Tomislav Donchev, Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister responsible for EU funds and the Roma Integration subcommittee of the European Funds Monitoring Committee, announced he supports his spouse’s controversial comments on integration and the Roma community in Bulgaria. He announced his position after three human rights non-profit organizations in Bulgaria called on Donchev to take a strong stance in favor of Roma integration.
On June 5 and 6, Svetlana Doncheva, wife of the Deputy Prime Minister, published three Facebook posts with anti-Roma sentiment. She initially ranted against the failures of Roma integration in Bulgaria and accused the community itself for that by saying: “For Gypsies, the carrots are almost over. It is time for the stick,” alluding to the well-known ‘carrot or stick’ metaphor where the carrot is a reward and the stick is punishment.
After her initial post was deleted due to it being reported for discrimination, she posted two additional times defending her position, stating the following: “You are not going to make me change my opinion, [to forbid me] to express freely or [to forbid me not] to share what I think” and “[I believe] that the Roma community should not only be rewarded but also punished, just the way it is done with Bulgarians when they disobey the rules. […] I am actually for equality but not only for equal rights, but also for equal obligations. Roma people are actually the ones who demand special treatment […]. If you think you are equal – and I believe you are – why are there special programs for your integration? […].” Her comments illustrate the lack of understanding of the problems facing the Roma community with regard to severe poverty, lack of adequate access to housing, education, healthcare and the labor market.
Furthermore, her comments were publicly supported by number of members of parliament amidst discussions of the 2017 monitoring report on the implementation of the National Strategy for Roma Integration on June 14, 2018.
Two Roma organizations – DROM and Largo based in the cities of Vidin and Kyustendil, respectively – as well as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, largest human rights organization in Bulgaria, sent an open letter to Donchev. The letter calls for Donchev to take a public stance in favor of integrational policies. It stresses that his spouses’ comments come in the context of the current government’s failure to formulate firm and sound policies for the integration of the Roma community. At the same time the ultranationalist Valeri Simeonov, known for his anti-Roma statements, was appointed as chair of the National Council for Cooperation on Issues of Ethnicity and Integration last year, which led to key Roma organizations leaving the council in protest. What is more, in May, dozens of Roma NGOs boycotted the only Roma designated event during Bulgaria’s Presidency of the European Union.
“If Donchev fails to send this much needed positive message in contrast to his wife’s statements, the conclusion could be that he is solidarizing with this latter position and hence he ought to resign,” the organizations wrote in their letter.
Doncheva’s posts calling for “stick” measures come in the context of the worsening situation for Roma communities still segregated and severely affected by poverty who are subjected to systematic forceful evictions from their only homes without the provision of adequate alternative housing. They also come weeks after young Roma man from the city of Shumen was killed by an attacker allegedly after the perpetrator approached the victim and his brother shouting racist insults at them. The lack of political will to further Roma integration by the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party in the face of their collaboration with far-right groups in the coalition government is of serious concern for the whole civil society sector working on Roma rights.
Although in recent days Doncheva apologized for putting ‘working’ and ‘integrated’ members of the Roma community in the same category as “the large portion of [the community] who have failed to realize they have responsibilities to society,” she remains defiant that this is the way to address the problems of Roma people in Bulgaria and is convinced that her posts have not harmed, but improved her husband’s public image.