Bulgarians And The Roma: Who’s More Wrong?

Yana Moyseeva, The Sofia Echo

Dzeno Association, Czech Republic
Dec 18 2006

Bulgaria’s transition to democracy after 1989 was harder than anyone
expected. New democratic and socialist rulers at the time misjudged
what was needed to quickly make Bulgaria a free-market economy,
a task that countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic
managed. The ultimate consequence of those misjudgments in the early
days of the republic was an economic catastrophe that resulted in
fever-pitch unemployment and a drastic decrease in living standards.

But hardest hit were the Roma. Their social and economic situation
severely deteriorated as a consequence of the post-communist
transition. Roma unemployment skyrocketed up to 90 per cent during the
1990s. Their level of education also fell at great speed. A recent
survey reveals that only 10 per cent of Roma aged 10 and above have
completed primary education, as opposed to 72 of Bulgarians. As a
result, many Roma saw no other option but to earn their bread through
social benefits and, alas, crime.

Today human rights activists, NGOs, politicians and the media continue
to argue who is right and wrong on the Roma’s condition in Bulgarian
society. Some argue that too many preserve stereotypes about the
Roma. Others argue that they simply base their perceptions of the Roma
on Roma behaviour. Meanwhile, the integrated Roma are absent from the
public view. The media still mostly emphasise negative stories. To
a great extent, this coverage is why the perception of the "dirty,
lazy, stealing Roma" remains unchanged to date. The voice of the Roma
themselves is lost. Politicians, journalists, NGO representatives –
we hear a lot through them about what everybody else thinks. But it
is time we hear from both non-Roma and Roma themselves about the idea
of living in an integrated society.

A study done with non-Roma and Roma showed that integration is easy
in words, but difficult in practice.

Through the eyes of the ordinary Bulgarians, Roma integration means
everything from "paying your bills" to "taking responsibility as well
as using your rights". Mainly, it involves "getting a smaller group,
which is somehow different from the majority, to live by the rules
and principles on which the entire society is based, to take into
consideration the established norms of behaviour, whether they are
social, cultural, or health."

But is that really enough?

Bulgaria has been a multi-ethnic society for centuries. Turks,
Armenians, Jews and Russians are only some of the minorities currently
living in Bulgaria. However, it is a fact that other minorities are
hardly ever mentioned in the public space. "This is because nobody
else creates as many problems as the Roma," said Anait Kirkorova,
a teacher in a so-called white school from an Armenian background.

The interviewed Bulgarians acknowledged that it is wrong to think
that all Roma are the same. Some are already integrated, they say –
they are educated, work, pay taxes, and obey the law like everybody
else. But examples of such integrated Roma are rare.

One of the most widely spread opinions about the Roma is that they
are highly criminal, especially regarding pick pocketing, electricity
stealing and burglary. Bulgarians especially say they resent how Roma
are caught stealing electricity but the Government forgives them,
as their lines are re-connected without payment or sanctions.

As a result, Bulgarians irritably say "Why are they allowed to get
away with this, but as soon as we don’t pay ours, we remain without
electricity until we pay the bill?" Bulgarians admit that when they
go on a bus and a group of Roma gets on, it is almost an instant
reaction to grab hold of their bags or pockets and stay alert for
the duration of the trip.

This fear comes as no surprise when looking at crime figures.

Even though official crime statistics on an ethnic basis are not
carried out in Bulgaria, some figures compiled in 2002 from the
Bulgarian police claim that Roma commit one in four crimes. Even if
such figures are unofficial, Bulgarians point towards higher criminal
rates among Roma than among Bulgarians.

The visibly higher birth rate among the Roma also puts Bulgarians
on alert.

Currently the birth rate among Roma is three to four times higher
than among Bulgarians. A common belief is that many Roma give birth
to children to use them as a means for getting easy money, mainly
through claiming children state benefits. "For the Romany gypsies,
children are not an expense, but a profit," said Nona Kuzmanova,
a teacher in a mixed school. Single mother Elizabet Ivanova added,
"When I go to take my child benefits, I join a queue mainly with
Roma women, surrounded by children". In July, Social Minister Emilia
Maslarova said 70 per cent of all 117 000 jobless who received state
benefits in the first five months of the year were Roma.

Bulgarians are also convinced that Roma exploit their children for
begging and pick-pocketing. A number of people have personally
offered a begging Roma child in the street to buy him/her food,
but in response the child said it wanted money instead. All of the
interviewed Bulgarians were convinced that if a Roma family has four
children, it can earn more money from child support benefits than
if both parents were earning the minimum wage of 180 leva. Thus,
Bulgarians said, it is not the case that there are no jobs; rather
they simply don’t want to work because "It is easier to have more
children and make the most of welfare," the interviewees claimed.

Experiences of hiring or working with Roma are also negative. "They
would always try to get away with doing as little as possible, leave
work earlier than everyone else and on top – not do the job properly,"
said Konstantin Kirilov, a company director. In the eyes of Bulgarians
this work ethic raised a question as to whether the Roma actually
want to be integrated.

Some Bulgarians argue that most Roma don’t want to be integrated
because this requires making an effort. "They run away when the first
obstacle comes along. Why make an effort if you can choose the easy
way and carry on living day by day," argues Yordanka Pochinkova,
a social worker. But others believe that no one would choose misery
if given the option for a better life, such as having a job, a house
or access to quality education.

Although some Bulgarians express the rather extreme view that "Roma’s
low intelligence has turned into a genetic attribute as a consequence
of their primitive way of life during centuries," most Bulgarians
interviewed agree that the problems are rooted mainly in their lack
of education.

According to data compiled in 2001, 15 per cent of the Roma population
are illiterate, 30 per cent have only elementary education and
another 30 per cent have finished eighth grade, the required
minimum by law. Only five per cent have finished twelfth, or final,
grade and less than one per cent hold a university degree. The
lack of education and the high illiteracy among the Roma makes them
uncompetitive. According to Konstantin Kirilov "No job means poverty,
and poverty is a prerequisite for defects in society". But this
situation has much to do with the efficiency of the Government.

Compulsory primary education and sanctions for those caught not
sending their children to school exist even now. But the evident
poor state of the great majority of Roma speaks for a massive lack of
oversight. Roma children often drop out of school, a fact admitted by
the Government. Each year ten million Euros are given on average by
American and EU funds for various Roma integration programmes. Yet,
both Bulgarians and Roma are convinced that this money goes in the
wrong hands, such as Romany bosses and politicians. The bottom line
is that there are few if any signs that the lives of the Roma have

"Whatever the ghetto was 30 years ago, it is still exactly the same.

There is no canalisation, running water, people still scavenge
rubbish bins," said Orlin Parvanov, a company manager. While some
Bulgarians admit there are things they can do to integrate the Roma,
such as interact more with them and get to know their culture better,
the majority of those interviewed have an extremely negative attitude.

"If they were to behave differently, their problems and those of the
entire society would diminish significantly," he said.

But what most people don’t realise is that the Roma are the most
disadvantaged part of a society with many problems. While Bulgarians
embrace the idea of integration, study results show they don’t want
their children to study with Roma or to have Roma neighbours, the
hallmarks of integration.

Bulgarians themselves are not the best role model.

"We too throw our empty packs of crisps on the street. Only when
we learn not to do that will we be allowed to judge other people,"
said Kiril Pochinkov, an architect. But such self-critical thoughts
are still uncommon. The majority of Bulgarians remain pessimistic
over the success of Roma integration and don’t see much development
for at least another 30 to 40 years. But perhaps this is in fact not
such a long time, considering the complexity of integration. Minority
issues have never been easy to solve and like any bruise, the negative
consequences of the transition period in the early 90s requires a
few generations to heal.

On May 19 the BBC broadcast a report about Bulgaria on how ready,
or, rather, not ready, it was to join the EU in 2007. One of the most
memorable images to demonstrate the backwardness of the country was
a shot of a lonely Roma woman, warming her hands on a fire at what
looks like a distant Sofia suburb. Most Bulgarians are ashamed of such
images. But it is also the image which destines those Roma who are
already integrated to a constant battle with stereotypes and prejudice.

One such person is 18-year-old Hristina Georgieva. Currently studying
journalism, she says "In a few months time we will all be doing our
work placements in various media. And I am 100 per cent sure that
even though people will be nice to me, they will always have this
thought in mind ‘Yes, but she is Roma.’ and I know that this will
show in one way or another".

Georgieva has never lived in a gypsy ghetto. She has only studied
in mixed schools and doesn’t speak the Roma language. Yet, she
says, her features and skin colour forces her and her colleagues to
constantly prove themselves to others. "We are clean, well dressed,
speak Bulgarian amongst each other and have tickets for the tram. Why
are we then still looked at as criminals?" she said.

She is highly sceptical of the entire concept of Roma integration.

Bulgarians argue that if Roma were educated, had decent jobs,
lived out of ghettos and obeyed the rules that everybody else obeys,
there would be no reason for Roma to be isolated and a lot of their
problems would be solved. However, it seems that those requirements
are by far not enough to make the integrated Roma feel integrated.

Genoveva Sotirova, a Roma who holds law degree, said: "I want to be
considered for a job because of my skills and qualifications, not
the colour of my skin or my face features. I want to be let in dance
clubs and not being told that ‘tonight it is a private party’ when
it clearly isn’t. I want to be on a bus where people are not holding
tight their bags as soon as a person with gypsy features gets on".

To integrated young Roma, being integrated does not mean being
accepted. Daniel Asparuhov argued that "Despite Roma being part of
Bulgarian history for centuries, people are still not used to them
and refuse to accept them". Nonetheless, the interviewed Roma, who
identify themselves as integrated, acknowledged that most of the
stereotypes surrounding their ethnicity are indeed justified.

During the interview, they agreed that the majority of Roma are
uneducated, steal, beg and cause social problems. They called them
"the degraded part of Bulgarian society". But what angers them,
said Georgieva, is that the exceptions are not accepted. The typical
prejudiced Bulgarian mind makes it extremely difficult for us to
prove that we are not all the same, she added.

Quality education, good jobs, and being part of a society are equally
as big priorities for some Roma as for Bulgarians, Turks and Jews.

Antonina Zhelyazkova from the Centre for Study of Minorities said it
must be acknowledged that in the past few years at least some good
things happened for the Roma. "With the help of sponsorship programmes,
a Roma elite of up to 5000 people managed to be formed. A number of
young people were given scholarships which allowed them to leave the
ghetto or the small village they lived in, gain good education and
make something of themselves," Zhelyazkova said.

Five thousand out of approximately 800 000 Roma may seem a small
fraction. But it is progress. The point is that such young and
ambitious Roma exist and yet still only the poor, uneducated, begging
ones appear in news stories. Moreover, there are hardly any known
Roma politicians, journalists, actors, doctors, teachers, or sports
personas. This lack of popular, integrated Roma figures for the public
is a big problem.

Desislava Rumenova, a teacher in a mixed school, said "If they don’t
show us or talk about us, if they are prejudiced in offering us
high-rank jobs, what model can we be for the rest of Roma?"

Her class colleague, Sotirova, adds that when she goes back to her
village, Roma people there ask her, "You graduated from university
and are still without a job. What is the point then of sending our
children to school? Not only will they suffer discrimination but they
won’t be able to get a job afterwards."

But Genoveva’s response is always that such attitude leads to a dead
end. "So, I am a gypsy. Does that mean I should not develop myself
and stop living? Exactly the opposite!"

Unlike the Bulgarians who were interviewed, the Roma seemed much more
self-critical and willing to admit defects within their community.

Nonetheless, they blame mostly Bulgarians for the way they are
treated. The Roma who were interviewed said their efforts to break
stereotypes are constantly undermined. Their everyday experiences
have made them extremely pessimistic and sceptical of the concept
of integration and believe that until Bulgarians start seeing beyond
stereotypes, integration will not be achieved.

Even the Government, the students said, doesn’t give a positive
example by not appointing Roma for state administrative positions.

Having two deputy ministers in the current Government is definitely
a step forward. But considering the fact that the Turkish minority
have their own party which is also in the ruling coalition, there is
much more to be asked for.

Take, for example, the National Council for Ethnic and Demographic
issues. Out of about 20 employees in its directorate, there is only
one Roma worker. At an interview in June this year, Maya Cholakova,
the recently hired director there, justified the lack of Roma employees
by saying it is "anti-constitutional and discriminatory to consider
people’s ethnic background for a job." But some NGOs ask if is it
really not better to have Roma working on Roma-related issues?

After all, they best know the problems and needs of their communities,
said Iskra Stoikova from the Romani Baht Foundation.

Indeed, in certain situations, employing people with a Romany
background as well as from other ethnicities should be regarded
as positive discrimination. This is of extreme importance when
talking about ethnic minority integration, as the case with the Roma
currently is. As a result, the absence of Roma from the management
of the country is one of many criticisms that Roma people, NGOs and
human rights activists address to the Government. The Roma students
criticised the Frame Programme for Roma Integration – the Government’s
official policy – saying that it is simply a piece of paper which no
one takes seriously. Also not working, they say, is the Commission
for Prevention of Discrimination.

Scepticism is not only an occurrence among Bulgarians but is also
spread among the integrated Roma. It must be realised that the absence
of such intelligent and educated Roma from all public spheres has a
much more profound effect on the integration process.

The status of the Roma ethnic group will not change until they start
seeing members of their communities succeed. Currently, the majority
of young Roma don’t have someone to look up to. They learn from
the limited life experience of their parents, and thus live in the
vicious cycle of illiteracy and low morals. Should this cycle change,
it won’t be long until those Roma who need integration begin changing
their minds about education, ambition, and determination. It is, in
fact, strange that so many governments to date have not come around
to comprehending this very simple formula to a successful integration.

Bulgarians will undeniably also benefit from more Roma in the
public space. They are more likely to become less prejudiced and more
open-minded if they see a teacher from Roma ethnicity being interviewed
on television, or a Roma pop star in the charts. The study showed that
Bulgarians’ keenness on Roma integration is mainly in words. Despite
the fact that to an extent we can’t blame them for their negative
attitude and pessimism, they are far from understanding the true
meaning of integration. Thus, at least for now, it remains just a
vague concept which the majority of society is not prepared to grasp.