Between 1990 and today an entire class of Roma politicians has emerged. I recently stopped in on a training of local Roma elected officials in Romania, part of a group of several hundred scattered around the country. Roma parliamentarians from around the region recently met in Belgrade and signed an agreement to cooperate on enforcing Roma rights at a national and local level. The number of national lawmakers is not huge. For instance, there are only three Roma parliamentarians in Romania, only one in Slovakia. But combined with the increased numbers of local politicians, it’s a remarkable new development.
A key question facing Roma politicians is whether to run as candidates with the major political parties or to push forward with a Roma-identified initiative. Martin Kovats, in an interesting contribution to the new book From Victimhood to Citizenship: The Path of Roma Integration, writes about a third political choice: identifying a politics of shared interests and articulating how “identity fits in with the non-ethnic agenda.” This jives in part with the actual experience of Roma politicians, especially on the local level, where it’s often about paving roads or generating jobs or improving schools, issues that can appeal to Roma and non-Roma alike.
The Euro-Roma movement, to a certain extent, is all about this politics of shared interests. It’s not strictly a party, and it’s not restricted to Roma. According to the movement’s website, 30 percent of the executive body of Euro-Roma are non-Roma. At different times, it has aligned with the ethnic Turkish party and, most recently, in a left-wing bloc with the Socialist Party. It has had representatives in the Bulgarian parliament and successfully fielded a number of candidates for local office as well. In cities like the Black Sea town of Kavarna, it has helped to pave roads and install sewage systems.
Tsvetelin Kanchev is the founder of Euro-Roma and has also represented the movement in the Bulgarian parliament. He is both a successful businessman and a controversial public figure. He presents himself as Roma. But other sources suggest that he was simply adopted by the Kardarasha, a Roma community that lives mostly outside of the big cities in Bulgaria. He has also dealt with various criminal charges: in 2003 for blackmail and assault, which landed him in jail, and another charge of blackmail in 2010 for which he returned to prison for a couple months before receiving a pardon. Kanchev dismisses these charges as politically motivated.
These questions of personal conduct aside, Euro-Roma has been a successful political party where other Roma initiatives have failed to gain much leverage in Bulgaria.
“I’ve always avoided commenting on other Roma parties,” Kanchev told me over lunch in Sofia last September. “But quite a few of them entered politics and established political parties only to get rich. I entered politics rich already. Before I became a politician, I owned a huge factory, two smaller factories, a chain of gas stations, several solid construction companies, and some other businesses. I became a politician because I didn’t want to hear Roma children referred to as ‘dirty Gypsies.’ This is my dream. Because if they call other Roma children by these names, these will be the names they will use to refer to my children. Three of my children study in Cambridge, but they are also called ‘dirty Gypsies’ in Bulgaria, so you can imagine the situation in this country.”
We talked about how he made his fortune, the state of inter-ethnic relations, and why he considers his political home on the Left.
Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989?
I was in Cuba. I thought this was a game that Gorbachev was playing. I didn’t believe he was sincere about it. And reality proved that I was right to some extent.
And did you think at all about what the impact would be for Bulgaria?
I realized that we would inevitably follow along in the queue.
Let’s talk about the Roma situation from 1989 until today. What do you think have been the greatest challenges, and what do you think have been the greatest successes?
Before 1989, education and unemployment were not a right. They were an obligation of the state to provide. After 1989, with the start of the market economy, the people that suffered the most through unemployment and a shortage of jobs was the Roma community. Education is compulsory now only on paper. The constitution says that it is mandatory and free of charge, but this is definitely not the case. As a result of all this, there was a boom in our birthrate, because the illiterate and the uneducated find it hard to do family planning, to determine how many children one can support, how these children will be prepared for the life ahead of them, and how they can be raised.
This is why uneducated Roma people find it hard to get jobs. There have also been cases, quite a number of cases, where for the same job vacancy, a Gypsy of higher university degree loses out to a Bulgarian with a school degree. These are the phenomena that we are fighting against.
So, those are the biggest challenges. What do you think the greatest successes are?
The success involves the establishment of Euro-Roma in 1998. We showed how our issues could be resolved through the instrument of power. This is not power provided to us on a plate, but power we won with our own resources, through elections. Back in 2003, we made the first breakthrough in local authorities. In 2005, we managed to go beyond the first barrier at parliamentary elections at 1%. We had 1.5% of votes back then, and this is how we’ve become a party entitled to certain special rights. In 2007, at the local elections, our votes tripled.
So now, in the municipalities in which we are the ruling party, we are part of the majority. The situation with the Roma minority in these places looks totally different. Not only has discrimination been eradicated, but the infrastructure in the neighborhoods and the education level increased substantially. Euroroma’s main priority is education.
I can tell you about the municipality of Kavarna, on the Black Sea, which has a total population of 25,000 people. We’ve been involved with the local government for nine years now. The Roma neighborhood, which has 5,000 people, is nicknamed “Beverly Hills,” and with good reason. There is a sewage system there. The roads are all asphalted. We have beautiful parks there. A brand new kindergarten was built there. A brand new school was built. European standards have been applied to swimming pools, playgrounds, school grounds. And we are doing it only through the power vested in us through local elections.
So, let me see if I understand this. The political power is at the municipal level, or is it at the neighborhood level?
It’s at the municipal level. I’ve given you the example with Kavarna, but we have our representatives in the local government of plenty of municipalities.
In 2005, our party became entitled to all the rights of an eligible party. We received the government subsidy to which all the parties that get over 1% of votes are entitled. So this is how we financed our political rallies and concerts at elections.
I participate in the national Roma conferences. I am invited as a speaker at such venues, because I am the chair of the most successful Roma party in Europe. I also have a small secret. I have a video recording, and I will give it to you as a present. I can give you the rights to include it in your book or in your recordings. There hasn’t been a Roma person who saw the video and did not wish to give his vote to Euro-Roma. The music and the lyrics are mine.
How did Kavarna become a model? Where did the money come from for the sanitation system, the paved roads, and so on?
The formula that we use in our work has proved very successful. At the beginning of every year, each of the municipalities that we rule starts budgeting by the proposal of the mayor. And after consulting the headquarters, our local councilors in the committees say how much they would like allocated for infrastructure. Fifteen percent of the budget is usually allocated for education, for instance. And they set some other conditions that involve the development of our community. Only after these conditions are met do they give their support.
It’s not just Kavarna. There is Samokov municipality 80 kilometers southwest of Sofia. One of the largest and most popular Bulgarian ski resorts is located in Samokov municipality. And we’ve been involved in the majority representation of the municipality there for 9 years now. And there we’ve had a lot of problems with the so-called oligarchs, because they tried to corrupt our local councilors. Land is very expensive there. The oligarchs wanted to build high-rises and developments there, because the landscape is beautiful and it’s a famous ski resort. We did not allow that to happen for several reasons. In our party, two of my deputies are Christian and two are Muslim. And I am a believer in the ancient Roma faith. Reverence for the great Mother Nature: this is why we did not allow them to touch the pristine landscape there.
You’ve had political success where other Roma parties have not had political success. Why have the other parties not been successful?
I’ve always avoided commenting on other Roma parties. But quite a few of them entered politics and established political parties only to get rich. I entered politics rich already. Before I became a politician, I owned a huge factory, two smaller factories, a chain of gas stations, several solid construction companies, and some other businesses. I became a politician because I didn’t want to hear Roma children referred to as “dirty Gypsies.” This is my dream. Because if they call other Roma children by these names, these will be the names they will use to refer to my children. Three of my children study in Cambridge, but they are also called “dirty Gypsies” in Bulgaria, so you can imagine the situation in this country.
I had my personal motive too, to become a politician. I was sick of having MPs asking me for money. And I’m talking about MPs in the National Assembly. The most curious thing happened when I became an MP. These same people kept coming to me asking for money, and I said, “Wait a minute, I’m your colleague. I’m an MP myself!” They said, “Yes, but this is only your first mandate. You don’t have the experience needed.”
My grandmothers were against it. They warned me that I would have a lot of trouble if I become a politician. And they were right, as usual. Six months after we established Euroroma and I was elected the chairman of the party, I was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. The accusation was the theft of a dog with an estimated worth of $15. At first they started with tax crimes. They wanted to prove that my company was evading taxes. But it turned out that it was the opposite. One of my companies over-paid taxes by $300,000! So the government had to bay it back. Back then, a right-wing government was in power. Luckily, after the political situation changed, I didn’t have to serve six years in prison because of a dog.
When did you start these businesses, and how would you evaluate the climate for business here in Bulgaria after 1989?
I came back to Bulgaria in 1990 from Cuba. I was jobless, and I decided that I should take up a business. Then it turned out that a metallurgy plant, a gigantic plant called Kremikovtzi just north of Sofia, considered the sludge it produced to be waste and threw it away. I sampled this waste, and it turned out that it was carbon of 88% purity. I discovered factories in Italy that were interested in buying this sludge. One ton of carbon costs $50 in Bulgaria, including transportation to Italy. And they paid $1,500 for that in Italy. So I managed to accumulate good capital in a year and a half.
In 1991, when the factory had run out of this waste and after I’d managed to export tens of thousands of tons of this carbon, I became the Bulgarian representative of one of the largest tobacco companies in the United States and worldwide. And for two years I was the representative for Yugoslavia as well. In 1992, I built a bottling company for mineral water.
A lot of people complain about the economic conditions immediately after 1989. For instance, that metallurgy plant eventually went bankrupt and all the jobs disappeared. But, there were also opportunities.
As far as my family is concerned, we can never complain. We’ve always had a rule of thumb: 70% of the pure profit should be invested in gold coins. We always relied on the most secure bank, and that’s Mother Nature. Seventy percent of profit was reinvested, and ten percent was spent on the family. So this is our family secret. And we can’t complain, given the price of gold.
If you had an opportunity in 1989 or 1990 to do economic reform a different way, what would you have done?
There were these agricultural cooperatives – the kolhoz in Bulgaria were called TKZS — that were part of the communist system. I would have converted them into shareholding companies. That would have given a fair chance to each of the members of the cooperative to receive stakes in the TKZS.
I would have immediately established a Bulgarian stock exchange. It was only established 15 years later. I would have privatized the assets of the economy immediately into the hands of entrepreneurs while the money was still in the banks.
And, as I am a social democrat at heart, I would have applied the golden rule of social democracy: socializing capital and capitalizing labor.
Have any of those principles been adopted here?
In 1990, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was formed, and the MRF at that time said it wasn’t just representing the rights and freedoms of ethnic Turks but all Bulgarians. I’m curious whether you think the MRF has ever represented Roma interests at all.
No. There was a period when we were coalition partners, from 2001 to 2005 in the National Assembly. We made the breakthrough together in 2001. Ahmed Dogan, the chair of MRF, is a unique politician in Bulgaria—not only because he has been the most successful. He, himself, has the interests of everyone at heart. With his influence among the Turkish community and the Bulgarian Muslims, he managed to prevent what happened in neighboring countries from happening in Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, however, plenty of the local leaders of the MRF don’t like Gypsies. One opinion poll has shown that the average Turk hated Gypsies much more than Bulgarians hated Gypsies. Which is hard to understand. The strength of the MRF resulted from the very foolish thing that the Communist Party did, which was the forced name change in 1986. And the second reason for their success was that such a great person, Ahmed Dogan, became chair of the party.
What kind of relationships do you have with other Roma groups in this part of the world?
I keep reprimanding them that they don’t organize themselves as we have. They segregate themselves in castes or clans. In our political council, the four main castes are represented. Each of them has its own deputy of the party. Unfortunately only one member of the party speaks all four dialects.
So this is a model that no other Roma party is attempting?
And you also ran in the European Parliament elections?
Our coalition has five European MPs. We are the only one represented at the European Parliament and the Bulgarian Parliament.
You earlier said that you thought the only way to improve the situation for Roma is through political power. Does that apply to the parliamentary level in Europe as well?
Do you see any prospects for greater representation for Roma regionally?
Yes, if there are no obstacles placed in front of us, I’m willing to establish a European Roma party.
In our part of the world, elections resemble military conflicts, the only difference being that the weapons are not guns, but money. There are parties trying to buy the votes of our people. Fifteen years ago they were successful. But since Euroroma was established 14 years ago, we’ve been saying, “Whoever approaches you from another political party and offers $20 for your vote, you should know that this person has stolen at least $20 million from the future of your children. So, take the money if you must, but vote for us.”
I’ve been told that the level of political nationalism has dropped in Bulgaria, but that the level of discrimination remains very high. In other words, the political influence of parties like Ataka has dropped, but the general discrimination and general feelings and attitudes remain high.
Yes. An extreme right-wing party is in power now. They feel that an anti-Gypsy policy will win over more Bulgarian votes in the coming elections. But I’ve always said that, history has shown that when someone, no matter how strong, has tried to build their happiness and their future on the suffering of Gypsies, they haven’t succeeded.
Do you think that there is really any difference between the current government and, for instance, Ataka, in terms of its attitude towards Roma?
The ruling party is more dangerous.
Can you give an example?
The politicians in the ruling party are greater hypocrites.
Because their rhetoric is tolerant, but their actions are not?
Yes, the prime minister has this tolerant rhetoric. But his vice prime minister, who is also the minister of interior, wanted to install video surveillance cameras in Gypsy neighborhoods, in front of houses, which is a violation of privacy. Last year, in June 2011, he sent heavily armed commandos with masks to one of the Gypsy neighborhoods in Sofia, in violation of the constitution. They beat up everybody they could get their hands on: children, pregnant women, old people. They pretended they were looking for an individual, but it turned out that this person had been in jail for three months. Three hours later, the whole neighborhood blocked the roads around Sofia, and my intervention alone prevented very serious clashes between Gypsies and the police.
What about the idea of putting in those surveillance cameras, did that happen?
No. I made very clear to him that it was not possible.
So, that’s on the political side. Do you think there has been any change in general cultural attitudes or social attitudes toward Roma over the last 10 or 15 years?
No positive steps in that direction have been made. I’ve always said that the Bulgarians should get to know us. If they do, I’m sure that they would love us.
And how will that happen?
When they get to know the warm Gypsy souls and noble hearts, they will definitely love us. No question about it. The most interesting thing is that almost all Bulgarians like Gypsy music. However, when they sober up, they forget how much they liked it.
But how do you think it’s possible for Roma and ethnic Bulgarians to come together and meet each other?
In the municipalities where we rule together, we’ve managed to build wonderful, tolerant relations. Yes, the Bulgarians may hate the Turks, but they don’t allow themselves to express that because the Turkish party is very strong. But we are only strong locally. Luckily, we are now part of a strong left-wing coalition, and the chair of the Socialist Party Coalition is the chair of the European Socialists. That’s Sergei Stanishev. So the left-wing political space is our harbor.
It’s interesting to mention that there are municipalities in which we rule together with the ruling party. However, these are the municipalities where the minister of interior has not intervened politically. So, we work together beautifully there. However, in the areas where he has influence, they have been refusing a partnership. We do not divide people into left-wing or right-wing. We do not distinguish between Gypsy and Bulgarian. People can be good or bad. Gifted or not. Talented or mediocre.
Some of the people I talk to, both Roma and non-Roma, said that the most important way of improving the situation of Roma in this country was good jobs. I’ll give you an example. For the Open Society office here, the focus is on getting internships in multinational companies. They’d like to arrange those internships in Bulgarian companies, but the Bulgarian companies have not been as interested as international companies. So I’m curious to hear what you think of this strategy.
Political parties should not interfere with businesses. And it’s important to note that nothing should be given to the Roma community just like that. I know my people very well, and if Roma get something just like that—without their working for it—they do not value it. This is why our approach is different. We should win through our own efforts. We should work for winning our decency, our honor, our bread. That’s when we value it.
For example, in our municipality there might be a public procurement competition that gives certain scores for low price—let’s say five points for low price — but 10 points for providing jobs for the unemployed, regardless of origin. It’s a fact that the largest number of the unemployed are Roma. So, this is one tactic that can be employed.
We know how to take power in our hands. We don’t want anyone to intervene in the process.
When you think back to 1989 and everything that has changed in Bulgaria until today, how would you evaluate that change on a spectrum from 1 to 10, with 1 being most unhappy, and 10 being most happy?
Looking back through the eyes of the Roma community, my assessment is 3.
Also looking back from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate it personally, in your own personal life?
Finally, when you look into the future a couple of years, how do you feel about the near future of this country on a spectrum from 1 to 10? One most pessimistic, ten most pessimistic.
Sofia, September 27, 2012
Interpreter: Vihra Gancheva