The open letter was sent by “Citizens against Racism” and “The Alliance of Bulgarian Activists”, two Bulgarian human rights civil society organisations, in response to the attacks carried out by neo-Nazi groups against Roma youth in Sofia’s public transport on the 2nd of December this year. It was addressed to President Georgi Parvanov, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Minister of the Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the Chiarman of the National Assembly Tsetska Tsacheva, the Ombudsman Konstantin Penchev, deputies of the 41st National Assembly and the media.
In their letter, the two organisations expressed dismay at the racially motivated violence directed towards two Roma boys riding the No 94 bus bound for the Student City, in the evening after the football game between the CSKA and Beshiktash teams in Sofia. The letter points out that one of the victims was epileptic and suffered major blows in the head. As a result, according to information published in the media, he suffered two epileptic seizures and sustained a skull fracture and brain damage.
The activist groups emphasized that this is not an isolated incident. According to their estimates, the year 2010 has been marked by some of the most brutal public assaults of Roma, activists and other civilians in the capital. The letter highlights the fact that the victims of racial violence in the rest of the country rarely make it to the headlines, except in the case of the brutal murder of a student in Yambol, an act done by the “skinhead” Ivan Yanakiev.
In another incident, Boris Boev, a student and activist living in Sofia, was attacked and beaten in front of his home in January. On the 6th of June, he was again attacked and beaten with metal rods in the head in broad daylight and in public on tram No 20; he had not yet recovered from the concussions from the last attack. Three other people suffered injuries in the same incident, one of them a 17 year-old student, who had to undergo an operation after the attack. The letter continues with more examples of “arrogant” racial violence: shortly after the incident on tram No 20, neo-Nazis assaulted a group of Roma youth in front of the Presidency, right under the security cameras of one of the main institutions of the state. An incident where sexual minorities were targeted is also summoned up: two years ago in the Borisova Garden, a young man was killed because a group of right-wing extremists took him for a homosexual.
The civil organisations share their knowledge that a day before the incident in bus No 94, another incident took place during which five young men attacked a citizen of African origin who has been living in Bulgaria for a long time. He did not seek police assistance as he currently does not have identity papers, but he also does not believe that Bulgarian institutions would be on his side.
According to “Citizens against Racism” and “The Alliance of Bulgarian Activists”, not all attacks gain publicity. Most remain unreported, which gives the criminals a sense of impunity. Moreover, public demonstrations where neo-Nazi placards are carried and fascist-era leaders are commemorated occur as legitimate activities with official permission. For instance, memorial torchlight processions have been organised every winter for a couple of years now by “Blood and Honour” and “Bulgarian National Union” against the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly (when Bulgaria lost territories in the West to Serbia), and also in memory of Christo Lukov (the founder of Bulgaria’s first fascist-leaning organisation, the Union of Bulgarian National Legions in 1933). In other words, it is members and followers of legitimate organisations who are performing racially-motivated violent attacks on minorities.
The authors of the open letter are asking why the government has overlooked the extreme right movement and is throwing all its resources in the fight against “organised crime,” when neo-Nazism might be a form of organised criminality just as dangerous as mafia. The suggestion of a conflict of interests is raised - between the minority government and the deputies from the extreme right party Ataka, who have pledged support for it in parliament. “Is this behaviour befitting for a party that claims to represent the modern European right and European values?” – ask the authors of the letter.
They urge the government to adopt all possible measures to counter and prevent the violent excesses of right-wing extremists (regardless of what time of the day they happen).
The letter also highlights the fact that Bulgaria is also the country with the highest number of policemen per capita in Europe. Sofia even has a regional police department to complement the city department, but it seems that personal security, especially around big football games, is not guaranteed. Obviously, the resources spent on policing and surveillance are a waste of public money if violent neo-Nazism is burgeoning.
The two civil organisations are not calling for cameras and policemen in the public transport, but for adequate measures by the state’s institutions that address the roots of right-wing extremism. The first step would be to openly acknowledge the problem and show concern, and then to establish a practice where organisations whose members or followers are responsible for the attacks should be urged to claim responsibility for the acts of violence committed in their name.
“We are convinced that young people do not choose to commit racial violence, because there are few security cameras and the chances of detection are slim, they attack even in front of cameras. Responsibility should not be attributed solely to parents either – at least not before we take another look at current history and literature textbooks. It is important to also consider the messages of high-ranking officials and public figures. We want to see an action plan for a long-term educational and social policy targeting risk youth,” says the letter. “Citizens against Racism” and “The Alliance of Bulgarian Activists” strongly condemn the crime committed after the football game earlier this month and urge for an adequate response from state institutions.
At the same time, theInterior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov keeps tackling the ethnic crimes committed in the rest of the country in speeches and interviews. Messages in the media relating to petty crime always have to do with the Roma. When Tsvetanov incessantly addresses Roma crimes, this is an obvious source of racial hatred and food for extremist ideas. Unfortunately, not everyone understands that ethnic petty crimes exist only as far as ethnic poverty does.
On the 10th June 2010 there was a protest against right-wing extremist violence, with around 40 participants. For about 30 minutes, one of the busiest boulevards of the capital was closed. However, the protest was given little attention by the police and the media, or even misconstrued. The authors of the protest were bloggers and activists.
On September 25th 2010, a scandalous and illegal protest against human rights took place in the centre of Sofia. The message of the demonstration was “No to Roma terror! How much longer are we going to be silent? How much longer are we going to be patient?” The organiser of the protest was the extreme-right organization Bulgarian National Union. Although the protest clearly incited hatred and violence, the City authorities allowed it to take place. The protest made the headlines in almost all big TV channels, newspapers and radio-channels.
We are unfortunate enough to witness how often the state and its representatives are unwittingly or deliberately assisting the spread of racism and xenophobia: neo-Nazis are either not punished, or let free after a reprimand. Being left unpunished makes right-wing extremists think that the state is incapable of punishing them, which gives them a free hand.
Published at Roma Transitions