How much racism is there in Bulgaria

Close up
eu eastward expansion - cycle paths and racism

Bulgaria is still the poorest and most corrupt member of the EU. When the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastew recently presented his essay “Sled Evropa” (in German “Europadämmerung”) in Sofia, the hall was full. At least as interesting as Krastew's analysis of the current situation and possible future developments were the questions and comments from the audience. One listener put it in a nutshell: Bulgaria, he said, has always been the bottom of Europe.

The man is right - unfortunately. In 2006, a large clock in the center of the capital Sofia showed the number of days left until EU accession. The expectations of the population were immense - even if the then socialist head of government Sergei Stanishev admitted in an interview with the taz that nobody should imagine waking up on January 1, 2007 in another country. Even then, anyone who wanted to know could know that the admission of Bulgaria, like Romania, was above all a political decision. But Brussels had put a train on the track that could no longer be stopped.
Today, ten years later, the results are rather sobering. With an annual gross domestic product of 6,500 euros (Germany: 40,000 euros), Bulgaria is not only the poorest, but also the most corrupt country in the EU. According to an analysis by the US organization Global Financial Integrity, the state loses 14 to 22 percent of its gross domestic product annually, which corresponds to between 10 and 6 billion euros. Last June, 22 Bulgarian border police officers were arrested who had cashed heavily, as the seizure of the equivalent of 33,000 euros showed.
With a share of 30 percent of the gross domestic product in the EU, Bulgaria is also the front runner when it comes to the shadow economy. The losses for the state treasury amount to around 1 billion euros annually. With average wages of 500 euros per month - the minimum wage is 235 euros - and the cost of living that approaches western standards, many Bulgarians barely make ends meet. Pensioners have to be content with lousy old-age pensions and in many cases are dependent on the support of relatives. At the beginning of November, employees of scientific institutions demonstrated in Sofia for a wage increase, which are fobbed off at the equivalent of 350 euros per month. The brain drain that has plagued Bulgaria since the fall of communism in 1989 continues unchanged. According to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the country of seven million people will lose up to 400,000 skilled workers in the next five to ten years.
There is also plenty of room for improvement in terms of infrastructure, for the expansion of which Sofia will receive 800 million euros from the EU budget in the coming year alone. The roads in Sofia, apart from the main arteries, are in a sorry state. The overall picture is not improved by the fact that, much to the displeasure of many motorists, there are now the first cycle paths in Sofia. As in other countries, right-wing populist groups in particular benefit from the disappointed hopes of many Bulgarians. The preferred object of hate of the “United Patriots”, who have been in government alongside the conservative GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) party since the new elections in March of this year, are refugees and migrants.
The party TV station SKAT, which also likes to indulge in hate speech against the EU, creates a correspondingly negative mood. It doesn't matter that the number of refugees in Bulgaria fell drastically in 2017 and that only a fifth of the accommodation capacities are currently exhausted. According to a poll last October, 84 percent believed that Middle Eastern refugees should be refused entry to Bulgaria. Two thirds of the respondents do not want any refugees as neighbors.
The right is also not squeamish when dealing with the Turkish minority. Recently, the patriotic MP Valentin Kasabov said that the Turks should shut up, otherwise they would be crushed like cockroaches. Against the background of these unfortunate developments, one can look forward to the first half of 2018, when Bulgaria takes over the EU Council Presidency for the first time.
Whether this chairmanship, under the motto “Unity makes you strong”, will be a success or a disaster depends not only on those responsible in Sofia but also on Brussels. In this context, the statements made by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on November 8th in Brussels seem bizarre. Europe is part of Bulgaria's DNA. Juncker said the country had acted like one of the founders of the union since the first day after joining.
Such an assessment shows that it is unrealistic. And that is absolutely counterproductive when it comes to seriously tackling the problems facing Bulgaria. How much this is necessary can be read in a report by the Commission, Juncker's authority, from last week. In the fight against corruption and organized crime, Bulgaria's progress is still far from sufficient, it says - once again.
But there are other voices in Brussels too. Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumer Protection and Equality, suggested linking the allocation of funds to the development of the rule of law - an unmistakable message not only to Poland and Hungary, but also to Bulgaria. 55 percent of Bulgarians still support their country's EU membership. But the mood could change. And nobody can seriously wish that.


Barbara Oertel works for taz in Berlin and takes part in the Goethe Institute's “Close-up” exchange program. She is a guest at “Capital Weekly” in Sofia in November.