We’re not racist, but!

Whatever's left of Bulgaria's "proverbial" tolerance has evolved into a Facebook campaign to castrate Gypsies

by Christopher Buxton; photography by Anthony Georgieff

The fastest growing Bulgarian Facebook campaign is calling for the compulsory castration of all gypsies.  What is unnerving is the number of fresh faced middle class cosseted cuties involved – you know the girls who’d give their elbow and more to study in the west and then complain of the black faces they encounter.  Anyway there they all are, these pretty educated young women, telling us they’re not racist, don’t agree that gypsies should be boiled down for soap but are ready to pick up a pair of scissors and help cut off the knackers of the people they compare to cockroaches.

The obvious question is what has happened to the oft re-iterated Bulgarian reputation for tolerance? Evidence is that especially in times of crisis it wears pretty thin – especially as far as Gypsies and of course Turks are concerned. There is currently a parallel internet campaign eager to explain why Switzerland is superior to Turkey. A set of earnest truisms celebrate the Swiss vote against mosques – as if a few minarets are going to transform a sterile mountain tax haven, whose main claim to fame is cuckoo clocks.

Underlying both campaigns is a deep paranoia, based on demographic issues.  With a black and white view that sees the country divided between deserving Bulgarians on the one side  and undeserving Turks and Gypsies on the other, comparisons of birth-rates fuel fears of cultural anihilation and provoke drastic suggestions– particularly as far as the very visible Gypsy population is concerned. They now constitute 4.7% of the population – making them the highest pro capita gypsy minority in Europe.

Gypsies are an ideal target.  In stereotype at least they tick all the boxes that go towards a definition of “undeserving poor.”  They are not quiet. They know how to party. They don’t have regular work but somehow survive on benefits, cash in hand jobs, begging and petty crime.  They like cheap booze, drugs and loud music that can keep people sleepless for miles around. They have either never attended school or have failed every exam going. They live in tents, shanty towns and vandalized blocks and in their forays into town centres, begging women bludgeon passers by with drugged babies and men operate protection rackets in public parking lots. And of course as in any deprived community women have multiple children by a succession of different partners.

What is more – as across the whole of Europe – Gypsies are easily seen as a race apart, with their own exclusive cultural traditions providing a seemingly insurmountable barrier to integration and progress within the dominant society.  It is generally accepted that Gypsies first arrived in Bulgaria in the 13th Century. They had reached England by the 15th.  Across the continent, Gypsies with their tribal structures and specialised crafts were to struggle to maintain their nomadic traditions. They were alternately admired for their freedom and musical ability and feared for their supposed black magic and criminality.

In Bulgaria, as in other Eastern block countries, communist governments did their best to disrupt the Gypsy way of life – smashing carts and caravans – forcing a kind of integration in factories and tower blocks.  The end of Communism found Gypsies unemployed and unable to resume their pre-Communism way of life. All they had left was the burden of the old stereotype.

However it is not difficult to find examples that challenge the shiftless criminal model. The employment crisis before the recession meant that many gypsies found legitimate work. Last summer an acquaintance who is an Ataka sympathizer, expressed his disquiet in encountering a gypsy working in the post office, a disquiet that increased on discovering that the woman was efficient. There are now doctors and lawyers of Gypsy origin, as well as musicians of international renown. Of course Bulgarians are comfortable with the limited success of gypsy entertainers. I have yet to find a Bulgarian who does not smile when he hears a gypsy band. But they prefer to see their own actors mimicking the stereotype and the stereotype just increases hatred. Few in the media or in government have the courage or sense of social responsibility to challenge this.

The fact remains that Gypsy success within the mainstream is achieved in spite of considerable discrimination, which can only worsen with the economic downturn. What is more, the most iconic Bulgarian gypsy success story remains the sexually ambivalent but undoubtedly talented Chalga singer Aziz. His very presence on TV sends right wing Bulgarians into an apoplexy. Could it be the first sure sign of the decline of Holy Mother Bulgaria into a gypsy dominated rubbish tip?

This fear for the future is reinforced by a visit to any one of the now notorious outer city estates where some of the poorest gypsies live. This is the Third – no, the Fourth World – especially when you raise your eyes from the unofficial landfill site, past the defiant faces and see the wounded block that provides shelter for the people. Former windows are gaping black holes. Up eight floors tiny children play on the edge of a ledge that was once a balcony and front room with walls but now has the appearance of a rubbish-strewn high diving board. In another gaping hole, three floors below you can see a horse tethered, apparently unaffected by the noise dirt and lack of grass.

This place is not an obvious war zone. Here humans live without secure water supplies or drainage. Electricity is filched from the power grid at considerable risk to life. Unemployment is 100 percent. Petty crime is rampant.  The birth rate is high and crowds of children do what children do, laugh and cry, play and fight and smash what playthings they can find. The scene is a combination of feckless local vandalism and the state’s willful neglect of its responsibility to its unfortunate citizens.

One might imagine that such deprivation would provoke a national outcry – leading to demands to know what the government is proposing to do. But the Gypsies fall into the category of them – a self harming ethnically distinct underclass – which is emphatically never to be regarded as Bulgarian, as though the word Bulgarian described a uniquely pure homogeneous group and not a mixture based on Bulgar, Slav, Thracian, Celtic, Vlach, Cuman, Turkish and Tartar roots.

Among the self proclaimed proud Bulgarians you’ll find the Deserving Poor? You know the law abiding ones who sit peacefully in the dark blocks and shiver and eat dry bread and yoghourt and are so very grateful for any charity that comes their way.  They are outraged at the suggestion that a Gypsy performer could represent Bulgaria in the Eurovision Song Contest. They’ve mostly joined far right parties and yearn for the security of Communism when they had jobs and the police could beat up criminals. Hypnotized, they watch SKAT TV, which just recycles prejudices about gypsies and Turks. They don’t generally have access to the internet but would I am sure support the castration campaign.

But western liberals should beware climbing onto a Bulgar bashing high horse. The issues surrounding gypsies in Bulgaria and the suggested solutions bear an uncomfortable resemblance to reactions to the underclass in all self professed socially advanced countries. In the UK for gypsies read chavs.

The popular UK sitcom Shameless starts with people dancing and drinking around a burning stolen car.  Like Gypsies, they are ill educated, unemployed, thieving loveable gits living off the Social and breeding like rabbits but they are definitely white, claim to be English and proud of it. They return to houses in sink estates which are usually supplied with water and electricity because the state is at least concerned about the children.

The UK ethnic Gypsy population is much smaller, but swelled by Irish “Tinkers” and “Travelers” (British wannabe Gypsies), this group does face discrimination and difficulties in finding sites for their caravans. They get by on horse dealing, scrap metal collection and casual local labour. As in Bulgaria there are prominent success stories from the traditional Gypsy population– mostly musicians like David Essex and Rolling Stone, Ronnie Wood. But alongside chavs, gypsies fall into the category of “undeserving poor”.

And according to the right wing media they “have only themselves to blame”. It’s instructive to consider the reactions of states, considered more enlightened than Bulgaria. Sweden was sterilizing members of its underclass right up to the 1970s.  Following the war, the UK transported thousands of “deprived” children to Australia. The children were told their parents had died and inevitably became the objects of physical and sexual abuse in their new homeland. From 1932 to 1972 in the US poor black sharecroppers were deliberately deprived of treatment for syphilis.

This awareness should prevent us from feeling too superior. Bulgaria continues to struggle with so many facets of its communist legacy – including the destruction of the traditional gypsy way of life. Bulgarians pride themselves on their patience and tolerance, yet they enjoy castration fantasies – probably because they know they will never be put into practice. A blunt lack of political correctness becomes a sign of nationalistic pride. It is as though centuries of hurt – being at the far end of Europe, colonized by successive Eastern powers, criticized and patronized by a hypocritical EU – makes such campaigns inevitable along with a pseudo respectability the internet confers. And of course these fantasies are stoked by nationalist politicians, eager to provoke fears of Balkan Armageddon while there is a deafening silence from mainstream political figures.

There are of course echoes of this debate in the UK – particularly in the campaigns of the BNP – but I believe only one English cutie might entertain the idea of castration for Gypsies – Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife.