The dystopia “Strategy for the Child, or How the State will Take Our Children and Give Them to the Norwegians” is the box office hit of the year. So successful that it overshadowed the horror “Istanbul Convention – Here Comes the Gender”. It is not just about the Roma hysteria in Sliven and other cities where people from the Roma neighborhoods stopped their children from school so that they would not be taken away and given to Norwegians. Thousands of Bulgarians are already genuinely afraid that social services can do the same with their children, as long as they want to – after an anonymous report to the authorities and without a court decision.
This success is no accident. We have already written about the complete untenability of the campaign and the “arguments” against the Strategy for the Child. However, the hysteria does not end because the document proved to be the perfect point of intersection of groups with different interests, but with a common purpose – to cause panic in the public. It was fed skillfully for months.
Ultraconservative “Christian” groups play a leading role in the production, and some of them already have solid experience in the fight against “anti-family” laws. The co-producers are Russian hybrid warriors, who, it must be admitted, have the best know-how for scaremongering and the best propaganda tools. Indeed, Moscow and evangelicals have long fought a common battle in support of the “traditional family” against fictional threats. Local nationalists whose role is to defend “Bulgarian children” from the evil Norwegians also help in the marketing. They are vocal. Especially before elections. Because of the upcoming local elections, unscrupulous opportunists are also getting involved in the production to draw political dividends.
All these interests are well hidden behind the cacophony of hysterical voices, fake news and misinformation in social networks, but they still transpire.
On the wings of manipulation
Where there are “children”, “family” and “legislation”, the Society and Values Association (SVA) with its leader Mihaela Djorgova are also there. Although they do not advertise affiliation with religion, Djorgova’s and her husband Alexander Djorgov’s connections with evangelical churches and pastors, as well as with influential ultra-conservative Christian organizations – such as the homophobic World Congress of Families which is on the list of hate organizations of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the reputable human rights structures in the United States – were described in a recent Dnevnik investigation.
In the last 10 years, the SVA has been battle-hardened and has a serious merit, for example, for the dropping-out of actual cohabitation from the Family Code draft, of compulsory pre-school education from the age of 4, of surrogate motherhood, etc., and, of course, for the withdrawal of the Istanbul Convention, and is currently also actively campaigning against sex education in schools.
The Association is at the forefront of the battle against the Strategy for the Child, spreading misleading information and raising fears. It also had a very active initial role in organizing the protests. In connection with the events in Sliven and other cities, they now state: “As an association, we are strongly opposed to such despicable provocations and have nothing to do with them. We empathize with the families affected and we closely monitor what is happening.”
SVA’s efforts quickly gained a very powerful helping hand from the so-called “Group” where mass hysteria further developed. The Facebook group “Не на Стратегията за детето 2019–2030 г.” (No to the Strategy for the Child 2019-2030) was created on February 16 this year by a profile named Hristina Runtova whose first social networking activity was two days earlier.
The “Group” is like a primordial soup in which propaganda, misinformation and fake news in many directions flourish. The cacophony in it grows in parallel with the “snowball effect” growth of its membership – the remarkable number of over 202,000 profiles at the moment (who talks most and what about was summarized by blogger Boyan Yurukov).
A month ago, however, a “split” happened there and some of the administrators were blacklisted and thrown out. Finally, on September 9, 2019, it was renamed to “Национална група – Родители обединени за децата” (National Group – Parents United for Children”) and the administrators are no longer individuals but two other Facebook pages registered as a “community” and a “cause” – a form that does not allow seeing the physical accounts managing the page. However, it is known that one of the administrators – with the same name as the group – is managed by accounts in Bulgaria and Austria. The second one is the newly established association ROD which took the reins and in becoming the edge of the fictional war against the Strategy for the Child.
Who ROD are
The founders of ROD are a few, and most of them are lawyers. Among the leadership is the defender of Bulgarian medics in Libya well-known in the recent past – Att. Vladimir Sheytanov, who has also been a member of the Strategic Council under President Rumen Radev since March. Among the chairpersons is also Att. Petar Nikolov who handles cases for children who have been taken away. He is also the counsel of “refugee hunter” Dinko Valev from Yambol and is part of the Bulgarian Legal Committee – Protection of Citizens by Legal Means, founded by another “refugee hunter” – Petar Nizamov-Perata. Most recently, Nizamov founded the Rodina (Motherland) Party and is now an independent candidate for municipal councilor in Burgas. He is also an active fighter against the Strategy for the Child.
A few other lawyers are also in the association – Iliana Mavrodieva-Angelova, Nikolina Chakarova and Viktor Kostov. The latter is the leader of the Christian Reformist Party registered for the local elections, “a missionary and theologian” who has studying at an evangelical seminary in California.
The ROD Association, which is also presented in some media as a civil movement, has its own articles of association and has recently began recruiting members against a letter of recommendation, a 10 BGN entry fee and another 10 BGN annual membership fee.
ROD’s stated mission is to be a “constructive factor for the development of society” and their values include “the marriage between one man and one woman” and “raising and educating children in a traditional family…”.
ROD has no formal relations with religious formations – local or foreign. However, in late September, the association organized a conference with the chilling name “Abduction of Children by Social Services – the Hidden War on Family”, in which foreign “experts” affiliated with “Christian” organizations took part. Among them were the Irish lawyer Lorcán Price, an activist against abortions and a member of one of the most powerful ultra-conservative American homophobic organizations, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which was declared an organization spreading hatred against LGBTI people by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There were also representatives of the Step up 4 Children’s Rights organization, a private “Christian” initiative based in Vienna with activities aimed at the Norwegian social services. The German sociologist Gabriele Kuby, known for her highly conservative Catholic positions on sexuality and gender, was also there The “Norwegian legal expert with international recognition for the protection of the rights of families and children” Marius Reikeras was also there. According to the Wikipedia article dedicated to him, he has an interesting biography and has been convicted several times.
However, like SVA, ROD also state that they have nothing to do with the events in Sliven. “There is no way that organizations that are against the Strategy for the Child can be held responsible for the panic in Roma neighborhoods and the rumors for taking children away – the institutions that refuse to engage in dialogue with frustrated citizens are to blame,” Att. Nikolov told Darik.
Many warriors and political calculations
There are many people in the “Group” who loudly advocate against the Strategy for the Child. Many are publicly unknown. Others, however, are known to the public. These include Ivaylo Tinchev, an organizer of the parade antipode of Sofia Pride – March for the Family, a member of the Evangelical church and a “public figure with a Christian worldview”; the popular “pastor” Encho Georgiev Enchev (his Facebook profile is also called driver.evangelist) who preaches through videos from his car; and, of course, Alexander Urumov, the director of the press center of the Ministry of Defense and a person close to Minister Karakachanov. Urumov has been an active evangelist since the 1990s, and his sermons can be seen on Youtube. He has long been popular on social networks as a vocal warrior against liberal values and especially against “genderism”. He is the “civil servant” mentioned provisionally by Deputy Prime Minister Donchev among those responsible for the panic. Urumov, of course, also denies having anything to do with provoking it.
Paradoxically, the evangelist Urumov is a member of VMRO, which until recently has been at war with “sects”. However, the party, along with other nationalist formations such as Vazrazhdane (Revival) of Kostadin Kostadinov, was among the first ones to express solidarity with the “concerns of parents” and to see the political potential of the topic. Subsequently, SDS (GERB’s coalition partner for the European elections and the local elections) and the MIR formation of the municipal councilor in Sofia and an ardent Orthodox Christian (judging by his Facebook profile) Simeon Slavchev also joined. Over time, the topic also seems to attract more political interest (see the text in fine print below).
The Orthodox Church itself, by the way, does not fail to recognize the battle against the Strategy for the Child as its own, the same way it recognized the battle against the Istanbul Convention. Last Sunday, it even organized a themed cross procession in Burgas.
Representatives of various parties, including candidates for mayors and municipal councilors, declared their participation in an open-air roundtable in downtown Sofia on “The Despotic Child Protection System”, held last Thursday (October 17). These include Ataka, VMRO, NFSB and BDS-Radicals, Nie, Grazhdanite (We, the Citizens), Movement ZAEDNO za Promyana (TOGETHER for Change) and SSD. The media were informed about the event by Hristo Laftchiev, who is among the most vigorous activists against the Strategy. In the previous local elections, he was a candidate on the list of the Glas Naroden (People’s Voice) political party. He is now among the administrators of the Facebook group “БРЦК – Разбунена София” (Bulgarian Parent Central Committee – Rebellious Sofia), the description of which is 100% identical to that of the National Group of Parents United for Children. It is one of dozens of other Facebook groups dedicated to the most demonized document currently in Bulgaria, with shared “information” and propaganda material in them being mostly identical.
With Russian know-how
However, such a perfect storm as the one surrounding the Strategy for the Child cannot but draw Moscow’s attention. The most visible contribution of the Russian machine to fake news is through the so-called „ювенална юстиция“ (juvenile justice) which, according to its critics, was contained in the philosophy of the strategy. And although the Strategy was withdrawn, its opponents say “juvenile justice” has been quietly enshrined in the Children Act and will come into force next year.
If you don’t understand what it is about, you’re not the only one. “Juvenile justice” does not exist in the Bulgarian legal world. The phrase is taken from Russian and refers to the so-called Juvenile Justice – child or juvenile justice, which, in one form or another, exists in many countries. Thousands of people confused by the complex legal phrases, however, now believe that “juvenile justice” is a legal formulation that will give the state enormous powers to take away children easily.
In Russia, the hysteria against “juvenile justice” erupted in 2011 with the rumor that foreign powers would this way be able to take away Russian children. The panic, like the one here, was widespread, Russian journalist Anastasia Sechina told the Bulgarian National Radio. The panic swept through Ukraine the same year, where Orthodox, Evangelical and other Protestant churches write united against the “strategy of juvenile justice in Ukraine”.
The Russian hysteria at that time reached Bulgaria as well, though in did not have the wide scope it has now. The monster “juvenile justice” can be met in forums, and organizations such as the National Parent Network use it to fight draft amendments to the 2012 Children Act that, they say, will be used take away their children. A campaign against the amendments is also led by the Society and Values Association. They were eventually withdrawn by the government.
The origins of the campaign in Russia are officially unclear, but it is apparent that the technology is now being heavily implemented in Bulgaria. The visions and messages of the pamphlets distributed against the “juvenile justice”, for example, are literally identical with the Russian ones, but without the Norwegian element, since the battle there was fought mainly against the “German juvenile fascism”.
What connects them
Although it may not seem so at first glance, American evangelical organizations and Russian Orthodox politicians have more things in common than we can imagine. The links between them have been repeatedly described in investigations by reputable international media such as Politico or The Economist.
During the Perestroika, American far-right Christian organizations, seeing the fertile ground to build influence in the former Eastern Bloc, create high-level ties in Russia, and they remain strong to this day. One of the key figures currently mediating in this relationship, according to media investigations, is, for example, the Russian “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, who was barred from entering Bulgaria last month for 10 years after the action against the Russophiles Association.
Evangelical organizations and Russian Orthodox politicians are bound by common interests – power, influence, money, and their common enemy – liberal democracy. Powerful evangelical far-right organizations such as the World Congress of Families, to which the Bulgarian SVA was a member, have strong positions in Russia. It is believed that this organization has played an important role, for example, in adopting anti-gay laws and decriminalizing domestic violence there.
The power of these organizations should not be underestimated. Last year, far-right Christian formations, for example, provoked a referendum in Romania to amend the Constitution so that marriage was defined as an exclusive union between a man and a woman. The events were presented in detail in an investigation of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network BIRN. However, the referendum failed to reach the required threshold for validity.
The hysteria surrounding the Strategy for the Child is likely to weaken after the election. However, people and organizations with hidden religious affiliations and goals will continue to successfully manipulate large public masses at any convenient moment because the conditions for panic in Bulgaria are so good. It is also the responsibility of the government which easily yields to foreign interests undermining the secular state. Of the services which are not known to have done anything so far. Of the media and poor education that produces ignorance multiplied by the effect of social networks.
In the end, panic against something that does not exist is a completely logical end to this chain.
Norway and its “malicious” social services Barnevernet came into the public focus last year when unilaterally presented stories of Bulgarian children taken away there received media attention. Even national televisions showed misleading data implying that one out of every two children in Norway is taken away by the social services. This, of course, is not true, but the damage is done and the narrative began to be quickly modeled by interested parties and spread by the natural panic of parents.
There are also activities on the Internet against Barnevernet in other countries, but their number is negligible. They do not get the kind of support they have here anywhere else. Profiles of Bulgarian “trolls” who set up groups targeted at other countries in an attempt to start a battle against the Norwegian social services internationally can also be seen in Facebook. So far, however, they have not enjoyed much interest.
Norway is a convenient enemy for Moscow where many materials demonizing the country originate.
Among the reasons, along with Norway’s firmly liberal and pro-Western principles, are, for example, the fact that Norway plays a key role in NATO and is its external border, and is also Russia’s direct competitor on the oil and gas market, and one of the main (and closest) competitors of Russia’s interests in the Arctic’s rich gas and oil deposits.