Interview with Roumen Yanovski

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Eastern Europe, Interviews

Roumen Yanovski, ACCESS

On the media

Despite the changing laws, the international position, and the emergence of two generations, there has been extremely limited change in Bulgaria in terms of ideas about ethnicity and ethnic groups. A lot of people would disagree with me. But this is what I feel, and it is the saddest result of our efforts over the last 20 years.

In the media, there has been a change. The term Roma is used instead of gypsy. This is an important change that took place in the last decade. It took an enormous effort of a lot of people from human rights organizations. So, we can report a measurable result in the change of name used in mainstream newspapers. But from my point of view – and maybe I’m deliberately thinking in the most outspoken way – this wasn’t a result worth the effort. We really didn’t change anything in people’s minds.

They used to say tsigany 10 years ago; now they are using the new term Roma, but with the same degree of preconceptions and negative feelings and prejudices as before. On the other hand, the people who used to be tolerant and open-minded and who used tsigany now use Roma, but they, too, think the same way, and are still open-minded. So this didn’t address the main questions – e.g., how are we to live with this group of people, how are we going to do things together, how are we to help them integrate into modern society. The majority – that is, the Bulgarian majority – remains as ignorant as they were 15 years ago. From this point of view, our efforts have not been as successful as we had hoped.

Currently we’re working on a project that aims to target the majority of Bulgarians via the media with information about Roma human rights, written by Roma and showing a disastrous picture of conditions in the ghettos. We’re trying to avoid this polar confrontation, either pro-Roma or anti-Roma, either human rights activist or xenophobe/racist. There has been no calm, decent debate. It’s almost impossible to write or say anything. We are trying to do things at a small, everyday level, with perhaps limited success but still something that leaves an impression in the mind of every reader.

On Roma and financing

Roma small business support would do more than simply give people money. Building housing for Roma families and offering it for free without competition or contract – this is not good. But if I start to argue these things with human rights activists, I’m accused of being a xenophobe because I don’t believe in just giving things away.

On Roma

Things do not look so optimistic. Of course, you can show measurable results in artificially created figures. But in my personal opinion, we are only scratching the surface of the problem. I’m at a loss because I don’t see the tool with which to go deeper. Maybe we are in need of more money. Maybe a global program with multimillion-dollar financing could change everything – schools, health care, etc. But this is not possible. Nobody could afford it here. Unless we find a new set of tools, we will continue to pour water into a broken glass. There is already a small society of people and groups that really profit from this funding. There is an infrastructure of experienced NGO leaders. They know how to do things and report things.

We had a program that tried to offer a concise educational course for Roma journalists, giving them the basic knowledge in order to work for a news publication. We compressed it into a course of several months. We tried to find places for them, to introduce them to mainstream media, not Roma-language media. And you feel good when you see that next year this guy is doing okay, that he has a job. So, at the grassroots level, things can be changed. But on a global level…

There are some journalists following Roma issues. Some newspapers more eagerly cover ethnic issues. There are one or two prominent journalists that are known to be Roma. But generally we can’t count on having an influx of ethnic journalists into the mainstream media. They can’t compete with Bulgarian journalists. Even placing Roma interns in the mainstream media would change things. Having Roma in the mainstream media would allow Bulgarian journalists to see that these people can write, prepare texts, fact-check. So this is a step-by-step success. This is extremely important for another reason. Bulgarian journalists don’t have access to Roma issues. They don’t speak the Roma language. They can’t count on any connections or contacts. You need a Roma representative to point out some things. Two journalists can look at the same picture and come to very different conclusions. The Roma journalist can notice things in a picture – who this woman is, why she is standing aside. It’s inside information, and it’s useful information.

You can find Roma represented at different levels of Bulgarian life. There is a prominent Roma cardiac surgeon. Everybody knows he is Roma but nobody says he is. There is a soccer player who scored a goal against Chelsea. He’s a very good player and he’s Roma, but now nobody says that he’s Roma.

In our society, Roma means “not successful”. In Bulgaria, you can be a successful Armenian, Jew, even Turk – indeed, there has been an important change in the situation and perception of ethnic Turks – but the idea of Roma in the minds of the majority is most often linked to a lack of success. It is a collective prejudice.

On comparing Roma and ethnic Turks

Some 20 years ago, the Bulgarian government attempted a campaign against ethnic Turks, and that was to change their names and their religion by force. With this page of history in mind, we thought that tensions between ethnic Turks and ethnic Bulgarians would last for generations. But actually, relations improved rapidly. The image of the Turk has changed visibly during these last 15-20 years. It is now possible to see an ethnic Turk as a newscaster. The man is announced by his Turkish name. This could not have been imagined some 10 years ago, no way. And he’s good, by the way. People don’t notice that he is an ethnic Turk.

Why did this not happen with Roma? Because they started out in a much lower position. The socioeconomic level of ethnic Turks was much higher than that of Roma. But if I subscribe to this logic, I could be accused of racism, because it suggests that I think Roma are not able to do these things. Another explanation is that ethnic Turks have their own party. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms has a smart leader. Its very existence in Bulgaria is a success. It has been a skillful force in the Bulgarian political spectrum for at least a decade. The Roma tried to follow this example. There were 25-30 attempts to create a Roma party. There are at least five to six parties on the official register, but these parties don’t actually exist.

It is possible to appreciate what the Movement for Rights and Freedoms has done for Turks. But it achieved this at a high cost, creating negative perceptions in the majority population. Most Roma people in Bulgaria believe that they could do much better if they had a political party. But there is no political party, and I am quite sure that there could not be a decent political party that relied mainly on Roma voters.

On education and identity

History textbooks are written to tell a tale of a country, of a state, and not of the people living there. This is a common shortcoming of all history textbooks. Historians are always the most national-minded people, but they look at what is happening in Bulgaria according to the state, not the people. Macedonians, Romanians, Greeks, Serbs – they all follow this pattern. They neglect topics related to cultures, to interracial and inter-group relations. This is not just from the perspective of minority groups. A friend of mine claims the same thing about our textbooks from the point of view of gender. The history textbooks are mostly a male history of Bulgaria. The textbooks don’t talk about women; it’s as if they never existed. So maybe we will have to learn how to read and how to write historical textbooks.

There is a Balkan university foundation that is writing a common historical textbook of all the Balkans. It plans to introduce this textbook into the schools of all the Balkan states, in order to assuage controversial issues. But I simply don’t believe in this kind of effort. It’s impossible to write something that can be used as a common instrument. We are different groups, after all. What we can do, however, is revise all these documents and introduce new things like community life, like gender issues, etc., and this will change the character of the textbook.

On changing identity

Identity: is it the one thing we won’t change? You get a different answer from Roma and from Turks. During all these years of turmoil ethnic Turks cared about their identity. It was simply not something that was subject to change. For Roma, during the years of turmoil, they could profit from changing their identity, because of some vague concepts of social mobility or because of prejudice in society. It was much more profitable for a Roma to not let others know he or she is Roma. So, the Roma identity is more subject to change in years of turmoil. It’s much easier to find a job, to rent an apartment, to do a lot of things if you are not Roma.

Maybe the reason Bulgarians can’t answer this question is because Bulgarian ethnicity doesn’t have a clear definition. We live at a crossroads. We have too many drops of blood of other people. Me included. I’m one–eighth Tartar, one-eight Ukrainian; my grandfather comes from contemporary Macedonia, which used to be Bulgaria; and my father was born in Thessaloniki. It is brash and desperate and indecent for me to say that I am Bulgarian by blood. We are just too different. If you go onto a tram and look at the anthropology of the people, there is no single, stable physical type. So, we stick closer to the idea of Bulgarian identity not of blood identity per say, but of cultural, linguistic, even religious identity (with or without quotation marks). My personal impression is that almost 50 percent of ethnic Bulgarians are atheists. But they will say that they are Orthodox because they will understand your question not from a purely clerical or theological point of view but as an indicator of respect for the fact that the Orthodox Church is part of Bulgarian history.

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