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The Ghettos of Eastern Europe

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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

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.