Bulgarian Helsinki Committee after 25 years: Founded in a different Bulgaria

Written by on March 23, 2017 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on Bulgarian Helsinki Committee after 25 years: Founded in a different Bulgaria

In the summer of 1992, several lawyers and Human Rights advocates came together in Sofia. At that point, there were many problems the country had inherited from communism, which had fallen just over two years earlier.

“Just a couple of years before, we had had this name changing campaign against the Turkish minority, an attempt to assimilate them”, says Krassimir Kanev. The 58-year-old was 33, when he co-founded his organisation.

In 1992, when the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee was brand new, “there was tension between the two communities”, the majority on the one and Bulgarians with a Turkish background on the other hand. “Also we were in the process of building democratic institutions”, says Kanev. “So, we had this (communist) legacy, and there was a lot of expectation.”

Kanev, who studied philosophy and Human Rights in Bulgaria and across the Atlantic Ocean, says, a far more democratic attitude had been spreading in the Bulgaria of 1992, than it was the case nowadays. While many Bulgarians seem to have been disappointed, significant problems appeared after the changes. Only some people managed to stick to their idealism. Those included Kanev.

“There were so many problems we were facing”, he states. “One of them was the restoration of the Turkish Minority’s rights.” This is an aspect which is definitely connected to today, since many of the Turks who left Bulgaria back then, because of the way they were treated, intend to come back now in order to exercise their right to vote. Because of the rather problematic attitude of the leadership in Ankara, this issue has many facets.

Antoaneta Nenkova is a co-founder of the BHC as well, an author and journalist.

Another issue the newly founded Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) was facing, was the so-called “decommunisation”. “How do we deal with the atrocities committed by the communist regime?” This question was asked by Kanev and his colleagues back then, while the country of Bulgaria has not really come to terms with its past even today, 25 years later.

“There were also issues with other ethnic minorities, with Roma in particular. In these times of a rather severe economic crisis, lots of Roma found themselves on the streets”, Kanev remembers. “Several years before, they had all been employed. There was a lot of discrimination in communist days too, but at least the Roma had work.” Their situation has worsened substantially since then.

On top of all of this, the BHC’s founders ran into problems connected to religious freedom. “There was a split in the Orthodox church, caused by the communist legacy. Orthodox and Muslim believers thought their religious leaders had collaborated with the communist regime. On that issue, there was a split in both denominations, while different governments started meddling into this conflict.”

In the 25 years since its foundation, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee did have reasons to celebrate successes, most of which would not have happened without their work,  interventions and pressure. “A lot of good legislation was adopted, in support of Human Rights throughout those years”, Krassimir Kanev says. “Also there was legislation connected to the restoration of the Turkish minority’s rights, and we had actions by the parliament, which restored the original names” of this minority’s members.

According to Kanev, a good anti-discrimination law was adopted by the National Assembly since back then, as well as laws for access to legal assistance and justice in general. “We participated in the adoption of some of these laws. People from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee were members of the working groups, before the anti-discrimination law was passed.”

Dessislava Simeonova, the director of fundraising.

As a Human Rights advocate and docent, Kanev is disappointed with the educational institutions. “The Human Rights teaching at Bulgarian universities is not very well developed. My course was one of the very few. Right now, Human Rights are not being offered as a subject.” The same applies to high schools or any schools in Bulgaria. Human Rights are not being taught in this country at all.

Just days before yet another round of parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, hardly any parties or candidates have talked about Human Rights, the rights of minorities or refugees’ rights. And those who have were mostly “patriots”, meaning far-right, xenophobic ones, whose main goal is not to have refugees in the country, and not to grant rights to anyone who is different, from their point of view.

“Many politicians would say they are in favour of minorities, but in reality you have a lot of public instigation of hatred, discrimination and violence against minorities”, Kanev states, “originating from many sides”. In some elections, such as in the presidential ones in November of 2016, refugees were victims of hatred expressed by politicians. “This time around, it is the anti-Turkish sentiment”.

Adela Katchaounova is a lawyer and European Human Rights Law expert. Photo by Imanuel Marcus

Kanev agrees that today, there are two aspects: On the one hand, there is Erdogan’s leadership and its attempts to influence the upcoming elections. “On the other hand, there is a discriminatory law, which restricts the voting sections in Turkey to 35. And this was decided on purpose, with the amendments of the electoral code, in order to restrict the vote from Turkey.” Kanev believes that both the Turkish government and politicians who rely on that vote, “are trying to find a way out, using bus transport across the border. But the origin of this was the discrimination built into the electoral code, just last year.” The latter happened long before today’s big arguments between Ankara and many European governments developed.

There is something else Krassimir Kanev looks at with frustration: The willingness by the big parties in Bulgaria, expressed by both GERB and the Socialists, to form a coalition with the “United Patriots”, that coalition of haters. “To me, it is entirely unacceptable for any party to cooperate with these parties of a totalitarian type, who work against the basic principles of political democracy and Human Rights. They were responsible for serious Human Rights violations, including public incitement to hatred, violence and discrimination.”

Kanev, the co-founder and head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, was furious in November of 2016, when violent protests erupted at the Harmanli refugee camp: “The violent conflict there was provoked. The Refugee Agency listened to the nationalist’s demands and locked the camp, making it a prison.” Before this happened last year, the same nationalist movements had spread rumors according to which the refugees had dangerous, contagious diseases, an assertion immediately rejected by health officials in Sofia.

Less than two weeks ago, there was an exemplary incident in Bulgaria, which showed what kind of effects the attitude of both society and leading politicians can have: A catholic priest by the name of Pablo Cortese accommodated Syrian refugees in his church in Belene. The asylum seekers had come to Bulgaria legally. A local politician and a group of inhabitants threatened the priest because of the fact that he was helping them and because he had not asked them for permission. No law states that any permission would have been needed. The priest even received death threats.

As a result, Cortese left Bulgaria. Prime Minister Gerdzhikov did not say a single word about the incident, while President Radev stated, there needed to be tolerance towards refugees, but at the same time attention needed to be paid to the attitudes of society. This very much sounded like refugees should only be accommodated where everyone agrees to have them around. “This is the extent to which you can exercise your Human Rights”, Kanev says, clearly angered by this much ignorance and hatred in Belene. “The whole thing shows you the attitude of society and the government, and it shows you how public incitement works, and what effects it has. There was only a small group of people in Belene who incited against the refugees.” Yet, they won.

Radoslav Stoyanov (left) and Borislav Penkovski are part of the BHC team as well. Photo by Imanuel Marcus

Fighting for minorities and refugees in Bulgaria is dangerous. Krassimir Kanev was attacked and beaten up in Sofia in October of 2016, in broad daylight. He does not see the incident as a sign pointing towards the need for more security, but rather puts it off as a phenomenon of 2016:  “Last year, there was a very serious problem with the security of Human Rights activists, but also of refugees and minorities, because we had an unprecedented wave of public incitement, especially just before the presidential elections”, Kanev says.

But, according to Kanev, the root of the problem lies somewhere else: “The problem is the attitude of the prosecution. They do not pay attention to cases of this kind.”

A quarter century after its foundation, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee is one of the most important NGOs in Bulgaria, a lone fighter for Human Rights and minorities. The struggle continues. Krassimir Kanev: “Our plans very much depend on what problems the Bulgarian society will generate. I am afraid that, particularly in the area of ethnic relations, like attitudes towards migrants, there will be a lot of work.”

The picture at top of the page shows the BHC’s chairman Krassimir Kanev. (Photo by Imanuel Marcus)

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