Much has changed in Eastern Europe over 22 years. But one group that has seen relatively little improvement in its fortunes over this period has been the Roma. Unemployment levels among Roma remain high. Access to decent education, health care, and other social services is limited. Representation in politics and business is minimal. And discrimination remains pervasive.
In interviews and casual conversations in the four southeastern European countries I visited this fall, I heard the same stereotypes about Roma repeated over and over again. And many of the people who trafficked in these stereotypes were highly educated, the people who are expected “to know better.”
Maria Metodieva was, until recently, in charge of Roma issues at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. She confirmed for me this most depressing fact. “We’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory,” she said. “The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment, and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism.”
But alas, there isn’t as much cultural pluralism in Bulgaria as one might hope. The effort to desegregate schools and ensure that Roma and non-Roma mix in the classrooms has encountered pushback. Economically, Roma continue to be marginalized, often living in crowded conditions in poor neighborhoods in cities like Plovdiv. Some successful Roma, borrowing a page from African-American history, “pass” as non-Roma if they can get away with it, which does little to upend common stereotypes. And even very successful Roma who openly proclaim their heritage, like TV anchorwoman Violeta Draganova, have experienced the same, maddening discrimination that their less famous brothers and sisters face.
Here’s another depressing fact. The OSI program has been quite successful in placing Roma interns in businesses in Bulgaria. But that success has been almost entirely in multinational businesses, Maria Metodieva reports, not with Bulgarian businesses. Roma don’t just face a glass ceiling – they face glass walls.
Europe is currently more than halfway through the Decade of Roma Inclusion. There have been conferences and studies and documentaries and political lobbying. And millions of Euros have been allocated to closing the gap between Roma and the rest of Europe. There have been some notable achievements, particularly in terms of the greater visibility of Roma issues. But it’s easy to get discouraged when you come face to face with persistent discrimination. On the other hand, the modern civil rights movement in the United States was at it for more than two decades before achieving the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the election of an African-American president more than four decades later still doesn’t mean that racism has been flushed out of the American system.
But many Roma, as they struggle against injustice and attempt to build a truly multiethnic democracy, keep their eyes on the prize. Maria Metodieva talked with me about OSI’s programs on Roma and what has worked and hasn’t worked in terms of policy approaches. She now works at the Trust for Social Achievement, which focuses on education, jobs, and capacity-building for marginalized communities in Bulgaria.
How would you evaluate the change in the situation for Roma between 1989 and today, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 least disappointed?
3, which is quite close to 1. Unfortunately after the changes, the living conditions for Roma deteriorated. And Roma became more marginalized compared to the period of the socialist regime.
How do you feel about your own personal situation over the same period and along the same spectrum?
Considering the fact that I was very young in 1989, I would say 6.
Looking into the near future, 1-2 years, how do you feel about the prospects for Bulgarian society, with 1 being most pessimistic, 10 most optimistic?
Considering the political context and the economic situation, I would give a 3 again, because I think that one or two years is too short a time for any significant change in regard to economic or political stability.
Please tell me a little bit about the Roma-related programs here at the Bulgarian office of Open Society.
I’m managing a bunch of projects that range from small-scale to really large-scale. They are mainly on issues related to the Decade of Roma Inclusion, the initiative led by George Soros and the World Bank. The priorities we work on are health, employment, and housing. We also do some work on education, mostly through the provision of scholarships to Roma studying medicine. Most of our projects are research. We try to assist in the adequate formulation of evidence-based policies by the government at a national, regional and local level.
We have some interesting action projects. One of them is a project we call Bridging Roma and Private Business in Bulgaria. We place qualified and highly motivated Roma in internships in multinational and national companies in Bulgaria. The hidden objective of this program is to place the interns in permanent employment. This appears to be the most successful Roma initiative.
We have some other projects that are large-scale and related to research. We try to identify the position of Roma in the labor market. We try to follow trends in terms of social distance toward Roma in mainstream society.
You said the placement of interns in multinational companies was successful. Can you give some examples?
We have a girl named Desi. She’s a lawyer by vocation. She applied to the program. We placed her at TNT, a logistics company. She was placed as an intern to the general manager of the company here in Bulgaria. This was three years ago. After the three months, she was offered a year-long contract. Then she was retrained to take another position in lower management in the company. Now she is still working for TNT. I believe that her life changed. Actually she’s one of the best practices, if we can use that phrase, because she managed to change the stereotypes and the attitudes of her colleagues. She was Roma in an environment that is completely Bulgarian, without any other ethnic minority representatives. Now she feels very comfortable within the company.
We had another example of Bozhidar, who was interested in alternative energy resources. We placed him in an electricity supply company here in Bulgaria, EVN, a Bulgarian-Austrian company. He worked there for a year and a half. Nowadays he is paid partly by EVN to do a master’s degree in the United States. I think these are the two of the most successful that we’ve had in this program. In general, we have a really good success rate for interns that were placed and are still working.
But your evaluation of the situation for Roma was 3, which suggests that there remain significant challenges. Can you tell me about the most significant challenges that your programs face?
Negative attitudes and discrimination. Affirmative action, something that’s quite popular in the United States, this is not something that would happen or be acceptable in Bulgaria. It wouldn’t work. The bridging project actually is a kind of affirmative action program, but it works only with multinational companies, not with the Bulgaria companies. This is another sign that something is really wrong. So, the first challenge is the hostile environment.
We have also witnessed the rise of far-right-oriented political parties, which have had huge support from Bulgarian citizens, and that’s why they have managed to enter the Bulgarian parliament. So, this is another thing that has been a great challenge to our programs.
Otherwise, I’d say that it’s mostly human resources that is lacking on behalf of the Roma community: people who are willing to work and be dedicated to the cause of improving the life of Roma in Bulgaria. This lack of human resources is connected to the lack of education, the lack of access to quality education.
Some people have told me that there’s been some improvement over the last five or six years in terms of attitudes about Roma, in part because of the success of some Roma in Bulgarian society. Others have told me that there has been movement backward. I talked to someone about a program with Bulgarian journalists. The only thing they were able to able to achieve was the change in the descriptive word, from Gypsy to Roma, but the actual attitude of people didn’t change. What do you think, has there been some improvement or movement backward?
I’ll give you an example. You see me now. If I go to New York, do you think that anyone would turn to me and call me a Gypsy?
I have a son. He’s four years old. Two weeks ago, we were traveling with my husband to visit his parents in the village. On the way back, we stopped at a gas station. The gas station has a playground. So my son, said, “Mommy, can I go and play a bit at the playground.” And I said, “Of course, you can.” There were a few kids, ages 6 to 9. When my son approached, they said, “Go away, you dirty Gypsy.” This is the situation now in this country.
I interviewed the Roma journalist Violeta Draganova and she told me a very similar story involving a swimming pool. She also said she likes to go to Brussels, because people there think she’s Spanish and she doesn’t have to deal with negative stereotypes. At an individual level, the discrimination continues. Do you see any indications of improvement at the larger, societal level?
Unfortunately, no. Because there are some preconditions that have to be taken into consideration. Some factors impede the acceptance of Roma as equal citizens of Bulgaria. First of all, the government, even though it recognizes there is a problem with Roma, doesn’t speak aloud about it. They think that if they speak publicly they won’t win the next elections. The other problem is the media. Even though it uses politically correct terminology, the media still publishes articles with content that is abusive. The media is the main channel that transmits the messages of negative attitudes about Roma in Bulgaria.
Right now, we have this interesting reality TV format called Big Brother. We have a young Roma singer, an artist who’s invited to take part in that program. She’s been very active on mainstream issues, as active as any other participant. But at the same time there are these comments on the online forums and by the other participants on the show that she’s Roma and therefore she’s stupid. Or that she’s not good enough to be on this Big Brother reality show. This is the common opinion of the average Bulgarian.
In addition to that, we’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory. The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism. The illiterate, not having even primary education, are not supposed to know much about these things. This is an interesting phenomenon that has to be researched to identify the reasons.
There is a similar reality show in Serbia in which celebrities live with ordinary families. And they had a show in which a famous person lived with a Roma family. The negative reactions were similar to those in Bulgaria. On the other hand, however, there was a whole set of positive reactions, like “I never saw how Roma lived before” and “It was interesting to see a Serb that we know interacting in a positive way with Roma.” Are such positive responses possible here in Bulgaria?
Yes, but on a very personal level. The mass attitudes are influenced by stereotypes. But if you follow individual cases, then you see the possibility for change in this type of attitude.
I’ll give you another example. A colleague of ours recently left our office. She went to work for a multinational company. When we interviewed her for the position here, she was clearly informed that it was a Roma-related program. And she was honestly interested in the program. Then suddenly during the implementation of the program, she became so frustrated with the beneficiaries of the project. In a way she revealed her stereotypes of the Roma, that Roma are not good.
So, on the one hand, there’s a real interest on behalf of different representatives of society to learn more and to hear more about the Roma community. On the other hand, many people are raised with the notion that Roma are bad, are illiterate. At some point these people try to prove these stereotype for themselves.
The Movements for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) was supposed to deal with not just the rights and freedoms of the ethnic Turkish community, but of all ethnic communes. Do you think that MRF has represented Roma issues over the last 20 years? We’ve also seen the development of some Roma parties, like EuroRoma. Can any of those parties serve the same kind of function that MRF has served for the ethnic Turkish population?
I think that this particular political movement has not been openly serving this function for the Roma community, but still this issue is on their agenda, and they use it for their own profit. We’ve had local mayors and actual Roma representatives involved in local municipalities and authorities around the country from this particular party. Basically, there is a dialogue between Roma community leaders and the MRF.
On the second question, Roma political parties, there have been many attempts. The politically correct answer is that due to the diversity of the Roma communities in Bulgaria, it is difficult to find and identify a compromise that unites them politically. Bulgaria is a unique example, not found anywhere in Europe or in Central-Europe Europe, where Roma cannot work together. Roma leaders can’t do anything together. And it’s not because they’re diverse. It’s because their agenda is completely different. There are also large levels of corruption among the Roma leaders. But this is not the politically correct answer.
Ataka has become a more powerful political force. Do you think that this is just temporary, the result of the economic conditions in Bulgaria? Or are you more pessimistic?
The influence of Ataka and the passion it has generated are vanishing. It’s not the kind of factor today that it was four years ago. I don’t think they have any chances for the next parliamentary elections. There are private interests behind Ataka. If anyone dares to disclose information about the founding resources, it would be very interesting.
Why do you think that Ataka’s popularity has declined?
Because the current government GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) is no longer interested in Ataka as a partner. This might change for the next elections. Obviously, Ataka has lost a part of its audience because of the internal challenges facing the party in terms of governing, corruption, and everything else. This is part of the reason why I believe that Ataka is losing support.
If GERB tries to make a coalition for the next election, it won’t be with Ataka. But it may form a coalition with that other crazy man, Yane Yanev, from RZS (Order, Law and Justice). It’s another small formation. But the government uses Yanev to shut the mouth of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with corruption scandals. I have to be honest. We are witnessing a very interesting and challenging political life after the changes in 1989. Not that I’m not familiar with what happened before that. I’ve read historical books. It seemed quite boring during the time of Todor Zhivkov.
The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times.
Obviously, we are cursed!
The ruling party is not, you mentioned, interested in working in coalition with Ataka. Do you think that GERB has absorbed some of Ataka’s message and made its right-wing populism into a more politically acceptable form in Bulgaria?
I can’t say that. At the same time, we have a high-ranking official, the vice prime minister responsible for the Decade of Roma Inclusion who is also the minister of interior. At a public forum, he dares to say that the major target group of his ministry are Roma. They are the most marginalized and criminalized people in the country, and he’s obliged to undertake appropriate measures to reduce the rate of Roma perpetrating crimes. So, it’s part of the government’s rhetoric. But I don’t think that they’re as oriented toward the kind of discrimination that Ataka was proclaiming during the elections.
The EU has put some funds into Roma issues. Have they made a difference?
It’s too soon to tell. We became a member of the EU just recently, in 2007. Five years is not sufficient time for achieving any success. In addition to that, there is a lack of capacity and human resources in the government to absorb funds related to Roma. Increasing the capacity of the government to implement this kind of policy would be the best-case scenario.
At the same time, there is a lack of decision about whether the government will implement targeted policies for Roma or whether they will implement mainstream policies funded by the EU. This hesitancy and lack of understanding has led to a total confusion around spending money. They spend without a clear vision about the final product or the beneficiaries.
Are there programs in the region directed at Roma, or with Roma or by Roma, that you can point to and say, this is a great program, this is something that can serve as an important model?
I think that what works best is a mainstream policy that has an impact on socially vulnerable or challenged people. I’ve seen an example of social housing in Spain that has worked well both for Roma and for socially vulnerable groups. For me, this project would work anywhere because it is a mainstream program and it won’t lose support from Roma or mainstream society.
I’ll give you another example. We had a Roma-targeted policy funded by EU funds in Burgas here in Bulgaria. The municipality applied for the funds and the project was approved. The main goal of the project was the construction of social housing for Roma. But suddenly, the local community in Burgas opposed this construction and forced the mayor to withdraw from the project. So, basically, Roma-related projects won’t work in Bulgaria.
When I worked with the American Friends Service Committee, I worked on an exchange that brought American civil rights leaders to this region to meet with Roma. During these meetings, three different approaches came out: a civil rights approach by Roma that was more confrontational, a community development approach, and a top-down approach with EU and government funding. Which approach do you think is best?
There has to be a mixture of all these approaches. Therefore, we are trying to convince the government that an integrated approach is needed to solve the problems of Roma. There has to be a dual process. On the one side there are Roma. On the other side, there are ethnic Bulgarians and other ethnic minorities. At some point, these two groups have to meet somewhere. The problem is that neither of the groups is moving. We are at some kind of a dead end. And we have to find another way to make these groups move forward toward each other.
Unfortunately to make groups move, we have not only to secure funding, public support, and adequate government with an adequate message. We also have to talk to people on the community level, people who live together with Roma and Bulgarians as well as Roma who live only among Roma. Everyone feels comfortable in their own situation, and they don’t want to change it.
Sofia, September 25, 2012