INTOLERANT BULGARIA

by Anthony Georgieff

Speculating on ethnic hatred is Balkan game with fire

The "proverbial" tolerance of Bulgarians, which several post-Communist governments have promoted as a selling tool for the country and as a means to pump up self-confidence in its citizens, is becoming a think of the past. Bulgaria in 2014 is largely a country of oppositions: Bulgarians against Turks, Bulgarian citizens against non-Bulgarians; "ethnic" Bulgarians against non-ethnics; "Communists" against non-Communists; supporters of the government against protestors against it; straights against gays; Ataka versus the Bulgarian National Salvation Front; everyone who is not in the Bulgarian Socialist Party against the DPS; and so on and so forth. Once again in Bulgarian history it is us against "them." There is nothing wrong with oppositions as such as they usually are a part and parcel of the normal democratic process. The trouble with Bulgaria is that many involved in a debate on significant social and political issues tend to dismiss their opponents because of who they are rather than what they do and what they stand up for. Intolerance to anyone else's opinion is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Events in recent months have provided plenty of ground for such depressing thoughts. The arrival of a limited number of Syrian refugees in late 2013 was greatly overexposed by the media with obvious alarmist undertones. As a result, an extremist organisation in Sofia started sending out "civic patrols" to check the documents of passers-by who did not look sufficiently Bulgarian. The response of the authorities, who are the ones exclusively responsible for checking anyone's ID in this country, was slow and not particularly spectacular. To put it in another way, the fact that someone had the "civic courage" to organise "patrols" in this way outshone, in publicity terms, the government and its police.

One example of the kind of demagoguery being played around with is a pronouncement by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who still vies to get more airtime. Borisov warned the Turkish-dominated DPS not to "play with the ethic card." He was speaking on the occasion of an assault against the Dzhumaya mosque perpetrated by football fans who threw stones and broke windows in downtown Plovdiv. In actual fact, it is difficult to imagine how the DPS could line up football fans from Stara Zagora to come to Plovdiv and throw stones at a Muslim shrine, and then have Bulgarian schoolchildren recite patriotic poems in front of the Turkish consulate in Bulgaria's second city.

Then comes the recent decision to ban canvassing in "languages other than Bulgarian" ahead of the European elections scheduled for May. No, no one wants to ban English from the streets of Bulgaria. The move is directed specifically at the mother tongue of the Bulgaria's largest ethnic minority, Turkish. Reminiscent of the 1980s, when speaking of Turkish was banned and anyone caught doing so could be fined, the Bulgarian parliament agreed to outlaw Turkish when used in electioneering. On this issue, of course, there are fine details. The kind of Turkish spoken by an ageing segment of the indigenous ethnic Turks in Bulgaria is archaic and cannot be readily understood in neighbouring Turkey. Younger Turks in Bulgaria are largely integrated and would speak Turkish mainly with their grandparents. The last time Turkish language textbooks were published in Bulgaria was in... 1992. Why would there be a need to electioneer in Turkish? On the other hand, who would be threatened if there was? It all comes down to politicians on all sides, including the Turkish-dominated DPS, fostering suspicion rather than trust between large groups of Bulgarian citizens.

Interethnic relations in Bulgaria are at an all time low, worse than even in the 1980s, the time of the Communist-organised excesses against the country's Turkish minority. According to Antonina Zhelyazkova, the director of the International Centre for Interethnic Studies in Sofia, the reasons are purely political. Dr Zhelyazkova has recently been quoted by Bulgarian National Radio as saying the various groups in Bulgarian society have encapsulated themselves more than during the sunset days of Communism when there was at least a common cause.

The climate of intolerance does not only concern groups "patrolling" or throwing stones in the streets. It entails academic circles as well, mainly those dealing with history. Attempts to conduct a balanced debate on those parts of Bulgaria's history the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians take for granted – two examples being the five centuries of Ottoman rule and the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War – are snubbed at at best or vilified as "provocations" and "threats to nationals security" at worst.

From one standpoint the situation in Bulgaria in 2014 can be thought about as being literary. Mark Twain famously described "patriot" as a person "who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about. But another writer who worked in a lot more perilous times than Twain came to a much less jolly conclusion: Being tolerant to intolerance is a crime – Thomas Mann. No one can compare Twain with Mann, but the choice in Bulgaria is quite real.

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