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Eastern Europe

Nationalism and unchecked violence in Bulgaria

A rise in attacks against minorities has alarmed observers in Bulgaria. They say the violence is generated by nationalism, and that this aggression is rooted in the way Bulgaria reads its own history. DW takes a look.

Releasing a defendent on bail who faces murder charges can provoke protests in any country in the world. But this time, in Sofia, it's a different story. Last week, a man was released who is not only indicted for murder, but is seen as a symbol for a movement of racially motivated violence that has gone essentially unpunished in Bulgaria for some time now.

Last year, Petko Elenkov, a security guard, shot and killed a Roma teenager, who had allegedly jumped over the wall of a refrigerator depot in Sofia in order to steal scrap metal. Elenkov, 50, denies any wrongdoing. A year on, the trial still hasn't begun.

Elenkov was released on a 5000 leva (2500 euro) bail prompting Roma minority groups to demonstrate on the streets, calling for justice. Nationalist and pro-Nazi demonstrations ensued.

"Nationalism is on the rise in Bulgaria," Daniela Mikhaylova, who heads the Equal Opportunities Initiative, an NGO based in Sofia's Roma ghetto, told DW. In her opinion, this "new level of violence came as a result of a specific nationalist attitude that has gone unchecked for too long. When such violence happens and people in the media forums write things like, 'Very good, they [Roma] got what they deserved,' people start thinking that this reaction is something natural and even legitimate."

Widespread discrimination

Roma, who number 400,000 in Bulgaria according to official statistics, are the largest and most frequently attacked ethnic group. But they are far from being the only target of hate speech and discrimination.

The streets of Sofia have seen an outpouring of anger

"The nationalists are targeting the Other," said Solomon Bali, President of the Bulgarian branch of the Jewish Organization B'nai B'rith. "These include Muslims, Jews, the gay community, and foreign refugees."

"And the attacks have become more frequent, more aggressive and more vocal in recent years," Bali added. During the last decade, he recalls the profanation of the Kyustendil Jewish Cemetery, the burning of Burgas Synagogue and the "unlimited field for anti-Semitic propaganda and bigotry provided by the Internet and social media."

At least a dozen armed assaults against African or Asian refugees were reported in the press this winter alone. Last month, a nationalist mob attacked a mosque in Plovdiv with stones, smashing the windows of a building that dates back to the 15th century.

"To my recollection, only a few of these cases have been treated by the prosecution as ethnically or religiously motivated. And one of them was a case against a Roma tried for offending Bulgarians," said Krassimir Kanev, president of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

Parliamentary support?

An EU member since 2007, Bulgaria is still subject to special monitoring by the European Commission. Although the prosecution of hate crimes has yet to be explicitly addressed, the problem can be seen by the number of Bulgarian cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Mosques have frequently been the site of attacks

"One of our latest cases before the ECHR is related to a brutal nationalist assault against the main mosque in downtown Sofia," Kanev said. In May 2011, nationalists jumped over the fence, brutally beat the guard and burst into the mosque just minutes before the morning prayer. Then they attacked the other Muslims with stones, crying out: "Terrorists! Go to Turkey! Don't soil our land!"

Yet, the perpetrators were only found guilty of insulting a police officer. The Bulgarian court made no mention of the crime's overtly religious dimension.

"The failure of Bulgarian state institutions to impose the rule of law is being exploited to turn persecuted minorities into political and social scarecrows," said Hristo Ivanov, director of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives.

Many of the state institutions today are influenced by Ataka - a nationalistic party that entered parliament for the first time in 2005, winning close to nine percent of the vote. Today, an Ataka MP presides over the parliamentary ethics commission, and the party has its own representative in the commission for protection against discrimination. "It's no big surprise that their rulings are often supporting the discrimination, rather than fighting it," said Kanev.

'Alarming' xenophobia

"Our estimates suggest about 30 percent of the voters would be happy to see our society turn more mono-ethnic," said Solomon Bali, of B'nai B'rith, with regard to the growing trend of xenophobia in Bulgarian politics and society.

And sociological data can corroborate: There is a clear trend towards forming neighborhoods based on ethnicity, wrote Petya Kabakchieva, who heads the sociology department at Sofia University. "Half of the people said they wouldn't want to live in a neighborhood with persons of African, Romani, Arab or Chinese background."

Less than 30 percent would agree to work at a company where Roma are part of the senior management. Yet, over 70 percent would join a company where Roma work as cleaners. This "clearly indicates racist attitudes," Kabakchieva concluded, calling the data "alarming."

"Openly nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric is made possible by the way history is understood and taught in schools," said Hristo Ivanov, adding that analysts agree that the perception of history in Bulgaria has led to the emergence of nationalist violence.

A decade ago, Bulgaria promoted itself as a country with a unique "ethnic model" of tolerance, commonly citing two examples. In 1943, politicians - together with the Orthodox Church - managed to save all of the 50,000 Jews living in what is Bulgarian territory today. And in 1989, just after the Berlin Wall collapsed, it restored the rights of the Turkish minority, which had been previously stripped by the communist regime.

But those examples are often quoted only partially: Many Bulgarians deny the role of the state in the deportation of Macedonian and Greek Jews to death camps. "Moreover, when people of Jewish origin speak out about that, they are often denounced as ungrateful," says Bali.

Bulgaria's portrayal of history has been skewed, say some critics

And most Bulgarians fail to recognize the persecution of the Muslim minority that went on through the whole 20th century. Both major negative episodes of Bulgarian history are missing from the textbooks at school.

"In schools and in much of the official discourse, Bulgarian history continues to be the political history of the majority, leaving virtually no place for the minority perspective," said Ivanov.

In his opinion, the writing of history is suspended in monolithic "we against them" confrontations. "In this way, we are thought to identify collectively as the victims of different wrongdoings and are left with the option to either fear our neighbors or to hope for revenge."

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