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Roma Politics

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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.

The Interview

When did you start your 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?

No.

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.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.