As Roma week 2018 comes to a close, Violeta Naydenova calls on the member governments and the Commission to use their influence to persuade the Bulgarian Presidency to increase their efforts against anti-Roma hatred in Bulgaria.
Violeta Naydenova is a senior policy analyst for the Open Society European Policy Institute.
I am a proud Roma woman, an activist for Roma rights and an advocate for better policies for inclusion and equality. I often attend events and conferences on Roma inclusion across Europe.
But in May, I will boycott the conference “Roma inclusion—where we stand and where we are heading to” organised in Sofia, Bulgaria, under the auspices of the EU Bulgaria Presidency. I also call on the European Commission and other international stakeholders to turn down the invitation.
I believe that events promoting Roma inclusion should be organised by players who treat Roma equally and with respect. But here, we have an event that is initiated and led by Valeri Simeonov, an ultranationalist who once stated in one of his most public and abusive interventions, at the Bulgarian National Assembly in December 2014, that “big parts of the Roma” in Bulgaria have become “arrogant, ferocious anthropoids” while Roma women have the “instincts of stray bitches”.
His words were broadcasted on national television and heard by thousands of Bulgarians. They legitimise hatred, discriminations and stereotypes against Roma.
This abject hate speech against Roma got him convicted by the regional court of Burgas and the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination in 2017. The two bodies found him guilty of harassment and of breaking anti-discrimination legislation. Simeonov appealed the decision. He is yet to apologize.
However, in spite of his obvious hatred and lack of respect for the largest minority in Bulgaria, Simeonov happens to chair the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, the main institution in charge of the inclusion of minorities in Bulgaria. His appointment pushed many Roma and pro-Roma organisations to resign from the Council. A petition signed by 16,000 citizens asked for his dismissal, with no success.
But if the government, currently chairing the EU Presidency, does not mind having such a character leading a key institution, Roma and pro-Roma activists do. They decided to turn down the invitation to attend the event, for which Roma were not even consulted, and asked the European Commission to do the same in a letter dated 27 March 2018.
I will even go further: it is time for the European Commission to join Roma and pro-Roma activists in their repeated calls to Bulgarian authorities, asking them to start taking Roma inclusion seriously, to dismiss Simeonov and replace him with someone who cares about minorities, and to entirely reform the National Council, which has become dysfunctional.
If the European Commission attends the conference, it will give legitimacy to Simeonov and his anti-Roma views. On the other hand, if the European Commission refuses to attend and rejects the invitation, this would send a clear signal to the government and open the path to change.
Bulgaria on its side should embrace this window of opportunity and use it as a way to become a leader within the European Union on how to listen to Roma, on how to include Roma in the decision-making processes that directly affect them, and on how to dismiss from key functions politicians promoting hatred and hate speech rather than inclusion.
So far, the Bulgarian government has been unsuccessful in addressing Roma issues—from segregation and discriminations to education and housing. Worse, it has failed to include the Roma community in the design, implementation, and monitoring of Roma related policies and funding for the National Roma Integration Strategy.
It is time for the Bulgarian government to head towards a more inclusive direction.
The other member governments and the Commission should use all their influence to persuade the Bulgarian Presidency that this important event should take place under the auspices of a politician who has demonstrated a commitment to Roma inclusion.
What a shame for Bulgaria and the European Union if this Presidency is remembered for the denigration of women and minorities through hate speech.