Racism at the heart of Bulgarian football is becoming a litmus test for the rule of law ǀ View
The racist abuse at the Bulgaria v England Euro 2020 qualifier this October shocked global civil society and caused a wave of critical commentaries and editorials. Even Bulgarian football starand asked for harsh punishments to put an end to racism at the stadium. British PM to impose severe sanctions while Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov publicly condemned xenophobia.
Bulgarian authorities claim to have arrested at least 12 people in relation to the incident. On 29 October 2019, theagainst the Bulgarian Football Union, which include playing two matches behind closed doors, displaying a banner with the wording ‘NO TO RACISM’ at these games, and a fine.
However,in combatting prejudices because, as Ged Grebby, founder of anti-racism charity Show Racism the Red Card, says, “all the sanctions in the world and all the bans in the world won’t change attitudes.” While the latter is true, isn’t there a bigger issue which remains invisible outside of Bulgaria’s borders? Those familiar with the Bulgarian context can affirm that Bulgarian hooliganism has idiosyncrasies, which highlight the deplorable state of the country’s rule of law.
In light of the racist abuse at the Bulgaria vEngland match,, senior analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) who has studied football hooliganism, argues that Bulgarian hooligans “do nothing for free.” He also says their racist views are “fragmentary” and their main motivation to act a certain way is traditionally “commercial.” Indeed, shows that in Bulgaria, football clubs and their fans are exploited for political influence and that fan clubs serve as “nuclei of groups for street pressure.”
Bulgarian civil society is aware that hooligans, and even sports teams, are often employed to cause public chaos or to hijack protests of the opposition. For instance, at a protest in September 2019 against Ivan Geshev, the only candidate nominated as Bulgaria’s General Prosecutor in murky circumstances, heavily tattooed, muscular men dressed in black were specially driven in buses to the event inby cursing at them and by threatening them with disembowelment. Later, that many of these men were players of a famous Bulgarian rugby team, which benefits from the support of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party.
A quick look atshows that the US Embassy in Bulgaria has been concerned about the links between leading Bulgarian football teams and organised crime for a long time. Historically, Bulgarian football clubs have been owned by members of Bulgaria’s underworld. Today, it is known that ownership of the leading clubs should be given the blessing of the government, precisely because of the opportunities to use the fan clubs for political ends. Moreover, , the symbiosis between organised criminals and some fan groups benefits from beneath the umbrella of the authorities due to the political involvement of these groups.
Eyes wide shut
Todor Batkov, former owner of one of the leading Bulgarian football teams Levski,at the Bulgaria v England match because they had caused problems during Europa League games in the past. If that is the case, multiple questions arise vis-à-vis the role of Bulgaria’s police. Do certain hooligans benefit from police protection? If these people are well-known to owners of football teams, they must be known to the authorities, too? Why were they allowed to attend the game? Why weren’t they arrested immediately after the racist incident?
The same police inertia has been observed in other instances in which there were provocations by either hooligans or sports teams. At the protest against Ivan Geshev referred to earlier, the police did not take measures to prevent confrontation and to ensure the safety of those who protested peacefully. A more curious phenomenon was reported by civil activists who organised a subsequent protest against Geshev on the day of his election this year on 24 October. When they headed towards the building of the Supreme Judicial Council where their protest was supposed to take place, they were surprised to find, which only allowed supporters of Geshev close to the building.
It turned out that PIK, a Bulgarian tabloid known for tarnishing campaigns against government opponents, organised a counter-protest in support of Geshev. Some attendees of the counter-protest were dressed in a similar way to the hooligans at the Bulgaria v England game –, most of them to the mainstream media about what they were protesting for. There are currently allegations that some of these people were students at sports schools who got paid to support Geshev that day.
When xenophobia is convenient and the government plays innocent
Bulgaria is currently governed by a coalition between Borissov’s GERB and. As a result, the government has become tolerant to xenophobia; racist crimes are left unpunished and racist talk is common among politicians and public officials. At the same time, those following the decline of Bulgaria’s rule of law are aware that the country is an autocracy, albeit with a democratic veneer, because of its EU membership and the warm ties between Borissov and the leadership of the European People’s Party.
that the racist abuse at the Bulgaria v England game may have been planned in advance to discredit the current leadership of the Bulgarian Football Union and to impose a new one. It is noteworthy that Borissov put pressure on the president of this union to resign. However, Article 9 of the requires that national football associations be independent and free from influence of third parties. The same requirement is found in Article 7 of the . Borissov’s public stance, which seems to violate these obligations, and the fact that the offices of the union were raided by the Bulgarian Directorate Combating Organised Crime on the day following the Bulgaria v England game, raise more questions instead of comforting critics that Bulgaria is finally confronting racism and hooliganism.
Whatever the truth about the racist incident, it is certain that Bulgarian football hooliganism is just the visible part of a more complex issue: corruption and xenophobia have embraced each other. Bulgarian football will pay a high price because its reputation has been shattered while the government is playing innocent regarding longstanding problems to which it has contributed and which it does not intend to resolve at depth. This awful episode of racism at the stadium taught us that football, apart from being a fascinating sport, can also be a litmus test for the rule of law.
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