Commentary: Standing with Mitko against racist violence in Bulgaria
After a video surfaced on YouTube showing Mitko, a 17-year-old Romani youth from the Bulgarian village of Ovchepoltsi, being racially abused, beaten and kicked in the face for saying that he considered himself equal to his "nationalist" attacker, outrage turned quickly to solidarity. Within days, an online #RomaAreEqual campaign was launched by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), and thousands across Europe affirmed that they "stand with Mitko" against racist violence and demanded an appropriate response from the Bulgarian authorities.
Calling for wider mobilization beyond Facebook, ERRC President Đorđe Jovanović described the attack as a brutal symptom of the discrimination Roma face everyday: “Mitko knows, I know, and many of our Roma children, women and men know, as do many others, what it is to silence ourselves to avoid the same beating.”
This racist violence does not occur in a vacuum. Bulgaria has been described as a classic example of everything that is wrong with democracy: endemic corruption, dysfunctional institutions and public apathy – add virulent and politically orchestrated racism to the mix, and you have a situation that has become ever more perilous for visible minorities in recent years. As Krassimir Kanev, Chair of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee put it: “In 2015, nationalist parties of the neo-totalitarian type (both in government and in opposition) became the main sources of incitement of hate, discrimination and violence against Roma people, Muslims and refugees.”
Bulgaria witnessed outbreaks of disorder and mob attacks on Roma neighbourhoods in Garmen and the Sofia suburb of Orlandovci between May and July 2015. Right-wing ultras, non-Roma residents and the nationalist Patriotic Front (PF) rioted on the streets, demanding an end to "Roma theft" and that "illegal" Roma houses be demolished. As the violence escalated and Roma families were attacked and beaten, it was clear that the PF was deliberately stoking hostility against the Roma in the run-up to elections and human rights bodies accused the government of caving in to the nationalists by going ahead with such house demolitions.
Anti-Roma rhetoric from Bulgarian politicians and media sends clear signals that distorted minds can and do understand as a call for action. The hate speech from prominent Bulgarian politicians is of a vile coarseness that is rarely matched in other EU Member States. In December 2014, nationalist leader Valeri Simeonov, co-leader of the Patriotic Front, told the National Assembly that Roma people had become “arrogant, presumptuous and ferocious humanoid apes requiring a right to wages without work, seeking pensions for disease without being sick, child benefits for children who play with the pigs on the street, and maternity benefits for women with the instincts of street bitches.”
Neither is this kind of talk confined to the guttersnipes of the far right: Just two days before Simeonov’s ouburst, it was reported that Health Minister Petar Moskov, in a Facebook response to news that Roma were involved in one of two attacks against ambulances, called Roma “wild animals” and “yahoos who have chosen to behave like animals”, implying that they therefore ostensibly deserve to be treated like animals and deprived of emergency aid.
This kind of hate speech emanating from government and opposition benches in Parliament makes anti-Gypsyism a mainstream disposition in society and goes a long way to legitimizing racist hate crimes in Bulgaria. As former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg previously remarked, “We see today a growing number of attacks on Roma committed by individuals mobilized by racist anti-Roma ideology. These are premeditated attacks, with the intent to kill, that target random individuals or families because of their ethnicity.”
The most recent European Commission against Racism and Intolerance report on Bulgaria noted that while racist and intolerant hate speech in political discourse is escalating, with a growing number of ultra-nationalist, fascist groups and political parties operating in Bulgaria, the authorities rarely voice any counter-hate speech message to the public. While racist violence continues to be perpetrated against Roma, Muslims, Jews migrants and others, it is seldom prosecuted under criminal law provisions specifically enacted for this purpose; very often "hooliganism" is invoked instead.
The latest news that Mitko’s attacker was released from custody on bail of less than 300 EUR and will only be charged with "hooliganism" came as no surprise. However, hate crime can no longer be hidden by the authorities - the international campaign around this incident has put the spotlight on anti-Gypsyism in Bulgaria.
The campaign #RomaAreEqual will continue as long as investigators and prosecutors fail to take racist motives into account, and until they come to understand and act on their obligation to unmask the discriminatory intent in such crimes.
The constant tirades concerning "Gypsy crime" emanating from extremists and elements within the political mainstream obscure the extent to which Romani people are victims of crime. The problem is bigger than just Bulgaria. Today the reality for many Roma citizens across the European Union remains one of dread and fear. The challenge facing the EU is to banish that fear, guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, and ensure that the rule of law prevails without prejudice across all Member States. National authorities must be pressed to meet their obligations to fight hate speech and hate crime, for they must demonstrate in word and deed that they recognize that Roma are indeed equal.
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