Controversy has erupted around Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov after he described protesting mothers of children with disabilities as a “group of shrill women who are speculating with their children”.
The women have been protesting for months, seeking fundamental reforms to Bulgaria’s system of assistance to people with disabilities.
Simeonov, who is from the minority government partner the United Patriots – a grouping of far-right and ultra-nationalist parties” – hit out in an interview with his mouthpiece cable television channel Skat at the protesting women, saying that they were manipulating public opinion, “taking their ill children out in the heat and the rain”.
He said that a law aimed at addressing reforms “was started as an attempt to indulge a group of shrill women who speculate with their children, manipulating society, taking out into the heat and the rain these sick children without a gram of a mother’s sense of care”.
Simeonov said that the law had been “conceived in sin…continued with violations, and all administrative deadlines have been abolished”.
One of the most active representatives of the protests, which are held with the slogan “the system is killing us”, Valetina Hristova, told television station bTV that the only move Simeonov could make now was to resign.
“It is not normal for a deputy prime minister to speak this way on the air. If he had at least some morality, the least he can do is resign,” Hristova said. “We feel offended and humiliated once again.”
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, where he has been attending meetings of the European People’s Party and the European Council, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov said that he could only apologise on behalf of the government for what Simeonov had said of the mothers of children with disabilities.
“Such language is unacceptable and I distance myself from it,” said Borissov, who leads GERB, the majority partner in government.
“It is high time for everyone to measure their words,” he said, adding that this applied both to the opposition and to the ruling coalition.
Borissov said that were he in Simeonov’s place, he would apologise. “I am not his lawyer, to come out to explain what he meant,” he said.
Borissov said that the government had reached an agreement with the protesters, the bill had been approved by the Cabinet and he hoped that it would be voted by Friday next week.
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party called on Simeonov to resign.
“We have lived to hear from the deputy prime minister responsible for social policy that this is a ‘handful of shrill women with allegedly sick children’,” BSP leader Kornelia Ninova said. “This is an absurdity, and in any European and civilised state, this person cannot stay a minute longer in his post,” she said.
The October 19 controversy came as the National Assembly debate a motion of no confidence tabled by the BSP on the grounds of government handling of health care. Due to be put to the vote on October 24, the motion is seen as having scant chance of being approved.
Simeonov told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television that his words had been taken out of context and there was no reason for his resignation.
He said that the reaction to his comments was the “latest political campaign” against him and he would withdraw none of his words.
Simeonov said that his family had a person with a severe disability, whom he cares for, but would never put out in public “to achieve a political goal of overthrowing the government”.
This is not the first time Simeonov has been the subject of controversy.
In May 2017, after it emerged that Pavel Tenev, then a deputy minister from the United Patriots quota in the coalition government, had been photographed giving the Hitler salute, Simeonov reportedly made comments to the effect that in the 1970s, he had been taken on a visit to Buchenwald and “Come to think of it, who knows what kind of joke photos we took there…can anyone say now, submit your resignation and go back to the village”.
The comments were reported by Bulgarian-language daily Sega. On May 18, Simeonov denied making them and said he would take court action against Sega. The daily responded by saying that it stood by its story.
Simeonov’s reported statement was strongly condemned at the time jointly by the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom” and the Central Israelite Religious Council of Bulgaria. Shalom president Dr Alexander Oscar told a news conference: “When we talk about the Holocaust, joking is inappropriate”.
In October 2017, it was reported that a court in Bourgas had found against Simeonov in a case over comments he had made in Parliament in 2014 against Bulgaria’s Roma minority.