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'Free Abortion' Talk No Real Surprise To Bulgaria's Roma

A Romany girl carries her brother on a street in the Bulgarian village of Ekzarh Antimovo.
A Romany girl carries her brother on a street in the Bulgarian village of Ekzarh Antimovo.

Each year, Atanas Zachariev leaves Budapest to visit family and friends in his native Bulgaria.

Each year, the situation in that Balkan country for Roma like himself, he says, gets worse.

So a perceived rise in racist hate speech from Bulgarian government officials including Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, whose controversial proposals for what he has described elsewhere as "dealing with the Gypsy question" include "training centers" and free abortions for Romany women, doesn't surprise the advocacy officer at the European Roma Rights Center.

Zachariev and other rights activists are expressing "grave concern" about what they say is the targeting of the Roma by officials, especially Karakachanov's right-wing alliance of United Patriots, as "part of a strategy of distraction" and a way to deflect attention from corruption scandals in Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007 and is its poorest member.

"It is utterly outrageous but not surprising. Bulgaria slowly, but surely, is turning into a fascist state where pseudo-patriots and populists such as Karakachanov are gaining more and more power," Zachariev tells RFE/RL.

"If such documents are not publicly denounced by [Prime Minister Boyko] Borisov's cabinet, which has been silent so far, there is a danger of once again sending the wrong message to Bulgarian society. Silence means agreement and allows racism and fascism to proliferate. Borisov's cabinet is even more to blame, because it allows far-right politicians to push their agenda."

'Dog Whistle' Distraction

Bulgaria has one of the bloc's largest Romany populations, composing about 5 percent of the country's 7.3 million people, though experts say the number is likely double that due to underreporting.

Many of them live on the fringes of Bulgarian society, struggling for work or housing opportunities that much of the population takes for granted.

This, rights groups say, makes Roma ripe for targeting by the broader public in general, and extremist politicians in particular.

Krasimir Karakachanov speaks to the media in Sofia in April 2017.
Krasimir Karakachanov speaks to the media in Sofia in April 2017.

Karakachanov is one such politician, argues Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, which recently expressed "grave concern" about what it says is a rise in cases of racist hate speech from government officials and frequent "collective punishments" for Romany communities.

A force in Bulgarian politics, Karakachanov heads the nationalist VRMO party, a member of Borisov's governing coalition.

But the party's fortunes have been waning over the past year, after a whistle-blower produced a raft of documents that implicate Karakachanov and others in the illegal sale of Bulgarian passports to foreigners.

While the minister has not been charged, the scandal increased pressure on the government to ramp up its battle against graft, which the EU has said it is still monitoring more than a decade after the country joined the bloc.

Kanev sees the "concept note" as a dog whistle "to attract the racist vote" for Karakachanov's party in upcoming European Parliament and municipal elections.

"This [proposal] looks somewhat harmless, and we may look at it as mere propaganda. But these people often mean what they say," Kanev tells RFE/RL.

'Unfairly Targeted'

"Such proposals, when they become the subject of a public debate, are also extremely insulting for Roma. They also serve as justifications for some repulsive practices going on against Roma at present, such as their collective expulsion from their homes."

Forced evictions of Roma have long been a topic of debate in Bulgaria.

Illegal housing is rampant there, but critics say Roma are unfairly targeted once eviction orders are handed down.

The Equal Opportunities Initiative Association, a Roma development and rights group, says that from 2012 to 2016, in nearly two-thirds of municipalities, 399 out of 444 housing-demolition orders took aim at Romany families.

A Bulgarian Romany woman sits in front of her house after it was demolished in a Romany suburb of the city of Stara Zagora in July 2014.
A Bulgarian Romany woman sits in front of her house after it was demolished in a Romany suburb of the city of Stara Zagora in July 2014.

Part of Karakachanov's proposal from earlier this month, called a Concept For The Integration Of The Unsocialized Gypsy (Roma) Ethnicity, lays out measures to reverse what he describes as the "privileged status" of Roma in Bulgaria. It sets out a number of disqualifying factors with respect to social benefits and specific ways to combat childbirth among Romany women with more than two children. It also calls for the destruction of unauthorized Romany dwellings and the total elimination of makeshift ghettos by municipal authorities.

The plan does suggest providing Roma with the opportunity to buy the land on which they live, but many say that's virtually impossible given such families' lack of funds and access to financing.

Tip Of The Discrimination Iceberg

Asparuh Angelov, a member of the Romany community in the city of Sliven, about 300 kilometers east of Sofia, has seen his share of discrimination against Roma.

Sliven has one of the largest Romany populations of any municipality in Bulgaria. About 20 percent of the 125,000 inhabitants are Roma, many in the Nadezdha neighborhood, known for its poverty and squalor.

Locals call rats "pis pis" (kitty, kitty) in reference to the rodents' size.

Angelov says that Karakachanov plays on broad stereotypes instead of facts as he tries to foment anti-Roma sentiment. "His politics is to talk only about 'Gypsies' -- how bad they are, how they don't work, how they just get social benefits," he says, noting that in his neighborhood Romany unemployment is no different from the national jobless rate.

For Zachariev, Karakchanov is just the tip of the discrimination iceberg. He says fear within the Romany community is mounting as members face hostility in their everyday lives and are denied basic services and receive below-standard medical care and education opportunities.

Zachariev points to his own family's struggles even though they are educated and productive members of the community.

He says his sister was attacked by a Bulgarian woman while trying to purchase something from her. Police refused to investigate the case, he says, and a doctor denied her a medical certificate documenting the injuries she suffered.

"The proposal tests the environment for another set of anti-Roma measures in the future and is being used as the next strategic move from the side of Karakachanov to cover up for corruption scandals and once again gain popularity," Zachariev says.

"Racism and hatred against a minority continue to gain popularity and power. This is a general trend for the European countries."