Bulgaria Monthly Digest: Fresh Report Show Decrease in Freedom of Speech and Pope Francis Visits Bulgaria3 min read

 In Eastern Europe, News, Politics

– According to a report released on April 30th by the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute, 22% of the country’s population live under the poverty threshold. Roughly 70% of Roma in Bulgaria are at risk of poverty in comparison with around 16% for self-declared ethnic Bulgarians. More than a quarter of children under 17 years are also at risk of poverty. A Eurostat survey published May 5th further shows that around 21% of the Bulgarians are severely materially deprived. That is the highest rate in the EU, followed by Romania (16.8%) and Greece (16.7%).

– From May 5th to 7th, Pope Francis visited Bulgaria. Along with some ecclesial events related to his stay, the Pope met with the Prime Minister and the President and visited a refugee camp on the outskirts of Sofia. Among the key points in the pontiff’s speeches were the “demographic winter” taking place in Bulgaria caused by high levels of emigration. According to the United Nations, Bulgaria’s population of 7 million is estimated to shrink to 5.4 million by 2050 and 3.9 by the end of the century. The Pope also urged officials “not to close your eyes, your hearts or your hands” to migrants, predominantly arriving from the Middle East and North Africa. Very few refugees want to stay in Bulgaria though, using it as a transit destination before moving on to other countries.  

– Freedom of speech in Bulgaria decreased in 2019, according to the new IREX Media Sustainability Index report published at the beginning of May. The report states that “the country suffers from a general weakness of the rule of law” and that the authorities do not always apply constitutional norms and legislative protections with regards to media. In addition, “improper influence” on journalists from politicians, as well as “conflict of interests” in media ownership are identified as key perils for the freedom of speech in this country.

– Medical workers from the Specialized Children’s Hospital in Sofia held their third protest in less than a month on May 10th against the backdrop of a recent wave of workers’ protests in the public healthcare sector. Low pay, commercialized management of hospitals, and low quotas of the number of people that hospitals get funded to treat are among the key reasons why the medical workers are demanding reforms.

– At the launch event for a new factory near Kardzhali, Southeast Bulgaria, Ankara’s ambassador to Bulgaria declared in a speech that Turkish companies would be encouraged to invest more if there were a greater number of people who “along with Bulgarian, speak and write properly in Turkish”.

These words sparked harsh reactions from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, and leaders of political parties. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zakharieva officially requested an explanation from the ambassador. A message on the website of the Ministry explains that “[t]he words of the ambassador sound disturbing, because the Bulgarian government has never obstructed the free education of foreign languages. Turkish can be studied in school along with English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Romanian, Russian, and Hebrew.”     

– On May 11th, hundreds of  people gathered in Sofia and elsewhere in Bulgaria to protest the National Strategy for the Child. The draft document of the Strategy had in fact already been withdrawn a month ago from the Ministry of Social Affairs at the request of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov following a social media backlash. The protestors were mainly concerned about “widened” possibility for “removing children from their families”, and the “anti-Bulgarian policies” of NGOs with regards to “the child and the family”.

Although the phrasing of the Strategy had been generic and vague, it  did not in fact propose that children be taken away from their families. Rather, it advocated for the criminalization of domestic violence against children. According to a survey taken by members of the Bulgarian Union of Teachers 70% of  children in Bulgaria have suffered forms of violence in their families.

Main Sources: Dnevnik(BG), DW(EN)

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