At the very beginning of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, Boyko Borissov’s ruling coalition was shaken by an unexpected reason – the ratification of the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, writes Krassen Nikolov.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and will be a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Borissov’s majority in parliament depends on its coalition with the United Patriots, three nationalist parties often described as homophobic, xenophobic and at least in the case of Ataka, ideologically close to the far-right.
The junior coalition force stated that the Istanbul Convention “legitimises the third sex” and may force Bulgaria to accept “transvestites from Iran” on its territory.
The government disregarded the arguments and on 3 January took the decision that Bulgaria should adop the convention. However, heated debates are expected in parliament, which needs to ratify it. Valery Simeonov, Deputy Prime Minister and Co-President of the United Patriots, tried to tone down the scandal saying that this was not political rebellion, but a clash of principle positions.
So far, the Istanbul Convention has been ratified by 17 EU members. As early as 2014, the Bulgarian Animus Foundation, which helps women and girls who have been victims of domestic violence, called for the ratification of the Council of Europe convention, open for signature on 1 May 2011 in Istanbul. For the last 23 years, more than 100,000 women and children who have been victims of violence at home have sought the assistance of this Bulgarian NGO. Very large numbers remain out of statistics because they have not sought help.
The Istanbul Convention is the first instrument in Europe to create a comprehensive framework for the protection of women and girls from all forms of violence. It is also aimed at preventing, prosecuting and abolishing violence against them.
Lost in translation?
The Convention is also the first international treaty containing a definition of “gender” as “social roles, behaviors, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men” – according to Art. 3 of the Convention. A careful look at the texts shows that the political scandal in Bulgaria is based on a wrong translation.
The original English version of the Convention uses the word ‘gender’. In English there is a significant difference between the term “sex” used for the biologically determined role of the individual, while “gender” refers to a person’s social role or social identification. But the Bulgarian language has only one word – “sex” and it was used in the Bulgarian translation of the convention.
According to one of the three nationalist parties involved in power – VMRO, the definition opens the doors to legalize same-sex marriages.
“In practice, this makes it possible to legalize same-sex marriages – if one of the two married partners in a legally married couple changes their sex, according to the Istanbul Convention, a same-sex” family “is created, VMRO stated.
According to the verbatim record of the cabinet meeting published today (5 January), the leader of VMRO Krassimir Karakachanov, who is also Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Krassimir Karakachanov, said the following:
“Okay, suppose there are problems with family violence – yes, there are in some communities and that’s a fact, women are beaten, and some women beat men. I agree, but if we want to clear the problem of a convention, hurriedly accepted without broad public discussion, perhaps we will open the door for new claims with a perspective and we will not solve the problems.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva says the convention does not force Bulgaria to introduce a “third sex” or engage in debate about gay marriages.
“Ratification will not lead to a change in the constitution, nor will it entail an obligation for Bulgaria to introduce same-sex marriages,” Zaharieva said. She explained that the convention aims to break the stereotypes rooted in people from their childhood in some parts of the world, that it is normal for women to be subjected to domestic violence, including rape in the family. The Convention aims at better educating citizens in tolerance and respect for gender equality, which is also a fundamental principle of the Bulgarian Constitution, she explained.
The ratification will impose changes not only in the legislation on the protection of victims of domestic violence but also in specific texts of the Penal Code relating to violence against women. The Convention provides for the creation of a sufficient number of crisis centers to support victims of violence and the opening of free of charge 24-hour hotlines.
However, nationalists from VMRO have their own interpretation: “Every transgender in Iran, for example, can be granted refugee status in our country because of his ‘gender specificity’ in its homeland”, they stated.
The main opposition force, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) also does not support ratification. Although the party identifies itself as centre-left-wing, it is against one of the Convention’s aims – the eradication of prejudices, customs, traditions and any other practices based on stereotyped roles for women and men. The Bulgarian socialists are against education of children about sexuality, if it is different from the traditional definition of man and woman. BSP accuses the government of raising the issue of the Convention’s ratification by “creating tension and hatred” in society.
The Party of European Socialists (PES), headed by former BSP leader Sergei Stanishev, is one of the main advocates for the ratification of the convention. At the end of November Stanishev called not only for the adoption of the Istanbul Convention, but also for specific European legislation in this area.
“As we have repeatedly called for, the European Union must put forward sound and concrete legislation to eradicate violence against women, and I believe that the EU Framework Directive would be a major step in the right direction,” said Stanishev.
The extra-parliamentary center-right party Union of Democratic Forces (SDS, the historic anti-communist force) is also against the convention because it “puts in question the traditional values of Bulgarian society”. SDS claims they are for a united Europe, but that they stand for taking into account the specificities of the psychology of every nation.
“In our faith and tradition there are only two sexes – men and women. For us the notion of “social sex” does not exist, not only in our legal, but also in our values’ world.
“Bulgarian society is conservative and not liberal, as some political and non-governmental organizations are trying to instigate”, says SDS, who call upon the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to state its position on the Istanbul Convention.
The Convention has been ratified by other Balkan countries such as Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey. None of them has the intention of introducing the notion of “third sex” into their constitution, nor of regulating same-sex marriages. So far, GERB is the only party in the Bulgarian parliament that supports ratification. The party may rely on the support of the mainly ethnic Turkish force Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is part of the Liberal LDE group in the European Parliament.
Some observers believe that the “sexual” scandal in Bulgaria aims to divert public attention from another case – the government’s decision to build a second cabin lift in Pirin. On Thursday evening thousands of Bulgarians protest against the construction sites in the protected area. Nationalists are involved in both scandals.