Most Bulgarians will proudly assert that for centuries their predecessors have peacefully lived side by side with neighbours of various nationalities such as Turks, Armenians and Greeks. "We were the ones – the only ones in Europe – to have saved the Jews from the Holocaust," they claim. "We are a nation of ethnic and religious tolerance!"
In fact, ethnic "tolerance" has become one of the cornerstones of the Bulgarian national identity, alongside the past glories of this country's mediaeval kings, the suffering at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, and the Western Powers' conspiracy to dismember Bulgaria through the Berlin and Neuilly treaties.
But is Bulgaria's "tolerance" a fact of life or just a pipe dream, similar to other beautiful but false assertions of "Bulgardom," such as rose-picking and latterday church-building?
One of the fastest growing Bulgarian Facebook campaigns calls for the compulsory castration of Gypsies. What is unnerving is the number of fresh-faced middle-class cosseted cuties involved – you know, the kind of girls who'd give their elbow and more to study in the West and then complain of the black faces they would encounter in Brixton. Anyway, there they all are, these pretty, educated young women, telling us they're not racist, don't agree that Gypsies should be boiled down for soap but are ready to pick up a pair of scissors and help cut off the knackers of the people they compare to cockroaches. Yana Dimova, founder of the Castrate-Gypsies-First-and-Stray-Dogs-Later group, was born in 1988 and is a fan of Andy Warhol, several upmarket fashion labels and a band named Peace. However, she is no longer officially listed as the founder of the group. Castrate-Gypsies-First-and-Stray-Dogs-Later group has no official administrators either.
Every line posted on the group wall is an example of appalling hatred. "Not all Gypsies are the same – well, some stink and steal more than the others," Radostina Novoselska believes. Stefan Danielov Gatsinski is convinced that "No castration is necessary. What they need is extermination!!!!!!" Stanislav Ivanov promotes the formation of a group advocating the reopening of Auschwitz, and adds: "Another thing I want to turn your attention to is about the Turks in BG. If they were really Turks, they'd be living in Turkey. These bastards here are standard Gypsies and nothing else. I come from a town where Gypsies predominate and, believe me, they are dodgers who don't even know why they exist." Lyubomir Mishonov offers a riddle: "A black-brown half-animal that enjoys stealing but hates reading. What is it?:)" Petar Mudev shares the following anecdote: "There was this Gypsy carrying a huge watermelon and my uncle asked him: 'Who do you need such a big watermelon for?' And do you know what he said? 'Well, bro, I have 11 children and 15 grandchildren from only three of them.' How could you not want to shoot them!?!?!?" Ralitsa Simeonova puts forth a different suggestion: "About the castration… that would be monstrous… having in mind their hygiene! We could dump them in an isolated room with a knife lying in the middle and make them choose… either to circumcise [sic] or kill themselves." Sic, sic, sic.
The obvious question is what has happened to the oft reiterated Bulgarian reputation for tolerance. The evidence is that, especially at times of crisis, it wears pretty thin – especially as far as Gypsies and, of course, Turks are concerned. There is currently a parallel Internet campaign eager to explain why Switzerland is superior to Turkey. A set of earnest truisms celebrate the Swiss vote against mosques – as if a few minarets more or less are going to transform a sterile mountain tax haven, whose main claim to fame is the cuckoo clock.
Underlying both campaigns is a deep paranoia, based on demographic issues. With a black-and-white view that sees the country divided between deserving Bulgarians on the one side and undeserving Turks and Gypsies on the other, comparisons of birth rates fuel fears of cultural annihilation and provoke drastic suggestions – particularly as far as the very visible Gypsy population is concerned. They now constitute 4.7 percent of the population – making them the highest pro capita Gypsy minority in Europe.
Gypsies are an ideal target. As a stereotype, at least, they tick all the boxes that go towards a definition of "undeserving poor." They are not quiet. They know how to party. They don't have regular work but somehow survive on benefits, cash-in-hand jobs, begging and petty crime. They like cheap booze, drugs and loud music that can leave people sleepless for miles around. They have either never attended school or have failed every exam going. They live in tents, shanty towns and vandalised blocks of flats and, in their forays into town centres, begging women bludgeon passers by with drugged babies and men operate protection rackets in public parking lots. And, of course, as in any deprived community women have multiple children by a succession of different partners.
What is more – as in the whole of Europe – Gypsies are easily seen as a race apart, with their own exclusive cultural traditions providing a seemingly insurmountable barrier to integration and progress within the dominant society. It is generally accepted that Gypsies first arrived in Bulgaria in the 13th Century. They had reached England by the 15th. Across the continent, Gypsies, with their tribal structures and specialised crafts, were to struggle to maintain their nomadic traditions. They were alternately admired for their freedom and musical ability, and feared for their supposed black magic and criminality.
A good Gypsy
In Bulgaria, as in other Eastern bloc countries, Communist governments did their best to disrupt the Gypsy way of life, by smashing carts and caravans and forcing a kind of integration in factories and tower blocks. The end of Communism found Gypsies unemployed and unable to resume their pre-Communism way of life. All they had left was the burden of the old stereotype.
However, it is not difficult to find examples that challenge the shiftless criminal model. The employment crisis before the recession meant that many Gypsies did find legitimate work. Last summer an acquaintance, who is an Ataka sympathiser, expressed his disquiet on encountering a Gypsy working in the post office, a disquiet that increased on discovering that the woman was efficient. There are now doctors and lawyers of Gypsy origin, as well as musicians of international renown. Of course, Bulgarians are comfortable with the limited success of Gypsy entertainers. I have yet to find a Bulgarian who does not smile when he hears a Gypsy band. But they prefer to see their own actors mimicking the stereotype and the stereotype just increases hatred. Few in the media or in government have the courage or sense of social responsibility to challenge this.
The fact remains that Gypsy success within the mainstream is achieved in spite of considerable discrimination, which can only worsen with the economic downturn. What is more, the most iconic Bulgarian Gypsy success story remains the sexually ambivalent but undoubtedly talented chalga singer Aziz. His very presence on TV sends many Bulgarians into an apoplexy. Could it be the first sure sign of the decline of Holy Mother Bulgaria into a Gypsy dominated rubbish tip?
A bad Gypsy
This fear for the future will be reinforced by a visit to any one of the now notorious outer city estates where some of the poorest Gypsies live. This is the Third – no, the Fourth World – especially when you raise your eyes from the unofficial landfill site, past the defiant faces and see the wounded block that provides shelter for the people. Former windows are gaping black holes. Eight floors up, tiny children play on the edge of a ledge that was once a balcony and front room with walls but now looks like a rubbish-strewn high diving board. In another gaping hole, three floors below, you can see a tethered horse, apparently unaffected by the noise, dirt and lack of grass.
This place is not an obvious war zone. Here humans live without secure water supplies or drainage. Electricity is filched from the power grid at considerable risk to life. Unemployment is 100 percent. Petty crime is rampant. The birth rate is high and crowds of children do what children do, laugh and cry, play and fight and smash what playthings they can find. The scene is a combination of feckless local vandalism and the state's wilful neglect of its responsibility to its unfortunate citizens.
One might imagine that such deprivation would provoke a national outcry – leading to demands to know what the government is proposing to do. But the Gypsies fall into the category of those – a self-destructive, ethnically distinct underclass – who are emphatically never to be regarded as Bulgarian, as though the word Bulgarian described a uniquely pure homogeneous group and not a mixture based on Bulgar, Slav, Thracian, Celtic, Vlach, Cuman, Turkic and Tartar roots.
Among the self-proclaimed "proud Bulgarians" you'll find the Deserving Poor. You know, the law abiding ones who sit peacefully in the dark blocks and shiver and eat dry bread and yoghourt, and are so very grateful for any charity that comes their way. They are outraged at the suggestion that a Gypsy performer might represent Bulgaria in the Eurovision Song Contest. They've mostly joined far right parties and yearn for the security of Communism, when they had jobs and the police could beat up criminals. Hypnotised, they watch SKAT TV, which just recycles prejudices about Gypsies and Turks. They don't generally have access to the Internet but would, I am sure, support the castration campaign.
But Western liberals should beware of climbing onto the Bulgar-bashing high horse. The issues surrounding Gypsies in Bulgaria and the suggested solutions bear an uncomfortable resemblance to reactions to the underclass in all self-professed "socially advanced" countries. In the UK, for Gypsies read Chavs.
The popular UK sitcom Shameless starts with people dancing and drinking around a burning stolen car. Like Gypsies, they are ill-educated, unemployed, thieving but, unlike Gypsies, loveable gits, living off the dole and breeding like rabbits. However, they are definitely white and claim to be English and proud of it. They return to houses in sink estates but which are usually supplied with water and electricity, because the state is at least concerned about the children.
The UK ethnic Gypsy population is much smaller but, augmented by Irish Travellers and some New Age Travellers (British wannabe Gypsies), this group does face discrimination and difficulties in finding sites for their caravans. They get by on horse dealing, scrap metal collection and casual local labour. As in Bulgaria, there are prominent success stories from the traditional Gypsy population – mostly musicians like David Essex and The Rolling Stones's Ronnie Wood but, alongside Chavs, Gypsies fall into the category of Undeserving Poor.
According to the rightwing media, they "have only themselves to blame." It is instructive to look at the reactions of those states considered more enlightened than Bulgaria. Sweden was sterilising members of its underclass right up to the 1970s. Following the war, the UK transported thousands of "deprived" children to Australia. The children were told their parents had died and, inevitably, they became the objects of physical and sexual abuse in their new homeland. From 1932 to 1972 in the United States poor black sharecroppers were deliberately deprived of treatment for syphilis.
Awareness of these facts should prevent us from feeling too superior. Bulgaria continues to struggle with so many facets of its communist legacy – including the destruction of the traditional Gypsy way of life. Bulgarians pride themselves on their patience and tolerance, yet they enjoy castration fantasies – probably because they know they will never be put into practice. A blunt lack of political correctness becomes a sign of nationalistic pride. It is as though centuries of hurt – being at the far end of Europe, colonised by successive Eastern powers, criticised and patronised by a hypocritical EU – make such campaigns inevitable, along with the pseudo respectability the Internet confers. And, of course, these fantasies are stoked by nationalist politicians, eager to provoke fears of Balkan Armageddon, while there is a deafening silence from mainstream political figures.
There are, of course, echoes of this debate in the UK, particularly in the campaigns of the BNP, but I believe only one English cutie might entertain the idea of castration for Gypsies – Ronnie Wood's ex-wife.
But to come back to Bulgaria. The practice of cultivating roses was imported from Turkey. Contrary to the propaganda idea that roses are collected by pretty Bulgarian girls dressed up in national costumes and saluted by President Parvanov, rose-picking is mainly done by Gypsies, toiling for a pittance.