The appointment of Deputy Prime Minister and nationalist United Patriots co-leader Valeri Simeonov to head Bulgaria’s National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues has prompted a Roma organisation to withdraw from the council and has been described as “cynicism” by opposition parties inside and outside Parliament.
The council is officially described as a “co-ordinating and advisory body” that assists Bulgaria’s Cabinet in developing and carrying out state policy on ethnic and integration issues, on the basis of co-operation between public authorities and associations of Bulgarians belonging to ethnic minorities, as well as with NGOs working on ethnic relations and the defence of human rights.
Simeonov heads the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria party, a partner in the United Patriots, which in May 2017 became the minority partner in the government headed by centre-right GERB party leader Boiko Borissov.
Simeonov was at the centre of controversy for comments he was reported to have made amid the “Nazi salute” controversy of last week, which involved figures linked to the United Patriots. Simeonov says that he was misreported while the daily that published the comments has said that it stands by its story. This episode was not, however, the first in which Simeonov was involved in controversy on ethnic issues.
In the National Assembly on Friday, opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party MP Anton Kutev asked “what cynicism” was needed for Borissov’s Cabinet to appoint Simeonov to head the council.
Kutev said that this was a compromise that was beyond abhorrent and was dangerous to the state.
The opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a party historically led and supported in the main by Bulgarians from the country’s ethnic Turkish minority, also hit out at the appointment.
“A person who proposes that ghettos should be transformed into tourist attractions and castration of minorities, being responsible for ethnic issues and leading the council is a crude form of cynicism,” MRF leader Mustafa Karadaya said.
“Those who hand territory to nationalists, Nazis and fascists today so as to be in power and to undermine the future of our country will have to bear the responsibility,” Karadaya said.
The Roma Lom Foundation said that it was withdrawing from the council.
Hristo Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria party, which in March 2017 failed to win seats in the National Assembly, said that the appointment of Simeonov to head the council, and the appointment of Ataka’s Ilian Todorov as Sofia Regional Governor was a “gesture of cynicism” by the third Borissov government.
“Simeonov is known for his scandalous statements bordering on hate speech directed against the minorities in Bulgaria,” the Yes Bulgaria statement said.
Ivanov’s party said that in 2013, the NFSB election platform had contained “frankly racist appeals”.
“They proposed ethnic cleansing of Bulgarian settlements of the Roma and their closure in guarded concentration camps, apart from the Bulgarian population,” the statement said.
“The third government of Boiko Borissov rests on the ‘golden finger’ of nationalism, as was the case of the notorious government of Plamen Oresharski. And just as in the previous case, it will cost a lot to our society.
“The appointments of Simeonov and Todorov are another frank demonstration that the government, which has to hold the Bulgarian Euro-Presidency, is actually abandoning the European model of development of the country. Instead, GERB appears to be flirting with toxic national-populism, which always leads to a divide in society and an increased risk of stirring up ethnic enmity,” Yes Bulgaria said, calling for Simeonov’s resignation and pending that resignation, for the members of the council to stop participating in it.
Online, a petition was started, addressed to several state and government figures including Borissov, calling for Simeonov’s appointment to be terminated, describing it as scandalous and disgraceful.
The statement said that Simeonov was now both in charge of demographic policy and of ethnic integration.
Calling on Borissov to dismiss Simeonov as deputy prime minister in charge of demographic issue and as head of the council, the petition said that unless this was done, there would be “a high degree of tension and indignation in large sections of society and put it on course to the extremely dangerous direction of inter-ethnic tension and conflict.” This could be prevented by “decisive action” by Borissov, the petition said.
Simeonov, in a May 26 interview with a Bulgarian radio station, said that he would work with “equal and with due respect and attention to each of them” (ethnic minority groups).
“Bulgaria, thank God, is not a country with too many ethnicities or a serious presence of ethnicities, such as, for example, the Baltic states or some of our other neighbours, so I think, that it will be reasonable and measured activity and policy,” he said.
Asked about Karadaya’s comment, Simeonov said that he was very busy working and “I don’t even know what it’s about and I don’t care what Karadaya said”.