Vasil Kadrinov. Photo Don Russell.
On the Roma
The Roma first came to Europe in the 9th century and not much later to Bulgaria. This place is a crossroads of cultures and peoples.
There’s not been serious historical research on the Roma during Turkish rule. But after liberation from 500 years of Turkish occupation at end of 19th century, Bulgaria was a capitalist state with a king and a democratic constitution. For 60 years, Roma were able to say that they were Roma – there was no problem with their identity. The majority, the Bulgarians, perceived them as the people with whom they’d been living for centuries. This was the perception of the majority of Turks, too. There were no conflicts between Bulgarians and Turks. Then came the Russian soldiers. They came to liberate, according to Stalin, but it’s not true: they came to occupy. They promoted a communist totalitarian regime. At first, during this period, there was Roma theater, Turkish newspapers. After that, for the next 40 years, the Roma minority disappeared from the totalitarian public media, from TV, from newspapers. The communist government focused on heavy industry, and they needed people to work in those factories. Some of the Roma worked in agriculture, which was collectivized under communism. Some of the Roma worked in the factories. At that time, instead of putting Roma into the army, the communists put young Roma men into a kind of labor army that made some of the biggest things in Bulgaria at that time – plants, railways, etc.
So that was the position of the Roma minority under communism. They had to work, they had to stay silent. They could not move around as they did before. They had to have some basic education. And they had to remain absent from public life. The communist policy on housing in the bigger cities was to construct blocks where Roma had to live like Bulgarians. But the Roma have a lot of children. They want more space. In the 1970s and the beginning of 1980s, the communists decided to stimulate the growth of the population because they needed cheap labor. The Roma community, too, received pretty good per-child payments. Some Roma families became quite big.
There is no police presence in the ghetto – only when there was a big problem. In this ghetto, during the dictatorship, there was some order. And, at that time, more in the Roma community had some work. It might not have been good work, but at least it was work. But after 1990 and the start of the changes, more of these plants were closed. At the beginning of the 1990s, many of the Roma became jobless. They started to travel to Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey to do some small trading, import-export. They did some work in illegal construction. At this peak of unemployment, they started to travel. With the father and mother gone, the children stopped going to school. This new generation of Roma grew up on the streets. This new generation is now 18 and 19 years old. In the middle of the 1990s, social protection payments began. So even if you don’t work, you can still get some money. It was chaotic. The money often did not go to jobless people. Also, in some Roma quarters, they stopped electricity. Some political parties, for instance the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) the party of the mayor in my city), told the Roma that they didn’t have to pay electricity bills. This became the tradition, and other parties started to pay for votes. Many Bulgarians say, “The Roma don’t pay for electricity, why do we have to pay? They get social payments, why do we have to pay taxes to support them?”
Right now, unemployment is not so high. The economy is better. There is a lot of construction in Sofia and along the Black Sea. Some of the money is recycled from communist times, from state security. Some of it is from drugs. But there are more jobs now. Still, many Roma go to other countries to work – to Spain, to Greece. They send home money. Many times, the European Union insisted that Bulgaria improve education and the overall situation of the Roma. During the negotiation process on accession to the EU, they made recommendations every three months. But there were no results. Another factor was George Soros. He came at the beginning of the 1990s. He established the Roma Rights Center. For more than 15 years, he has spent money on this issue. But really, he just picked out nomenklatura, Roma apparatchiks who like to represent the community. They go to conferences, endless seminars. There are books and studies, But there is no political struggle. These representatives are not elected. Where is the democracy in the Roma community?
The president of Finland proposed to the Council of Europe to construct something like a European Roma parliament. Finally, elections were going to take place in the Roma community. The parliament consists of 150 members, who are Roma from different countries. But the Bulgarian Roma did not hold elections. They wrote protocols. They chose the ones who were ‘elected’ and gave the protocols to the Council of Europe.
There are six or seven Roma parties. One of these is in the coalition of Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). There is one parliamentary member from the Roma community. Other parties were formed in the middle of the 1990s. There are educated Roma who are not so dependent on Soros money or the BSP or the Roma or non-Roma mafias. One of them, Vasil Choprasov, publishes a newspaper every two weeks – with money from Soros and others.
There is a new player that arrived on the scene at the beginning of the century. This is the old oligarchy, mostly from former state security. They supported the king when his party took power. But then they produced a new party, the Ataka Party. In spring 2005, this party owned a television network. Party members participated in elections with strong anti-Roma and anti-Turkish slogans. They are anti-Semitic. Their leader, Volen Siderov, likes Hitler. In addition to their TV station, they also own a newspaper. In their media, you hear that there are Roma criminals and nothing is done. You hear that the Turks are bad because they have been in government. The next enemy is America, who is seen as the aggressor. They received 7% of the vote in 2005 and formed a parliamentary faction. They have three members in the European Parliament.
On Ethnic Turks
Numbering 800,000, the ethnic Turks are the largest minority. Before the Word War II, there were no conflicts with the Turks in Bulgaria. At the beginning of communist rule, the government closed the borders. The Turkish minority could emigrate to Turkey. Most did not leave. Next, the government prohibited the Turkish newspaper. The Turks didn’t have a party before World War II. It wasn’t forbidden but the Turks didn’t feel any pressure to create a party. During the communist period, Turks remained in their villages working. They could practice Islam. But at the beginning of the 1980s, because of the new policies of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, and because of the opposition movements in Russia, Poland, and Hungary, the Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov decided that this Turkish minority was a danger because it was independent and because it was connected to a different mother state. The Bulgarian government began to force ethnic Turks to change their names. If they spoke Turkish on the street, they were fined. It was a campaign of terror. The government used tanks and state security forces to operate this terror. They killed people. They opened a concentration camp on an island in the Danube and filled it with Turks. They received sentences of 10-15 years. Many stayed in prison for six years. This government policy started in 1984 and peaked in 1985.
After the death of Andropov and the coming of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian government decided in 1989 to launch a different campaign. It opened the border with Turkey. About 300,000 Turks left the country. Some of them stayed in Turkey. Many of them decided to return to Bulgaria. The state security people were interested in constructing a party that could speak in the name of the Turkish minority. This party, The Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), is led by Ahmed Dogan. It has consistently won seats in the parliament. There is no other Turkish party. And the other Bulgarian parties generally don’t have Turks as members. So the MRF has achieved monopoly position. If you are Turkish, you vote for the Turkish party. Now, some of the Roma are Muslims. The MRF does not want these Roma to have their own party and take away votes. This is one barrier for the development of a Roma party. But there remains the question: what will be better for the Roma – to have a strong Roma party or to promote polices aimed to improve the situation of the Roma through the other, non-ethnically-based parties?