IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Krasimir Dimitrov for Multi Kulti Collective

Xenophobic rhetoric intensifies ahead of general, European elections

no to racism in the eu 3.jpg

"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras. Their voices grow stronger with each step in the dark streets of the relatively central Sofia neighbourhood. Then they gradually disperse, still ecstatic after a protest provoked by an alleged attack by a group of Arab migrants on Bulgarian teens on Vitosha Boulevard.

There are more signs that at least a part of the Bulgarian society is getting increasingly radicalised against people perceived as outsiders and intruders, from migrants from the Middle East to local minorities, mainly the Roma and the Turks, to the small LGBTQ community. Examples of radicalisation and hate speech include the toxic rhetoric on Internet discussions on topics of foreign and international politics as well as minorities and gender issues, the popularity of history-based amusement parks that promote Bulgarian exceptionalism, and young men proud with their patriotic tattoos and hoodies with logos of the "identitarian" movement.

Bhushan Trivedi, engineer and social entrepreneur from India

Strong rightwing sentiments and rant, and political parties capitalising on them, are not unique for Bulgaria of the 2020s. They will define yet another round of elections for European Parliament this June that take place under the shadow of the rising "hard right," an umbrella term for populist, nationalist and far right parties and movements. According to estimates, these are supported by about one third of voters in the EU, a significant increase from previous elections. The economic hardship and spiralling inflation that followed the Covid-19 pandemic, the "culture wars" and the rapid social change caused by global and technological changes all play a part for the growing prominence of former fringe movements and parties. The more moderate ones want to reform the EU and give it a more traditional shape with less immigration, and more conservative social and family values. The more radical ones would rather have no EU at all.

Ognyan Isaev, Roma journalist from Bulgaria (left), and Clément Baulot-Souckov, hairdresser and choreographer from France

Since the mid-2000s, there has always been a nationalist party in the Bulgarian parliament or even the government. Some of these were pro-EU, like the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. Others were and are anti-EU, most notably Ataka. Ataka and its exuberant leader, Volen Siderov, are history now but its place has been taken by Vazrazhdane, or Revival, party led by Kostadin Kostadinov. Vazrazhdane currently unites the votes of many Bulgarians who are unhappy with what their perceive as EU's "neo-liberal propaganda" that, supposedly, tries to impose on member states a migrant – and LGBTQ-friendly agenda, entangle Bulgaria in a war with Russia and destroy "local traditional values." Other parties also dabble in this rhetoric, like the populist There Is Such a People, a relative newcomer founded by the popular TV showman, Slavi Trifonov. The most surprising companion in this group is the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose talk in support of "family values" is practically indistinguishable from the one of radical right parties. According to polls, these parties combined will garner about 28 percent of the vote. Vazrazhdane is the leader, with about 14 percent. In the 2014 elections for European Parliament, about 16 percent of Bulgarian voters voted for parties associated in one way or another with "hard right" values.

In June, Bulgarians' "hard right" sentiments will also affect local politics, as on 9 June the nation will vote not only for European, but also for national parliament. The results in both elections will most likely be similar, meaning that in the Bulgarian parliament there will be a significant, if disunited, group of radical parties.

Preyah, performing artist from Bulgaria (left) and Rory Miller, writer from the USA

Such sentiments are not new to Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. In the 35 years since the collapse of Communism, anti-Jewish tags and swastikas have appeared repeatedly in public spaces. In 2006, Volen Siderov, the leader of the radical Ataka, reached the runoff of the election for Bulgarian president chiefly on a ticket against the "rampant Gypsy crime," Turks and Bulgarian Muslims in general.

Xenophobic rhetoric and sentiments in Bulgaria intensified after 2010, when the failed Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria forced millions to flee their homeland and to head to the EU. Bulgaria, as an entry state to the union, saw tens of thousands crossing its borders, legally or illegally. It was nothing of the scale of Italy or Greece, but the government was characteristically unprepared. Some self-styled vigilantes filmed themselves beating illegal migrants at the border. The death of policemen caused by traffickers caused uproar.

Bisrat Bizzo, musician and cook from Ethiopia (left), and Rabia Attni, youth worker from Morocco

The Slavic, Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, who fled to Bulgaria after Russia's war on Ukraine in 2022, were treated marginally better. To many Bulgarians, they were just well-to-do people enjoying the free accommodation, food and medical care offered by the Bulgarian government, while ordinary Bulgarians struggled with rising inflation.

Bulgaria is a nation of many ethnic and religious groups. Still the term "ethnic minority" is not recognised by the Constitution. Besides the majority of Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians there are Catholic and Protestant Bulgarians, Sunni Turks, Roma (some are Christians and others are Muslim), Pomaks (Muslim Bulgarians), Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Arabs who settled under Communism, when Bulgaria offered university education to students from Third World countries.

Sara Alkaf, interior designer from Yemen

According to a number of sociological surveys by organisations such as Open Society Institute, Alpha Research Centre and Multi Kulti Collective, the Roma, the Turks and Muslims, and the small LGBTQ community are the usual targets of hate speech in Bulgaria.

Stepped-up hate rhetoric in Bulgaria does not necessarily mean increased Euroscepticism in general. According to an Alpha Research Centre survey in March 2024, 60 percent of Bulgarians remain supportive of EU membership. However, scepticism towards how the EU is run and some of its policies is getting stronger.

Andrea Oguntade, medical student from Nigeria (left), and Piero Epifania, musician from Peru

Of course, there are Bulgarians who push against xenophobia and hate speech. An old, established way to improve the image of marginalised groups is to give them the opportunity to voice their experience on topics such as hate speech and racism. The latest project of the Multi Kulti Collective is in this line. The photography exhibition No to Racism in the EU was shown in central Sofia in May and includes 23 people living in Bulgaria. They all share their experience and attitude towards racism – from a Roma journalist to a Nigerian student, and from a Moroccan youth worker to a Jamaican retiree. All of them paint a more nuanced and diverse picture of modern Bulgaria and give hope that when their part of the story is heard, awareness among ordinary Bulgarians of the dangers of racism and hate speech will increase and negative attitudes will change.

Nataliya Tzekova, actress from Bulgaria

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