As with most nightmares, in the beginning it all looked like a bad joke. No sane person could have suspected that what was about to unfold was possible. But in the first days of 2018 a conservative hysteria swept a nation which, ironically, has always prided itself on being open-minded and tolerant.
Even though it was already popular with some marginal sections of Bulgarian society, the whole thing blew up into the mainstream like an H-bomb when, while people were still nursing hangovers from Christmas and preparing themselves for New Year’s Eve, Krasimir Karakachanov – Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister and head of the third nationalistic party in the “United Patriots” coalition, which serves as a junior partner in the government – sounded the alarm that a “third sex” was being introduced in Bulgarian legislation by stealth. What he meant by that was that the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was being introduced on the Bulgarian parliament’s agenda for ratification. What ensued is deeply troubling and reveals to what extent conservative propaganda and conspiracy theories have taken root in the minds of the Bulgarian general public. The increasing success of conservative propaganda, of course, is a phenomenon which has baffled progressive people all over the world in the last few years, but the public debate in Bulgaria over the last two months has set the bar pretty high. Or low, depending on your perspective.
It is important to note that the Bulgarian language does not discriminate between “sex” and “gender” – there is one word for both. This can explain some of the confusion, but nowhere near all of it. The Convention speaks of “gender-based education” as a way to combat social stereotypes and, ultimately, prevent gender-based violence. Having no word to adequately describe gender, translators of the Convention coined the term “social sex”. Obviously lacking knowledge in social sciences, conservative circles perceived this as a way to legalize same-sex marriages and provide rights for the LGBT+ community equal to those of “normal” people. Of course even the mention of such nasty things was met with outrage by conservative politicians such as Mr Karakachanov. Soon the rest of his ilk followed suit. Also, there was much outrage that children would be taught at school that other people exist in this world besides heterosexuals – a clear sign of evil forces trying to corrupt Bulgarian kids. The main argument was that there is no “social sex” – there is only the biological one. Every person is born either a man or a woman and there could be no “third sex” – under which all those who are “not normal” would fall. Everything was fine in Bulgaria and it was all a sinister ploy to destroy the Bulgarian family and people, pushed by George Soros and his NGOs. Perhaps even the reptilian overlords were involved. One particularly wild conspiracy theory even went so far as to claim that the Istanbul Convention was somehow a punishment from American liberals for the rest of the world as revenge for the fact that Donald Trump won the election instead of Hillary Clinton.
By the time 2018 started, the Istanbul Convention was the number one topic of every newscast, every TV or radio talk show and the headline of every paper in the country. It was literally the most important issue in the world for the overwhelming majority of the nation. The ruling centre-right party, GERB, tried half-heartedly to calm down the flaming tensions, providing some explanations, but even it was split in its opinion on the matter. The Church also chipped in, detesting all those “unnatural” people and the possibility of them being treated as human beings. That would mean “moral decay”. Some rather prominent journalists declared the Convention to be the work of Satan – literally. The witch-hunt was in full swing. But this was to be expected, kind of. The first major shock, however, was delivered by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which condemned the Convention and the government and started bashing its proponents on a daily basis. As it was revealed, just a few months earlier it had supported the Convention, but now that the whole nation was under such a grave threat, it swiftly changed its mind. Women, children and the whole issue of domestic violence were quickly thrown under the bus in a quest to profit off the current public mood and boost ratings. Almost every other party in Bulgaria opposed the ratification, too. Even the President took aim at the Convention and urged Parliament not to ratify it. But that was not the end of it – the head of one of the two major unions in the country also felt the need to lambast the document at a press conference (which was supposed to be about the energy sector, nevertheless), even declaring that the “white heterosexual male” was under attack, repeating almost word for word the lunatic rants of people like Alex Jones and others of his sort. Quite a strange performance from someone who should have social protection as their first priority and who, on paper, is supposed to know better than a deranged redneck conspiracy theorist from Texas like Jones.
Meanwhile – more than a month had passed since it all began – everyday bashing of social sex (gender), LGBT+ rights, George Soros and/or everything else in this regard from media, politicians, experts, academics and ordinary people had become the new normal for Bulgarian society. And after the mass hysteria reached such unimaginable levels, the prime minister declared that the government was withdrawing the Convention from Parliament because – lo and behold! – he wasn’t willing to be the one to take the blame for its ratification. By this time anyone with the audacity to bring women and children into the conversation was a Soros agent, to say the least. Subsequently it was sent to the Constitutional Court, so that judges could have their say on whether adopting a document on domestic violence would be at odds with the Constitution, and the raging cooled off somewhat. And then on March 7, the day before International Women’s Day, the government announced it was pulling the Convention from Parliament. Just the perfect present for the occasion.
However, there are plenty of conclusions and observations that follow from this turn of events. Perhaps most striking is the massive level of institutional hypocrisy in the country, which has been laid bare by this debate. Even though Bulgaria does indeed have a problem with domestic violence, all those who are responsible for dealing with it chose to divert the public’s attention to non-existing threats (if you have guessed there is no mention of a “third sex” in the Convention, then you are correct). Cases where women are actually killed by their male partners or by rejected men are not that rare – there have been several cases in 2018 already. The last one was also on March 7 – the day the Convention was ditched. And these are only the cases that make it to the media. Beatings and other “milder” forms of violence are rarely reported. It is also common that the victims themselves do not speak out – many of them do not believe they will get help, even from relatives and friends, let alone the police or other state institutions. Many of them are simply dismissed and are told to “sort it out” by themselves with the abuser – on all levels of society. And so the vicious circle of domestic violence continues.
What is even more troubling in this instance is that many women chose to ignore the problem too, fearing that their children would somehow be corrupted if they found out in school that gays, lesbians and transsexuals exist in this world (which, again, is not what the Convention is about). From a broader perspective, the whole debacle with the Istanbul Convention has revealed a deeply insecure society, which fiercely rejects any possibility of dealing with its shortcomings or even acknowledging that such shortcomings exist. The fact that a single word – “gender” – has caused such mass hysteria and outcry makes the whole nation look like a bunch of fragile teens – cocky and appearing confident, but nevertheless clinging to the stereotypes in which they find some sort of stable identity.
Meanwhile the government has de facto privatized nearly half of the Pirin Mountains (a Natura 2000 protected national park), has signed laws and agreements with other countries that allow for the import of cheap labour (one should take into account that Bulgaria already has the lowest wages in the EU, even without mass economic immigration, and public dissatisfaction with politicians and employers has been growing steadily up until this point) and has also produced a mega scandal involving the sale of an electric company which serves one third of the population and is most likely – according to popular opinion – being bought by dummies, who act as a fig leaf for the prime minister himself. Yet – as opposed to the very real threat of “gender-based education” – there is little to no resistance to any of these obviously socially detrimental events from the general public. Some opposition parties have already tried to extract political capital from the utility scandal and have organized protests, but have been not so active on the other issues mentioned above.
What is more, the recent sudden outburst of patriotism and defence of “traditional values” has normalized the growing neofascist movement and its annual torch processions, which are more and more seen in a positive light as “patriotic” and necessary for the preservation of the “traditional values” (aka patriarchy, religious dogmas etc.) from the moral decay of the liberal world. Lastly, one consequence which will probably hinder any reasonable debate for years to come is that “gender” is now being used as a derogatory term for anyone not adhering to the said traditional values. So if you don’t beat your wife, you’re a gender. And in general, whenever someone dares to stray from the flock, they immediately becomes a “gender” now. It is hard to estimate the negative consequences of this yet, but surely there is not much cause for optimism.
Where is the left in all of this, you might ask. It remains completely marginal – at least in the public discourse. Even though this (and the simultaneous rise of the far right) is a well-known phenomenon across many countries, there are local specifics. Bulgaria has very close ties with Russia, despite all efforts to sever them over the last two decades. Russia liberated the country from the Ottoman Empire exactly 140 years ago and still has a big influence in Bulgaria. And as much as the Russiagate story in the US can be dismissed as laughable, the same cannot be said here. Russia does have a detrimental impact – willingly or not – on the left in Bulgaria with its propaganda of “traditional” values as opposed to “Eurogayean” (liberal, that is) ones, its support for Orthodox Christianity and overall conservative discourse. Many people watch Russian TV and follow the news on Russian websites because of the cultural ties between the two countries. So, one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that Russia is indeed meddling in Bulgaria – just by being Russia. But Russia isn’t the only foreign influence to blame. Donald Trump and the alt-right movement in the US have also brought about an explosion of American far right propaganda in Europe, Bulgaria included. This creates a dangerous ideological mixture which, coming from both sides, is rapidly becoming the dominant narrative in society. So dominant, in fact, that it has moved the biggest and oldest party of the left – the BSP – so much to the right that it now sounds more like a fascist organization. Albeit not very left to begin with – more like Blair’s New Labour economically and Putin’s Russia socially – it has now moved into a completely schizophrenic position; ashamed to break with their roots, “socialists” are still being outraged by the far right, while sounding exactly like it.
Thus the issue of “gender” has opened up new dividing lines and formed coalitions which were thought to be impossible not so long ago. Much of the left agrees with the traditional conservative right and the Church. But also some conservatives have backed the Convention precisely because of Russia, ditching their own narratives just to be on the right side of geopolitics. Liberal lefties are amazed to find themselves in the same boat with liberal right-wingers. Some American-funded religious organizations which started pushing the issue even before the patriotic right did, are now on the same side of the barricade with them. This is despite the fact that the patriotic right has always shown passionate hatred towards everything American and especially some Christian denominations (pseudo-Christian, if you ask them), which were perceived as an operation to subvert Orthodox Christianity, since it provides identity and connects Bulgarians to Russia. It’s a big, big mess which exemplifies the moral relativism and hypocrisy of many of the actors in our society.
The “gender” story has been put aside for now. And even though it will come back at some point, there is another issue which will rule the mind of the masses for some time – gun control and self-defence. After a well-respected middle-class doctor shot a Roma criminal who was trying to rob him and his family, another surge in well-directed anger quickly took off. The case itself was not very clear. Only one thing was certain: the lethal weapon was illegal. The family claimed that the robbers broke into their home, but the body of one of them was found on the street and there is also talk of CCTV footage (which has not been released) of him trying to remove a headlight from the family’s car – yes, these things happen in Bulgaria, such is the level of poverty in some areas and social strata. The latter sounded more consistent with the fact that the body was found outside the house. But the public verdict is already out: the doctor is not only innocent – he’s a hero. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest in his defence. And, unsurprisingly, there is already a bill in Parliament that will relax rules for gun ownership. Just as American experience has shown, that will surely fix the problem. The fact that it was later revealed that there was a robbery but it happened outside the house, that the criminal was alone and didn’t attack anybody, that the doctor actually shot the thief in cold blood multiple times, tried to hide the weapon and remove any clues that would incriminate him, and then lied to the police still wasn’t enough to cool off the protests. As for the bill – well, the doctors in one of the big cities in the country, while “not taking any sides”, also protested and insisted that lawmakers provide better options for citizens to defend themselves. Seeking to distract attention from itself, the government has set up a working group that will consider how to amend the Penal code on the issue of self-defence. So we’ll see.
It is not hard to explain where all this insecurity, confusion and outrage come from. To begin with, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. On top of that, in line with the rest of the world it suffers from ever-increasing levels of inequality, which means that the great majority of people hardly have the means to even survive and are being reduced to unwilling hostages in an everyday dogfight for the scraps from the tables of the rich. As we already know from pre-WWII times, it is only natural that sooner or later people in this condition will start seeing real or perceived foes around every corner. It is only natural that those on top will start exploiting people’s insecurity for their own goals. А quote from Branko Milanovic’s book, “Global Inequality”, seems particularly illuminating when applied to the current events in Bulgaria. “The creation of false consciousness”, Milanovic writes, “takes place through ideological matraquage [a French term that means a mental bludgeoning as if by a nightstick], where newspaper readers, TV viewers, and Internet surfers are bombarded with issues running from abortion and gun control to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism – that distract popular attention from basic economic and social problems like unemployment, the incarceration rate, war profits, and billion-dollar tax loopholes for the rich. In other words, the culture war has a function, and that function is to mask the real shift of economic power toward the rich”. Playing with people’s atavistic fears has always been a very useful tool for the elites. But it also acts as a time machine – creating an atmosphere which was supposed to have been long forgotten and erasing any progress humanity has achieved in the last few centuries. And this is what has been happening in Bulgaria for quite some time and indeed is still happening now.
Welcome to 21st century Bulgaria!