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Analysis from Bulgaria: Anti-Gypsyism is the enemy at the gates

6.9.2016 8:24
PHOTO: Google Maps
PHOTO: Google Maps

How are mobs organized? How do they gather so fast to dispense "justice"?

What is their interest in doing so? These are questions that ordinary media users ask themselves but cannot answer.

The end of the Second World War has played an important role in a number of psychological research investigations into human motives. Through the use of different approaches and techniques for manipulation of the masses, it has been proven that experimental groups of young people could be transformed into vehement Nazi forces during a very short time.

Social psychologists assess this type of pliability of still-unshaped persons as a kind of deviation from conformist consciousness (and unconsciousness). Whether a person is prepared to recognize these symptoms of mental deviation in somebody’s personality (and in the masses that empower this deviation) remains an open question, especially when this is happening now in Bulgarian society, as it has in the past.

Sometimes this behavior is remunerated by others, sometimes it is engaged in voluntarily – but the deviation is a fact. Latent racism is permanently, solidly cultivated and tolerated by institutional action and inaction in Bulgaria, particularly before elections.

For instance, the anti-Roma rally in Radnevo in May was a logical continuation of the incidents in Katunitsa (September 2011), Garmen (May 2015), Orlandovtsi (June 2015) and the many neighborhood quarrels between Roma and Bulgarians that the media have not reported on. Even though the character of each case is specific, the ways in which these incidents appear, develop and then end are all déjà vu, involving thirst for revenge and the public lynching of all Roma.

The Roma community does not enjoy collective rights in Bulgaria. Despite that, a big part of Bulgarian society wants the consequences and responsibility for the individual crimes committed by particular Bulgarian citizens of Roma origin to be shared by the entire Roma community.

Of course, this is against the law and against justice more generally. However, when a crime is committed by an ethnic Bulgarian, the public discourse around it is usually totally different.

For instance, a few months prior to the Radnevo incidents, a particular car accident on the ring road in Sofia did not provoke the same reactions as the car crashes in Garmen or Radnevo did. Protest opinion was lethargically weak because the ethnic background of the aggressors involved was essentially not considered important - they were ethnic Bulgarians.

Inter-ethnic conflicts cyclically reappear in Bulgarian society because the men and women working for the state never publicly condemn racism, because the media reproduces racist discourse, because the public prosecutors are chaotic in their work, and because judicial decisions to address such conflicts are inefficient. For now, we are getting away without suffering more serious consequences, always fighting the fire of the moment and moving forward to the next one without clearing away the smoldering embers of the last conflagration.

State structures are actively involved in the temporary suppression of the riots that do occur. The condemnations and collective punishments group all Roma together and then turn them into homeless people without prospects by violently tearing down their only homes.

Roma crime suspects are detained for indefinite periods and are prosecuted without clarification of motives. The state’s goal is to calm the crowds of neo-Nazis who have erupted in a frenzy by accommodating their wishes and demands -  after all, it is the neo-Nazis who are furiously shouting at and pushing around the police officers on the front line of these intentionally orchestrated events.

During the tension in Garmen, the district governor of Blagoevgrad, according to unofficial information, visited the Roma district of Kremikovtsi and asked the Roma residents themselves to "demolish a few houses, just to reassure the insurgent citizens". The mayor was coordinating her actions with the protesters, who first complained about "Gypsy crime" and later about "illegal Gypsy houses".

An expert who performed the forensic medical examination of the beaten Romani boy named Mitko from the village of Ovchepoltsi even said the following to a lawyer for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee:  "You should know that nothing happened to mango. Mango is fine. He was just kicked a bit."

"Mangal" or "mango" is an offensive, derogatory word for people with dark skin in Bulgaria. In order to hush up the case, the mayor of Ovchepoltsi made the bully apologize to Mitko and then asked the victim not to tell anybody what happened, unaware that the whole country has already seen video footage of the incident because it had been captured and uploaded to the Internet by the perpetrator himself.

The mayor of Radnevo actively took part in the protest by the “residents” of that city and boasted about his participation live on BTV television. In fact, his participation did not aim to get things properly under control, to contain the anger of his fellow citizens, or to bring about institutional order, but rather was intended to show political, moral support for the protesters by declaring that “all illegal buildings will be demolished”.

The case of Mitko from Ovchepoltsi has proved to be the cornerstone of institutional lethargy and indifference toward the sleeping racist cells that have begun to awaken so ominously ever since social media spread the case of the beaten boy around the world, sparking a solidarity campaign that only slightly stirred Bulgarian law enforcement. For a moment the eyes of the world were on Bulgaria.

Despite that wave of interest, neither the Prime Minister, nor the President, nor the Chairman of the National Assembly, nor any other state representative has ever condemned that racially-motivated physical assault. Krasimir Karakachanov, a co-chair of the neo-Nazi Patriotic Front, mocked the expressions of solidarity for Mitko with his own slogan, #НиеСмеРавни (#WeAreNotEqual).

The absence of an official reaction of disapproval normalizes this type of assault as something "okay" - "silence is a sign of agreement", as many Bulgarians would say. Even more striking are the cases when representatives of the state give voice to their own anti-Gypsyist views without ever having to incur criminal, political or moral responsibility - rather, most of the political, economic and cultural elite expresses solidarity and support for such views.

Subsequently, a big part of society follows that same opinion. These macho-populist tricks are considered part of democracy and of government mechanisms - until such time as more people begin to suffer from their effects.

The hate in the media does not make us free 

These racist views dominate in the leading Bulgarian media outlets. This dangerous trend undermines the pillars of civil peace and inter-ethnic relations and poses a potential threat to national security.

The fact that Bulgaria occupies 113th place on freedom of speech in the annual ranking of Reporters without Borders is vivid proof that racism in the media does not make us freer, nor more thoughtful, nor more economically prosperous. The preaching of hatred and rancor by the media is among those crimes for which the media owners and their employees will never suffer any consequences, to say nothing of their interlocutors.

It is a bad practice when there is no judicious alternative to extreme positions - such an alternative is a prerequisite if we want to get out of the swamp of semi-free speech and semi-free thought. It is even more cynical and explosive in these circumstances to hold media discussions about so-called "Roma Integration" during which emotional political points are scored, inflaming the public even further. 

Bulgaria is not home to just Bulgarians 

Prosecutorial indictments and subsequent court decisions are the key to terminating mob violence, but Bulgaria continues to be on the list of countries without a registry for hate crimes. In this regard it can be said that the Bulgarian criminal justice system lacks justice and fairness.

Almost all of the crimes committed under that particular article of the Criminal Code are qualified as crimes with just “hooliganism” as the motivation. A key fact here is the presence of those prosecutors, investigators and judges who so bravely share the views of these vigilante groups.

The administration of justice works under pressure from the rest of the Government and makes decisions that take into account the momentary aspirations of the rioters. We have just seen an example of this from Ukraine, where officials decided to move dozens of Roma residents out of a village because their ethnic Ukrainian neighbors had attacked their homes.

This is a dangerous precedent because it creates an imbalance in terms of law enforcement with respect to minority citizens and their equal treatment before the state systems. Walking the razor’s edge in this regard, despite the recommendations of the Council of Europe and OSCE that effective sentences be imposed, just postpones what should be the uncompromising, impartial enforcement of the current law on criminal ideologies.

The slogan “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” is a trivial, archaic interpretation of the actual role and functions of the state. Everybody deserves fair justice in Bulgaria.

People should not have to seek justice in Strasbourg, which is much more expensive for all taxpayers - and not really efficient under our circumstances of an historical legacy of discrimination against Roma. If morality will not compel Bulgaria to do so, then membership in prestigious organizations like the European Union must oblige the country to comply with the documents it has ratified as a guarantor of the inviolability of human dignity and of civil and human rights.

The rise of the state of racists 

The public fueling of this anti-Roma protest wave by certain political entities is visible to the naked eye. The lack of public reaction to it is frightening, and so are the live signs of institutional anti-Gypsyism.

Talk of democracy and development is puhsed to the back burner. The hovering spirit of racism sooner or later can cause a destructive response.

Vigilante pressure groups usually occur in places where the state is hesitant or absent. Explicit prosecution of such groups for inciting civil war and for creating parastatal bodies would signal the presence of the state and symbolize the rule of law as the supreme function of morality.

The current fight against the terrorist organization of the so-called "Islamic State" is uncompromising because that group threatens human achievements. Nobody wants to live under the rule of terrorists.

However, the fight against the resurgent "racist state", our own homegrown baby, is still timid and quiet. In Bulgaria, anti-Gypsyism apparently does not concern us here and now.

Are we ready to live in racist, vigilante enclaves? That is a question worth pondering.

Ognyan Isaev works as the Country Facilitator for the Roma Education Fund in Bulgaria.

agw, Ognyan Isaev
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anti-Romani demonstrations, antigypsyism, Bulgaria, Analysis



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