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A Brutal Knife Attack Might Finally Be Changing Minds On Domestic Violence In Bulgaria

Women hold signs reading "Not a single one more" during a demonstration against domestic violence in Sofia on July 31.
Women hold signs reading "Not a single one more" during a demonstration against domestic violence in Sofia on July 31.

A shocking attack recently in Bulgaria that left a young woman traumatized with multiple knife wounds has triggered much soul-searching and a wave of nationwide demonstrations to demand stronger laws and more robust action to combat violence against women.

And the reaction by a state-owned industrial giant after one of its employees appeared to, if not condone the violence, at least excuse it, has fed hopes that attitudes may be shifting in the traditionally conservative Southeastern European country of some 6.8 million people.

In what is being described as a first in Bulgaria, Mini Maritsa-Iztok, the biggest coal-mining company in Bulgaria, said it was suspending employee Viktor Kostov until further notice.

Ilza Chinkova, the company's chief executive officer, then took to social media to rebuke Kostov and condemn his remarks. "Victor, I am addressing you as a mother and a woman, declaring that I am ashamed and condemn your ugly position. You are a disgrace to the thousands of honorable workers and employees at Mini Maritsa," she wrote on Facebook on July 29.

The response by the company was commended by Marina Stefanova, a specialist in corporate social responsibility. "It was good that the company reacted so quickly because there are boundaries that cannot be crossed," Stefanova told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

The attack that has shocked Bulgaria occurred in the central city of Stara Zagora on June 26 but was only made public on July 28. An 18-year-old woman, identified later by her initials as DM, was allegedly attacked by her ex-boyfriend, Georgi Georgiev, with a knife, inflicting multiple wounds that required over 400 stiches. She also suffered a broken nose, and he also shaved off her hair.

Two days after the incident, Georgiev was detained by police but released from custody on July 5. The court in Stara Zagora deemed the injuries sustained in the attack as "minor." It also emerged that Georgiev was on probation for violent hooliganism. In photos circulating on social media, a man said to be the alleged attacker has tattoos with nationalist slogans.

A wave of outrage mounting, Georgiev was rearrested on July 30 and charged with making death threats through text messaging. The prosecutor's office also said it was "accelerating" the investigation and a new prosecutor, Zhaneta Nedkova, has been appointed to the case.

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For Kostov, the Mini Maritsa-Iztok employee, things didn't end with his suspension from his job. Bulgaria's bTV reported on July 30 that he was briefly detained by police after allegedly threatening a woman on social media.

Kostov's post was followed by similar ones, including from a mathematician at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, which publicly distanced itself from its employee's comments.

The reaction of the coal company and, to a lesser degree, the Academy of Sciences has fueled hopes that attitudes could be changing in Bulgaria. For years, activists say the authorities have either ignored or treated lightly violence against women. Legislation is flawed, they say, with domestic-violence laws strong but applied sparingly. The parliament has so far refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a key international document that protects women facing domestic violence.

After the latest assault, Nikolay Denkov, the leader of the reformist We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria coalition, which is in government with the center-right GERB party, also pointed the finger of blame at politicians for pouring fuel on the fire by often resorting to threatening or violent rhetoric.

He was speaking at a meeting of the country's Council of Ministers, which had convened to discuss ways to toughen laws on perpetrators of violence and further measures to aid their victims.

"Fellow colleagues, we have no right to be outraged by acts of violence when we ourselves publicly behave like aggressive, violent people. Unfortunately, that has been happening a lot lately," Denkov said on August 2. He also called on parents and teachers to set a good example for children and for media not to "advertise violence."

In the rough-and-tumble world of Bulgarian politics, the pro-Russian, far-right Revival Party and its leader Kostadin Kostadinov have often been singled out for crossing the line of political decorum and for violent rhetoric.

Human rights activists, led by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, on July 28 called for Revival to be banned, arguing the party and Kostadinov "aim to destroy the democratic legal order."

"[Revival] systematically uses anti-Semitism, instills hatred and hatred toward refugees, Roma, as well as toward representatives of the LGBTI community," the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee said in a statement.

In cities and towns across Bulgaria on July 31, protesters called for a judicial overhaul and better protection for women, carrying posters that read "Not a single woman more."

"How is it possible that such sadism is labeled as 'mild bodily injury'... The reaction of the court is shocking," Emilia Stoyanova, who works in human resources, told AFP.

"The traditional tolerance of domestic violence and the dysfunction of institutions must change. It has started to change, but society needs to get involved," another protester, identified as Ivan, told the French news agency.

The Bulgarian Fund for Women was equally shocked, saying on July 29 that it was "appalled" that the court ruled that "400 stitches and a broken nose were filed as a 'minor bodily injury.'"

"This only sends a message to all victims of abuse that the pain and horror that they experience could go unpunished," it added.

In a November 2022 survey by the National Statistics Institute, 20 percent of Bulgarian women between the ages of 18 and 74 said they had experienced sexual, physical, or psychological violence by their current or former partner. One-third of women aged 18 to 29 said they had experienced violence from an intimate partner.

Underscoring what many say is Bulgaria's failure to tackle violence against women is parliament's refusal to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women, better known as the Istanbul Convention. It was signed by Bulgaria in April 2016 but never ratified by parliament.

The document, described by Human Rights Watch as a "defining moment" for women facing domestic violence, has been viewed with suspicion in largely conservative Bulgaria.

For example, the influential Bulgarian Orthodox Church has said it could encourage young people to identify as transgender or third sex and lead to same-sex marriage.

In 2018, the country's Constitutional Court ruled the Istanbul Convention advocated concepts of "gender" that contradict the Bulgarian Constitution.

Bulgaria's domestic laws, in particular the law against domestic violence, have also come in for critical scrutiny -- and the gruesome attack in Stara Zagora appears to have pushed politicians to act.

While the current law on domestic violence is tough, its application is narrow, applying mostly to cases involving married couples or those living together in an "intimate relationship."

Deputies from the ruling parties -- GERB and the We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria coalition -- and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a center-right party representing ethnic Turks and other Muslims, have proposed changes that would make an act of violence between partners in an "intimate relationship" who aren't necessarily cohabiting also be considered domestic violence.

Those and other possible changes to the country's Penal Code are due to be debated on August 7, when an extraordinary session of the 240-seat National Assembly, the unicameral parliament, is due to convene.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service
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    RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service relaunched in 2019 after a 15-year absence, providing independent news and original analysis to help strengthen a media landscape weakened by the monopolization of ownership and corruption.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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