Sofia’s swastika problem: photo gallery

Sofia’s swastika problem: photo gallery

A month ago I took a walk through central Sofia to document all the swastikas and other far-right imagery I’d seen on the streets in my few months there.

Spoiler: there’s a lot, or at least a lot more than I’m used to seeing on a city street (i.e., close to zero).

All the photos here, save one, were taken on March 17, 2018. Aside from a few crops/rotations, none of these photos have been edited.

I haven’t got much in the way of editorial commentary beforehand, other than:

  • Clearly it’s a minority of a minority of people doing this sort of thing – don’t go around saying that ‘muhh all Bulgarians must be Nazi sympathizers blah blah’ because, no.
  • For the most part, as the photos will indicate, it’s clearly Levski Sofia football hooligans doing this. Others I’m less certain about.
  • If you’re wondering why these swastikas and other blatant far-right/neo-Nazi symbols are allowed to stay up for an extended period of time in a European capital, don’t worry – I’m asking the same question.
    • Complacency? Cost of removal? The idea that ‘oh they’re just kids/idiots, they don’t know what it *really* means’? An accepted part of city life? I don’t know. I’d like to find out.

Nonetheless, here’s a selection of some of what I saw.

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On Vazrazhdane Square – the same square where the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria ‘Shalom’ (OJB Shalom) has its Sofia office in the Jewish Cultural House (Evreyski Kulturen Dom) ~100 feet away
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Vazrazhdane Square
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Vazrazhdane Square – the ’88’ code should be obvious enough, but the 1914 is a reference to PFC Levski Sofia’s founding
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Not far from the synagogue, on ulitsa Tsar Samuil. Not only are there more swastikas/far-right imagery on the shutters, but this has all been here since at least June 2015, according to Google Street View
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On ulitsa Ekzarh Yosif, same street as the Sofia Synagogue.
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At the corner of ulitsa Veslets and ulitsa Pop Bogomil – while this swastika’s been crossed out, it’s been here since at least June 2015
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ulitsa Tsar Simeon
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intersection of ulitsa Bacho Kiro and ulitsa Tsar Simeon – the butterflies are refashioned/painted-over swastikas
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ulitsa Tsar Simeon
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ulitsa Tsar Simeon – “Totenkopf 1488” has been there since at least June 2015
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ulitsa Tsar Simeon
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ulitsa Serdika
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Monument to the Soviet Army
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sig runes and a swastika behind the Monument to the Soviet Army
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next to a playground behind the Monument to the Soviet Army
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Rayko Daskalov square
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Rayko Daskalov square
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On ulitsa Ivaylo, Combat 18 (C18) graffiti with swastika – this has been here since at least April 2012
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ulitsa Lajos Kossuth
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ulitsa Ivaylo, across the street from a park and playground
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“We hate Gypsies,” on ulitsa Veslets – this phrase, along with the sig runes, has been here since at least June 2015
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The only photo here not taken March 17 (this one from March 19) – a swastika on a light pole outside the Levski Sofia club/store on Todor Alexandrov Boulevard
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on the use and abuse of statistics, Instrumentalizing Minorities edition

on the use and abuse of statistics, Instrumentalizing Minorities edition

This is what happens, Larry. This is what happens when you present data from one question from a two-year old survey in a sexy shaded map and let the Twitters have at it.

The tweet and article in question from Pew Research Global, here.

This sexy map and the corresponding article (which I’m sure considerably fewer people actually read) have got some rave and not-so-rave reviews on the one social network that rots my brain more than any other:

  • Ukraine Twitter? Happy. These numbers (apparently) prove that “Ukrainians are the least anti-Semitic [people] in eastern Europe,” the “most accepting of Jews,” and “more tolerant to minorities than any of its neighbours.”
  • The national news agency of Azerbaijan? Happy. Armenia, apparently, is “the most anti-Semitic country in central and eastern Europe,” they tweeted Thursday morning.
  • Armenian/Armenian-watcher Twitter? Unhappy, if not confused, with some suggesting the high number for Armenia could be rooted in lack of Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide and/or Israeli supply of weapons to Azerbaijan.
  • Polish nationalist Twitter? Unhappy. “Dirty manipulation,” since western European countries like France weren’t surveyed, where a Holocaust survivor was murdered last week in what French police are calling an anti-Semitic crime.
  • Islamophobes? Unhappy, because apparently all anti-Semitism is the result of Muslims and these numbers don’t jive with that theory.

This map – but, honestly, more the fevered reaction to it over the last day on social media – has got me pretty unhappy too, but for some different reasons

First (and relatively minor, in fairness) lot of people are suggesting this data’s new. It’s not. This report was released almost a year ago, based on surveys Pew did in central and eastern Europe in 2015 and 2016 on religious belief and national belonging. I still have a copy of this report on my mobile from last year.

Secondly, I’m not a fan of the question(s) and the way they’re presented in the survey.

This is the exact question that was asked. Identical questions were asked about Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Roma, in that order.UntitledI don’t like this question. Yes, I understand what it’s basically drawn from (Bogardus social distance scale questions), but look at it in the context of the preceding survey questions and it’s just….weird. (Page 18, here).

The preceding questions are all about religious observance – here’s the three that precede Q59.

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So we jump from these right into a question that’s basically HEY WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT JEWS

There’s no seguing into or introduction of the battery of questions on Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Roma; we move from “what do you think about your religion?” to “so tell me what you think of these minorities and/or people different from you.” It’s an odd jump, in my opinion, and one where more than one respondent must have wondered what the hell was going on.

Worse, though, is the question itself. Again, I get that these are somewhat standard questions – I’ve seen similar ones in other unrelated surveys – but, really, does “Would you be willing to accept Jews as: a. Members of your family, b. Neighbors, c. Citizens of our country” even make sense to an average respondent??

It makes me ask far, far too many questions about whether this question, and the data from it, is even reliable. How has this question been translated into the many languages used in actually administering the survey? Does it make any sense in them? Does it make less/more sense in some languages? Or, worst, does it mean different things to different respondents in different languages? If I was at the table discussing this survey in its design phases I’d have been asking a lot of questions about all this.

But what bothers me the most here is how these findings – or, more accurately, findings from *one question* on a two to three-year old survey – are being exploited.

As I’ve written about before, there’s a healthy crew of people out there who are more than happy to use Jews (or at least imagined representations of Jews) as a means to score political points (e.g., ‘look how well we treat our minorities,’ not like [insert enemy country here or Muslims in general]). Worse, though, are the ones who use The Jews In The Way That We Imagine Them as a cudgel to bash other minorities in their own countries (read: Muslims and Roma).

This is hypocritical, creepy and, if you’re a member of a majority and you’re doing this, what you are doing is bad and you should feel bad.

Valeri Simeonov strikes again: demands German “green jihadist” MEP be deported “by truck” to Turkey

Valeri Simeonov strikes again: demands German “green jihadist” MEP be deported “by truck” to Turkey

Valeri Simeonov is one of Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Ministers (in charge of economy and demographic policies), a co-spokesman of the far-right United Patriots and head of the Bulgarian Council on Ethnic Minority Integration.

He’s also a man with a mouth, one that’s doing a good job embarrassing his government right now – a government that happens to be hosting the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

This week Simeonov and his party, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (one of the three far-right parties that comprise the United Patriots), released a statement calling for the deportation of Ska Keller, the German co-chair of the Greens in the European Parliament. She’s been active in protests in Bulgaria against government plans to expand development in Pirin National Park, development that Keller and others say could lead to over-development in the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is all far too much for Simeonov and friends, who responded to Keller’s presence with all the subtlety that could be expected from someone who’s called Roma “naked, self-confident and ferocious humanoids.”

The NFSB statement, signed by Simeonov, called Keller a “green jihadist” and demanded that Keller be deported from Bulgaria – specifically, “declared persona non grata and be deported by truck to Kapikule,” a border crossing between Turkey and Bulgaria, since they “don’t think the cost of airfare can be justified.” The party even offers to provide transport for her.

Simeonov himself, of course, has some experience at Turkey-Bulgaria border crossings; he assaulted an elderly woman during a protest to stop Bulgarian Turks living in Turkey from crossing the border to vote in last year’s elections.

This love of Turkey and Bulgaria’s Turkish minority shines through when they demand to know “from the height of which minaret, this Ska (what a name?!) who graduated the Sabanci university in Istanbul and serves the justice of a foreign country… and wants the Bulgarian sovereign government to change its position.”

“I have been an active politician for many years and I have never had something like this happening to me – either in any European country, or in other, non-EU states,” Keller told BIRN.

But Simeonov’s no normal politician. As I wrote last year:

  • He’s been convicted of breaking anti-discrimination legislation with some of his comments about Roma.
  • Speaking in an interview in October with a cable television channel, Simeonov said that “bTV turned out to be like an infantile fatty with certain mental abnormalities put into a porcelain shop, not knowing what he is doing.”
  • After it emerged that a deputy minister from the United Patriots had been photographed giving a 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”.
  • “I cannot allow a handful of Sorosoids to badger us while we are trying to solve important problems.”
  • “…it is indisputed that a large part of the Gypsy ethnicity lives beyond any laws, rules and general human norms of behaviour. For them, the laws do not apply, taxes and charges are incomprehensible concepts, electricity, water, social and health insurance bills have been replaced by the belief that they have only rights, but not obligations and responsibilities. What has created the belief in our swarthy compatriots that everything is allowed… and that everyone is obliged to feed, dress and treat them for free?”
  • In 2013 his National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), in its platform, said it “initially envisages the abolition of all illegal structures in Gypsy ghettos and the creation with minimum resources of individual settlements outside the large settlements. Promotion of voluntary birth limitation through free contraceptives. The isolated settlements can be turned into a tourist attraction, which is a mass practice in the most developed democracies…”

Aside from the embarrassment he’s causing his own government, Simeonov doesn’t seem to be doing himself many favours these days. While the United Patriots managed to score just over 9 per cent in last year’s parliamentary elections, recent polls show them hovering at between 5 and 6 per cent. What’s more, the #SavePirin protests actually seem to be fizzling out a bit, at least here in Sofia. Has Simeonov just done his bit to help change that?

An International Anti-Corruption Day addendum/hangover

An International Anti-Corruption Day addendum/hangover

It was International Anti-Corruption Day on Saturday – a good day, as I wrote in the Balkanist, to raise a glass and remember that Bulgaria, the most corrupt country in the European Union, is taking over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU* in three weeks.

Only after writing that piece did I see new survey numbers that had just come out from a recent Special Eurobarometer survey on corruption in the EU. Ah well.

As you might have guessed, the numbers for Bulgaria aren’t good.

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“Kill corruption” (Credit: BGNES)

There’s a full report and a 20-page summary report available, so I’ll just rehash a few of the key (damning) findings about perceptions of corruption in Bulgaria, but still enough to make me feel like I’m suffering from some post-International Anti-Corruption Day makhmurluk:

  • It’s not just that Bulgarians think there’s corruption in their public institutions – many feel that it’s actually getting worse.
    • When asked whether there was corruption in local or regional public institutions, 86% of Bulgarians said there was. This isn’t just one of the highest figures in the EU – it’s increased 7% since the 2013 survey asking the same questions, which is the biggest increase in the EU.
    • As for corruption in national public institutions, 87% of Bulgarians said there was, again one of highest – and, again, the biggest increase since 2013 (5%), which is also especially striking given that this figure increased in just four of the 28 EU countries.
  • Only 14% of Bulgarians think there’s sufficient transparency and supervision of the financing of political parties, the lowest in the EU (but still risen from 9% in 2013).
  • Only 13% think there are enough successful prosecutions in the country to deter people from corrupt practices. Yes, the lowest.
  • 83% of Bulgarians, second only to Greece, think that high-level corruption cases are not pursued sufficiently in the country.
  • Are measures against corruption applied impartially and without ulterior motives? Only 15% of Bulgarians say so – the lowest in the EU.
  • In 20 of the 28 EU countries, there’s been an increase in the proportion of respondents who think government efforts to combat corruption are effective. Bulgaria’s not one of them – only 15% agree, the second worst in the EU behind Latvia.
  • Bulgarians don’t know where to report corruption: only 28% say they know where they’d report an act of corruption, with only Hungary being lower. Worse, this figure’s declined 15% (!!) since 2013, the biggest decrease in any EU country.
  • Bulgarians aren’t particularly trusting of the police and/or customs, and they’re getting more distrustful over time:
    • When asked who they’d trust most to deal with a case of corruption they’d complained about, 25% of Bulgarians identified the police, compared to a 60% average across the EU;  that figure’s dropped 11% since 2013.
    • Worse, when asked whether they felt the giving and taking of bribes and abuse of power for personal gain was widespread across a number of institutions, 71% of Bulgarians named police/customs. This was the highest in the EU and the most common response in Bulgaria – only Latvia had police/customs as a most common response. For reference, the EU average is 31%.

These figures don’t make one feel all that confident about Bulgaria’s fight against corruption. Bulgarians themselves certainly don’t seem to be.

 

*not the “European Council” as I wrote in my piece, and I think I’ve inadvertently written before. That president is Donald Tusk. Having confusingly similarly-named institutions is a great idea, guys. 

 

Why is the Czech Republic still discriminating against Roma children?

Why is the Czech Republic still discriminating against Roma children?

This week marks ten years since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Czech Republic was discriminating against Roma children in the education system.

A decade later, things aren’t much better. The 2007 rulingD.H. and Others v Czech Republic – stated that the Czech education system was funneling Roma children into substandard schools and was incorrectly classifying many Roma children with mild mental disabilities.

But today, even though Roma children make up less than 4 percent of all elementary school children in the Czech Republic, they make up more than 30 percent of all Czech children diagnosed with mild mental disabilities. That figure’s barely changed over the last four years.

While the country’s tried to enact some reforms to the education system – for example, the proportion of Roma students attending separate ‘practical’ schools has declined – segregation is still an issue. This year Czech ombudsman Anna Sabatova said that “[over] a quarter of Roma children are still being educated in very ethnically homogeneous schools” and that in some communities “there is a continuing practice of educating the Roma outside…or separately from non-Roma children within the same elementary school.”

It’s why, in 2014, the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, accusing the country of breaching EU racial equality directives.

Speaking at a conference this week hosted by the Open Society Justice Initiative and Open Society Fund Prague, one Roma community organizer described how she and her fellow activists travelled around to nine different cities and towns across the country, speaking with some 1,500 Roma about what they thought of the country’s education system.

“These people didn’t perceive any change for the better,” Magdalena Karvayova told the conference. Worse, said Karvayova, the Roma she talked to were “extremely distrustful” of everyone, from governments to bureaucrats to even NGOs.

“You should have thrown them to the hyenas!”

It’s easy to understand why Roma in the Czech Republic feel this way when you hear what their leaders and fellow citizens have to say about them.

President Milos Zeman recently said that “90 per cent of ‘unadaptable’ people in the Czech Republic are Roma,” using a phrase in Czech – nepřizpůsobivý – that, according to independent Czech internet daily Britské listy, is a “frequently used euphemism to replace racist abuse directed systematically against the Roma.”

One far-right politician, a secretary of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) that got almost 11 per cent of the vote last month – and is now the fourth-largest party in the Czech parliament – reportedly said in a restaurant in the Czech parliament that “Jews, gays and Roma should be gassed.”

“He demanded that all homosexuals, Roma, and Jews should be shot immediately after they have been born,” one MP reported him as saying.

After three young Roma boys made international headlines in March when they snuck into a zoo in the city of Jihlava and stoned a flamingo to death, some Czech social media users didn’t hold back on what they thought of Roma.

“Bastards! I would do the same to them!” said one person.

“You should have thrown them to the hyenas,” another user said. Others said the young boys, being Roma, had “inborn genetic deficiencies,” with “intelligence lower than that of the dead flamingo.”

It’s no surprise to learn that Czechs, in general, aren’t particularly sympathetic towards Roma. In a poll earlier this year 43 per cent of Czechs indicated they were “very unsympathetic” towards Roma, while only 4 per cent described themselves as “very” or “somewhat sympathetic.”

“It’s a trend that’s been getting worse and worse”

There are at least some steps in the right direction. Over the past decade more and more Roma children have been attending mainstream schools instead of special, ‘practical’ schools. Reforms to make the system more inclusive began in September 2016, aimed at increasing participation of children with special needs (including children from deprived backgrounds) in mainstream education.

Still, it’s not enough, Czech ombudsman Anna Sabatova said at the conference. The new problem, she said, is segregation within many mainstream schools, where Roma children are still educated separately from non-Roma students.

“It’s a trend that’s been getting worse and worse,” Sabatova said, adding that the government needs to understand more about why these schools have opted for de facto “separate but equal” segregation.

This is what worries David Benar, Czech Deputy Minister for Human Rights. Himself Roma, Benar worries that the country is moving closer and closer to a system of “separate but equal” segregation of Roma within mainstream schools. And Roma like him won’t stand for it.

“Roma people are not in a good mood.”

(Photo credit: Wikipedia commons/Anglos)

a few choice words from Valeri Simeonov

a few choice words from Valeri Simeonov

As Bulgaria gets ready to take up the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in January, it’s time to hear from Valeri Simeonov – one of Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Ministers (in charge of economy and demographical policies), co-spokesman of the far-right United Patriots and head of the Bulgarian Council on Ethnic Minority Integration.

  • Speaking in an interview on October 31 with a cable television channel, Simeonov said that “bTV turned out to be like an infantile fatty with certain mental abnormalities put into a porcelain shop, not knowing what he is doing.”
  • After it emerged that a deputy minister from the United Patriots had been photographed giving a 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”.
    • Also, “Is that really a Nazi salute? On what basis should he be withdrawn – that he’s a Hitlerite or a member of the Nazi party? Nonsense.”
  • “I cannot allow a handful of Sorosoids to badger us while we are trying to solve important problems.”
  • “…it is indisputed that a large part of the Gypsy ethnicity lives beyond any laws, rules and general human norms of behaviour. For them, the laws do not apply, taxes and charges are incomprehensible concepts, electricity, water, social and health insurance bills have been replaced by the belief that they have only rights, but not obligations and responsibilities. What has created the belief in our swarthy compatriots that everything is allowed… and that everyone is obliged to feed, dress and treat them for free?”
    • Roma are also, in his opinion, “naked, self-confident and ferocious humanoids ready to murder, to steal a few leva.”
    • …and Roma also want “sickness benefits without being ill, child care for children who play with the pigs in the streets and maternal benefits for women with the instincts of street bitches”.
  • In 2013 his National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), in its platform, said it “initially envisages the abolition of all illegal structures in Gypsy ghettos and the creation with minimum resources of individual settlements outside the large settlements. Promotion of voluntary birth limitation through free contraceptives. The isolated settlements can be turned into a tourist attraction, which is a mass practice in the most developed democracies (Indian Reserves in the US, Aboriginal Settlements in Australia, Gypsy Settlements in the Czech Republic and Hungary, etc.).”

He also assaulted an elderly woman during a protest to stop Turks from crossing the border to vote in March’s elections. Oh, and he also just got convicted of breaking anti-discrimination legislation with some of his comments above about Roma.  Happy Friday!

 

A “handful” versus a hundred in Houston

A “handful” versus a hundred in Houston

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen this story about Russian trolls behind a “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest in May 2016: “Organizers behind armed white supremacist protest in Houston revealed as Russian,” from ThinkProgress.

The original CNN story referred to in that piece is here (“Stoking Islamophobia and secession in Texas — from an office in Russia”); a link to a local Houston TV station’s video from the protest is here.

I read the original story last night (and the Twitterverse’s reaction to it), read it again this morning, and also took a look at the original CNN story and the video.

That’s when I thought something was off.

First, the lede to the ThinkProgress story:

Last May, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered around the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, squaring off against one another in competing camps.

I can’t be the only person who quickly glanced at this story and immediately thought something like “wow, “the Russians” got 100 armed white supremacists out via one of these dumbass Facebook groups – that’s better than a dozen.” Actually, in chatting with a few other journos, I know I’m not.

But take a look at the lede to the original CNN story (emphasis mine):

On May 21 2016, a handful of people turned out to protest the opening of a library at an Islamic Center in Houston, Texas. Two held up a banner proclaiming #WhiteLivesMatter. A counter-protest began across the street; video shows a noisy but non-violent confrontation. 

OK. Now take a look at the actual video from the protest. You can see the white supremacist protesters at around 0:12 and 0:13 in front of the brick building; the counter-protesters are the larger group across the street.

That’s a handful, not a hundred. And phrasing your lede in a way that many readers will interpret as ‘a hundred’ armed white supremacist protesters is….yeah.

Listen, the Kremlin (or ‘the Russians,’ however we want to obsequiously phrase it) meddled in the 2016 election, just as they have and continue to do in other countries. But there’s this wave of coverage coming out of the US these days that’s hard to stomach, a wave that either assumes every single little thing they did has had a real impact – or worse, conveniently never bothers to ask the question in the first place. We can sex up our stories to ride the Russia wave, but it’s not going to make any of us look cooler once we get back to shore.