Following a reprieve lasting several years, Bulgaria's Roma minority is facing renewed attack from ultra-nationalist politicians. The spark was ignited by the into coalition struggles within the United Patriots, a motley-crew coalition of populist parties now in the government and the proximity of two crucial elections this year. In addition, the falling number of refugees and asylum seekers entering Bulgaria en route to Western Europe has once again placed the Roma population in the front line. They are, after all, the easiest and most traditional punch bag of Bulgaria's nationalist parties.
"The paradox is that gipsies in Bulgaria have already become exceptionally impudent. Several days ago, they beat up a policeman; a couple of days ago they beat up a soldier. This cannot continue and the tolerance of Bulgarian society is exhausted."
These words - incendiary as they are - would surely be categorized as hate speech elsewhere in Europe. But, even more alarmingly, they were uttered by Bulgaria's Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov. They also come at an exceptionally sensitive trigger point for ethnic tensions - after two young Roma men were arrested for allegedly beating up a Bulgarian serviceman in early January in the village of Voyvodinovo, near Plovdiv.
The unwarranted excoriation of the Roma is, of course, an ugly facet of Bulgarian politics. But it is compounded by the unprecedented presence of openly xenophobic parties in the executive. Nowadays they are not just fringe players but an integral part of the government. Mr Karakachanov's recently found impetus to "integrate" the Roma through, mildly speaking, controversial policies, cannot but make us pessimistic about the future.
Voyvodinovo: the apple of discord
There have been several high-profile incidents involving Roma in the past few months, most notoriously the brutal murder of journalist Victoria Marinova by Severin Krasimirov in October 2018. But the most tumultuous case was the confrontation between two Roma men, aged 17 and 21, and army serviceman Valentin Dimov in Voyvodinovo at around midday on 7 January. Although many details about the incident remain vague, controversy was stoked because the target was a Bulgarian serviceman.
Soon after the altercation, social media activists started organizing a protest. By 6pm on the same day, about 150 people had gathered in the centre of the village. Only the quick reaction of the Gendarmerie forces stopped them from entering the Roma quarters. The mayor of the village, Dimitar Tosev, announced that all Roma houses in the village were illegal. Several houses were immediately razed, in flagrant breach of all procedures. Most of the inhabitants, fearing for their lives, promptly fled. The following day, protests continued. At their height, about several hundred people gathered in Voyvodinovo, including other soldiers and Special Forces colleagues of the victim, according to media reports.
Mr Karakachanov arrived the following day and further inflamed tensions with his inflammatory comments. Although he was censured by human rights' organizations for his words, the VMRO leader received an open letter of support from a number of well-known public figures.
Segregation as state policy
Riding on the wave of public outrage, Mr Karakachanov decided to capitalize further on resurfacing anti-Roma sentiments. On 6 February he proposed a series of controversial measures targeted at the country's ethnic Roma minority.
Among these are stopping welfare payments if Roma refuses to work or send their children to school, or if they "demonstrate an expensive lifestyle incongruous with their socially disadvantaged status". Also suggested is the elimination of "lone mother" status for Roma women and providing free abortions to Roma mothers with more than three children. Another proposal was the destruction of unauthorized Roma houses and the total elimination of so-called ghettos by local authorities while providing Roma with the opportunity to buy the land on which they live. In addition, Karakachanov proposed a crackdown on "Roma crime" in ghettos, especially highlighting "ring leaders, phone scammers, prostitutes and beggars".
"We hope this can happen over the next year," Alexander Sidi MP (VMRO/United Patriots) told KQ. He added that the most important part of the party's proposals was not enforcing legal changes, but establishing effective official scrutiny over illegal constructions or irregular social payments. As for financing the proposed measures, Sidi claimed that the "elimination of irregular social payments would release resources for their implementation".
Obviously, these measures were decried by human rights' groups. Dimitar Dimitrov, head of the Roma integration project at the Open Society Bulgaria Foundation, told KQ: "My first impression is that the proposals can't be taken seriously. Mr Karakachanov, or whoever wrote them, is perhaps not aware of the law, but all the restrictions on social payments that they talk of are already in place."
Why now and why does it all matter?
Mr Karakachanov has several motivations to fuel anti-Roma sentiments at this juncture. First, his party was involved in November 2018 in a scandal regarding the sale of heritage certificates that helped their owners obtain Bulgarian citizenship. Secondly, 2019 is an election year and the constant internecine feuding among nationalist parties within the United Patriots has been unappealing. What better way to unite core VMRO activists than through Roma-bashing? "It is understandable in a pre-election environment that they are returning to their traditional easy target - the Roma," Dimitar Dimitrov concluded.
VMRO's actions, especially as a party whose head is Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, have serious implications. Scapegoating an entire group due to the actions of two individuals, as in the case of the incident in Voyvodinovo, and then exploiting the power of the ministry and the army in the cause of political expediency, shows scant regard for the rule of law. Things can only downhill from now on.