Shortly before the last national elections in Bulgaria in 2011, an incident took place in the village of Katunitsa, which is not far from the second-largest city of Plovdiv. On the night of September 23, a 19-year-old ethnic Bulgarian Angel Petrov was hit by a car and died. It was an accident, but it wasn’t accidental. His accused murderer, a mini-bus driver Simeon Yosifov, was a relative of a prominent local Roma powerbroker by the name of Kiril Rashkov. Tsar Kiro, as the powerbroker was known, had it out for the young victim.
Yosifov the driver would eventually receive a 17-year jail sentence. When his lawyers filed for an appeal, the judge upped his sentence to 18 years. Tsar Kiro also received 3.5 years for threatening several locals.
This incident in Katunitsa unleashed a firestorm of anti-Roma sentiment. Local residents turned their anger on Tsar Kiro and his family. Anti-Roma activists descended on Katunitsa and, though police were on hand to provide security, burned down Rashkov’s properties. Elsewhere in the country, anti-Roma demonstrations took place that featured slogans such as “Gypies into soap” and “Die gypsies.” Skinheads and other racist activists took the opportunity to beat up Roma – in Stara Zagora, Blagoevgrad, Varna, Stamboliiski.
The Katunitsa incident also galvanized Roma civil society – to organize protection, get involved in the 2011 elections, and challenge the Bulgarian media perception that Tsar Kiro represented the Roma community.
One Roma organization in particular leapt into action: Civil Society in Action. It organized election monitoring in Roma neighborhoods to see if Roma were being discouraged in any way from voting. It conducted an analysis of the impact of Katunitsa on the media, the public, and the political process. And it challenged the comfortable relationship between the ethnic Bulgarian political elite and the self-appointed Roma political elite represented by the likes of Tsar Kiro.
Their report on Katunitsa – published last month and available here in Bulgarian – concludes that a combination of anti-Roma sentiment and deliberate manipulation of access to polling sites reduced Roma participation in the elections. Racist sentiment leaked into mainstream politics from what had previously been the populist margins. And the number of Roma elected officials at the local level declined significantly from 113 in the elections of 2003 to a mere 17 in the 2011 elections.
Civil Society in Action wants an honest discussion in Bulgaria about Roma and politics. “Political parties avoided a real debate about what had happened in Katunitsa and after that,” the report argues, “because it would have broken the status quo created in the beginning of the transition period of democracy, whose product was Kiril Rashkov himself.”
I talked to Orhan Tahir of Civil Society in Action just before the publication of this report. He is critical of the nexus of corruption that links some Roma leaders, like Tsar Kiro, with the ethnic Bulgarian political elite. And he is particularly angry that outside donors, like the European Union, continue to strengthen this opaque relationship.
“The European Commission gives money to the national government on Roma issues and then the national government spends this money in non-transparent ways,” he told me. “Since 1999, I have seen only one report from the government about what money was spent for Roma inclusion, and this was $500,000 from the World Bank, not from Europe. If you go to the website of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the state body responsible for Roma inclusion, it’s very difficult to find a financial report. The PHARE program provided about 70 million Euro for Roma inclusion. We asked the Bulgarian government what happened to this money and we haven’t gotten an answer. And the European commission keeps giving money to the government! Of course a small percentage of this money goes to some Roma NGOs, which are bought with this money. My suspicion is that the ruling parties use part of the money to buy votes. It’s like a joke, that the money for Roma inclusion is used for buying Roma votes. But I can’t prove it.”
Our discussion ranged over a number of issues, including the role of the Roma intelligentsia, the populism of Bulgarian politicians, and the country’s possible Apartheid future.
When you look back at everything that has changed or not changed in Bulgaria since 1989, how would you evaluate what has happened here?
Most people feel disappointed. Only a small group of people benefitted from the transition, mostly in an economic and political sense.
In my opinion, the main problem lies in the nature of the communist regimes. Communist Bulgaria didn’t have an intelligentsia other than a communist intelligentsia. That’s why, after the change, most of these communist intellectuals became democrats. These were the people who studied at Western universities, who knew English very well, who were prepared to be the new democratic elite in Bulgaria. I think that the West was aware that there is no other intelligentsia here.
In comparison to Poland, Bulgaria didn’t have such strong dissident movement that opposed the communists. Poland has a longer tradition of democracy. There were more private owners, so it has a stronger middle class, and we can speak of a bourgeoisie in Poland as well as in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Polish universities also have a long tradition of autonomy. We don’t have that kind of tradition here: Bulgarian universities were established just after liberation in the 19th century. The greater autonomy of Polish universities – and those in Czechoslovakia and Hungary – encouraged the appearance of alternative thinking, and some kind of dissident movements appeared in these countries.
Here the Communist Party was more totalitarian. It didn’t tolerate different opinions. Here the most prepared people in all fields of life – economics, science, culture – were raised up by the Communist Party. There was no other way.
In this society, then, there was a transformation of power but not a transformation of the holders of power. In many cases, the biggest experts on political issues, as well as many of the ministers in the government, are the sons, the nieces, the sons-in-law of this former communist aristocracy, this red aristocracy.
The Communist regime here didn’t tolerate the existence of opposition groups. Of course there were exceptions, people who didn’t agree with the status quo. But they didn’t organize themselves into something bigger as in Poland or the Czech republic. This is one of the biggest problems of the Bulgarian transition. We didn’t have a real change of the elites. I don’t see how it could have been different. We couldn’t import people from somewhere else. Actually, the most active opposition — those who fought, who tried to organize illegal resistance, the people who were considered dangerous and who could lead a democratic opposition and be real voices for choice — these people were expelled from the country in 1989. Some were sent to Austria and other Western countries. Those who were Muslims were sent to Turkey.
Our so-called velvet revolution was without blood, that’s true. But I can’t say that it was a revolution.
In the universities, there are professors, some of them not even so old, who still preserve this mentality, this communist behavior, and they are only 50 years old. Among these people there are even strong nationalists. I call them national socialists since they are both nationalist and socialist at the same time. People who used to be loyal communists, who used to write thick books about how great the former communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was, are now writing thick books about democracy and about multiculturalism. This is the paradox in Bulgaria – these people belong to a different era, they didn’t really change. How can these people with these kinds of values teach university students and make them believe in these new values? They can’t.
The same is true in the political sphere. People talk about the era of communism like it was a good time. Our current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said, for example, that nobody has done more for Bulgaria than Todor Zhivkov. You can find his comments on the Internet. We have a populist wave in this country which is on its way to becoming a nationalist populist wave. We describe this in the report of our observations of the 2011 presidential and local elections in Bulgaria — The Impact of Katunica on the Elections in 2011 – published by Civil Society in Action.
In 1999, the government of Ivan Kostov, from the Union of Democratic Forces, pushed Bulgaria ahead. It had good impact. Then came the tsar, Tsar Simeon II, who formed a government with his party in 2001. Hi government in some way continued this line of economic progress. Then came the triple coalition of the tsar’s party, the Coalition for Bulgaria, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. And now we have the worst government since the beginning of the democratic change.
What about the status of NGOs here in Bulgaria and the impact of foreign donors?
Before, many external donors supported the NGO sector and civil society here in Bulgaria. They created some kind of pluralism. There were 5-7 big donors, mostly American, some Dutch. Then when Bulgaria became a member of the European Union, these donors either left the country or extensively limited their activities and their funding for Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government became the biggest donor because the European Commission gives money to the government and the government then distributes all the money to programs like agriculture, regional development, ecology, social inclusion. In this way, by using this European money as an instrument of control, the government creates a loyal circle of private companies and NGOs and media. This is a very bad process, and it is killing civil society. This is the biggest paradox for me: the European Union is helping the national government to kill civil society!
This is especially true for Roma issues. The European Commission gives money to the national government on Roma issues and then the national government spends this money in non-transparent ways. Since 1999, I have seen only one report from the government about what money was spent for Roma inclusion, and this was $500,000 from the World Bank, not from Europe. If you go to the website of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the state body responsible for Roma inclusion, it’s very difficult to find a financial report. The PHARE program provided about 70 million Euro for Roma inclusion. We asked the Bulgarian government what happened to this money and we haven’t gotten an answer. And the European commission keeps giving money to the government! Of course a small percentage of this money goes to some Roma NGOs, which are bought with this money. My suspicion is that the ruling parties use part of the money to buy votes. It’s like a joke, that the money for Roma inclusion is used for buying Roma votes. But I can’t prove it.
Money is an instrument for control. If this money goes through the government, then the government can do whatever it wants. We are voiceless. The media is totally controlled. At the beginning of the 1990s, foreign investors and media groups started new media like television stations and newspapers, or they bought existing ones. About the time when the current government – GERB or Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria — took power in 2009, the foreign owners started selling the media to Bulgarian oligarchs, who are connected to powerful interests like the former secret services. If you look at the latest report of Reporters Without Borders, Bulgaria comes in last in the list of EU countries according to media freedom. We have very serious censorship.
That’s why, when I try to say something in the media, no one covers what I say. I’ll give a press conference, the far-right media comes, and the next day they’ll write something that I didn’t say. Do you know how depressing that is?
How did you get involved in this work?
I’m a comparatively young person. I’m 34 years old. In 1990, I was 12. So I belong to a generation that developed after 1989, that was inspired by democracy, by Western values. When I was a university student, I spent this time working for NGOs. In 1999, when I started work for a human rights NGO, we were reporting cases of violence against Roma.
We are still at this same point. In fact, the level of Roma violence is even bigger. Last year, in the week after Katunitsa, which was September 23, at least 20 Roma were attacked in this country. This information is only from the media. But I have information that the number of attacks was three times greater.
In 1990, the transition started with a big risk to the ethnic peace in Bulgaria. Now again we have another period of inter-ethnic tensions. The issue today is not the Turkish people, the issue is the Roma people. In 1990, ethnic Turks were included in Bulgarian political life. They were integrated, allowed to participate in elections, to make a party. They didn’t need any more illegal organizations or organize armed resistance. This was a shift from ethno-political to social power. But for Roma, the issues remain ethno-political. People don’t talk about economic or political issues connected to Roma.
There’s a question on Facebook: do you support a war between Bulgarians and Roma? Of the 23,000 people who voted, most of them voted for war. It’s clear that the integration of Roma, which took place over the last two decades in an old-fashioned way, has failed. It failed not only because there are still too many illiterate and poor Roma. The criterion should not be the situation of the illiterate but the situation of the Roma intelligentsia: those who have paid their bills, who are decent citizens, who are well educated. These people, people like me, have not been integrated. I know many young Roma people who are unemployed, who can’t find jobs because they are Roma. Those who can hide their ethnicity, it’s easier for them to find jobs.
If well-educated Roma cannot find jobs, cannot progress, cannot live normally, then how can they be an example for illiterate people? They say, “You went to university for five years, and you’re staying at home, unemployed? Your parents spend so much money for your education, and you have no job? Look at the salesman at the market, he is doing better!” The Roma intelligentsia itself is marginalized within Bulgarian society, within the Bulgarian intelligentsia. They simply make it clear to you that you’re not welcome in their circles.
If you look at the parliament, in the political elite, how many Roma can you identify? There are just a few people in mid-level administrative positions. In 1990, the majority could say, “There are no Roma who can do these jobs.” But today it’s different. We have the people. But educated Roma are not welcome.
We have a hidden authoritarian system in Bulgaria under the EU cover. Some of the most progressive and able people have left Bulgaria, so it’s far more difficult to organize anything here than in 1990. It’s all about the human resources and, of course, the financial resources. Still, there are people here who are very clever. But most of these people don’t work in the field where they feel strongest. They work somewhere else just for the money. This is wasting people’s potential, their ability, their knowledge.
There is a very worrying process at the local level: the political clash, the competition of ideas between left and right, is becoming transformed into a competition between ethnic groups. For example, when you have a strong Roma candidate for mayor who is a straightforward guy, honest, not involved in criminal issues, not involved in vote-buying, who has the support of the community – and we saw such candidates recently in three towns – the Bulgarian candidates made an unofficial coalition to not allow these Roma into power. They said, “We cannot allow Gypsies to control this town.” This is the ethnicization of the political process. The clash between left and right has now been replaced by Bulgarian versus Gypsy.
So, the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society has failed in this way.
This is the result of the process of education. The better-educated, better-prepared, smarter Roma are considered an even bigger threat to the status quo than the illiterate poor. They say that it is better to have illiterate poor people, who can be more easily manipulated than to have a class of well-educated Roma, who could compete for the same resources. In Bulgaria, where you have a lot of economic problems, there is a lot of competition for power and economic resources. When it is a competition among ethnic Bulgarians, it is considered an economic competition. But when it is competition among different ethnic groups, it is considered automatically an ethnic competition.
Such ethnic tensions can hardly come from the poor and illiterate. The authorities can always find a way to deal with poor people, through social benefits or whatever. The Roma elite is considered a bigger danger, because all power and resources are concentrated in the hands of ethnic Bulgarians. These people don’t understand the idea that they should share resources with minorities. We already have villages and small towns where Roma people outnumber ethnic Bulgarians. But they cannot exercise their power like the majority. They are not allowed to be a majority. This contradicts the general stereotype that Roma are a minority, should be treated like minority, and should behave like minority. In 20 years, we will have regions where ethnic Bulgarians are a minority but they will try to keep the power. It will be very similar to South Africa’s Apartheid system in the 1950s – the rule of a white minority over a dark-skinned majority.
So, you are skeptical about the effect that all this donor money devoted to Roma inclusion?
If this money is stopped, the ruling class will feel more pain than the Roma people. It’s necessary to stop this money until reform can be instituted. There is a need for reform of all donors in Bulgaria. American dollars also support the government, though the biggest money entering Bulgaria is through the European Commission. What are the priorities of these western governments who contribute money to these funds? What do they want to happen here: a GERB government, a prime minister like Boyko Borisov, and no civil society?
Regarding Roma, our prime minister said last year, “Let’s send the issue back to Europe.” I’m not sure how sending the issue back to Europe, shifting responsibility from the national to the European level, is a proper response to the inclusion strategy. Does this mean that the Bulgarian government doesn’t want to take responsibility for citizens who belong to certain ethnic groups? Does the government treat these minorities in the same way as the majority? It’s like a football game between the West and Balkan countries with the Roma being the football.
A few thousand Bulgarian Roma are well integrated into Western Europe. They send their children to school, and their children know the language better than they know Bulgarian. Why can people integrate better there than here? Everyone is focused on the marginalized, but no one focuses on why these other thousands of Roma are well integrated in Western Europe. They say that the Roma don’t want to work here in Bulgaria, that they don’t want to go to school. But how do they do it in these other countries? No one wants to research this.
Of course there are some people who want to find Roma jobs here in Bulgaria, who want to help them learn Bulgarian language. Most of the NGOs here are service-providers. These NGOs substitute for the state. But who should be providing health care? The state. Who should be providing education? The state. Who should be providing social benefits? The state. Since the state doesn’t want to take care of these issues, they find NGOs to do the work. The government reports that they have hundreds of mediators in health care, education, labor. These mediators went to some training program for a few months. At the local level these half-doctors sometimes do more than doctors, these half-teachers do more than teachers. And what is the state doing? The state says, “This is not our responsibility.”
Of course there is a need for service providers. But there is also a need for thinktanks, for people who think about policies. We need people who not just follow policies but think about and create policies. We are trying to do this in Civil Society in Action. But we have problems with financial resources because such NGOs are not a priority with donors. They still follow an old-fashioned model, what they were doing 10 years ago. They are not curing the illness. They are just giving the patient some pills to ease the pain. They are just doing palliative medicine.
We need long-term policies. Political parties in Bulgaria don’t think in terms of long periods. We need to gather the real experts along with people from the grassroots who can be the implementers of policy. We need policy centers where people can meet and discuss the problems and come up with solutions, democratically. Such Roma think tanks need time and resources to analyze what has happened and formulate policies.
Tell me some more about Civil Society in Action.
Our organization Civil Society in Action is a young organization, established last year. We organized a protest at the Sheraton hotel during the European Commission conference about how European funds help the Roma. We showed red cards – like in football – to the European Commissioner and our own Bulgarian minister. We also brought in hidden banners. One of our banners read, “Europe: Stop Funding Roma Exclusion.” They were shocked. They didn’t expect that Roma can organize such things. We got some media attention.
We face a lot of problems institutionally with our organization. Everything we do we do at home, not at an office, and with our own resources. This is the difference. We’re a team of four people. We don’t look at it like a job, something that’s paid, beginning at 9 and finishing at 5. This is real civic activism. We know what we want to do. But when we talk to the donors, they have their own priorities. So, we need a change in the donors.
We are saying that they should stop providing the Bulgarian government with money for Roma inclusion. So, the government cannot consider us a partner. We are aware that even if we sit at the table, we won’t have any control. We don’t want to be just another NGO taking money and doing some stupid things.
The donors want to keep good relations with the government, so we are considered troublemakers. We are raising issues that are not popular now but will be in 10-15 years. The European Commission announced a 26 billion Euro fund for EU member states for social inclusion. They don’t say that this is particularly for Roma. They say that this is for the socially disadvantaged. But this money is for the governments, not the NGOs. And if you have corrupt governments, as in Bulgaria and Romania, governments that are not accepted into the Schengen area because they have problems with high-level corruption, and you say to these guys, “Here’s more money for you,” you actually encourage more corruption and you don’t help Roma. This is insane! This is like giving more drugs to a drug addict to cure him of his addiction.
I cannot accept this. I know that in 10 years, the government will say through its media that these bad Gypsy organizations just stole this money. No one questions where the money has disappeared. My colleagues and I are some of the few people who are asking these questions. We face strong media resistance. We don’t follow the money. We follow the ideas.
Sofia, October 2, 2012