One Step Forward and…

If you work in a social change organization, progress is measured discontinuously: a couple more steps forward at the end of the day than steps backward. On other days, however, it seems that you move ahead merely to fall back to the same position. And sometimes you just get thrown for a loss. Only later, a decade into the civil rights movement or the women’s movement or the human rights movement, can you see the distance traveled. When you’re in the middle of it, it feels like you’re stuck in the mud.

I met Roumen Yanovski five years ago. He works for Access, an NGO in Bulgaria that works for cultural diversity. At that time, we talked about a project devoted to changing mainstream perceptions of Roma. Roumen did not try to sugarcoat the project’s accomplishments. After all the hard work, the project succeeded only in pushing the Bulgarian media to use “Roma” rather than the more pejorative term “Gypsy.” He was skeptical about this modest change, however. Even if people used the more politically correct word, they did not change their underlying perception of Roma.

Five years later, I return to discover that even this slender accomplishment no longer holds.

“A lot of money, a lot of people, and a lot of organizations managed to change the word ‘Gypsy’ into ‘Roma,’ the more politically correct term,” Roumen told me. “The final result, three years ago: we had a change in form, though not in content. Now it’s even worse. There are some people who insist that ‘Roma’ is incorrect, and we should go back to ‘Gypsy’! And many Roma leaders and rank and file agree. They say, ‘We are Gypsies.’”

He didn’t dismiss project altogether: “It wasn’t completely useless. Through this project, we at least provoked a debate. But all these public debates actually focused on issues that were not changeable. We ended up just strengthening the differences and the general understanding that there can be no change.”

The issue of Roma is now much more a part of public debate than 23 years ago. Of course, that also means that negative stereotypes of Roma are more public than in 1990, when they largely remained in the realm of private conversations.

So, for Roma, what does this amount to: two steps forward and one step back, stasis, or a step backward? Perhaps, as Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell. Or perhaps the answers are hidden in the rest of our conversation about Roma, ethnic Turks, and the role of political parties.

 

The Interview

 

From 1989 to today, how would you evaluate the changes that have taken place in Bulgaria, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

First of all, I would have to take into consideration a long of list of elements of life that I would not be able to explain to you — this would be my personal feeling and a deeply subjective feeling. Second, this answer will be very different if you ask people from different parts of Bulgaria, from different trades, from different generations. So, I’ll have to skip a lot of things and try to boil it down to something that takes into consideration all the elements of life from life expectancy to security issues in the region, from how people feel to the amount of food in their refrigerator. The mark would probably be 5. But I’d like to explain the reasons for this mark.

Some things did improve, and some things have remained as they are, and some things went badly. It depends on your position in society and your individual life. I’ve given my personal opinion. If you are interested in which elements bring more value to these evaluations, this would be a very interesting conversation, but it would be a conversation about so many topics in Bulgarian life over the years that it would probably take several hours, if not days. So, the answer is 5, or something like 5.

 

Same scale, same period of time: how do you feel about your own personal life?

 

It would be 6 or 7, of course. When I say “of course,” this is a deeply personal evaluation. Here I calculate elements of my personal and family life, how I feel about my health, my parents, things like that, not so much about professional career or achievements in life or the number of books I’ve published.

 

Finally, the third quantitative question: when you look into the near future, how optimistic are you about the situation in this country, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

Including all elements I could imagine — personal happiness, security, infrastructure…?

 

Everything you could imagine.

 

I would say 7.

 

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall and what your feelings were?

 

Yes, I remember very well. I heard it on TV, I believe. It was a day full of hardships, and I didn’t switch on the radio or anything of the kind. So it came to me as a surprise. Actually, I felt that something great has happened and that some great things are ahead of us. But fortunately, or unfortunately, I was not able at that moment to map the general direction of where we were moving or the exact effect on life. It was just kind of a shock, like man landing on the moon. It was probably because I had been living with this idea for so long, studying the two Germanys. This was part of my conscious life. When something like this happens, it’s like the sun rising in the west.

 

Were you at university at that time?

 

It was relatively late in my life. I was working at an institution within the ministry of education. I’d been in contact with a lot of people who were thinking about and working toward changing things. But let me be clear: I was not personally part of these groups. We all knew that something was going to happen. We all knew that something was going to happen pretty soon. But frankly speaking, we though that such a great change could not happen without bloodshed. That’s why some of us were very much afraid. This somehow marred the good feelings about what was happening.

A lot of things that came to pass, like what happened in Romania, proved us somehow right. There were street protests and shootings and something very close to civil war. Of course, at the time, we were not well-informed. I don’t know who was, but this is the answer.

 

Looking back, it was relatively non-violent. There was violence in Romania and later Yugoslavia. But Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia –

 

Yes, it was great. This was very well done. Especially bearing in mind what the real possibilities for confrontation were, given groups like the army and the secret police in every country in the region. So, if you ask me to evaluate this change from 1 to 10, it was almost 9 or 10, exactly because there was no bloodshed. Not because it started well or ended well, not whether privatization went well or not (it did not). A lot of things went disastrously bad. But from the point of view of people shooting each other on the street, from the point of view of parents against children, it could have been a very dangerous situation if things had come to a more radical point. The change was relatively cheaply bought.

 

I’m curious when you started to become interested in minority issues in Bulgaria and when it became part of your work.

 

If you live in Bulgaria, you have an understanding that minority problems are part of Bulgarian life. You study history at school and you know about Turks and the Turkish minority. I come from an area where there was an attempt to forcefully reintegrate the ethnic Turkish minority, and this caused a lot of problems. It was a very hot topic. We were not able to stand aside. It was impossible not have to an opinion on any of these issues.

Maybe the most interesting thing, however, was the general shift of public attention in Bulgaria, including mine, toward the Roma minority. After the so-called “great excursion” — the forceful expulsion of ethnic Turks to Turkey — it was believed that these acts of the Bulgarian authorities toward ethnic Turkish representatives would open a deep wound in the flesh of the Bulgarian nation, which would bear bitter fruit in years to come. People would not be able to communicate actively. Ethnic Turks would not be able to live in this country. It would have a lasting impact on Bulgarian social life. This did happen, but it happened in a much milder way than we expected. Somehow the situation proved manageable — with the help of certain political decisions like allowing the Movement for Rights and Freedoms as an ethnic party to participate in Bulgarian political life and represent ethnic Turks politically. I don’t like decision makers; I am in eternal opposition to everything. But probably because of these wise decisions by the decision makers not to stick to the extremist option, things went rather smoothly and these wounds started to heal remarkably well.

It may be that some elements of national psychology helped, from the side of both the ethnic Turks and ethnic Bulgarians. What I mean here — and national psychology is usually not welcome in scientific research — is the general feeling of people not hating each other as enemies. If you live together for five or six centuries, you start to learn how to cope with neighbors who have a different religion and language. It’s a very open process of trial and error. But something obviously had been built that prevented things from going very badly. This was the good thing that happened. The ethnic Turks didn’t seem to pose a security threat to Bulgaria as many people at that time believed.

Unfortunately there was another group of people who were, if not forgotten, then thought of as posing no threat at all, namely the Roma. For them, things went poorly. This problem has many facets. But the problem of integrating the Roma minority was a failure despite the efforts of Bulgarian authorities, Bulgarian civil society sector, and Bulgarian decision makers. I’m not speaking about the Roma community itself, because this is not fair. They will have to say something themselves. But if you try to sum up the efforts of the last 20 years, we achieved almost nothing compared to the enormous amount of funding and human effort and time spent, all the legislation, the volunteer work, the attempts to help Roma change their lives, the effort to establish a Roma intelligentsia.

Most of the minorities in Bulgaria — Jewish, Russian, Armenian — are well incorporated. I described the situation of the ethnic Turks. But the Roma minority poses challenges that can be met only provided that several complete changes take place in Bulgaria and probably at the all-European level as well. I have some ideas about these changes. I could describe them and even justify them. But without these changes in financing, in mindsets even, we won’t achieve any positive developments. Things might even get worse.

 

Tell me more about these recommendations.

 

I’m not going to rank them in order, but the first example is connected to political parties. The emergence of the MRF as a political party actually helped a lot, despite the fact that it was forbidden by the Bulgarian constitution. It would help if the Roma community in Bulgaria could establish a political party that could similarly represent the Roma minority at this level.

I personally was very much in favor of establishing the MRF at that time. This was a heated debate, you know. Most people were afraid. And, of course, everyone said that our constitution forbids this. From my point of view, it had to be done not so that something good could happen but to prevent something bad from happening. If a party represents a group of people and this party goes public, this is democracy. This is accountability. Otherwise, the group engages in clandestine action, and this is not good. You are creating an enemy within society. So, from this point of view, I was for the Movement for Rights and Freedom.

For almost 15 years, I monitored attempts of the Roma community to create this kind of party. For a number of reasons, they failed. They created 50-60 parties, some of which still exist. But not a single one of these parties managed to develop into a refined political tool for speaking on behalf of a minority. Without such a group speaking on behalf of the minority, a lot of things can’t happen. You can’t make priorities. You can’t do proper decision-making. You lose expertise. Of course, you try to create commissions, state structures, bodies that deal with the Roma community. You try to empower civil society structures in an attempt to do something. But without this general political tool, which is a powerful lever for solving problems, this simply couldn’t happen. And I don’t see how this can happen now. It’s already too late.

The second part of the problem was timing. Speaking in vulgar terms, we had to solve this problem at a very bad moment, at the moment of transition. At a time like this, you can probably solve one or two problems at a time, not more. And this problem was put at the bottom of the list of priorities. We will pay a dear price in the years to come, because now we’re only monitoring the situation, not addressing it. It’s not about the birthrate. It’s not the demographic issue that troubles so many Bulgarians at the moment, including journalists. It’s the problem that the Roma are producing poverty in large quantities in a society that is already poor. We are not improving things. We are not even stopping these bad things – poverty, low level of education, health problems — from happening.

To sum it up, we’re just monitoring problems. We’re not even attempting to evaluate these problems. Many people feel the same way I do, though maybe not putting it in the same words. You could put my statement in lots of different wordings: a xenophobic wording or a liberal wording without changing the essence. The essence is that we’re not solving a great problem. We’re just waiting and seeing. This is one of the topics that I feel most troubled about in terms of Bulgaria’s short-term and medium-term prospects. Without solving it we’ll not be able to do a lot of other things we want to do: improving living standards, achieving a decent judiciary system, making Bulgaria a good place to live.

The Roma issue is a common story. People say, “Oh, the Roma again! Why are we speaking of Roma? Everyone knows about Roma!” But the sense of impending doom — not in a year or two but in 10-15 years — is shared by only a handful of people. You don’t have to be a racist or a xenophobe to worry about this. You just have to be observant. It’s a real danger.

 

You say that a political party is a necessary lever, and the lack of a party for the Roma is a major gap. What are the failings of the current Roma parties? Why aren’t they in a position to act in the same way as the MRF?

 

I was afraid you would ask this question. This is a question that has been asked many times but without a decent answer. A lot of reasons have been listed about inner factions within the Roma community, which is a fact. Or the lack of a community sense, which is well developed among the ethnic Turks. But somehow, this hasn’t happened with the Roma minority.

It might be that other political parties contributed a lot to this problem. Every single political party has tried to grab part of the Roma community — the Socialist Party with its ideas about equality, the MRF because there are Muslims within the Roma community. And buying the Roma vote has been a standing topic in Bulgarian elections for two decades.

The reason might be related to something inside the community that we can’t see from the outside. I’m an outsider. It’s a risky thing to speak of a community without understanding its inner logic and values. I’m trying to be objective. I’m not pretending that I know everything about this. There are a lot of people in Bulgaria who believe they understand everything. You can go to a Bulgarian political scientist who’ll answer all your questions. They are trying to be experts on everything, and that’s not possible. There might be some reason that I’m simply unable to grasp. But it seems impossible that a Roma party would emerge as a political factor in Bulgaria.

I’m not talking about whether such a party would be good or bad for the political system. I’m only talking about whether such a party could solve problems. It might be anti-constitutional, but if it helps to solve real problems, if it enables Roma to be represented on the municipal level, then it’s okay from the viewpoint of the school of pragmatism. But right now nothing of the kind exists. Maybe 10 years ago it could have been developed into a winning political project. Not now. So we have to look for something else.

If you don’t have a concept of what you’re doing, your good intentions can turn into bad results. This is one of the problems with the Roma community. You give money and the result in the end is completely different.

 

Can you give an example of this?

 

For example: the distribution of money from international donors and from the Bulgarian government. You draft a project, you make lists of goals and objectives, activities and expected results. If you’re smart, you of course put sustainability in it. You fill in the boxes in a certain way. And you put down some ideas that sound rather okay.

But it doesn’t work. You’re trying to improve the living conditions of the Roma minority in Vidin, let’s say. You give money and you achieve a short-lived result. Something good happens: it might be a school for Roma children or a school lunch program or dental assistance. And this is for a period of six months. But what can you expect from six months of effort? Of course there are results, even good results. But in the seventh month, these improvements disappear. The situation with the dental health dissolves, and nothing happens. The sustainability element is completely miscalculated. And you don’t have the money to build on these results to create truly sustainable results.

If you go to the authorities, they’ll say that of course there is no money. Or this money was already allocated because of the Roma Decade of Inclusion. You need a bigger concept, with tasks allocated to every member of society, from the authorities to the media. And then you try to follow this based on some kind of a general understanding of political and social elites.

I’ll give you a good example of what needs to happen, not in terms of budgetary aid but in seeing things properly. If I rape a 12-year-old girl, I’ll be sued and sent to jail and my friends would stop communicating with me. This would be a great shame on me and my family. But if a Roma guy marries a 12-year-old girl, the Bulgarian media claps their hands — this is a Romeo and Juliet story! This is very serious. It’s not that Juliet was very much older. But you’re shifting standards instead of sending this Roma guy or his parents to jail for helping in an act that’s a crime, that’s listed in the penal code. Maybe the media was worried about sounding xenophobic for condemning such a thing. How could we do anything within such a framework? Every single actor within Bulgarian society must bear its own responsibility, from the government to the media. Without this kind of understanding, which is completely lacking in Bulgaria, the situation is a mess of ideas. And people will try to unite other people around some false messages, like the xenophobes, who claim that they are patriots.

Right now, we attempt to solve problems piece by piece — a small thing here, a small thing there. We have to reevaluate everything. For instance, our organization applied six months ago to the Roma Education Fund with a project to unite experts from the Roma community to evaluate projects in 3-5 Bulgarian regions over the last 3-5 years. We wanted to evaluate not whether they worked on paper but to measure the true effect: the sustainable impact of these projects. We would interview people, local community leaders, teachers, and then develop a scheme of parameters, and discern the good cases from the bad cases and try to explain why this worked here and not there. They didn’t approve our proposal. At least we tried to do something. Maybe it’s wrong. Maybe our efforts have been wrong from the very beginning. But at least we’re trying to challenge some of the concepts.

Most people in Bulgaria simply believe that this is something you live with, which is a major philosophic flaw. You feel like you’re moving with the current and you’re not expecting the waterfall. You’re simply not able to grasp the meaning of the waterfall. Since you’ve gone down the river so many years, there simply can’t be a waterfall, there can’t be a Niagara. But something bad will happen. There will be a waterfall.

 

Let’s talk about the Roma media project here in Bulgaria. I remember you telling me that you achieved, and you were very honest, very modest success in how Roma are referred to articles. So, the disparaging term “Gypsy” generally speaking is not used any longer. And that was about 3-4 years ago. Has there been sustainable change in media perceptions of Roma?

 

You asked me about an example about lost money. This is exactly the case for this project. A lot of money, a lot of people, and a lot of organizations managed to change the word “gypsy” into “Roma,” the more politically correct term. The final result, three years ago: we had a change in form, though not in content. Now it’s even worse. There are some people who insist that “Roma” is incorrect, and we should go back to “Gypsy”! And many Roma leaders and rank and file agree. They say, “We are Gypsies.”

So this is a typical example of a lot of money to achieve a result that did not last. It didn’t change the general perception of Roma. Nothing has changed in Bulgarian perceptions. It wasn’t completely useless. Through this project, we at least provoked a debate. But all these public debates actually focused on issues that were not changeable. We ended up just strengthening the differences and the general understanding that there can be no change. And, as to this greater project of creating Roma media, it failed completely.

Whatever you touch, you touch issues where a certain effort has been made, a lot of money and time and effort have been devoted, and there haven’t been any visible results. You don’t even get the sense of achieving something in your life over the last 20 years. You are only fighting losing battles. Any kind of tradesman could say, “This is the house that I built. This is the road that I made.” But in this particular case, you can’t say this. Some things have changed, of course. But they are so few that it’s better not to mention them.

From my point of view, if a major change doesn’t happen, whether through some kind of political understanding or through violent incidents that provoke a shock to Bulgarian society — though Bulgarian society seems quite immune to such shocks — we will continue to have the kind of situation that exists right now: with easy answers provided by municipal authorities or from xenophobes. The natural political discourse here is that Roma people can’t read or write and they should go find jobs in Italy or Belgium. How can you answer these people? You can’t influence them. You’re a civil society activist. There are objective limitations to the ideas and powers of civil society.

And there are a lot of civil society organizations that simply quit this issue because it brought only pain and a negative image. One side calls you a Roma organization and the other side calls you a xenophobic organization trying to meddle because you’re not Roma. You’re mistrusted by everyone. And, anyway, Bulgarian society is already tired of all these Roma issues.

 

Can you mention anything that has worked, however modestly?

 

We had a project that was relatively sustainable and lasted for three years of identifying young Roma to train as interns in journalism for six months. We then were able to find for them places in Bulgarian media so that they could practice what they learned. This was a very good project. Typically, and interestingly, this project was designed as a kind of, well, the opponents would call it social engineering. We were forcibly trying to produce an intelligentsia to help the community. The results sounded promising. These people, without losing their identity as Roma, were able to get some information and some practice under the tutelage of Bulgarian journalists. During their work in Bulgarian mainstream media, they were able to publish materials, help produce programs. It was a good experience.

The problem was that most of these people could not find jobs as journalists. Instead, they got jobs as Roma health mediators, local community leaders, municipal experts. All of them have good jobs in the Roma community based on their intensive training in human rights, economics, English, practice and theory of journalism. From my point of views this was a good project because we actually helped people jump over this barrier without losing their identity as Roma. This is a common phenomenon. The moment you get outside a “bad” group, you are inclined to renounce all relations with it. But this was a valuable project that brought some lasting results. When I went around the country with the ministry of education looking at minority projects in education, I met some of the program participants in the regions. They feel great about the program. Producing socially active people is a very important thing, especially in contemporary Bulgaria where people keep their eyes fixed on the ground.

Still, I stick to my previous opinion. This was a small pebble trying to turn the tide of an enormous wave.

These issues need real people, not volunteers. It seems like in the United States that volunteers are doing a great job. In Bulgaria right now you can’t do much with volunteers, especially when dealing with minority issues.

 

You said earlier that the influence of xenophobic movements has been underestimated.

 

Ataka is a good example. They were seen as some idiots whose behavior was easy to predict because their messages seemed similar to messages in the west, like Le Pen’s. They were immediately labeled “neofascists” or “extremist right.” But they are not rightists. Nor are they unable to formulate positions of their own. I remember the campaign of Ataka’s Volen Siderov for president. His platform was the best of all the candidates. All of his 10 suggestions were within the power of the executive institution. So, there are people who think within these groups.

Another generally shared illusion is that these parties have surfaced because of a certain economic and social context and are doomed to die when this context changes. But if you look at the context, you will see that it did not change. Bulgaria is moving along two lines. One of these is pro-European with all the things you read in the newspapers, what the big parties are telling you, the parliamentary debate, the money coming from European funds, young people going to Western universities, the changing labor force, and so on. There is also another, more obscure, almost invisible pattern: the people who think that these European perspectives are some kind of vague bullshit. They’re interested in small visions and short-term strategies. They are easily manipulated and follow the wildest concepts. It’s very important for Bulgarian society not to allow the transfer of voters from one of these groups to the other. But unfortunately, this happens.

By the way, Ataka has a very mixed type of message. It’s not the kind of organization that just says, “We are against Roma.” It has a very well developed social platform that addresses prices and taxes and social problems. It can communicate to ordinary people even better than the BSP, which has specialized in these social problems. I’m very pessimistic that Ataka’s influence will rapidly go down.

 

It’s the same in Germany. Xenophobia hasn’t gone away when the economic crisis subsided. But do you think that Ataka will become “normalized” though its engagement in the political process and shift more toward its social economic agenda?

 

This question was posed at the very beginning when the Ataka party was about to enter parliament. Ataka did change. It become tamer, behaving like a normal political party, adopting parliamentary procedures, playing the political game at a top level. This learning process, this gathering of experience, made Ataka stronger, not weaker as many people expected. Normalizing Ataka as a political party would mean a less aggressive xenophobic discourse. But I don’t think that these things are so directly related.

Ataka is now an established party. It has gone through several elections. It has representatives in the European parliament. It has learned a lot from this trial-and-error process. But it doesn’t mean that it has changed its platform. Of course it is changing. It’s not killing people. But these groups that become normal parties are actually becoming stronger. They’re just articulating things in a more decent way so that they’re not removed from the floor of parliament.

In many regions of Bulgaria, people really do believe that Ataka articulates their ideas better than any other party. You could argue with them. But this is an established belief. I believe that these xenophobic parties have a lot of social resources. And I’m using the term “xenophobic,” not “patriotic” — they are not patriotic parties. There’s a lot of xenophobia in this country. Some Bulgarian citizens share 0.01 xenophobic ideas, which means that they’re liberals. Others share more: 5, 10, 20 percent. To create a party along these lines is to find people with a relatively high level of xenophobia and identify a language that can empower them to vote for this political party.

Ataka is doing very well because it is trying to play on every kind of court that has something to do with this xenophobia. It speaks against Roma in Vidin or Sliven. It speaks against the Turks to Armenians. It speaks about the unfair distribution of health-care funds to pensioners. There are separate messages for every group. That’s why many people are underestimating it.

Besides, they follow their political strategy comparatively well. They don’t get involved with the incumbent authorities. They’re always in opposition. As opposition, they can always be more outspoken and bear fewer responsibilities. Being in opposition is much easier than having responsibility for a city, a village, a party, a government. They are doing their job very well. And they’re able to change. They’re able to develop new messages. They’re able to adapt themselves to changing political conditions. That’s why they pose a real problem for the structure of the Bulgarian political system.

Of course I do not believe in the platform of Ataka. But more and more people support its platform. Ataka might die. But the number of people who agree with its agenda will remain significant.

 

Sofia, September 25, 2012

 

The Interview (2007)

 

ON THE MEDIA

 

Despite the changing laws, the international position, and the emergence of two generations, there has been extremely limited change in Bulgaria in terms of ideas about ethnicity and ethnic groups. A lot of people would disagree with me. But this is what I feel, and it is the saddest result of our efforts over the last 20 years.

In the media, there has been a change. The term Roma is used instead of gypsy. This is an important change that took place in the last decade. It took an enormous effort of a lot of people from human rights organizations. So, we can report a measurable result in the change of name used in mainstream newspapers. But from my point of view – and maybe I’m deliberately thinking in the most outspoken way – this wasn’t a result worth the effort. We really didn’t change anything in people’s minds.

They used to say tsigany 10 years ago; now they are using the new term Roma, but with the same degree of preconceptions and negative feelings and prejudices as before. On the other hand, the people who used to be tolerant and open-minded and who used tsigany now use Roma, but they, too, think the same way, and are still open-minded. So this didn’t address the main questions – e.g., how are we to live with this group of people, how are we going to do things together, how are we to help them integrate into modern society. The majority – that is, the Bulgarian majority – remains as ignorant as they were 15 years ago. From this point of view, our efforts have not been as successful as we had hoped.

Currently we’re working on a project that aims to target the majority of Bulgarians via the media with information about Roma human rights, written by Roma and showing a disastrous picture of conditions in the ghettos. We’re trying to avoid this polar confrontation, either pro-Roma or anti-Roma, either human rights activist or xenophobe/racist. There has been no calm, decent debate. It’s almost impossible to write or say anything. We are trying to do things at a small, everyday level, with perhaps limited success but still something that leaves an impression in the mind of every reader.

 

ON ROMA AND FINANCING

Roma small business support would do more than simply give people money. Building housing for Roma families and offering it for free without competition or contract – this is not good. But if I start to argue these things with human rights activists, I’m accused of being a xenophobe because I don’t believe in just giving things away.

 

ON ROMA

Things do not look so optimistic. Of course, you can show measurable results in artificially created figures. But in my personal opinion, we are only scratching the surface of the problem. I’m at a loss because I don’t see the tool with which to go deeper. Maybe we are in need of more money. Maybe a global program with multimillion-dollar financing could change everything – schools, health care, etc. But this is not possible. Nobody could afford it here. Unless we find a new set of tools, we will continue to pour water into a broken glass. There is already a small society of people and groups that really profit from this funding. There is an infrastructure of experienced NGO leaders. They know how to do things and report things.

We had a program that tried to offer a concise educational course for Roma journalists, giving them the basic knowledge in order to work for a news publication. We compressed it into a course of several months. We tried to find places for them, to introduce them to mainstream media, not Roma-language media. And you feel good when you see that next year this guy is doing okay, that he has a job. So, at the grassroots level, things can be changed. But on a global level…

There are some journalists following Roma issues. Some newspapers more eagerly cover ethnic issues. There are one or two prominent journalists that are known to be Roma. But generally we can’t count on having an influx of ethnic journalists into the mainstream media. They can’t compete with Bulgarian journalists. Even placing Roma interns in the mainstream media would change things. Having Roma in the mainstream media would allow Bulgarian journalists to see that these people can write, prepare texts, fact-check. So this is a step-by-step success. This is extremely important for another reason. Bulgarian journalists don’t have access to Roma issues. They don’t speak the Roma language. They can’t count on any connections or contacts. You need a Roma representative to point out some things. Two journalists can look at the same picture and come to very different conclusions. The Roma journalist can notice things in a picture – who this woman is, why she is standing aside. It’s inside information, and it’s useful information.

You can find Roma represented at different levels of Bulgarian life. There is a prominent Roma cardiac surgeon. Everybody knows he is Roma but nobody says he is. There is a soccer player who scored a goal against Chelsea. He’s a very good player and he’s Roma, but now nobody says that he’s Roma.

In our society, Roma means “not successful”. In Bulgaria, you can be a successful Armenian, Jew, even Turk – indeed, there has been an important change in the situation and perception of ethnic Turks – but the idea of Roma in the minds of the majority is most often linked to a lack of success. It is a collective prejudice.

 

ON COMPARING ROMA AND ETHNIC TURKS

 

Some 20 years ago, the Bulgarian government attempted a campaign against ethnic Turks, and that was to change their names and their religion by force. With this page of history in mind, we thought that tensions between ethnic Turks and ethnic Bulgarians would last for generations. But actually, relations improved rapidly. The image of the Turk has changed visibly during these last 15-20 years. It is now possible to see an ethnic Turk as a newscaster. The man is announced by his Turkish name. This could not have been imagined some 10 years ago, no way. And he’s good, by the way. People don’t notice that he is an ethnic Turk.

Why did this not happen with Roma? Because they started out in a much lower position. The socioeconomic level of ethnic Turks was much higher than that of Roma. But if I subscribe to this logic, I could be accused of racism, because it suggests that I think Roma are not able to do these things. Another explanation is that ethnic Turks have their own party. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms has a smart leader. Its very existence in Bulgaria is a success. It has been a skillful force in the Bulgarian political spectrum for at least a decade. The Roma tried to follow this example. There were 25-30 attempts to create a Roma party. There are at least five to six parties on the official register, but these parties don’t actually exist.

It is possible to appreciate what the Movement for Rights and Freedoms has done for Turks. But it achieved this at a high cost, creating negative perceptions in the majority population. Most Roma people in Bulgaria believe that they could do much better if they had a political party. But there is no political party, and I am quite sure that there could not be a decent political party that relied mainly on Roma voters.

 

ON EDUCATION AND IDENTITY

 

History textbooks are written to tell a tale of a country, of a state, and not of the people living there. This is a common shortcoming of all history textbooks. Historians are always the most national-minded people, but they look at what is happening in Bulgaria according to the state, not the people. Macedonians, Romanians, Greeks, Serbs – they all follow this pattern. They neglect topics related to cultures, to interracial and inter-group relations. This is not just from the perspective of minority groups. A friend of mine claims the same thing about our textbooks from the point of view of gender. The history textbooks are mostly a male history of Bulgaria. The textbooks don’t talk about women; it’s as if they never existed. So maybe we will have to learn how to read and how to write historical textbooks.

There is a Balkan university foundation that is writing a common historical textbook of all the Balkans. It plans to introduce this textbook into the schools of all the Balkan states, in order to assuage controversial issues. But I simply don’t believe in this kind of effort. It’s impossible to write something that can be used as a common instrument. We are different groups, after all. What we can do, however, is revise all these documents and introduce new things like community life, like gender issues, etc., and this will change the character of the textbook.

 

ON CHANGING IDENTITY

 

Identity: is it the one thing we won’t change? You get a different answer from Roma and from Turks. During all these years of turmoil ethnic Turks cared about their identity. It was simply not something that was subject to change. For Roma, during the years of turmoil, they could profit from changing their identity, because of some vague concepts of social mobility or because of prejudice in society. It was much more profitable for a Roma to not let others know he or she is Roma. So, the Roma identity is more subject to change in years of turmoil. It’s much easier to find a job, to rent an apartment, to do a lot of things if you are not Roma.

Maybe the reason Bulgarians can’t answer this question is because Bulgarian ethnicity doesn’t have a clear definition. We live at a crossroads. We have too many drops of blood of other people. Me included. I’m one–eighth Tartar, one-eight Ukrainian; my grandfather comes from contemporary Macedonia, which used to be Bulgaria; and my father was born in Thessaloniki. It is brash and desperate and indecent for me to say that I am Bulgarian by blood. We are just too different. If you go onto a tram and look at the anthropology of the people, there is no single, stable physical type. So, we stick closer to the idea of Bulgarian identity not of blood identity per se, but of cultural, linguistic, even religious identity (with or without quotation marks). My personal impression is that almost 50 percent of ethnic Bulgarians are atheists. But they will say that they are Orthodox because they will understand your question not from a purely clerical or theological point of view but as an indicator of respect for the fact that the Orthodox Church is part of Bulgarian history.

 

 


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