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?

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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.

 

Twitter’s ‘Block Brigade’ is a Real Problem

Twitter’s ‘Block Brigade’ is a Real Problem

A piece co-written with Bradley Jardine, a Scottish journalist based in Moscow.

“I am now ‘the most dangerous pundit in America’” U.S. lobbyist, consultant and self-described information warfare expert Molly McKew tweeted after her Congressional testimony on Sept. 14. “Keep tweeting guys! I’m sure your next check [sic] will show dividends.”

In Twitter’s new hyper-partisan climate, self-proclaimed information warriors like McKew are accusing their sceptical peers, falsely, of ties to the Kremlin. Calls for nuance, in their view, are tantamount to treason.

In this growing conflict, Twitter’s block feature is gaining particular notoriety.

The block function is far from airtight. Users can continue to view their blocker’s newsfeed using Google’s incognito function; some even use multiple Twitter accounts. There isn’t much that can escape the Twitterati grapevines.

Most people use the block to feel safe. It can potentially provide protection from the whole gamut of invasive forces, from prying relatives and spurned lovers to unsolicited dick pics. On its own, it’s largely benign.

But like all benevolent tools, the block can be abused. When used by the new, intrepid class of information warriors, the block is autocratic by nature. For this new generation of dam-builders, it’s a way to cut off contrarian information-flows and stifle debate.

It means shutting out journalists, researchers, analysts and students. The result is not only that they refuse to listen to informed opinion, but that they seal this information off from their thousands of followers too. Like the autocrats they purportedly combat, the information warriors are susceptible to their methods.

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A small sample.

The blocked journalist is by and large apathetic toward the blocker. The realisation of having been blocked is often a source of amusement – a bizarre social ritual of the online community. The blocked and the blocker, trapped in a constellation of social ties, will continue to dance around one another, regardless of whether one another’s existence is acknowledged. In this context, the block is no more anonymising than a Venetian mask at a village orgy.

But it’s insidious. For the well-connected information-warrior, each of whom has upwards of 30,000 followers sharing their opinions, it is a tool of social manipulation. Followers are deprived of debate, and the cult of the charlatan grows unchecked.

Opposing narratives still emerge on the newsfeeds of other users, sure. But what’s missing is interaction. In its place are gated communities, thumb-tapping into the void. Block by block they construct digital fortresses.

But remember, these information warriors aren’t just Twitter personalities. These are people who get invited to conferences, write op-eds and testify before Congressional committees. These are people who have real influence and real power, and a real tendency to wall themselves off from their peers.

And the besieged fortress demands discipline in the ranks. The people outside it are enemies, bloated out of all proportion into grotesque caricatures. “Useful idiots!” the charlatan declares, “Kremlin trolls,” their most resolute disciples chirp in. The chambers echo because they are hollow.

The real problem is that prominent politicians, think-tankers, ambassadors and military leaders are being swept up into the conflict. Without accurate information it’s no wonder there’s a dearth of rational actors.

In this partisan atmosphere, legitimate concerns are said to be motivated by the most crass considerations. They’re doing it for money. They’re in league with the Kremlin. They’re all biscuit-arsed “bros” who don’t like outsiders butting in on their turf. In this cacophony, informed Western journalists are painted as no better than their RT and Sputnik counterparts.

Alarmingly, there are also toxic, xenophobic undertones to the discussion. A discussion that argues “guilt by association,” that journalists in Moscow are somehow tainted by their engagement with Russian culture.

“It’s the soft on Russia model” McKew said during her Congressional hearing. “You especially see it among this middle rank, these Western journalists sort of hanging out in Moscow and others who propagate this narrative of ‘Ok Russia is bad, but America is worse.’”

Rightly, informed analysts separate Russia’s autocratic institutions from its people. Informed analysts acknowledge the problems of fake news and Kremlin-backed meddling. But unlike information warriors, informed analysts rely on verifiable claims and call for caution against botched sourcing and outlandish conclusions.

Information warriors follow a different logic. These are people who are committed to varying degrees to fighting fake news, disinformation and nefarious Kremlin influence in Europe and beyond. But they’re also people who have a vested interest in a few of the highest-profile efforts, whether it’s an anti-fake news centre or a fact-checking website that gets 12,000 hits a month. They’re the people committed to building a niche brand for themselves as the go-to paid consultant for all your (dis)information warfare needs. They’re the people convinced we are on a war footing, where any criticism of a western anti-disinformation effort, whether the recent Committee to Investigate Russia or the Hamilton 68 dashboard, is seen as an almost treasonous act of apparent Kremlin-abetting.

Twitter is not the real world. But it’s an important talk-shop where policymakers, policy-wonks, public officials and pundits gather. It’s where opinions are made, shared and canonized.

But it’s also a place where mirror-image Putinization is being born, where swathes of dissenting voices are being literally blocked out of the discussion, unmasked as apparent traitors and dismissed.  

The world doesn’t need more warriors. The world needs people to stop and think about what they’re doing. 

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist in Prague. His work has appeared in Foreign PolicyCoda Story, Haaretz and CBC. 

Bradley Jardine is a Scottish journalist in Moscow. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Moscow Times, and Eurasianet among others. Follow him

Why isn’t Andrej Babis in Evropské hodnoty/European Values’ crosshairs?

Why isn’t Andrej Babis in Evropské hodnoty/European Values’ crosshairs?

The Czech Republic’s most active think-tank has barely criticized, let alone mentioned their future Prime Minister Andrej Babis – a man who isn’t exactly a shining example of western liberal democracy in action.

Remember, Babis is someone who’s:

  • The second-richest man in the country, with his Agrofert conglomerate having its hands in everything from fertilizers and farm equipment, to two of the largest Czech newspapers and its most popular radio station.
  • Been accused of having been a Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police agent (though an appellate court in Slovakia “affirmed Mr. Babis was not an agent of the secret police”).
  • Been caught on tape earlier this year coordinating coverage of his political opponents with a journalist at one of the purportedly independent newspapers he owns.
  • Accused of numerous conflicts of interest, and now someone who’s had his parliamentary immunity stripped over fraud allegations.
  • Been recently described to me as “Trump, Berlusconi and Orban all in one.”
IMG_20170918_111437-1
Babis’ paper: “Accept the Euro, fast!” Non-Babis paper: “Juncker: I don’t dictate anything to Czechia” (from https://twitter.com/FilipZajicek/status/908226594979958784)

Let’s also not forget some of the Russia-related allegations that have been thrown at Babis.

  • He’s called EU and US sanctions on Russia “nonsense” and said they’re against the country’s economic interests – a line I’ve personally heard from some Kremlin-friendly figures across Europe.
  • He’s dodged questions on whether Putin bore the blame for annexing Crimea, and has said NATO “cannot stay on this idea that Russia is the biggest problem.”
  • Under his watch the Czech finance ministry (more accurately, the Czech Export Guarantee Agency (EGAP)), underwrote a loan guarantee to PhosAgro, a Russian company co-owned by Putin pal Vladimir Litvinenko.
  • In 2007 Babis’ Agrofert tried to negotiate a gas deal with the Czech subsidiary of Gazprom instead of its then-current German supplier.

These aren’t necessarily super-Kremlin smoking guns, but I’d think a group of people who are dedicated to ferreting out Kremlin interference in their country and beyond would at least be asking a few questions about the guy who’s about to run the show.

Sure, Babis is intimidating and is the kind of guy who likes to go after people who talk shit about him – I mean, look at all the corrections Foreign Policy had to add under this 2015 article when Babis went full Babis on them.

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Full Babis.

I get why you’d want to be in his good side, but European Values isn’t exactly afraid to go after some other Czech and European political figures with less-than-subtle language: the German SPD and Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democrats), who want to “please the Kremlin;” the Czech Communists, guilty of “treason” for their broken record anti-NATO stance; and, least of all, Czech president (“rezident”) Milos Zeman, the “Kremlin’s Trojan horse.”

With elections/Babis’ coronation just over a month away I’m surprised European Values doesn’t have anything critical to say about Babis – or, really, anything about him at all.