Bulgaria's President: 'Don't Play on Fear. Stop Attacking Us'
The Guardian/The Observer
Daniel Boffey in Sofia
Rosen Plevneliev says David Cameron needs to be part of an honest discussion on EU migration
For months, a dark blue armour-plated police van has been parked outside Sofia's only mosque, the 16th-century Banya Bashi, in the city centre, a stone's throw from the synagogue and Catholic and eastern orthodox cathedrals.
The four officers standing outside it, nursing polystyrene cups of hot coffee in the freezing Balkan winter, are at the frontline of what is a growing crisis: a clash between the country's natives and an influx of people forced from their homes by war or poverty.
Over the last two years, around 11,000 people from Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Mali and Morocco, among others, have come to Bulgaria, many through a porous border with Turkey. It is the first wave of immigration in Bulgaria's modern history, and has come at a time of immense hardship. The country's unemployment rate doubled from about 5% of the labour force in 2008 to more than 11% this year. In the same five-year period the country's GDP contracted by 5.5%.
The result has been a bitter rightwing backlash, with one of the main parties, Ataka, which means attack, enjoying a resurgence in its membership through championing "Bulgaria for Bulgarians". An even more hardline splinter group, making allegations of rape, assault and thievery by immigrants, has been organising a civilian militia to harass and intimidate people around the centre of the city and the mosque, in particular, where refugees mill around for want of anything else to do.
The organiser of the militia, or what he describes as "civilian patrols", Boyan Rasate, told the Observer: "In the next year there will be 50,000 to 200,000 refugees in this country. We are organising for the sake of women and children because the refugees are abusing their rights."
One immigrant, who arrived two months ago from Israel, Mohammad Kamal, 22, said it all: "I had a woman scream at me to 'go home'. I'm going to next week. Israel isn't that bad after all."
There are no militia forces roaming the streets of Sheffield or Birmingham, but sitting on a sofa in his presidential offices, a short walk from the Banya Bashi mosque, Rosen Plevneliev sees clear parallels with Britain – indeed in states across Europe – and he is deeply worried. Plevneliev, who is not a member of a political party but whose election two years ago was supported by the centre-right, said: "There is something in common here – this wrong debate, which to me is playing with people's fears or addressing people's fears and not having an honest debate."
He is appalled by what is happening in his country, where parliament recently voted to ban foreign nationals from buying agricultural land. And he is disturbed by all he has read and heard from Britain about what could happen when the barriers on Romanian and Bulgarian people coming to live and work in the UK are lifted on 1 January. The east Europeans will deliver a crime wave, it has been reported; they will scrounge off the benefits system and create untold trouble for Britain's creaking welfare state, be it hospitals, schools, or indeed prisons.
Last week leaked documents revealed that home secretary Theresa May wanted to cap the number of EU immigrants to the UK and even stop people from countries with a GDP lower than 75% of Britain's from coming here to work at all. The benefits system has been tightened so that those without work who come from abroad are blocked from claiming until three months after their arrival and they can only claim if they prove that they can speak English.
The timing, Plevneliev says, gives the clear, but inaccurate, impression that people from Romania and Bulgaria will, first, flock in huge numbers and, second, be coming for welfare handouts. It is, he says, a cynical attempt to answer fears and anxieties whipped up by Nigel Farage's Ukip and others. He points out that Finland and Sweden, with their much more generous welfare systems, lifted barriers to Bulgarians and Romanians two years ago.
"You know what happened? Nothing," he says. "You see, of course, Great Britain will make its planning and will take its decisions. But some of them could be right, some of them could be wrong. Some of them are bold and some of them are, I would say, not long-term orientated decisions.
"You want to make a plan for a better future for your citizens in Great Britain. In the past 20 years immigrants in Great Britain contributed heavily to its prosperity, and that is a fact. The only thing that is important is not to listen to populist politicians who play on people's fears but to listen to the wise men in Great Britain.
"Listen to the institutions who are giving the facts. University College London has very clear data showing that in the past 20 years immigrants contributed 34% more than they took out. You guys are making profit out of this. So that is really great. Keep it like that."
Instead, he says that David Cameron is six months ahead of the European elections, battling for votes with Ukip on their terms, damaging Britain's internationalist reputation and in danger of writing himself into the history books as an isolationist. The debate, he says, is toxic and familiar to others in the mainstream of European politics but for all its familiarity it is no less concerning.
And he now harbours worries for the safety for Bulgarians already in the UK: "What I have read in the British tabloids was beyond any imagination. There are no facts, no reason to do it, but to play with people's fears. I don't understand such politics, or conduct such politics.
"We have our Bulgarian tabloids, and it is not so different if you look at the way they point at Syrian refugees. Unfortunately it is not objective and it is not solving anything.
"Bulgarians are raising a lot of questions about the democratic, tolerant and humane British society. Is it possible that you can attack in such an intolerant way a nation that did nothing? Let us remember that 77% of Bulgarian people living in Great Britain have a job, 72% of British people do, and 65% of non-EU immigrants. This has to tell us something."
None of this is to say that Bulgarians will not come to the UK – and in their thousands, most agree. Bulgaria is deeply troubled. Endemic corruption among the political parties, media and industry was exquisitely exemplified six months ago when the socialist government appointed the 32-year-old son of a media magnate, who owns much of the newspaper and television market in Bulgaria, as its head of national security.
The decision sparked protests on the streets involving up to 100,000 people, many of whom were students. Tents still stand outside parliament where, every morning and evening, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protesters vent their anger in the direction of the new barricades that have been erected between them and their politicians.
Sofia University has also been occupied by students who now live in its large domed auditorium, known as the Aula Magna. And many students here want to leave their country, see the world and see if they can build a better life elsewhere. But there is also a reluctance on the part of many to give up on Bulgaria.
Adelina Dyulgerova, 20, a linguistics student from Varna on the Black Sea, who has slept in the university for a month, said: "I will have to see how Bulgaria is, but I'm involved in this protest because I don't want to leave. I want to build my future here. I think the most disappointing thing was when the head of the university of national economics came to speak to us and said: 'If you don't like it, there's the airport'."
Rounen Stoev, 23, a law student who has been organising the occupation, said: "We were all talking about this last night before we went to sleep. And we don't want to go. We want to change things here, though I worry that if things don't then we will have to leave."
Plevneliev believes that the numbers coming to the UK will be no higher than 10,000 a year, around the same as those who came on work permits last year. Those who do emigrate, he says, will be the "young, bright minds" his country needs. It is a message he delivered personally to Cameron three weeks ago.
"I asked, 'prime minister, what about all these actions, and language and plans of the British government? About the tabloids it is clear to me because we have Bulgarian tabloids, but what about the government?' "
"He said, 'president, just yesterday I had an article in the Financial Timesand said everything in written form, in an honest way so that the British people and everyone could read it. Have you read that?' I said, of course, I read your article.
"He said, 'Well then you understand that we are not discriminating against Romanians or Bulgarians.'
"He assured me that whatever he will do it will be synchronised with EU regulations, and legislation and will be for all member states. This is what he said. I said, 'Thank you so much for sharing your plans with me, David, but of course politicians are judged by what they do, not by what they say.' "
The wider world will be watching too.
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