Bulgaria’s Creeping Apartheid, Part II: Liberal Dehumanization

The following is the second of three articles by Jana Tsoneva and Stanimir Panayotov on the Bulgarian state’s increasingly harsh rhetoric and policy proposals vis-a-vis the country’s Roma minority. Part I showed that while the discourse is focused on the Roma, the measures proposed will cut social provisions for all poor Bulgarians. Part II’s main argument is that while Roma have long been the main target of Bulgaria’s nationalists, a narrow liberal conception of humanity may ultimately prove a more powerful force for their dehumanization. While locating this new racial regime in the peculiarities of Boyko Borisov’s new coalition government, Part III traces its genealogy in Bulgaria’s post-1989 party system. – LeftEast editors


This text was originally published in Bulgarian on the website of New Left Perspectives, Sofia, 23 Dec 2014. http://novilevi.org/publications/221-liberal-dehumanization. The author extends his gratitude to the translator’s editorial suggestions.


Shortly after the newly appointed center-right government composed of Boiko Borisov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), the bastion of political and economic liberalism—the Reformists’ Block, and the nationalist Patriotic Front came into existence, Bulgarian political life erupted with the following two anti-Roma statements. The first one was made by Petar Moskov, the Minister of Health, who fulfilled the Reformist Block’s ministerial quota, seeking to brandish his iron-clad and reformist fist. Ten days passed after his statement and the Reformist Block’s unapologetic defense of it, a long period of hope that the state is not a racist, before the Patriotic Front leader Valeri Simeonov anointed the new racial rhetoric of the government:

If someone has chosen to live and behave like an animal, he should be treated accordingly. Even wild animals understand when you want to help and don’t attack you. … From tomorrow [8.12.2014] medical emergency teams will only enter neighborhoods that have experienced such accidents [attacks on ambulances], with the protection of the police or if local “opinion leaders” personally guarantee the conduct of the population in question. By my own order regional medical centers won’t be responsible for such decisions [to send ambulances]. These are decisions for which responsibility shall lie with me.

Dr. Peter Moskov 7.12.2014

…arrogant and animal-like humanoids, demanding salaries without working, disability pensions without being disabled, children’s allowances for kids who play with pigs on the street, maternal allowances for women with the instincts of street bitches.

Valery Simeonov 17.12.2014


It is futile to get outraged at Valery Simeonov’s words, we cannot judge the Parliamentary Speaker Tsetska Tsacheva, who did not interrupt them, and it’s best not to condemn Health Minister Peter Moskov for the discrimination. Firstly, because to do so would make it impossible to speak about the act of dehumanization they perform—something far more radical than the everyday racism, which affects groups such as the Roma and refugees. Secondly, because the reformist desire to initiate ethnic hatred and thus imitate radical legal reforms, which is on the verge of the legal, is not really reformist and new—moreover, it’s not even new for liberals.

To celebrate conflicts in a society is not simply Maoism. Conflict and contradiction are a defining feature of our anthropo-centric world. Violence is an extreme form of the inability to disagree rhetorically. Still, violence is political to the extent that politics itself is violent. In this sense, the visibility of the conflict is in itself productive: there can be no radicalization without the bare life of the contradiction. The liberal Moskov and the pro-market nationalist Simeonov laid bare for all of us to see the connection between violence and politics within the regime of liberal democracy.

The Bulgarian journalist Tatiana Vaksberg has already written about “the impossible words” of dehumanization and so has Leah Cohen, journalists and opinion-makers representative of the moderate liberal voices in Bulgarian public life. What their reactions to the newly-anointed liberal-racist regime in Bulgaria boils down to is the indignation of civil society by reformists and anti-communists who were supposed to bring, by default, the hope of an abstract and universal equality. Both Vaksberg and Cohen give vent to their moral indignation, asymmetric to the alleged democratic universalism of the Reformist Block. And both are right to talk about a process of dehumanization, but not about “impossibility.” In this sense their indignation and their very reproach towards the Reformist Block is symptomatic of liberal intelligentsia’s naïvite. But seen from the people’s perspective, such naïvite looks like cruelty. To say the “impossible” or “unimaginable” means to open the door to something “new” and then pretend to be surprised, if not outraged, at this “newness.” Unlike Vaksberg and Cohen, I think that laying bare these “impossible words” are, on the one hand, not new, and on the other, they are productive for the whole society, especially for the Roma. Productive not in the sense that they normalize and legitimate racism, but because they mobilize radical voices, which have not emerged or at least have not been heard yet.

Today is both too late and pointless to be outraged at hatred for the Roma. We shall leave this right to the moralists who believe in the rule of law and who in the last two years of protests have proudly waved the flag or political moralism against the rebellion of the poor and immoral masses. We can’t trust this reformist government, which came out of those protests, because the political rationality of liberalism never contained a progressively expanding idea of “a human” or “humanity.” To be outraged or indignant, as Vaksberg and Cohen are, from the racism of the liberals and reformers is to accept the analytically poor, if not outright silly, assumption that under liberalism all people are equal. Let us remember that two years ago, when the Sofia mayoral campaign was at its peak, the municipal council member from Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (the Reformist Block’s main constituent) Proshko Proshkov built his campaign on the idea of gentrifying Sofia’s multicultural spaces such as the Women’s Market, calling its diverse ethnic communities ‘frogs.’ So much for the novelty in the political language of reformism.

Without wanting to upset all liberals and acknowledging that many of them have already distanced themselves from the ruling coalition and particularly from the Reformist Block, we have to say that liberal democracy was hardly an active part of the struggle against slavery (at least in the Western World, the Reformist Block’s golden standard of democracy, always unachievable by some ill-minded Eurasians): it was а necessary step in developing the institution of private property. [1] This development required the subordination of whole groups of people, not only in Europe but also in the whole world—and this process has not come to an end. After all, liberalism is based on private property. Today the point is not to provide availability of mortgages for Roma families or the opportunity for Roma women to pay for good healthcare while giving birth. It is for all of us to have the right to shelter, to give birth in non-segregated birth clinics, and rather than bulldozing Roma ghettoes, to make them islands of well-being.

Political liberalism not only cannot, it even does not want to guarantee those rights for all, Roma or ethnic Bulgarian. It is true that the relationship between the latter two has been far from harmonious. There are plenty of poor ethnic Bulgarian neighborhoods, which, speaking in a fascist language, offer breeding grounds for fascism. But the liberal-capitalist legitimation of racism in Bulgaria is not a product of the peripheries but of the center. Just as the dehumanization of the Roma does not make them automatically swine so the fascization of the ethnic Bulgarians does not make them automatically fascists. But what can we say of the political center-right? At the moment, there is little to cast doubt on our impression that their fascism is a perfectly conscious one.

Actually, the ethnic Bulgarian may indeed not be a fascist: and it is precisely this possibility that is the most terrifying.

In this sense, the outrage of journalists such as Vaksberg et al. and other moralizers and champions of the rule of law betrays the pain and disappointment of the reformists’ frustrated hope that the law will finally triumph. What triumphs instead is not simply racism but a narrow, practically dehumanizing understanding of the human being under liberalism. In today’s political conjuncture in Bulgaria, it is further impoverished by coalition games. The new triple-headed social engineer Borisov-Moskov-Simeonov found in the Roma the easiest population to sacrifice on the altar of reformism and anti-communism.

The Dehumanized

This narrow understanding of what passes as human leads its own life in Bulgaria for quite a time. Both the Roma ghettoes and the peripheral residential complexes, themselves ghettoes of impoverished ethnic Bulgarians, are intimately connected with what Agamben calls “bare life”: life, which can be sacrificed with the coming of the dispensation so those in power (Moskov) could legitimate themselves. Once realized as architectural decisions accompanying socialist industrialization (whether at that time they had dehumanizing effect is still a debated question), today these residential complexes have become a refuge of migrant laborers in the big city. What these socially denigrated but ghetto-patriotic Bulgarians can do under these circumstances is to remain blind to their own dehumanization and focus on someone else’s—the Roma’s.

But can we blame the workers in the remote residential complexes for their racism? Aren’t they left to the vagaries of dangerous prejudices produced by the lack of universal social policies? There is no need for a racist theory to produce a racist people and to lock it up in a (now) dehumanizing residential complex: from inside the concrete fortress of the ‘average, normal ethnic Bulgarian’ being human or not is not a question of choice.

Through the figure of the homo sacer and the concentration camp Agamben explains the reintroduction of the law by the state as a mechanism of self-legitimation. If today’s dehumanization of the Roma forces us into public hysteria and accusations of fascism and Nazism, this is because the model of the concentration camp has not disappeared since WWII but has dispersed into new and invisible forms: housing policies, gentrification, employment practices and so on. [2] If these policies lead to dehumanization, this is because the political rationality of liberal democracy operates with a narrow conception of ‘human’ and ‘citizen.’ (In this sense, the ghettoes of the ethnic Bulgarian, the residential complexes, weren’t originally meant to exclude people from humanity. They took upon that function after 1989. [3]) This is so because everybody who does not pass liberalism’s universal test for humanity—namely, acquisition of your own property, functioning as a successful market subject, and finally being the master of oneself—at one or another point becomes disqualified from this category.

The production of contemporary “camps”—the new Roma ghettoes of capitalism and the communism-inherited residential complexes transformed into “ghettoes of poverty”—is no exception but a rule in the society of private ownership. This exception is founded precisely on the logic of bare life thrown into the camp—this life is the exception of political liberalism. Today everybody—without consideration of their ethnicity—who has failed on the market is potentially dehumanized. That the ethnic Bulgarian prefers to remain blind to his/her own dehumanization and directs his/her social anger against the Roma (with a little help from liberal democracy) makes him/her an active participant in his/her own dehumanization.

theozoologyThus, the liberal intelligentsia’s indignation at liberal politicians may look as an injury, but in its naïvite it unwillingly injures those already at the brink of society. For one thing, we agree that Nazism’s dehumanization has entered the stage. Not unlike Moskov and Simeonov, in his 1905 book Theozoology Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels writes of the “lower races” using precisely the term “population.” He explains the emergence of these races through a sexist narrative of women’s uncontrollable sexuality, which leads to the birth of non-humans. The step between this theory and Simeonov’s “street bitches” is purely rhetorical; it’s not necessary for someone like him to be familiar with the intellectual credo of Nazism to be a Nazi.

Actually, he may indeed not be a Nazi: and it is precisely this possibility that is the most terrifying.

The Dehumanizers

Dehumanization does not begin with Nazism. It is much older, dating back to the Roman empire and the era of the creation of private property. But what does the process of dehumanization mean for the ‘person’ who dehumanizes some other person or a group of people? It means that s/he excludes him/herself from the human community.

It is amazing that we do not treat the dehumanizers as dehumanized.

Not only are some social groups ready to justify the dehumanizers but also those of us who condemn them also implicitly justify them, for we do not treat them as auto-dehumanized. If one person has the power to exclude another from (the category of) humanity, is that person a human? At best, s/he is on the margins of humanity.

How should we treat these people? Are we masochists if we treat them as people? Are we Nazis if we want to take the matters into our own hands and punish them as we see fit? What can justify the anger of the dehumanized—humanity or inhumanity?

If today representative democracy talks about the human on the edge of both humanity and the law, can we afford the luxury of being radical humanists? At the end of the day, if there is nobody to “educate the educators” (Marx), the education of the dehumanizers is in the hands of the dehumanized.

The calls to peacefully handle matters are just as oxymoronic as the loud liberal outrage at the consequences of liberalism. [4]

That the dehumanization of the Roma is possible would be itself impossible without the sacred status liberalism accords to private property: having retreated from our lives (except for big capital and its comprador bourgeoisie), the minimal state of corruption (‘they’) culminates in the maximal outrage of the uncorrupted (‘we’). Perhaps it is not violence that is the educating response of the dehumanized to the dehumanizers; maybe even the very (re-)education of the political educators is not. But so is not either the indignation that corrupts the citizen or the private property that demoralizes the human. And private property accords the very status of ‘humanity:’ if living in a ghetto and not having any property makes you a non-human, then how many ethnic Bulgarians will pass as humans?

If the dehumanizer is no longer human, s/he is some kind of a political monster, which exists on the border between the human and the inhuman. Our radical humanism requires that we see the human as neighboring with monstrosity. But neither pitying the monster nor the terror it strikes in us resolve the havoc the monster wreaks.

Now we have to readdress the question, which Simeonov and Moskov ask of the Roma, to them: what shall we do with you, dehumanized political monsters? 

staniStanimir Panayotov (1982, Bulgaria) graduated in Philosophy from Sofia University and holds MA in Philosophy and Gender Studies from Euro-Balkan Institute (2011), currently a PhD student in comparative gender studies at CEU, Budapest. He works in the areas of feminist and continental philosophy, queer theory, and gender studies. Stanimir is also part of Social Center Xaspel and New Left Perspectives in Sofia. He is co-organizer of Sofia Queer Forum (Sofia) and Summer School for Sexualities, Cultures and Politics (Belgrade).


[1] I am quoting Georgi Medarov’s thesis from the anthology he edited Critical Looks at Human Rights, presented on 19.12.2014 in thefridge and Social Center “Haspel.”

[2] One prominent example of communist racial engineering and biopolitical practice would be the ethnicization of the army before 1989 through the so-called labor corpse, composed mostly from ethnic Turks and Roma, which served as a guarantee that they would not carry weapons against the Bulgarian ethnicity. I am mentioning this so that I avoid accusations of being blind to communism’s biopolitics.

[3] In his book Prisons of Poverty (1999), Loic Wacquant explains the relationship between poverty and crime by showing how neoliberalism produces the crime it then goes on to punish. This analysis can be easily applied to the so-called “gypsy crime” and the politics of ethnic incarceration in Bulgaria and elsewhere.

[4] See the texts by Emil Cohen and Svetla Encheva, where the outrages seems to disappear.

Translated from the Bulgarian by Rossen Djagalov.