The muted EU response to the appointment of Patriot Front henchman, Valeri Simeonov, to lead Bulgaria’s council on integration beggars belief. In an open letter on May 29, nearly 400 Bulgarian human rights activists and intellectuals, denounced the appointment of a “pronounced supporter of fascist and neo-Nazi ideology,”
Simeonov, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, is an upfront fascist, who had earlier mused about creating “modern concentration camps.” In 2016, speaking of Bulgaria’s Roma minority and their large families, he told parliament: “They are brazen, feral, human-like creatures that demand pay without work, and collect sickness benefits without being sick. They receive child benefits for children that play with pigs on the street, and for women that have the instincts of stray dogs.” Simeonov’s party has called for the demolition of “Gypsy ghettos” and the isolation of Roma in closed “reservations” that could generate income as tourist attractions.
Is the EU so consumed with working up the courage to say boo to Viktor Orbán as he dismantles democracy in Hungary, that it has failed to register Bojko Borisov’s fascist flirtations in Bulgaria? Maybe it’s time for the EU to sit up and pay attention as this unsavoury governing coalition will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2018.
The European Commission is gearing itself up for its half-time stock-take of the EU Framework of National Roma Integration Strategies. In its 2016 assessment of progress, the Commission commended Bulgaria for mobilizing ESI funding, that “should allow them to advance with the implementation of soft measures,” and called for better coordination, monitoring and reporting mechanisms. You just don’t get any sense from this faint praise and muted criticism, that this is a country run by thugs who have abandoned any pretense of civil behaviour or commitment to equity when it comes to its minority populations.
In another worrying appointment, Ilian Todorov from the far-right ATAKA party is now Sofia’s regional governor. Last year, party leader Siderov stormed the National Academy for Film and Theater Arts, attacking students and teachers. Todorov was filmed at his leader’s side during the violent brawl.
The opposition party, Yes Bulgaria, described the appointments of Simeonov and Todorov as “another frank demonstration that the government is actually abandoning the European model of development of the country,” and warned the ruling party GERB that its “toxic national-populism” can only divide society and heighten the “risk of stirring up ethnic enmity.”
We’ve gone way past the risk stage when it comes to stirring up hate mobs in Bulgaria, as the recent submissions by the ERRC and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee to UNCERD made clear. Both reports detail recent violent events which include mass attempts to storm Roma neighbourhoods, an increase in hate speech, failures by the authorities to deal properly with racially motivated hate crime, as well as incidents such as the brutal assault in April by police of a Romani father and son outside the village of Bohot in Pleven province. The son sustained serious injuries, but his father died at the scene of this ferocious assault. The authorities justified the police action by claiming that the men were found in possession of stolen pesticides and had resisted arrest.
Anton Sirakov, former vice-deputy of the ATAKA party, went on TV to praise the police for “neutralising the two thieves,” for sending a clear message, and spreading the kind of fear that will cause “all crooks and thieves to lay down.”
In its concluding observations, the UNCERD echoed the concerns raised by the ERRC and called for protocols and appropriate measures to prevent and condemn hate speech by public officials and politicians; to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of racially motivated violence. The Committee expressed its concerns at the continued marginalisation of Roma in all walks of life, and the serious challenges they face in accessing basic services. Calling for an end to racial segregation in education and housing. As for forced evictions and demolitions the message was blunt:
“Stop the persistent practice of forcibly evicting and destroying Roma settlements without offering alternative housing or adequate compensation, and take measures to legalize existing settlements to the extent possible while facilitating access to basic services in these settlements.”
As for the Committee’s recommendation that the government “raise public awareness on respect for diversity and the elimination of racial discrimination”, the government made its contempt apparent by appointing the fascist Simeonov to head the council on integration. The ruling GERB party is, just like Orbán’s Fidesz, a member of the European People’s Party. Among the questions that need to be asked in Brussels is how such radically racist politicians can come to be appointed to serve in the Bulgarian government?
Come the mid-term assessment of the EU Roma Framework, the Commission will have to come up with something more substantive than anodyne observations that “better coordination is needed among key stakeholders.” The situation of Roma in Bulgaria is worsening; the coarseness of public debate with its frequent resort to racist hate speech against Roma, migrants and Muslims; and the appointment to high office of thugs who openly espouse fascist views should alert the EU that there is yet another rogue member state to be reckoned with.