A wry smile crept across Steffan Stefanov’s face as he scanned the internet, digesting news of England’s now notorious football match against Bulgaria. It wasn’t that he was belittling the racist abuse that was directed against the black English players, but rather the use of two words littering media reports about it.
“Bulgaria and racism,” he proclaimed. “The two go hand-in-hand. It’s our reality, we live it every day. I’m sorry for the England players who were targeted but, in truth, this was pretty minor for us.”
Twenty four hours after the England team and their fans departed Sofia, it felt disturbing to stroll around the Bulgarian capital in bright autumnal sunshine speaking with Stefanov and other members of the Roma community. There was unanimous agreement among them that the racial abuse on display in the stadium last Monday night was just a snapshot of the vilification they face every day, which blights their lives. Such is their fear that none of them wanted to be photographed.
A taxi driver by profession, Stefanov, 43, pinches his cheek to indicate his dark complexion as he explains what it is like navigating the streets of the city in which he was born in his bright yellow cab looking for customers.
“They don’t like this,” he said, pinching my cheek, this time to indicate our shared skin colour. “People stop me, look inside and then shout tsiganin [a pejorative term for Gypsy which is also a synonym for lazy or criminal] or blackie. Go away, we don’t want to get inside your stinking cab. I’ve been attacked, spat at and abused,” he said. “This behaviour against the Roma has become part of our society.”
Stefanov’s friend, Miroslav Angelo, lived in Plumstead, south-east London, for five years, where he worked in construction. “Being in London was like heaven for me,” he said. “So many people of different races and nobody was bothered about me being Roma.
“I felt as if a weight had been lifted off me but Bulgaria feels like prison. We’re blamed for everything because everybody hates us.”
Angelo, 37, revealed that he returned to Bulgaria to look after his elderly parents but dreams of returning to London where he wants to raise his seven-year-old son. Uncertainty over whether he will be able to do this post-Brexit means that his plans are in the balance.
“There is no future for the Roma in Bulgaria and things are only going to get worse,” he said. “The England players are lucky because they were able to leave. I want to join them because I don’t want my son to be treated like a third-class citizen.”
The perpetrators of the abuse directed against England players have been identified as members of a group calling itself the Lauta Army, a neo-Nazi hooligan gang that follows Lokomotiv Plovdiv, a team from the country’s second-biggest city. It plays in Bulgaria’s top division in a stadium called Lauta Park. Dressed in black hoodies, the gang gave Nazi salutes and made monkey noises, which prompted Monday’s game to be halted twice, with England players threatening to walk off the pitch at the Vasil Levski Stadium.
The hooligan gang is well organised and has its own website and runs boxing classes and a gymnasium. It also enjoys connections with other neo-Nazis within European football. Two years ago, it celebrated its 25th anniversary by taking over a Black Sea resort for three days with far-right groups from Italian club Napoli, Spartak Moscow and Bulgarian club Levski Sofia.
The Lauta Army is just one of many neo-Nazi groups within Bulgarian football who have emerged as the ugly, public face of what the Roma community maintains is visceral intolerance and racism in a country underpinned by elected extreme rightwing politicians.
While racist abuse of players inside stadiums attracts attention outside Bulgaria, within the country it is the Roma who are the principal targets of thugs in black and men in suits. The Roma community makes up just under 5% of the country’s population of almost 7 million and is its biggest minority group.
The government of prime minister Boyko Borissov is propped up by a grouping of three small rightwing populist parties known collectively as the “United Patriots”. They are made up of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), the Bulgarian National Movement and the Attack party.
Krasimir Karakachanov, head of the Bulgarian National Movement, holds three portfolios – deputy prime minister, minister for defence and minister for public order and security. His “Roma integration strategy,” or “concept for the integration of the unsocialised Gypsy (Roma) ethnicity” to give it its formal name, is due to be presented to the Bulgarian parliament and could soon become law.
It defines Roma as “asocial Gypsies,” a term used by the Nazis, and calls for limits on the number of children some Roma women can have; the introduction of compulsory “labour education schools” for Roma children and forced work programmes for sections of the community. It also depicts the Roma as “non-native Europeans” left over from the Ottoman empire.
His party’s manifesto also calls for the creation of “reservations” for Roma based on the model used for Native Americans or Indigenous Australians, claiming that they could become “tourist attractions”.
Earlier this year, following violence between Bulgarian Roma and non-Roma, Karakachanov declared: “The truth is that we need to undertake a complete programme for a solution to the Gypsy problem.”
His predecessor as deputy prime minister Valeri Simeonov described the Roma as “arrogant, presumptuous and ferocious humanoids”. He was also chair of Bulgaria’s National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues at the time.
Following elections in 2017, which saw the trio of far-right parties emerge as key players in Bulgaria’s government, campaigners claim that hate crimes and rhetoric against the Roma have intensified.
Incidents include anti-Roma riots; demolition of Roma homes deemed “illegal”; police raids and deaths in custody; and members of the community in rural areas killed while out collecting firewood.
Zvezdomir Andronov, leader of the Bulgarian National Union, an ultra-right party which is not represented in parliament, was recently a guest on one of the country’s most popular political talk shows, where he said: “Gypsies, Turks, Armenians and Jews are guests in Bulgaria and if they are good guests, they can live peacefully here.”
Jonathan Lee, spokesman for the European Roma Rights Centre, said: “Unfortunately, racist chanting and offensive gestures from the terraces is not even close to as bad as it gets in Bulgaria. Last Monday night, Europe was confronted with what for most Roma in the country is the everyday. Rising anti-Gypsyism, decline of the rule of law, and increasingly fascist political rhetoric is nothing new – it just rarely gets such a public stage.”
Lee added: “This is an EU member state where violent race mobs are the norm, police violence is sudden and unpredictable, punitive demolitions of people’s homes are the appropriate government response, random murders of Romany citizens only a fleeting headline, and the rights and dignity of Romany citizens are routinely denied on a daily basis.”
The events of Monday night have also exposed the deep fault lines within Bulgarian society, with some of its white citizens viewing things very differently from their Roma counterparts. One local journalist shouted “exaggerated, exaggerated,” as the chairman of England’s Football Association revealed details of the racist abuse during a post-match press conference.
Another blamed England manager Gareth Southgate for initially raising fears about racism, which he insisted, incited some Bulgarians to respond.
Sitting in a cafe in Sofia, football fan Robert Cvetanov added: “You cannot say the whole of Bulgaria is racist just because of what a small group of people did in the stadium. There is good and bad in every country.” When asked about the situation of the Roma he replied: “That’s not a race problem, it’s a law and order one.”
The repercussions of Bulgaria’s encounter with England continue to be felt. Police have so far identified 16 suspects and made 12 arrests for their part in the racial abuse that took place. Uefa, European football’s governing body, has initiated an inquiry and charged Bulgaria with racist behaviour by its fans.
But for the Roma community there is a far bigger game at play that requires more than just the attention of footballing and legal authorities if they are to take their rightful place within Bulgarian society. “The eyes of the world have been opened,” said Stefanov. “It’s just that most of Bulgaria does not see it and until that happens, nothing will change for the Roma.”