The Ghettos of Eastern Europe

Posted May 23, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured

The first ghetto was a Jewish neighborhood in Venice located on an island that had been set aside for a foundry (getto in Italian). The 1,000 Jews who lived there in the early 16th century had free rein during the day but were locked in at night. There was very little space on the island. When more Jews arrived there to escape persecution elsewhere in Europe, the ghetto had to build upwards, creating what one recent commentator has called “a neighborhood of medieval mini-skyscrapers.”

Modern ghettos are reserved for immigrants, marginalized minorities, and the poor. In Eastern Europe, these ghettos are predominantly populated by Roma. The modern ghettos are the legacy of both Communism and capitalism. The Communism governments conducted campaigns to settle Roma in cities and provide jobs in industry. During the transition to capitalism, the jobs disappeared, social stigmatization increased, and the gulf widened between the Roma and non-Roma populations.

The experience of today’s ghettos has many echoes with the past. Consider for example the Stolipinovo neighborhood in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city. Last September, I met with Anton Karagiosov, of the Foundation for Regional Development ROMA. The story he told me could have come directly out of the Middle Ages.

“In the Stolipinovo neighborhood and in other Roma neighborhoods, we are forced to build vertically,” he told me. “We will soon explode because of lack of space. There are 50,000 of us only in the Stolipinovo neighborhood.”

The population of the neighborhood has increased significantly even in the five years since we last talked. Karagiosov recently won election as a municipal counselor in Plovdiv. I could sense his frustration at being closer to power and yet not being able to solve this housing crisis.  “I can say that the government has no strategy to resolve the housing issue,” he continued. “It’s a time bomb, and in three years it will explode. The neighborhoods are so densely populated with very poor infrastructure. I don’t know how this can be resolved at all. We’ve had fights within families: fathers, sons, brothers all fighting just for a piece of land.”

Over coffee in Plovdiv, we talked about why there are no strong Roma political parties, the role of education, and the stagnation of civil society.


The Interview


The fist three questions are quantitative questions. When you look back to 1989 and all that has changed in this country until today, how would you evaluate the changes on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being most satisfied?


Five. A lot of good things happened, but many things also happened that are not good for our people. The good thing is that now we have democracy and we are freer. The bad thing is that democracy brought unemployment, and this is especially true for the Roma minority. A lot of state-owned companies collapsed; others were privatized or closed down. And there has also been the economic downturn internationally, and the Roma have been the most severely affected by that.

Remember: most Roma do not own their places of living. And the inability for large numbers of Roma to find jobs here in their own country has forced them to emigrate, to look for a better life in France, in Belgium, in the Netherlands, in Greece. This is why my score is 5, because there are good things but other things that are not so good.


The same scale and the same period of time: your own personal life from 1989 until today.


I am very satisfied that I managed to set up a Roma organization, a very strong one, and this has changed my personal life substantially. I have had an opportunity to visit several great countries, including the United States, England, the Netherlands, Italy. More importantly, through this Roma civil organization, I’ve had the opportunity to implement various projects related to improving the lives of the Roma people. So 6 or 7 is my score here.


Finally, when you look into the near future, the next couple of years, what is your feeling about where Bulgaria will be? Scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic.


These are challenging questions! Having in mind the economic crisis, and the current situation in Bulgaria, it’s not a very bright future ahead of us. The situation is quite dire not only for the Roma but for Bulgarians as well. Three or four is my score here.


Why do you feel more pessimistic today than when we talked five years ago?


Five years ago we were more advanced in terms of improving the life of the Roma people. But now, stagnation, the economic crisis, the political struggle and rivalry that we had has set us back by 10 years – even though Bulgaria is an EU member. There are more serious policies in place for the Roma, but they are more difficult to develop somehow.


Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall and whether you thought about its impact on Bulgaria?


I remember. I was working at that time in a company and we discussed this piece of news, the collapse of communism. So this is how it all started, with the Berlin Wall, with Lech Walesa in Poland, and then it came to Bulgaria. The fall of socialism here started with an attempt by some of the followers of Todor Zhivkov to take things into their own hands. But democracy was gaining strength, and I remember that most of civil society desired or aimed for democracy. Everybody in Bulgaria wanted democracy, because we thought that a democratic society would mean freedom.

However, 20 years on, a good part of this society has been disappointed. A lot of things happened. There was the privatization of the state and the enterprises. The rich became richer. The factories that made it possible for the socially disadvantaged and the illiterate to have jobs are no longer there. When I discuss these things with Roma, they tend to be nostalgic about those times, because these were the times when they had jobs, they had the opportunity to work, and they were happier. And if they were working, they had money. They had less money, but they felt freer. This is why a lot of people pine after those days, because right now the situation is not very good. There may be a time when it will improve, but it hasn’t arrived yet.

The crisis is severe in Bulgaria, and it is even more severe for the Roma community, because the Roma have no land, no property. A lot of them are not educated and lack qualifications. They can’t start up their own businesses. They’re not competitive in the labor market. The Roma that used to have jobs and mortgages from banks are no longer paying back this money. So there are now a lot of bad debts, and this is a serious problem. A lot of people are concerned that they might even lose their lives over this.


When you were working in the company in 1989, do you remember what the reactions of your fellow workers were to the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I remember that we discussed the events every morning. We started each morning with these discussions. We read newspapers, we listened to the news on the radio, and we were filled with hope that communism was over, freedom was arriving, and democracy would be here shortly. We were all expecting better lives ahead of us.


Do you remember a point when your hope turned into disappointment?


Personally, I managed to adapt. I established one of the first Roma civil NGOs, and my life was very busy and full of exciting events. I wanted to draft good policies to improve the lives of the Roma people through employment, through education, through healthcare, through the resolution of social issues. This is what I’ve been doing for 20 years now.

Civil society used to be more active. There was a point in time when civil society started stagnating as well. The most serious and best-organized ones remained. But a lot of organizations could not sustain the struggle.


Was there a point when you became disappointed with how the political parties were addressing Roma issues?


It wasn’t just me. Most of the Roma population used to think that with democracy there would be freedom for everyone, better lives for everybody. But a few years later, they realized that this democracy was not meant for them. The first ones to lose their jobs were the Roma. The large companies where thousands of Roma people used to work— meat-processing companies, tobacco companies—were closed down. So the unemployment rate is 90% for Roma. There are families in which nobody works, neither of the parents. This is why a lot of them are living in France, in Germany. Some succeed there, but most of them come back.

So, disappointment overshadows democracy. I suppose democracy is a better social order for more affluent countries, for more affluent people. Those that used to own factories or land or property became only richer. But those who didn’t have such opportunities are left with their disappointment.


I want to jump to the current situation now and ask first about education and the attempts to desegregate the Bulgarian school system.


For eight consecutive years we’ve been working on a pilot program for the desegregation of Roma children through education. In over 10 cities, including Plovdiv, for the eighth consecutive year we’ve been working on this project. We take 200 children from the Roma neighborhood of Stolipinovo, and we put them in five schools scattered around Plovdiv. The funding comes mainly from the Roma Education Fund of Budapest. This pilot project is one of the best of its kind.

Roma children should not be segregated. They should be integrated into the mainstream schools. With the solid support of the parents, of the grandparents, children will receive better education. Through better education and opportunities, Roma children can change their lives.

The good experience that we gained through this pilot project should be converted into a government policy. The government should take over the integration process of the Roma children. However, the government has not yet become involved in the process. And financing organizations are more limited in number. We’re continuing to take 200 children again every year. But our colleagues from other cities do not have financing and the process is put on hold. And this is very bad. This process should continue for at least 5 to 10 years. The National Roma Integration Strategy is in place in the EU, and a lot of money is expected to pour in to improve the lives of the Roma. But it all depends on the governments that will be in power in the Balkan countries.


I understand that the current government in Bulgaria is not interested in the desegregation program.


There is a national council on the integration of minorities, which adopts good policies. But they’re hard to enforce. At this stage we rely on the operational programs of the EU. But they involve very cumbersome procedures and not every Roma organization can apply for funding through these programs.


When we talked five years ago, Ataka seemed to be much stronger than today. Politically it seems that Ataka has lost its support. But do you think that the sentiments behind Ataka are still strong? Does this nationalist, or xenophobic, or racist sentiment in the society remains as high today?


I think that the nationalist sentiment in Ataka is still going strong, and not only within Ataka. There is also another organization VMRO—the Macedonian Liberation Organization. They blame everything on the Gypsies and the Turks. There is still a lot of racism hidden in Bulgarian society.


When we talked five years ago, we talked a bit about Roma political parties. And there were several at the time. Do you think that the political situation in terms of Roma parties or Roma representation has improved?


No, not really. On the contrary, they have disappeared. Several years ago, there was a boost for setting up and developing Roma political organizations. But then afterwards they shrank and became the satellites of the larger political parties. At this stage there is no independent Roma political party. The various national Roma leaders have coalitions with different political parties, mainly with the Bulgarian Socialist Party or with the ruling party. There is no unity among Roma.


And what do you think are the principle reasons why there hasn’t been unity?


That’s a difficult one. I don’t know. There used to be a serious organization six or seven years ago. This was the party of so-called King Kiro. He invested a lot of money in it, and a lot of Roma mayors and counselors were elected. But later, this disintegrated too, and it’s now out of the picture.

There are about 10 Roma parties, but we find it hard to unite. I can’t explain why. Everybody wants to be a leader. And the Roma parties usually join coalitions with the larger political parties. It requires a lot of money to set up a serious political organization, and this hasn’t happened so far.


When I talk to people about the best way of improving the lives of Roma, people have given me three different answers: 1) good jobs; 2) political power; and 3) education. If you had to choose one of those three, which would you choose?


I would go for education, although they are related. We can’t achieve our goals without political will. And the more educated people who are among our ranks, the more development we will achieve — and the policies will become better too.


Here in Plovdiv, have you seen concrete improvements in Roma neighborhoods—in terms of electricity, in terms of roads, buildings, public services?


This is an interesting question. Five or six years ago when we met, I spoke about the difficult problem with the electricity. Now I can say that for the last three years we are no longer facing this problem. The Austrian company EVN set up electricity distribution, eliminating this problem. And now we rank among the first in terms of payment of electricity bills. This is one of the best things to happen in the Roma neighborhoods.

However, in terms of infrastructure development, it remains poor. So, in the Stolipinovo neighborhood and in other Roma neighborhoods, we are forced to build vertically. We will soon explode because of lack of space. There are 50,000 of us only in the Stolipinovo neighborhood.

I recently won election as a municipal counselor in Plovdiv. And I can say that the government has no strategy to resolve the housing issue. It’s a time bomb, and in three years it will explode. The neighborhoods are so densely populated with very poor infrastructure. I don’t know how this can be resolved at all. We’ve had fights within families: fathers, sons, brothers all fighting just for a piece of land.


Have there been any proposals?


At the national level, there is a plan adopted on resolving this issue. But there is no action plan, and nothing is happening. We are talking about a lot of money, and we need political will. Somebody should make a decision, and it’s something to be decided by the government. Stolipinovo alone has a population of 50,000 Roma, and there are three more neighborhoods: about 80,000 Roma living around Plovdiv.


At a municipal level, have you seen other, non-Roma neighborhoods in Plovdiv develop in a good way, because money is available?


Yes. Things are happening in those neighborhoods.


Is it frustrating to see movement in other neighborhoods?


Yes, I am disappointed. Back in socialist times these ghettos were set up without any plans, without any regulation. Now we see the results of that policy: neighborhoods without any plan for territorial development, without legal permits for construction.


As I travel around Bulgaria I see signs from the European Union on the highways, on the newly renovated opera house in Varna. Why can’t the EU work on the areas that need the most assistance?


There is a national plan, as I said, on improving Roma housing and making them legal. The European Union provides 9 or 10 million Euro. It has selected several small municipalities and, in two of them, built 20 houses just as an example. But this is not the solution. The government should have an action plan to implement. It requires a lot of money, but most of all it requires political will.


As a municipal counselor, could you go directly to the EU with a proposal?


Yes, that’s possible. I haven’t done it. I need support from experts in the field, because this is a serious business and I’m not an expert. I’ve only been in office for one year now.


And the term is for how long? Four years?




Are you enjoying it?


Yes. I’m very active, and I think my place is there, in this small parliament. There are three of us representing the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, out of the 51.


The Movement for Right and Freedoms was set up to represent the rights and freedoms of everybody, but it has made its reputation in some sense working with ethnic Turks. Do you think the Movement has evolved to represent Roma in a better way?


Yes, over the past several years, they’ve definitely opened up to Roma. Definitely. A lot of Roma are Muslim believers, and they have been attracted. I’m a Gypsy, but I became a counselor representing MRF.


I don’t really know anything about the functions of municipal government. How many hours a week are you expected to work on this?    


Once a fortnight, all day. So, twice a month.


It’s a big responsibility, but it’s not that much time.


Yes, everything about Plovdiv is decided at this venue.


When you think about the situation of Roma here in Plovdiv, compared to Roma in other cities and Roma in the countryside, do you think that the situation here for Roma is relatively good?


No. The problems are similar. Smaller municipalities, with a smaller concentration of Roma population, are doing better. For example in Kavarna, there are 4,500 Roma, and the mayor is making new houses, good streets. But there are only 4,500 Roma there, and there are 50,000 of us in Stolipinovo in Plovdiv. Here, we have no territory available: that’s the problem. Stolipinovo is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods not only in Bulgaria, but in the Balkans as well.


When you think about the best tactics for improving the situation of Roma, which do you think is better: confrontation through demonstrations and boycotts or consultation through legislation and work with community organizations?


Consultations and public debate are the ways to find the best solution.


No confrontations at all?


I’m convinced that if consultations take place and if there is political will to resolve the issue with the Gypsies, there will be a way out of the problem. We found a solution to the issue of electricity bills. When there is a will, when there is debate also, there is a way. Conflict will only create more trouble. And we should have more dialogues within the Roma minority, and the government should have a dialogue with Roma leaders.


Racism in Bulgarian society is pretty deep, just like racism in U.S. society is very deep. And even though we had a successful civil rights movement, and we currently have a Black president, we still have racism. My question for you is, what do you think it will take to change the minds of non-Roma Bulgarians?


I very often listen to the nationalist leaders, and they keep saying, “The Gypsies should study. The Gypsies should have good education. The Gypsies should start paying taxes just like Bulgarians.” I think that if there are more educated people among our ranks that are normal, law-abiding citizens who follow what the constitution says, we would be better accepted. I have three sons, three daughters-in-law, and they have two children, so they are modern people. They are modern citizens of Bulgaria, and they live well. And I think that they will be better accepted by the Bulgarian community.


That’s a very interesting response, but you actually haven’t asked non-Roma Bulgarians to change anything at all.


If we act normally, Bulgarians will see us as their equals, but it we violate the law…Unfortunately, a lot of us do that and of course they are marginalized. And we suffer because of them too. We should work harder and longer to change the mentality of one or two generations of our people. And then we will deserve the respect that we desire.

My personal observation is that we are changing, but very slowly, and this whole process is full of difficulties. I’m 56 years old. When I was young, 45 or 50 years ago, we lived differently. I clearly remember the houses. We all used to share one room. We slept on the floor. Our domestic life was different. We were marginalized to a great extent.

Now, 40 years later, I’m on equal terms with Bulgarians. My family, we have a house. We have a bathroom. We have several rooms. We have bedrooms. The change is coming, but it’s very slow and it’s very difficult.


Plovdiv, September 30, 2012

Interpreter: Vihra Gancheva


Interview (2007)



I come from Plovdiv. It has the biggest, compact quarter of Roma population. There are 40,000 Roma who live in this quarter. I was a leader of one of the Roma NGOs for more than 10 years. We worked mostly on social programs: labor employment, a second chance program for adults, some projects related to legal defense. And now we’re working on the desegregation of Roma children. Our school integration involves 10 cities, and is based on the American model.


Before 1989, the government carried out a policy of enclosure. Others made decisions on how Roma should live. These were decisions that Roma themselves should have been making. Over these many years, the government of Bulgaria pursued a policy of pushing Roma into towns without any infrastructure, without plumbing or sanitation. Now this problem is exploding.

The democracy period after 1989, there was an opportunity for Roma to wake up from a very deep sleep. We created the first organizations with Roma leaders. Between 1992 and 1994, Roma in the countryside began to wake up. This was a period of self-organization. We established parties. We made contacts with the executive branches of the country. We created the first Roma organization in 1992. In 15 years, we have taken several steps forward. The Soros Foundation really did a lot for Roma. Before 1989, it was not possible to speak of a Roma intelligentsia. The American University was a school where it was possible to develop the Roma intelligentsia. Over 500 Roma students with high education have since graduated: lawyers, teachers, journalists, politicians.

This is a new time for us to participate in society. There have been many European programs for the development of Roma civil society. They have financed individual projects related to Roma issues. We created a national council for the integration of ethnic issues. On the basis of this council, over 30 Roma NGOs developed a national program for the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society. Part of this program involved providing land to those Roma who had previously been without property. Before 1989, Roma mostly worked for collective farms as hired hands. So, based on the decision of the national assembly, any person without land could apply for such land.

Another step was the experience of Roma organizations in the process of integration into education. In the past seven or eight years, Roma children who had previously gone to schools on the outskirts have begun attend schools in the central district. Young Roma parents want their children to study in those schools. They want their children to have better education, and the opportunity to go on to higher education. This is a radical change from the situation before 1989. So, in the last 15 years, Roma organizations in particular demonstrated to the Bulgarian government how Roma issues can be resolved.


To me, the appearance of the Ataka party is not so much a reaction to Roma but a reaction to the Turkish party. The phenomenon of a very nationalistic party leads to the creation of dangerous tensions. Roma parents are afraid to allow their grandchildren to go to school downtown. Over the last several months there have been skinhead assaults. Although Ataka is provoked more by the Turkish party, it has led to the overall aggravation of ethnic tensions.

It is true that our fellow citizens with a lower sense of culture and in a difficult economic situation commit criminal acts. This happens with other communities, too. Yet somehow, what happens with our community attracts more publicity. This negative publicity feeds hatred of the Roma. Over the last several years, though, Roma have been mostly accepted as equals.

Also, for the past several years, political parties have been in the habit of abusing the Roma. In one example, Roma were not paying for their electricity, and some political parties took to saying, “Vote for us and you don’t have to pay for electricity.” This created resentment in Bulgarian society that in turn has emboldened parties like Ataka. Because we didn’t have the legal infrastructure, because our houses are not legitimate, nobody was checking how much electricity was consumed. This was a huge problem. Thank God that in the last couple months, a company has taken charge of electricity distribution. It is changing the electricity lines and the electricity meters, so now people know how to keep track of the service and pay for it. It’s not true that we didn’t want to pay for electricity. It was simply that we were being used in some kind of political game.

We feel that Bulgaria is our motherland. We want to develop here, and contribute to Bulgaria to the best that we can. Yet as Ataka becomes a nationwide phenomenon, Roma must think twice before going out in public and doing normal things. Ataka simply slows down the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society.


In Plovdiv, at the beginning of the year, there was an outbreak of Hepatitis A. Parents of Bulgarian students in some of the schools protested. They wanted to remove Roma students from the schools. Ataka also incited the parents and created serious tensions. Fortunately, due to our experience in our local municipality and with the health authorities, we managed to overcome this problem, and children were not prevented from attending school.


As Bulgarian citizens, we already feel like European citizens. Since 1989, we have tried to become more educated, more European. Little by little we sometimes forget typical Roma things. This is a fact. For instance, I have six grandchildren. After they are two-and-a-half, they attend kindergarten. They practically don’t speak Roma any more. But there are things that we cannot forget, such as our customs. We closely follow our Roma holidays, such as the New Year. There is also an important holiday for Roma in April. Then there is the Roma family culture, the respect of the children. There is the traditional dress, the traditional music. We don’t live in huts any more. We live in separate rooms. Forty years ago when I was growing up, there were only two taps in our whole neighborhood. We slept on carpets made of cane and small twigs. Many things like that are now history. But now we have other possibilities.


At the beginning of school integration program we encountered many difficulties. We are in our third year now in Stara Zagora. We are in our sixth year in Plovdiv. We are now starting in Sliven and Padzernik. At this moment, the discrimination that exists is more racial than economic. Bulgarians cannot easily accept that Roma are equal. Here’s an example. When my children began to go to school, they were the only Roma. I had to go to the public secretary to get permission. Over time, more and more Roma children enrolled in this school. If you go there today, there is not one Bulgarian kid there. When they saw too many Roma kids, the Bulgarians transferred their kids to another school. Now with our desegregation program, there are one or two Roma in the classes. In 20 years, we will see the fruits.

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