Anti-Roma sentiments were exacerbated at government level in Bulgaria during the last week, with very few voices denouncing the creeping racism. Georgi Gotev has the story.
On 6 January two Roma badly beat a 33-old car driver, close to the village of Voyvodinovo, near Plovdiv. The circumstances remain unclear. The victim claims the two young men abruptly crossed the road in front of him, then he stopped to reprimand them, and was attacked. The victim, still in hospital, turned out to be a military from the army’s special forces. This prompted the First Vice Minister and Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov to go to the site, make racist remarks and order the destruction of illegally built Roma houses.
Karakachanov is also the leader of VMRO-BND, a narionalist force, part of the United Patriots, the junior coalition partner of Boyko Borissov’s government.
“Gypsies [he said “tzigans”] in Bulgaria have become extremely brazen, but this cannot go on any longer. People’s tolerance is exhausted”, Karakachanov told journalists, after meeting with the local authorities and residents. In Bulgaria, Europe’s largest minority is normally called “Roma”, the designation “tzigans” being considered as insulting.
“There is a need for a comprehensive program to solve the problem, they cannot think that they have only rights without obligations, here are some of the measures to be taken: linking social benefits with education and labor, compulsory school, military service of the type “labor-education”, Karakachanov continued.
Military service is not compulsory in Bulgaria, but nationalists float the idea that young Roma should go to serve in the army in so called “labor troops” of the kind that existed under communism.
He then hit at the traditionally high birth rate of the Roma population:
“How long will the state fund the indiscriminate tzigan birth rate? This population does not want to work, they don’t study, in practice they become a marginalised community that lives under its own laws,” the Deputy Prime Minister continued. “A person accustomed to living for free, the easiest thing to do is to make children to get social benefits, they have no incentive to work, to improve.”
The VMRO-BND politician also hit at the illegal buildings of the Roma ghettos, and the destruction of such housing in Voyvodino started the next day. On 11 January Karakachanov said that two thirds of the ghetto had been destroyed. It is amazing thta this happened in the middle of the winter, and it’s not clear where the inhabitants went. The same evening, the defence minister encouraged a gathering in Voyvodino reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. Hundreds mostly male people, mostly military and football “ultras”, gathered in the village in a show of strength.
Karakachanov said he trusted them, and that their goal was to show solidarity with their beaten colleague.
Other political forces approved Karakachanov, while the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov remained unusually silent. A group of professors and academics close to the Bulgarian Socialist Party issued a statement in support of Karakachanov, inviting Borissov to “give precious instructions” to implement the minister’s vision how to deal with the Roma.
Overall, the Bulgarian media remained strikingly uncritical of Karakachanov. On national TV, social anthropologist Haralan Alexandrov commented that the “tribal mentality” existed with the Roma population, but also among the Bulgarians, and that political leaders were eager to play on the tribal reflexes. He also said described Karakachanov’s attitudes as “a Prime Minister behavior”.
Vesselin Zhelev, a journalist with the ClubZ website, wrote that the anti-Roma “hysteria” surrounding the Voyvodinovo incident has “passed the limits of the admissible”. I quote from his article:
“The military are also Bulgarian citizens and as such have the right to protest. Because of their specific role, however, this right is not unlimited. They are depolitised. The problems with the [protest on 11 January] are two: first, it is political, the second is declared under an open racist slogan. Combined, these two problems can lead our country to serious troubles, more serious than we can imagine.”
Zhelev is known to the Brussels journalistic community, where he worked as a Brussels correspondent for 10 years, before becoming spokesperson to the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU. When the presidency ended, he returned to his journalistic job.