Bulgaria: Legal action against landlord who “won’t allow Roma as tenants or customers”

By Bernard Rorke

Equal Opportunities Initiative and the ERRC are taking legal action against a landlord for discrimination against two Romani women. The women from Samokov, which is about 50 km from the capital Sofia, had planned to rent premises to run a restaurant in the town. They signed a contract with the prospective landlord, paid two months deposit up-front, and began preparations to open their new restaurant. 

The women were shocked when the landlord suddenly cancelled the contract without any justifiable reason. They never concealed their ethnic identity, and were taken aback when the reason given by the property owner, Nikolay Penev, was that he “won't allow Roma either as tenants or as customers”. As one of the women put it: “In 21st century Bulgaria, many Roma are highly educated, with university degrees even. It is not acceptable to be made to feel like guests in our own country.”

In addition to seeking damages for breach of contract, the legal action will challenge this as an act of ethnic-based discrimination. As Daniela Mihailova, Co-Chair of Equal Opportunities Initiative stated:

The case in Samokov is illustrative for the situation of human rights violation in Bulgaria, and more specifically with Roma communities. We are witnesses of direct and outspoken discrimination, which vividly tells us that Roma are regarded as incapable to comply with societal norms and do not belong into it. For that reason, we are looking forward to taking this case to court, hoping that justice is being provided.”

This discriminatory action, and the landlord’s reasoning, are indicative of a wider climate where Roma routinely face discrimination in accessing public services; where racially disparaging comments and hate speech against Roma are all too commonplace; and where exclusion from the public and commercial spheres of life is so prevalent that, according to a recent report from the Roma Policy Lab, “Roma often accept discrimination as part of their lives; they are reluctant to report it out of fear of retaliation or because they lack faith in the effectiveness of the justice system.” 

The state of hate in Bulgaria

Against a backdrop of endemic anti-Roma discrimination in everyday life, the 2022 report on Hate Speech and Euroscepticism in Bulgaria by the Multi Kulti Collective, found that hate speech has been ‘a permanent fixture’ in Bulgarian society over the last decade, and that Roma (at 81%) are most likely to be the victims.  

A national representative study, conducted by the sociological agency Alpha Research in 2019–2020, confirmed that among the religious and ethnic minorities in Bulgaria, Roma are the most ‘hated’ ones with 21.6% of respondents reporting that they actively ‘hate them’ compared to 3.4% hate for Muslims, and 4.9% hate for Turks. 

While online hate speech has surged over the past decade, the kind of hate speech found in shops, café, restaurants, public transport and the workplace has shown no signs of abating, but rather increased slightly. Non-acceptance of Roma was found to be very high among business owners (36%), and more surprisingly, among the intelligentsia (25%). The highest levels of acceptance were found (12% to Roma, compared to the average 4%) but also high radicalisation and non-acceptance, revealing a polarisation in the Bulgarian intelligentsia.

The most common propagators of hate speech in Bulgaria identified in the literature and expert interviews are politicians, journalists, social media users, as well as colleagues and relatives. According to an NGO expert, many teachers also spread hate speech on social networks.  

2017 marked a significant increase in hate speech used on the highest political level, with the neo-fascist United Patriots becoming coalition partners in government. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee: “for the first time since the beginning of the democratic transition, openly anti-democratic formations entered the government, using anti-Roma, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric.” The study also reported that the failure of law enforcement authorities to respond to incidents of hate crime and hate speech has led to a growing number of people perceiving hate speech as acceptable and normal behaviour. 

‘Rampant intolerance’

In 2020, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović called for a complete “political and cultural shift in the way minority groups are treated and portrayed in Bulgaria.” She called for vigorous reaction to incidents of hate speech, and deplored the role played by high-level politicians in fueling antagonism, and “the rampant intolerance manifested towards minority groups in Bulgaria.” She further condemned the climate of hostility and acts of violence against Roma, “in particular against those who had to leave their homes following rallies targeting their communities in several localities.” 

This work was funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.