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 Sept. 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 1/2 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 "Gypsies 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.
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 Sept. 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.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.