Horizontal Rule

Roma Rights 2 2015: Nothing About Us Without Us? Roma Participation in Policy Making and Knowledge Production

7th, December, 2015

The Roma Movement in Bulgaria after the Political Transformation in 1989

Rumyan Russinov

In this article I analyse the Roma movement in Bulgaria in the period 1989-2014. In focus is the activity and conduct of Roma and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Roma and non-Roma political parties, state policy on Roma issues, and media coverage of Roma.

Times of Hope (Romantic Period), 1989-1997

The political transformation in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of 1989 brought hope for democratic development and participation in public processes in societies of this region. After leaving the Soviet Bloc and taking a pro-Western orientation, these countries became a part of the “global political awakening”.1 The prospect for a united Europe emerged, a development which Kissinger considered “one of the most revolutionary events of our time”.2

Millions of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe shared the same expectations and, like other citizens of these countries, were hopeful about major transformations. Roma in Bulgaria saw the transition to democracy as a chance for equal participation in the building of a new society and as an opportunity to have their identity recognised and respected.

In the first months of 1990, Bulgarian society was vibrant with political activity: there were many political discussions, dozens of new political parties and civil society organisations were set up to promote the interests of various groups in society. Many Roma activists, mainly intellectuals and artists – teachers, medical doctors, engineers and musicians - took an active part in the political discussions. Most conspicuous among them was Manush Romanov (1928-2004) – theatre director, playwright, and collector of Roma folklore. On 10 January 1990 Manush Romanov, representing the Democratic Union of the Gypsies, was invited to the National Assembly for a discussion on the national question.3 On 17 March 1990 he was elected leader of the Democratic Union of Roma and later that month presented the position of Roma at the National Roundtable, the forum that laid down the framework for the future constitutional and social order of the country.

In the period preceding the first democratic parliamentary elections in June 1990 there were vibrant discussions on the Roma issue at conferences and meetings and in the media. Two main concepts about the Roma issue crystallised in these discussions:

The concept of total denial of the past: Adherents to this view criticised the period of Communist rule for the repression of Roma ethnic and cultural identity, for socio-economic problems affecting some parts of the Roma population, and for the existence of segregated Roma schools and neighbourhoods. At the heart of this concept was the perception of Roma as passive victims of the totalitarian government. These positions were supported by Bulgaria’s Western partners and by the core team of the leader of the main opposition party the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), Zhelyu Zhelev,4 as well as by Manush Romanov.

The concept of moderate criticism acknowledging the achievements of the past period: The adherents to this concept did not deny the defects and the faults of the regime before 1989. However they recognised the overall development of the Roma community in that period and achievements on the way to the integration of the Roma. This position was supported by evidence that in the Socialist period in Bulgaria illiteracy among Roma was reduced from over 80% in 1946 to 11% in 1989, mostly among elderly people; the overwhelming majority of adult Roma were employed5 and the socio-economic status of Roma had improved considerably compared to the times before the Socialist period; and a Roma intelligentsia of teachers, doctors, engineers, etc. had been formed. In one of the debates on these issues in 1990, Dora Detcheva, a Roma activist from Sliven stated that around 40% of Roma had reached the average level of Bulgarian citizens in terms of social, cultural and educational status.6 This position was supported by the majority of Roma activists, including Petar Gheorghiev, Gospodin Kolev, Atanas Zlatev, Alexander Kracholov, Ibro Assov, Dora Detcheva, and others.

The proponents of this concept also emphasised that Roma are a group with potential; they are active participants in social processes who contribute to the prosperity of the country and are not a burden on society.

While with respect to the assessment of the period before 1989 Roma activists have had certain disagreements, their vision about the future was almost unanimous. All activists consolidated around the position of equal participation of Roma in the new democratic society, through political representation, participation in government, and the freedom to develop Roma culture and language. “We hope that the new time will restore what had been taken away not only from us, but from all Bulgarian citizens, the fundamental human rights and freedoms that each respectable state guarantees for its citizens” stated Dora Decheva at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Union of Roma on 17 March 1990. Her statement epitomised the expectations of Roma activism at that time.7

The main political parties – the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the UDF – took an active part in the discussions on Roma issues, especially in the period before the parliamentary elections in June 1990. Their views about the Roma and the position of Roma in society were mutually exclusive. Activists from the opposition UDF were the first to make statements on the issue in public. Their views were coherent with the concept of the total denial of the period before 1989. The opposition UDF saw the Roma mainly as victims of discrimination under Communist rule and emphasised the problems facing this community. Mihail Ivanov stated that “The problems of the Gypsies are ulcers not only in the body of the Gypsy ethnic community, they are ulcers of the entire Bulgarian people and we have to heal them. Moreover, the main principle in the healing process should be that the problems of the Gypsies should be decided with the participation of the Gypsies themselves.”8

Important for this analysis is the philosophy at the core of the statements about Roma by the opposition. They did not perceive Roma as a group that had been part of and, with its capacities and potential, would continue to take part in the development of the state; they perceived Roma not as a subject of societal change but as a problem-ridden group that has to be an object of special care. The parameters within which Roma were expected to act were outlined, albeit indirectly – these were issues concerning the Roma community rather than broader issues in Bulgarian society on its path to democratic development. The goal was minimalist – to include Roma in the solution of Roma problems, while active participation of Roma in mainstream developments was not at issue. As a whole, at this early stage the Roma issue was already separated from mainstream social issues.

Similarly to the views of the UDF, Bulgaria’s Western partners saw the Roma more as a problem-ridden group than as an agent of change. This position was reflected on the pages of the British newspaper The Sunday Times, in the article Mercy for the Gypsies, published in April 1990.9 The article portrayed Roma in line with the concept of the total denial of the past. Moreover, on the basis of old stereotypes, the authors described Roma only as a marginal group, despised by the macro society.

The position of the BSP10 on the Roma issue was presented publicly by Aleksander Mirchev, member of the party’s governance organ, in his statement during the inaugural conference of the Democratic Union of Roma on 17 March 1990. He criticised the dominant until that moment concept of the ethnic homogeneity of the Bulgarian population as tragically misguided and leading to social deformations. The BSP declared its support for the efforts of the Democratic Union of Roma towards the full integration of Roma in society and underlined that this was a task for the entire nation. Mirchev said: “We consider that the Gypsy population will continue to be among the leading representatives of our nation, the Gypsy intelligentsia will find its place in the renewal of our country, just as throughout the history of Bulgaria the Gypsy population has been among the most progressive factors, part and parcel of the revolutionary movement in our country. This has happened with more than one generation.”11 The representative of the BSP acknowledged that the ethnic specifics and the cultural identity of the Roma were suppressed in the past and declared that the promotion of Roma identity and culture has to be embedded in the future democratisation of the country. He shared the expectation that the Democratic Union of Roma would contribute to the spiritual wealth of the Bulgarian people and to the development of the country.12

Unfortunately, the BSP gradually departed from the progressive views that were voiced in the beginning of the transition to democracy. After the National Roundtable, the oppositional UDF reached an agreement with Manush Romanov for his participation in the forthcoming parliamentary elections as a UDF candidate for the Grand National Assembly.

The extreme position of total denial of the past and the dogmatic view of Roma as victims and outcasts was considered by wide circles of Roma as being far from reality. Ibro Assov, a Roma intellectual from the town of Koinare in northern Bulgaria, took part in the discussion on Manush Romanov’s affiliation with the democratic opposition and on the assessment of the policies towards Roma during the Socialist period: “In the town of Koinare, there are approximately 1,500 Gypsies. Until 9 September 194413 they were field servants or unemployed. They lived in hunger and misery…There were 47 shacks, each of them sheltering 10-12 persons. I took photos of the last remaining shack next to a newly-built house in 1958. Today, the Gypsies work in big numbers on the cattle farm, in the machine-building factory, in the crop-raising brigade. Their houses are really modern, spacious and well-furnished. Whoever does not trust my words, I invite you to Koinare and I recommend that you visit the houses of the children of the former field servants. (If you go to the neighbouring villages, you will see the same picture.) These people are educated as medical doctors, nurses, teachers, and two of them are Doctoral candidates. They work hard on the land and they earn the bread of the Bulgarian people. They do not have an inch of their own land, and they may once again, as happened in the past, be ‘democratised’ as field servants, they may fall victim to persecution.”14

Manush Romanov led UDF’s proportional list in Sliven and was also a majoritarian candidate in Sofia, in the district encompassing the biggest Roma neighbourhood in the capital. This act of political will on the part of a mainstream political party is unique for the entire period of the transition. At the general elections in June 1990 Manush Romanov became a member of the Grand National Assembly, elected from the proportional list in Sliven. Unfortunately, during the life of that parliament his attempts to raise the Roma issue were ignored both by the majority Socialist MPs and by the UDF, of which he was a member.

The weak electoral support for the UDF on the part of Bulgarian Roma demonstrated that wide circles of Roma did not accept the views of Roma espoused by the UDF. On the other hand, disappointed by the low electoral support from the Roma, the UDF practically forgot about the Roma issue for a long period. Manush Romanov did not have political backing from the UDF and remained alone in the fight for the Roma cause. Developments after the parliamentary elections in June 1990 made obvious the fact that the minority issue, and specifically the Roma issue, was merely an instrument to discredit political opponents and to win electoral support, rather than a theme for developing government policy. Disappointed by the indifferent and arrogant attitude towards Roma on the part of the UDF, Manush Romanov made two attempts to register a Roma political party which were rejected by the courts.15

The Roma issue also slipped down the agenda of the BSP. The BSP not only did not undertake any integration policies, but also distanced itself from its conceptual platform, which had been outlined at the conference of the Democratic Union of Roma in March 1990. The Presidency, and specifically, President Zhelev’s advisory team, which emerged as an autonomous actor on minority issues, was the only state institution in the entire period from 1990 to 1997 which took part in discussions on the Roma issue, sought cooperation with other state institutions, and called for an active role for the state administration in solving Roma problems. It has to be noted, however, that ideologically the President’s institution aligned with the concept of Roma as a marginal and problem-ridden community.

In the mainstream media the Roma theme was almost unnoticeable at the beginning of the transition period. This picture changed dramatically in the beginning of 1991 when the media filled up with police statistics referring to the ethnic background of criminal offenders who were Roma. The change in police policy with respect to revealing the ethnicity of offenders was not gradual. It happened overnight, and can be seen as a strategy rather than a spontaneous act triggered by a concrete event. The possible explanations for this change are obvious. On the one hand, there was an outburst of criminal activity in this period and the police were ill-prepared to deal with it; on the other hand, there was growing public discontent with the weakness of the police to fight criminality. Hence, one can logically conclude that it was in the interest of the police to divert at least part of this discontent. The Roma are an easy target for such action. They do not have a majority in a neighbouring country, such as ethnic Turks in Bulgaria; they are a big and visible minority group; and there are stereotypes associating them with criminality. This was the birth of the model of scapegoating Gypsies, which has made its way into the political elite and into state institutions, and has become a constant social stereotype today.

Most media frequently published police information that identified the Roma ethnicity of suspects and offenders. Moreover, bombastic headlines, sensational and inciting language, and media manipulation amplified the negative stereotypes of the Roma. For many media freedom of expression was realised in practice through the freedom to demonise the Roma. At the same time, the media ignored basic rules of professional ethics, such as refraining from mentioning the ethnic background of suspects or offenders when such information does not have a bearing on the criminal act, as well as allowing the other side to express their position. The unfavourable, often hostile media environment, remains until today a major factor that predetermines predominantly negative prejudices towards Roma, as well as the lack of political will for state policy on this issue.

After the elections in 1990, there was a tendency towards unification of Roma organisations. The unification attempts led to the formation of two major organisations - the United Roma Alliance and the Confederation of Roma in Bulgaria, which were established respectively in October 1992 and May 1993 in Sofia. The United Roma Alliance, led by Vassil Chaprazov, leaned towards the UDF, while the Confederation of Roma in Bulgaria was close to the BSP. Despite these differing political orientations, the reason for the lack of a real union of Roma organisations was not grounded in any serious ideological confrontation but in the leadership ambitions of their activists.

In the autumn of 1994, the BSP made an agreement with the Confederation of Roma as a result of which the leader of the organisation, Petar Gheorghiev, was elected MP and the BSP made commitments to policies on the Roma issue. The UDF also negotiated with Roma politicians but there was no agreement. Petar Gheorghiev was the only Roma MP who was elected to that parliament.

In the following years Bulgaria was swept up in numerous crises – economic, financial, and political. The social status of large numbers of people, including Roma, deteriorated. Unemployment increased exponentially and many Roma migrated to other countries in search of a livelihood. The Roma organisations, as well as the President’s advisory team, called for the establishment of a state organ for Roma policies. Ongoing discussions on this issue resulted in the adoption by the Socialist government in January 1997 of the Programme for Solving Roma Problems. This document, however, remained “on paper” as several days following its adoption the Socialist government resigned.

A few specific features pertaining to Roma organisations and Roma activism in this period are important. The organisations worked voluntarily; they did not have paid staff, offices, or funds for travel costs and accommodation. In Sofia, for example, the meetings of the Confederation of Roma took place at a cafeteria owned by a Roma businessman. Travel costs for conferences and events were covered privately by the Roma activists themselves and accommodation was found at friends’ places in the respective cities. Many Roma activists at that time were intellectuals and educated people with various professions and occupations. They did not have sufficient political and organisational experience, like most of the new mainstream politicians at the time. Few of the Roma activists were good public speakers. All of them, however, had genuine aspirations to contribute to a better life for the Roma and for a more democratic and just society.

The Road to Europe: European Union Accession 1997-2007

This period marked significant changes in Bulgaria’s development. The country received clear signals that accession to Euro-Atlantic structures was forthcoming. Important changes also took place in the Roma movement. Firstly, the state took a more active stance in discussions on the Roma issue and in the development of integration policies. Secondly, external actors such as international organisations, foreign donors and NGOs, got involved in Roma issues. Finally, in the political field the first Roma parties were formed.

The Non-governmental Sector

The first NGOs in Bulgaria had already emerged in the beginning of the 1990s and this trend intensified with the prospect of European Union (EU) accession. Donors supported a wide range of activities in favour of Roma such as human rights, integration in education, entrepreneurship, access to social services, and others. Much of this work was based on models that were developed by the donors in their previous activities in other countries and regions of the world. The models were replicated in Eastern Europe and specifically in Bulgaria, without much consideration for local conditions. There were projects about Roma that mechanically transferred models and practices for the integration of, for example, Afro-Americans in the USA or immigrant communities from Africa, Latin America or Asia in Western Europe. Such projects ignored the fact that Roma in Bulgaria are not immigrants and had lived for seven centuries on these lands; that Roma know the majority language; and that with their own culture, Roma have always been a part of the Bulgarian cultural space and a factor that has shaped this space. The responsibility for such inadequate and eventually failed activities also lies with Roma NGOs, among others, which rarely challenged the priorities of donors.

While the newly created Roma and pro-Roma NGOs enjoyed support from the donors for various activities, in most cases donors ignored the Roma organisations from the first years of the transition. The first Roma leaders and the organisations they established had experience and expertise on Roma issues which they had accumulated in the first decade of the transition period. They had established contacts and relations with state institutions at central and local levels as well as with political parties; they enjoyed a certain legitimacy among the Roma as well as among public institutions. Unfortunately, this capacity was mostly wasted and work on Roma issues began from scratch with the new NGOs.

This period is associated with the practice of pro-Roma NGOs acting as intermediaries between donors and Roma NGOs. Professional pro-Roma NGOs received funding from donors and then allocated the implementation of the activities to Roma NGOs. In demand were professionals rather than leaders. Most often the new NGOs engaged young Roma activists, educated, English-speaking and computer-literate, who were rarely placed in decision-making positions. Pro-Roma NGOs functioned quite differently compared to the Roma organisations that were active in the first years of the transition period. They had paid staff, their projects covered costs for offices, travel, conferences, etc. The traditional Roma organisations which did not have donor funding were unable to survive in this competitive environment and gradually lost their influence. As a result, external donor funding of Roma activities has had the effect of reordering the elites in Roma communities.

The newly-created and unsaturated NGO market attracted a lot of non-Roma with academic and other intellectual backgrounds – sociologists, philosophers, historians, physicists, journalists, and others. This phenomenon occurred on the one hand due to the reduced financial support for academia on the part of the state after 1989 which prompted many scholars to leave academia, and on the other hand due to the fact that there were few Roma activists who had the language and professional skills to communicate with donors. Not all of the academics who joined the NGO sector were profit-oriented; among them were active citizens who wanted to contribute to the Roma cause. One such person is Dr Dimitrina Petrova, who founded the Human Rights Project (HRP), developed the organisation and contributed her rich experience; she then stepped down from the leadership position and supported a Roma person to take it. This case, however, is an exception to the rule.

Recalling the minimal goal for Roma participation in Roma issues, formulated by Mihail Ivanov as early as 1990, and analysing later developments up to today, it is obvious that even the achievement of this goal is questionable. How else to interpret the title of the conference Nothing about Us without Us? that took place in Budapest, in 2014?

Most of the projects about Roma in this period targeted marginal Roma communities. This fact indicated that the perception of Roma among donors had been dominated by the concept of a marginalised and problem-ridden group. Towards the end of the 1990s, the concept of Roma as a marginalised group dominated the field. Moreover, it shaped the rhetoric of some Roma activists, who spoke only about the problems of Roma.

In the area of education, for example, donor support flowed towards segregated and special remedial schools, and included such activities as buying snacks, clothes and shoes for the children, buying textbooks, cooperation of parents and teachers, etc. Although many Roma projects were classified as social empowerment projects, in essence they did not aim at empowerment understood as encouraging individuals to act and helping them to access equal opportunities. At best, such projects partially mitigated the suffering of the most impoverished part of the Roma population. At the same time, these projects cemented the perception of Roma as clients of services.16

NGOs working on Roma issues in theory had the opportunity to formulate their own priorities through their project proposals to donors. In practice, however, donors supported the priorities that they had identified themselves. NGOs that had their own vision and formulated their own priorities were an exception to the rule, as were donors who were ready to support ideas “from the bottom”, not necessarily overlapping with their own. Most often, donors just sought an organisation that could implement their model projects. This situation, complemented by the fact that Roma in leadership positions in donor organisations were a rare phenomenon, leads to the conclusion that the predominant practice in this period was the development of projects for Roma rather than Roma projects, i.e. projects initiated by Roma. Having in mind the fact that NGOs reported to their donors, despite their mission to promote the public interest, many NGOs gradually lost connection with the public interest and found themselves in a paradoxical situation of being known only to their donor but not to the community for which they supposedly worked.

Despite the many defects of the NGO model for solving the problems of Roma, the NGO sector has enjoyed considerable accomplishments as well. NGO leaders took an active role in discussions on Roma issues, negotiated with governments and institutions, called for Roma policies, and defended the cause of the Roma. The HRP for example, initiated the Framework Programme for Equal Participation of Roma in Bulgarian Society in 1998 for governmental policies in key areas such as education, employment, healthcare, housing and others. After almost one year of negotiations between the HRP, the United Roma Alliance and the Confederation of Roma on the one hand, and the Bulgarian government on the other, the Framework Programme for Equal Participation of Roma in Bulgarian Society was adopted with a decision of the Council of Ministers on 22 April 1999. The adoption by the government of a policy programme initiated and elaborated by Roma was a unique accomplishment. Support on the part of the Roma communities as well as European institutions was crucial for its success. The most important message of the Framework Programme was that Roma do not accept being treated as a marginal and problem-ridden community and assert their right to equal participation in society.

The HRP also made great efforts to discuss the hostile coverage of Roma with the media and achieved at least a short-lived improvement in the tone of some media.

Another successful Roma project was school desegregation in 2000-2011, which was started by Roma NGOs with financial support from the Open Society Institute and the Roma Education Fund. In twelve years over 20,000 Roma children in eleven Bulgarian towns were integrated into mainstream schools. The successful integration of these children advanced the notion that Roma integration in all spheres is achievable, and encouraged the Decade for Roma Inclusion initiative as well as the establishment of the Roma Education Fund. The state machinery in Bulgaria started to move. Based on the successful school desegregation initiatives of Roma NGOs and as a result of their advocacy, the Ministry of Education adopted the Strategy for Educational Integration of Roma Children and Pupils, and the Centre for Educational Integration of Children and Pupils from Ethic Minorities was established.

The International Centre for Minorities provided scholarships to Roma university students at the end of the 1990s. This practice was enlarged with the creation of the Roma Memorial Scholarship Programme at the Open Society Institute in 2001. With the support of this programme the Roma students’ organisation Student Society for Interethnic Dialogue helped more than 3,000 Roma university students and doctoral candidates. Many of them have already graduated and are part of the Roma elite today.

State Policies

With the start of its mandate in 1997, the UDF government led by Prime Minister Ivan Kostov demonstrated a new approach to the Roma issue. It established the governmental National Council for Ethnic and Demographic Issues17 and in this way involved the state administration in discussions on the Roma issue. Nevertheless, with respect to the Roma issue, as with other public sectors, during the transition period the government followed the neo-liberal view of ‘less government’. In practice, this position meant that the government took a passive role on the Roma issue and narrowed its function to coordination of already-operating NGO Roma projects. The National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, as is obvious from its founding documents, did not have real power with regard to policy making. Its functions were limited to cooperation with and coordination of state institutions and NGOs.18

On the Roma issue, the Bulgarian government did not have a clear concept; it did not envisage the involvement of institutional mechanisms for solving problems, and neither did it allocate budgetary resources for the implementation of integration policies. In all of these areas the government expected external assistance. With regard to the conceptual framework, the government adopted the ideas of external donors. For example, the projects developed by the government and funded from EU pre-accession funds did not pursue the priorities formulated by the Framework Programme for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society but mechanically transferred foreign models such as teaching assistants, the construction of new houses for Roma, and others. With regard to the implementation of Roma policies, the government did not engage its institutions but relied on the activities of the NGOs. Usually government reports on these issues described the work that had been done by NGOs. With regard to the funding of Roma policies, the main resources were secured from external sources, not from the national budget.

The adoption of the Framework Programme for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society was a very progressive act on the part of the Bulgarian government. Subsequently, however, it became evident that the political will for the implementation of the Programme was absent. Later on, the Strategy for Educational Integration of Children and Pupils from Ethnic Minorities adopted by the Ministry of Education followed the same pattern. The establishment of the Centre for Educational Integration of Children and Pupils from Ethnic Minorities was meant to secure financial support on the part of the state for the successful practices of school desegregation implemented by NGOs which had given the impetus for the creation of this institution. In practice, however, the Centre is an external structure to the Ministry of Education and relies mainly on external financial resources for the funding of its activities.

The leading NGOs which developed good practices were pushing the government to scale up these practices through the involvement of central and local institutions and the allocation of funds from the national budget. During the EU pre-accession period, through its participation in discussions on Roma issues and by the adoption of policy documents, the government created an appearance of political will to undertake integration policies. European organisations, especially the EU, played a positive role in motivating the government to follow this path. Unfortunately government actions were exhausted with the adoption of policy documents and with promises for their implementation.

In the meantime, the situation of Roma progressively deteriorated. The economy of the country was in meltdown, unemployment was growing, and large numbers of the Bulgarian population, including Roma, saw their social conditions deteriorate. These processes were particularly harsh in the villages and small towns which were home to the larger part of the Roma population during the Socialist period. During the Socialist period, most of the Roma in these areas were relatively well-integrated in the macro society. After 1989, many of them lost their jobs and migrated towards the cities. In the cities Roma families moved to segregated Roma neighbourhoods and their children attended segregated Roma schools. The levels of school segregation have thus increased from around 50% in 1990 to 70% in 2003.19 According to estimates, approximately 200,000 Roma also immigrated to various European countries.20 Most of them started working, primarily in low-skilled jobs, and provided for their families in Bulgaria.

In 2005, the political party Ataka was elected to parliament. The establishment of the party was stimulated by the political victories of Jörg Haider in Austria in 199921 and of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France in 2002.22 The party gained electoral support through an aggressive anti-minority, especially anti-Roma, rhetoric, blaming minorities for all of the country’s troubles. During this period Ataka’s views were denounced by mainstream parties, the media and large layers of society.

A new element in the political field was the appearance of Roma political parties. Their entry into politics was caused by the political vacuum on the Roma issue at that time. While in the first seven years after 1989 attempts to ensure Roma participation were made within the mainstream parties and Roma looked to mainstream parties to defend their interests, in the following years disillusionment with the approach of mainstream parties to the Roma as an easy electoral reservoir logically led to the formation of Roma parties.

This period is characterised by the growing public participation of representatives from the so-called Kalderash (Gypsy) group, which lives separately from the rest of the Roma and considers itself the only authentic Gypsy community. Its members were nomadic until the mid-1950s and after their sedentarisation they spread across the country.23 In the first years after 1989, the Kalderash, with few exceptions, mainly concentrated on business and did not take part in politics on the Roma issue. The tough conditions for business development in the country pushed representatives of this community to seek political lobbies. In this respect, Kalderash businessmen are not different from other Bulgarian businessmen. Given this context, it is not surprising that while in the beginning of the transition to democracy the mainstream parties preferred relations with political leaders such as Manush Romanov (Democratic Union of Roma ) and Petar Gheorghiev (Confederation of Roma), at a later stage they developed relationships with Roma businessmen.

The Roma parties had partial success, especially at local elections. In 1999, the party Free Bulgaria led by Kiril Rashkov, received 51,860 votes or 1.6% of all votes, and had 83 municipal councillors and two mayors. However, due to weak organisational capacity, the party did not manage to capitalise on this electoral achievement. The other Roma parties did not have comparable results. Most outstanding among them were the two parliamentary mandates of Toma Tomov (2001-2009), whose party Roma was a coalition partner of the BSP, and the parliamentary mandate of Aleksander Filipov (2001-2005) who was elected from the list of the National Movement Simeon II. These mandates, however, did not contribute to the advancement of state policies on the Roma issue.

Despite the fact that Bulgaria experienced a very difficult transition period, EU accession gave hope to all citizens, including Roma, that the situation would improve and the country would take on a normal path of democratic development.

The Period after EU Accession: 2007-2014

This is a relatively short period which extends to today. An objective assessment of the events requires a certain distance in time. I will try to describe some of its major characteristics.

The first important characteristic is that after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU international pressure for Roma integration policies gradually subsided. Our Western partners, who used to be active proponents of Roma rights and integration policies, reduced their interest in this theme. This conclusion is relevant for western governments as well as for European organisations, although to a lesser degree as far as the latter are concerned.

The second characteristic is that the predominant part of the donor community withdrew from the country after EU accession and redirected their financial aid to new market niches in Africa and Central Asia. Without political and financial support, the role of civil society organisations in public processes has seriously decreased.

The third characteristic is that almost everywhere in the old democracies there has been an increase in xenophobic and anti-immigrant populist movements that have been gaining ground since 1989. Although marginal in the beginning of their existence, the parties representing these movements gradually increased their influence in society, emerging as winners in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament in leading democracies such as France and the UK.

Among the most drastic acts of xenophobia targeting Roma specifically, the notorious campaign for the expulsion of Roma from France was launched in 2010 not by a marginal anti-immigrant formation but by the French President. A mainstream French politician took an example from xenophobic parties in order to win over part of their support at the upcoming elections.

These events in old democracies had strong repercussions in Bulgaria. They encouraged racist factors and gave them a new international legitimacy. Anti-minority movements and parties in Bulgaria multiplied. The notion that Roma are to blame for the disasters and troubles of the transition period enjoyed growing social support. In 2014, three parties with an anti-minority and anti-Roma orientation were elected to the Bulgarian parliament, and two of them are in the governing coalition as of 2015. Anti-Roma sentiment in the media has also been booming. In contrast to the beginning of the transition period, anti-minority and anti-Roma rhetoric has been sustained – directly or indirectly – by mainstream parties and media. The government seriously reduced its efforts regarding integration policies.

In 2011, Bulgarian authorities, with the active support of media, organised a brutal defamation campaign against Roma NGOs. Targeted NGOs were subjected to investigations by the police, security structures, and the prosecutor’s office. Significant institutional resources were mobilised to investigate selected Roma NGOs on corruption allegations. After 18 months of unprecedented pressure on these Roma organisations, no evidence of corruption or illegal action on their part was found.24

However, the media achieved what the institutional pressure had not manage to achieve. The brutal campaign against Roma and Roma NGOs in the media, although unfounded, seriously damaged their reputation. The NGOs which were attacked had been disheartened by the fact that international pro-Roma organisations in Budapest and Brussels, with the exception of the Roma Education Fund, remained silent during this campaign, although information about it had been circulated. Regardless of the fact that at that moment there were already many actors concerned with Roma issues, in this instance of massive political repression Roma were left alone in their struggle.

With the campaign against Roma NGOs, the authorities had two strategic goals. The first goal was to expand electoral support among an increasing number of people with anti-minority and anti-Roma attitudes by demonstrating an active anti-Roma position. The second goal was to assert the notion that the failure of integration policies was not due to the lack of government action, but the lack of an integration attitude on the part of the Roma, complemented by the corrupt behaviour of Roma NGOs. The reason for the attack on NGOs could possibly have been the fact that they had growing legitimacy in the communities in which they worked. The tendency to blame Roma NGOs for lack of progress in Roma integration has not subsided to this day.


During the period of transition to democracy thousands of Roma activists from the first Roma organisations, the new Roma NGOs in the mid 1990s, and Roma and non-Roma political parties made efforts to improve the lives of the Roma. A number of activities undertaken by them were successful and had a positive effect not only on Roma communities but on broader society as well.

Overall, however, despite positive developments in some sectors, trends in the development of social and economic conditions in Bulgaria were unfavourable. The economy collapsed and the country was deindustrialised and demodernised in many respects. Over two million Bulgarian citizens, including Roma, left the country to seek a livelihood abroad. The development of important sectors such as education, healthcare and other social services dramatically regressed. As a result, the social status of the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian citizens deteriorated. EU accession was seen by many as the last hope that negative trends would be reversed. However, seven years after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU hopes have dwindled as there have been no significant improvements in the economy and in the lives of many people. According to Eurostat data confirmed by the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, 79% of Bulgarian families live below the income level per person that is needed for normal living. Moreover, around 50% of people in Bulgaria live below or near the poverty line.25 Roma, like many other Bulgarian citizens, have been affected by these negative social and economic trends. Their situation, however, has been aggravated by the growing tendency among the political, economic, media, and even academic elites to blame Roma for the problems facing the country.

Meanwhile, after 25 years of onerous transition, with the progressive loss of social status, some parts of Roma communities - up to 10% according to estimates - have fallen into the category of a marginal and problem-ridden group, a category which had already been ascribed to them at the beginning of the transition period. Developments in Roma communities in later years took the course of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also prophetic was the fear expressed by Mr Osztolykan from the Hungarian Gypsy organisation Fraternity, at the beginning of the transition, that Roma were faced with the threat of becoming a scapegoat for all of the mishaps of the transition period.26

The hopes of the Roma intellectuals “that the new times will return what was taken away from us” voiced by Dora Decheva at the beginning of the transition period did not materialise. Reality showed that in many respects “the new times” took away from us achievements that had been taken for granted: full employment, free access to medical care and social services, full coverage of Roma children by the school system, and others.

In conclusion, it can be said that the Roma did not get the real chance that they had expected under the new democratic conditions. The Roma did not get the chance to integrate in the political establishment, although this fact is logical given that this same establishment neglected not only the interests of the Roma but also the interests of the majority population. More difficult to comprehend is the conduct of external actors – international organisations, donors, and Western governments. They supported programmes and projects for the Roma, and at least at the level of rhetoric they demanded the empowerment of the Roma. In practice, however, they followed their own models and visions, rarely accepted ideas from the Roma and rarely allowed Roma to take positions of power. Due to the reasons listed above, I consider that it is incorrect to assert that the implementation of Roma integration policies has failed; Roma integration policies had all the preconditions needed to be successful but they were never realised.

Throughout their centuries-old history, the Roma have survived much bigger hardship and continued their development. This fact gives us hope that in this difficult period, Roma will reflect on the hardship, take their lives in their own hands, and find their place in society.


  1. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance (translation into Bulgarian), (Sofia: Obsidan, 2007), 220.
  2. Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy (translation into Bulgarian), (Sofia: Trud & Prozorets, 2002), 38.
  3. The focus of this discussion was the demand of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria for the restoration of their original Turkish-Arabic names that were forcefully changed to Christian names at the time of the so called “Revival Process”, 1984-1989. The political will of the Bulgarian government to restore the names of ethnic Turks had provoked discontent and protests among ethnic Bulgarians, especially in regions with ethnically mixed population. See “Kam nacionalno saglasie” (Towards National Consensus), Trud Daily, 12 January 1990.
  4. The team of advisors on minority issues included Michail Ivanov, Antonina Zheliazkova, and Ilona Tomova.
  5. According to data from a representative study on the Roma by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1980, which covered 4,943 persons, 88% of Roma men and 80% of Roma women of working age were employed. See D. Dimitrov, B. Chakalov, I. Gheorghieva. Utvarzhdavane na socialisticheskiya nachin na zhivot sred balgarskite grazhdani ot tsiganski proizhod (Affirmation of the Socialist Way of Life among Bulgarian Citizens of Gypsy Origin), (Sofia, 1980).
  6. Newspaper Roma, Number 1, 1990 in Kolev, G. Edin tsiganin v CK na BKP (One Gypsy in the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party) (Sofia, 2003).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mihail Ivanov was a member of the team of the opposition leader Zhelyu Zhelev. A few months later in August 1990, Zhelev was elected President of the Republic of Bulgaria and Mihail Ivanov was appointed President’s Advisor on Ethnic Issues. The positions on the Roma issue espoused by Mihail Ivanov, Antonina Zhelyazkova, and Ilona Tomova were perceived as positions of the UDF’s leader Zhelev, i.e. as positions of the UDF itself. Newspaper Roma, Number 1, 1990, statement by Mihail Ivanov.
  9. The article by Scott Smedley and Chris Steven was reprinted in Duma Daily, 26 April 1990.
  10. In April 1990 the Bulgarian Communist Party changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
  11. Newspaper Roma, Number 1, 1990, statement by Aleksander Mirchev.
  12. Ibid.
  13. 9 September 1944 marks the beginning of the Socialist period in Bulgaria.
  14. Ibro Assov, “Pomislete i za tyah, gospoda” (Think about them as well, gentlemen), Duma daily, 27 May 1990.
  15. “M. Romanov e nedovolen ot NKS na SDS” (M. Romanov is Dissatisfied with the National Coordination Committee of the Union of Democratic Forces), 24 Chasa daily, 28 September 1991.
  16. T Tomova, Romskata politika (Roma Politics), (Sofia: 2006).
  17. Council of Ministers Decree 449, from 4 December 1997.
  18. Ibid.
  19. The National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, “Informacia za politikata na balgarskoto pravitelstvo za podobriavane na polozhenieto na romskoto naselenie v Balgaria” (Information about the Policy of the Bulgarian Government for Improving the Situation of the Roma Population in Bulgaria), 2003.
  20. According to data from the Institute of Economics of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, cited by Bulgarian National Radio, the number of immigrants from Bulgaria is approximately 2,500,000. See T. Harizanova, “Bulgarian Immigrants are the Biggest Investor in Bulgaria”, Bulgarian National Radio, 18 March 2014. There is no specific figure for the number of Roma immigrants; based on the fact that Roma comprise approximately 10% of the Bulgarian population, the author’s hypothesis is that Roma immigrants account for approximately 10% of all immigrants from Bulgaria.
  21. See V. Siderov, “Idva vreme za nacionalizam bez ugovorki” (The Time Has Come for nationalism without conditionalities) Monitor Daily, 25 October 1999.
  22. See V. Siderov, “Zashto ni plashat s Lyo Pen a ne pokazhat programata mu” (Why are We Threatened by Le Pen instead of Looking at His Programme) Monitor Daily, 24 April 2002.
  23. E. Marushiakova, V. Popov, Tsiganite v Balgaria (Gypsies in Bulgaria) (Sofia, 1993).
  24. E. Kodinova, “Prokuraturata razsledva 18 meseca dali sa otkradnati parite na Soros i ne otkri nishto” (The Prosecutor’s office investigated whether Soros’ funds were stolen for 18 months and did not find anything), Sega daily, 14 May 2012.
  25. “Nad 3, 4 miliona balgari zhiveyat n araba na miseriyata” (Over 3.4 million Bulgarians live at the edge of misery), Sega daily, 12 May 2015.
  26. From an article by Scott Smedley and Chris Steven, which was reprinted in Duma Daily, 26 April 1990.


Horizontal Rule


Horizontal Rule