SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s ruling GERB party has withdrawn from parliament a European treaty designed to combat violence against women in the face of opposition from its allies in government and religious groups.
The centre-right government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov submitted the Council of Europe convention for ratification last month but language around gender roles triggered uproar in the European Union’s poorest country, which now holds the bloc’s rotating presidency.
The dispute overshadows Borissov’s efforts to present the ex-communist state, which joined the EU in 2007, as a progressive and open-minded country during its first stint as chair of the bloc.
It also highlights widespread resistance among the more socially conservative countries of the former eastern bloc to the liberal values of wealthier western Europe.
Speaking to Bulgarian television station bTV, Borissov said that GERB would not proceed with the ratification of the treaty, also known as the Istanbul Convention, due to lack of support from political parties, including the nationalist United Patriots, its junior coalition partner.
“We will adopt the Istanbul Convention only if there is a consensus in Bulgarian society,” Borissov said during an interview on Wednesday night, three weeks after his party decided to delay the vote to allow more time for debate.
Volen Siderov, one of United Patriots’ co-leaders, had warned that if GERB sought parliamentary approval for the treaty, it could lead to the fall of the government and early parliamentary elections. The opposition Socialists had even demanded a referendum on the issue.
The dispute appeared to centre on the treaty’s definition of ‘gender’ as “social roles, behaviours, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men”.
Some observers said the translation of the text into Bulgarian could be to blame.
The Bulgarian version uses the Bulgarian for ‘sex’ - the biological difference between man and woman - as the translation for ‘gender’, which can refer more broadly to the social roles of men and women. Bulgarian does not have a specific equivalent for the word gender.
Critics, including the influential Bulgarian Orthodox Church, said such language could encourage young people to identify as transgender or third sex and lead to same-sex marriage in the country of 7.1 million people.
“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,” the nationalist VMRO party, part of an alliance with the co-ruling United Patriots, said in a statement.
Daniel Smilov, a political analyst at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, noted the issue with the translation.
“This is a linguistic problem and is easy to fix,” he said. “What’s more important is the change in the political atmosphere in the country.”
“With this retreat, GERB shows it can be easily squeezed by its nationalist partners... even retreating from its pro-European orientation.”
Siderov said he was “glad that Prime Minister Boyko Borissov listened to my advice”.
“If they (GERB) had continued their efforts to adopt it, it would have shaken the stability of the state.”
Bulgaria’s government signed the 81-article document in 2016 and parliamentary ratification is the next step. In all, more than 40 countries have signed.
Bulgaria’s EU neighbour Romania has ratified the convention, but Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have not yet. Nor have Britain, Croatia, Greece or Ireland. Council of Europe members Azerbaijan and Russia have yet to sign.
Editing by Matt Robinson and Toby Chopra