by Jonathan Lee
Content warning: sexual assault, racist slurs, violence
On Monday 14th October, a UEFA Euro Qualifiers match between Bulgaria and England was forced to stop on two occasions after racist abuse from Bulgarian fans was aimed at Black players on the England team. The match, which was already subject to a partial stadium ban for previous incidents of racism, saw black clad, nazi saluting, monkey-chanting skinheads hijack the proceedings and force the stadium to issue announcements and the refereee to halt the game.
The three step UEFA protocol (which reached the second step on Monday night, the third would have abandoned the match) has been criticised for being ineffective and too soft to counter discrimination. Whilst UEFA’s public reaction to the racism has been firm, calling for “football’s family” to “wage war on the racists”, whether or not neo-nazis should be given two free gos at abusing Black English players before they are punished is a valid point.
The world’s media and the British public has reacted with outrage, footage of England fans chanting “who put the ball in the racist’s net?” was widely shared on social media, and people seem truly shocked at the brazenness of the racism which was on display in Sofia.
The reaction from the Bulgarian side was a little different. Aside from the Prime Minister symbolically calling for the resignation of the head of the Bulgarian FA, most voices seem content to brush the incident off as Western hyperbole. Bulgaria’s head coach? Says he didn’t hear anything, he was too busy concentrating on the game. Bulgarian journalists laughed and joked – it was an inconvenience, a little embarrassing but nothing to get too worked up about. The Bulgarian goalkeeper praised the home support and said England players were making too much of the incidents which, in reality, weren’t all as bad as the foreign press was making out.
Who put the ball in the racists’ net?
— ßen (@BCAFCBH) October 14, 2019
And they’re right, if you put it in context. In Bulgaria, some racist chanting in the terraces is really not even close to as bad as it gets.
The country’s problems with racism were thrust into the spotlight in April this year when a Romani community became the target of violent mob attacks. After a video showing a conflict between Roma and “ethnic Bulgarians” went viral online, it was widely spread through the media and became the spark for demonstrations which gathered more than 1500 people in the town of Gabrovo (where according to the most recent census only 343 Roma live). For almost a week protesters, some armed with metal batons, who were heard shouting “Death to the Gypsies!” demanded that the area be cleansed of Roma. They broke into houses, smashed windows, threatened to kill Romani families, and set their homes on fire, burning several to the ground. The authorities simply advised the Roma to flee the city. In the wake of the protests, Bulgarian President Roumen Radev said the “anger of people is understandable” and described Roma as those who “have grown up with a culture of impunity.”
In Bulgaria, some racist chanting in the terraces is really not even close to as bad as it gets.
In fact it is Bulgaria that has developed its own culture of impunity towards violent antigypsyism, going back many years. Since 2014 the situation has notably worsened, particularly around election time which have become synonymous for Roma with violence and hate speech. Summertime protests gather thousands, in 2017 the baying mobs forced the government to evict 843 Romani people and demolish their homes in Assenovgrad. Similar race mobs formed in Smolian and Biala after minor incidents sparked widespread anti-Roma protests.
In January this year, after a fight broke out in Vojvodinovo between two Romani men and one non-Romani special forces soldier, the Deputy Prime Minister came out with the following statement:
Gypsies in Bulgaria have become exceptionally insolent. […] This cannot continue. The tolerance of Bulgarian society has run out. […] The truth is that we need to undertake a complete program for a solution to the Gypsy problem.
Five Romani homes were demolished almost immediately. The following day, ten more homes were destroyed. An angry mob descended on the Romani area following public calls from politicians. Fearing a violent pogrom, the residents left before the mob arrived.
Between pogroms and forced evictions, Romani communities are subject to intermittent police brutality where inhabitants of Romani areas are beaten at random and sometimes killed. An elderly Romani man was kicked to death by police near his home on 13th April 2017 in the village of Bohot, Pleven province. He was stopped by a group of local police officers while collecting firewood with his son. They ordered them to lie on the ground, then proceeded to beat them with batons and kick them. The son survived with a broken arm, broken ribs and bruising all over his body. The father was not so fortunate and died on the ground. The authorities justified the police action by claiming that the men were found in possession of stolen pesticides and had resisted arrest.
On 8th August 2017, after a case of sexual harassment with an alleged Romani perpetrator, masked police officers raided a Romani neighbourhood in the village Kamenar, Varna. They beat about a hundred Romani individuals, including children and two pregnant women. A similar raid happened on February 8th last year resulting in a 64-year-old Romani man being killed in Ihtiman, a town made famous for public cases of extreme brutality against Roma being held at the police station.
The response from politicians to these acts of extreme violence is usually to double down on their hate speech and increase forced evictions and home demolitions. In 2016 one such politician, Valeri Simeonov, was appointed head of Bulgaria’s National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues. The man whose party had campaigned to ethnically clean Bulgarian cities of Roma, and introduce “closed in guarded concentration camps, apart from the Bulgarian population” was now tasked with implementing the countries National Roma Integration Strategy. In parliament Simeonov has referred to Roma as “brazen and feral human-like creatures” whose women have “the instincts of street bitches.” Though he was pressured into resigning in November 2018, Simeonov was acquitted of all charges of hate speech in January of this year.
This year the government proposed a new (anti) Roma Strategy which has yet to be voted on by the parliament. The bill promises, amongst other things, to: crack down on “Gypsy criminality”, re-establish communist era labour-education schools, implement “forced public interest work”, limit the “births of marginalised (communities) aiming to receive social aid”, limit the births of women who have two or more children in state institutions “with special focus on persons of Gypsy ethnicity”, and provide free abortions for Romani women.
Whilst the world was shocked at how bold the far-right presence was in the Vasil Levski Stadium on Monday night, an equally bold, far-right politics has been allowed to flourish in the government offices of Sofia.
Whilst the world was shocked at how bold the far-right presence was in the Vasil Levski Stadium on Monday night, an equally bold, far-right politics has been allowed to flourish in the government offices of Sofia. The casualness with which neo-nazis made monkey noises and performed Nazi salutes on camera for all the footballing world to see was certainly shocking. But this is the national context in which this hatred has been normalised. This is the frontline of the continent- wide apartheid of Romani people in Europe. In this EU member state violent race mobs are the norm, police violence is sudden and unpredictable, punitive demolitions of people’s homes are the appropriate government response, and the rights and dignity of Romani citizens are routinely denied.
The racists were so bold on Monday night in the Vasil Levski Stadium because they know they have already won. This is the new normal in Bulgaria, and for Roma it has been so for at least a decade. The collective shock at such blatant racism at a football game was an uncomfortable realisation for Europe because, for a moment, it was confronted with the fascism it has ignored and allowed to fester in its midst for so long.
Featured image via picture-alliance
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