaches on the dam “The 40 Wells” in Asenovgrad. The Roma residents had offered their help to young women who had fallen into the water. The young women refused, and in the meantime the coaches and the other athletes intervened and escalated the interaction to a conflict. Almost immediately and before there was a proper investigation, the conflict grabbed the nation’s interest. In the next few days there were protests attended by the thousands, which attracted not only male motorbikers and football hooligans dressed in nationalistic garb the usual attendants, but also regular citizens. Protesters screamed patriotic slogans and chanted “never forget, never forgive”—referring to the events in Katunitsa from 2011. “If you don’t jump, you’re a communist,” another traditional protest chant from the anticommunist protests from the 1990s, was paraphrased to “If you don’t jump, you are a gypsy,” highlighting the continuities between the anticommunist mobilizations from the earlier years of post-socialist “transition”, and the right-wing and racist tendencies from more recent years. The famous international appeal that gathers support against terrorism “Je suis Charlie” was also used as “I am Asenovgrad” as if to imply that the city under siege by a menace threatening the integrity of the established order. This original invitation for solidarity outside the limits of the city through t-shirts was also garnished with a call from the father of two of the Bulgarian participants in the fight, who urged other cities to go out to protest as well. The demands of the protesters are familiar from before: more police, expulsion of the residents of unregistered houses in the Roma neighbourhoods and a “just” punishment, which should preferably coincide with a maximum sentence. After he remembered with sadness the bygone days of his childhood when he would roam the street with no fear (most probably during socialism), one of the protesters called for severe punishment of the criminals and the reintroduction of the Khan Krum laws, which were installed during the ninth century. The 27 years of liberal democracy have fostered sentiments for the Middle Ages when any theft would be followed by the cutting of limbs and bad drinking habits would have your tongue torn out.
Meanwhile, Valeri Simeonov called off the scheduled meeting of the National Council for tripartite cooperation, which he happened to preside over, and thus postponed the discussion about raising the minimum salary so that he could wave the national flag in Asenovgrad. In this way, instead of ameliorating the situation of the people in the country, more than 40% of which live at risk of poverty, he decided to employ the time-honored practice of divide-and-rule. While Simeonov stood in support of the Bulgarians in Asenovgrad in their demand for more lawfulness, in another part of the country—the city of Burgas—he uninterruptedly laid off all the remaining workers in his TV network SKAT by breaking the labour code and offering them to sign loyalty declarations forbidding them to work in any other media in the next 5 years under threat of severe sanctions.
The reaction of the Bulgarian elite has been particularly odd in this situation: it jumped from total fascisation to conspiracy theories. Radan Kanev, for example, repeated his theory from 2015 that the ethnic clashes are always directed from the outside and the goal of instigations of hate is always internal political instability, although this time there were no forthcoming elections to explain this “artificial” tension. This argument was picked up by Volen Siderov, the leader of the ultranationalist party Ataka, who also saw foreign powers and NGOs as the main agents behind the conflict. He even advised young people to go and protest in front of the US Embassy and not just on the streets. In contrast to Katunitsa, however, when he wanted to summon a council because of rampant gypsy violence and crime, this time Siderov , now being part of the government, recommended that the Roma community should not be disciplined or reprimanded because it could turn into a “spiral”. Further, the Member of the European Parliament Angel Dzhambazki employed openly fascist language, calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty and the expulsion of all Roma to “where they came from”. Having slipped into a contradiction with the institution for which he works, Dzhambazki reinforced his fascist stance by proposing euthanasia for all arrested Roma in Asenovgrad and by trying to convince ethnic Bulgarians that when fewer people are left in the state, the social system will work better. Similarly, sociologist and politician Ivo Hristov predicted from the national parliament tribune that “the gypsies” are going to blow up the state just like a capsule-detonator because they live outside any civilized community. And how else would it be when he believes that the Roma are “microbes” who parasite over the hardworking Bulgarian people. Another famous public figure the journalist Kevork Kevorkyan published on facebook a long epic about the gypsyfication of the Bulgarian people. The latter is described as more and more crushed by the “animal-like” Roma who have joined forces with the Turks from Kardzhali, referring to the counter-revolutionary struggles of the Ottomans against Bulgarian national independence movements from the nineteenth century. (The popularity of this argument was evident from the number of likes on his post (over 11 000 likes while all his previous ones got on average 2 500)). Another prominent member of the Bulgarian elite and long-standing president of the Council for Electronic Media Georgi Lozanov called the Roma “ugly” (although according to him, there were some “beautiful and passionate women among them”), but at least he correctly noted that the integration process began from changing the mindset of the majority. The popular TV program Slavi’s Show continued its earlier propaganda that conflicts happen because of the Roma, who are accustomed to living outside the law, and because of the inaction of the authorities.
None of the above-mentioned public figures who have all played a lead role in the democratic period ever questioned the implementation of the rather experimental neoliberal economic and social policies. This black hole in the thinking of the elite is further enlarged by the TV show Gospodari na efira, which even proclaimed itself for a public institution. It continued its regular vilification of the Roma by airing a video from the Roma neighbourhood in Asenovgrad where the TV hosts mocked people’s hand gestures, their accents, and their pronunciation of Bulgarian words. This prejudicial coverage aimed to completely delegitimize the otherwise reasonable demands of local Roma people, such as access to a road and voicing their version of the events that sparkled the latest fight between Bulgarian and Roma groups. During the protests, two famous vigilantes Dinko and Perata headed to Asenovgrad. A small scuffle between Perata and a camera man from the BTV provoked the TV network to investigate the financial situation of the vigilante.
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Perata was officially at-risk-of poverty and his family survived on 508 lv—the salary of his wife. His 70 year-old mother was, however, the owner of two companies, one of which Perata was authorized to manage and which owes over 12 000 lv in sanctions for hiring people without a contract. It turned out that his ideological twin Dinko was equally negligent of the labour rights of his employees: he beat up one who supposedly tried to steal two bottles of gas. No one questioned also the recent past of Dinko and Perata about how they accumulated their initial capital. During the early years democracy, they are part of the organized crime group “Rizhite” (The Redheads) and the financial house “Crediline”, which gives fast credits to vulnerable people in dire need of cash (the Roma neighbourhoods in Sliven and Yambol). The victims of these predatory lending schemes were then extorted by thugs to pay tremendous interest rates. In this context, the statement that Dinko and Perata made recently, that the biggest problem in Bulgaria are their first clients, strikes as a strange contradiction. Having amassed their material and social capital through the exploitation of the Roma, they now seem to want to annihilate them and perhaps shift their “business” to refugees.
The civilized reality
A 2015 study of GALLUP shows that negative attitudes towards the Roma are not individualized but are towards the entire group and are not connected with a concrete event or action but their overall life. Although these attitudes differ slightly among various social groups, educated Bulgarians, those in a better financial situation, and those living mostly in the cities show greater disdain for the Roma minority, who are often viewed as privileged and therefore part of the “corrupt” elite. In 2016 92% of the people reported that the hate speech that they heard in the media was aimed at the Roma. The beginning of hostile speech dates back to the fall of communism, when the politicians and the police had to find a scape goat for the rise in crime rates. Their efforts were bolstered by the media, which would report predominantly about crime committed by the Roma minority. Thus the media played a central role in normalizing hate speech and forming the image of the inherent criminality of the Roma community.
Statistics show that from 2015 to 2016 the number of people in Bulgaria living under the poverty line (308,17 lv) has increased with 53 000 to reach 1,64 million in total. This way the relative share of the poor has now reached 22,9% of the population with a steady increase in the past 5 years. The working poor have increased with 3,8% reaching 11,6% of all employed people. The income gap between the richest and the poorest 20% of the population has jumped from 6,1 times in 2012 to 7,9 times in 2016, while in Romania it has decreased to 7,2. Although the average salary was 1036 lv in March 2017, the median salary (the value in the middle of the statistical row, calculated every four years in Bulgaria) is 545 lv in 2014, when the average was 817 lv. In its 2017 recommendations for Bulgaria the European Commission pointed that the children from low income families especially from Roma origin, do not have equal opportunities for education from a very early age. The whole system of social protection “does not provide adequate levels of support”, the EC says. While the anti-Roma ethnic Bulgarians were letting their neo-fascist phantasies loose in Asenovgrad, the National Parliament passed the amendments in the law, which literally blocked the access to justice for the average Bulgarian. Another public access was blocked through the shady privatization of 37 acres of the Varna lake. Thus, it will be only the wealthy who will be able to afford justice, while the others sit and watch the plundering of the public property. Put otherwise, the escalating racism pushes the critique of the economic inequality. This is most recently illustrated by the ongoing judicial reform and the continuing privatization. Bulgaria is now the country with the biggest inequality in the EU and its population lives with the highest risk of social exclusion—facts hardly addressed by the politicians or the media. Instead the focus is on the re-invigoration of the anti-communist discourse and the rehabilitation of the pre-1944 fascist rule. This is perfectly exemplified by the reinstallation of the monument of the lion with the map of “Great Bulgaria” at the center of Sofia saluted by the Nazi forces in 1934. In this way, the recent fascist rhetoric of the MEP Dhambazki will actually turn into the mainstream line of the state.
Thus, while the civilized Bulgarian elite spreads the views that their “anthropoid” neighbor is the root cause of all evil in the state, it cunningly hides the fundamental reasons for the growing inequality and abject poverty, which it has absolutely no idea or desire to overcome. The lack of ideas and a will to find solutions is also evident from the conformism of the politicians across the whole spectrum, who would much rather attribute the reasons for the escalating ethnic tensions to external factors. While it can be hardly expected that either Kevork Kevorkyan or Martin Karbovski know the details of what social benefits the Roma receive, they try to convince the people that the latter are privileged and suck the vital juices of the state budget. And if the situation does look explosive and threatens to turn into a civil war, those responsible will not be only those waving the national flag, but also those who control political discourse and set the tone in the country imposing their model of civilization by pitting poor and poorer.
Rositsa Kratunkova holds a Master in Law from the Plovdiv University and currently pursues a Master in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris.