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.


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Where are the Bulgarian Oscars? For years this question – coupled with the notable lack of a Bulgarian Nobel Prize winner in anything – has troubled the Bulgarians, perhaps bespeaking a very deeply ingrained cultural inferiority complex.

From job opportunities to entertainment options: living in Sofia, Bulgaria's largest city, has its perks. It also has its downsides.

"Dimitrina?" I have not heard from her for more than a month, which is unusual. "Почина." "Po-chi-na?" I type the word phonetically in an online translation tool. "What?" "Почина. Me, Dimitrina sister. Bye."
As an airplane is swooping over a field beside Sofia Airport, two horses and a donkey do not look up, but keep grazing among the rubbish. Shacks made of bricks, corrugated iron and wood encroach upon the field.

Everyday Superheroes was the main theme of the event, celebrating the efforts and the energy of ordinary Bulgarians who work in spite of the difficulties and the hardships to make Bulgaria a better place.

As you hold this book in your hands, a Bulgarian song travels in outer space. The song in question is "Izlel e Delyu Haidutin," a traditional Rhodope tune sung by Valya Balkanska.

Attar-bearing roses and beautiful girls in traditional attire picking them dominate the images that Bulgaria uses to sell itself to both Bulgarian and international tourists.

This May, for two days, historians, archaeologists, restorers and experts in other fields shared their findings and ideas about the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis at a scientific conference in Plovdiv.

Once you start paying attention to Bulgarians, you will observe some inexplicable actions. Dozens of men and women wear red thread around their wrists. An old woman cuddles a baby, and then spits at it.

Under GERB, Bulgaria's public has become accustomed to scandals of various magnitude that come and go about every second day, sometimes several times a day.
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month: 99 years ago, the moment when the Great War ended was perhaps chosen to be easy to remember.

Being laid up in hospital is never a particularly pleasant experience. Especially for children. Especially for children in Bulgaria.