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Roma in Political Life: Bulgaria—Political Manipulation and the Damage Done

Mainstream Bulgarian parties and leaders use coercion, police action, bribes, attacks by thugs, and other means to manipulate how the country’s Roma vote. These mainstream Bulgarian parties and leaders have co-opted some Roma leaders who have participated in the manipulation. This, among other factors, has stifled the political development of Bulgaria’s Roma community. It has also dampened the effectiveness of international, European Union, and domestic efforts to help the Roma community overcome exclusion from the broader society and improve the poor living conditions endured by many of the country’s Roma.

Though some Roma leaders genuinely interested in improving the lot of the Roma people have emerged in Bulgaria, the country’s factious Roma community has yet to organize itself politically from the grassroots up. Many of Bulgaria’s Roma are reluctant to participate in political life even as voters. In 2003, a research team assembled by the Washington, D.C.–based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs studied participation of Roma in Bulgaria’s political life and asked Roma individuals who they thought was best representing their community’s interests. Practically every person replied: “Nobody.” Today, the situation may be worse.

Part of the reason for this state of affairs lies with the Roma themselves, because democracy demands participation, and selling votes, neglecting to vote, failing to bring forth qualified candidates for office, and failing to know how to vote in one’s interests are tantamount to self-exclusion from the political process, and this leaves a people vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Another part of the reason, however, lies with mainstream Bulgarian political leaders who, in their efforts to maximize their political power, have exploited the Roma both as potential voters and as scapegoats for society’s ills.

This is especially tragic for the Roma of Bulgaria, because the Roma community possesses significant untapped political potential that could be used to improve the lives of so many Roma people living on the fringes of society.

The Untapped Potential

Bulgaria’s 2011 census recorded a Roma population of 325,343, which is equivalent to about 4.4 percent of the overall population of 7.4 million: enough to make the Roma Bulgaria’s third-largest ethnic group after its ethnic Bulgars and ethnic Turks. But more than 700,000 persons in Bulgaria, among them many Roma, chose not to declare their ethnicity for the census, and many analysts say that a significant number of Roma intentionally misrepresent themselves on census forms as Bulgars or Turks. Government officials, nongovernmental organizations, Roma political activists, researchers, social scientists, and international institutions have estimated that the actual Roma population in Bulgaria is between 700,000 and 900,000.

Under Bulgaria’s system of proportional representation, a political party must win 4 percent of the votes cast in a parliamentary election before the first individual from the party’s list of candidates can enter the country’s national assembly. This suggests that if the country’s Roma were to vote en masse for candidates of a single party and perhaps a predominantly Roma party, they would wield a swing vote in the national assembly and with it a voice in the formation of the country’s government. Moreover, because the Roma population is spread unevenly across the country, the Roma in some constituencies have the potential to acquire significant political leverage in local government, where political clout often matters most when it comes to improving housing, healthcare, and educational opportunities as well as doling out public jobs and contracts.

The National Democratic Institute’s analysts wrote that power struggles among rival leaders of Roma political, family, and business factions had further divided Roma communities already fragmented by differences in language, religion, level of education, work ethic, socioeconomic status, expectations, and self-image. At the time of the institute’s research, the country’s de facto Roma political parties—which numbered about a dozen in 2003 and 30 in 2012—were offering Roma voters no clear political vision or political platform; as with Roma parties in other countries, the institute’s report said, most of the Roma parties in Bulgaria were weak and existed primarily to advance their leaders’ personal and family interests rather than the interests of their Roma constituents or the broader Roma community. Few Roma candidates won election; almost none won re-election. At issue was a lack of trust. Roma individuals told the institute’s researchers that Roma political leaders regard politics as nothing more than a means of acquiring wealth.

Suppression of the Roma as a Political Factor in Bulgaria

The Ban on Roma Political Parties

Since Bulgaria’s emergence as an independent state in the late nineteenth century, leaders of the majority ethnic Bulgars have nurtured a widespread fear that extremist nationalists and irredentists among the country’s minority communities of Muslims and ethnic Turks might incite violent unrest and threaten Bulgaria’s territorial integrity. Under the Communists, the government undertook a campaign to “Bulgarize” the population by forcibly assimilating the minority Muslims, Roma, and Turks and by denying the existence of a Macedonian minority. Bulgaria’s first post-Communist government and parliament ended the forced-assimilation campaign but banned the formation of political parties based upon ethnicity or religion. Subsequent governments have in some instances enforced this ban by rejecting applications by some Roma parties to run candidates in elections; in other instances, governments have conveniently overlooked the ethnic nature of Roma-run parties and allowed them to participate in elections at all levels, clearly because the ruling party du jour was seeking to enhance its competitive advantage by exploiting such Roma parties, primarily to bring out the Roma vote for the ruling party.

Buying Votes

Like many people in Bulgaria, Roma individuals and groups in Bulgaria sell their votes. Some are coerced into doing so. Some are simply interested in making money. Mainstream Bulgarian parties have relied upon co-opted Roma community leaders to manage the payment of Roma for their votes.

Suppressing Roma Candidates

Mainstream Bulgarian parties and leaders have used several tactics to suppress Roma candidates. Some mainstream Bulgarian parties have included Roma men and women on their lists of candidates for seats in the national assembly, but most of these Roma were purposely positioned too far down on the parties’ candidate lists ever to have a chance of actually winning a seat. On election day in 2011, local police in Kustendil took Roma candidates into custody and held them until after the polls closed. Violence has also been used against candidates. During the October 2012 elections, Roma in the town of Lom were threatened and told to vote for a certain party. On October 28, six men wearing masks and wielding clubs attacked a Roma candidate for the municipal council.

Suppressing Roma Voter Turnout

Mainstream Bulgarian parties and leaders have also used several tactics to suppress Roma voter turnout. A report by monitors who observed elections in 2011 and 2012 concluded that attacks against Roma neighborhoods and media hate speech during the pre-election period created fear and made people vulnerable to pressure and manipulation by the political parties. Five other Roma people from Lom were reported to have been attacked.

In September 2011, just before local and presidential elections, sometimes violent anti-Roma demonstrations by ethnic Bulgars unleashed an outpouring of anti-Roma vitriol. Gangs of Bulgar nationalist men and boys shouted: “Gypsies into Soap,” and “Slaughter the Turks.” Roma in Plovdiv and other towns began to take up arms to defend themselves. Right-wing and nationalist political leaders and public figures had a field day spreading hysteria on radio and television broadcasts about “Gypsy crime” and the “Gypsification” and “Islamization” of Bulgaria. Nationalistic parties called upon ethnic-Bulgar voters “not to allow the Roma to determine” the results of the upcoming election. This sowed fear through the Roma community. The transfer of polling places from Roma neighborhoods to areas predominantly populated by ethnic Bulgars produced a low Roma voter turnout and a large ethnic-Bulgar turnout. The right-wing, Roma-bashing Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB, won the election handily.

In an effort to prevent Roma voters from casting votes for rival mainstream Bulgarian parties or for Roma candidates during the same elections, some mainstream parties in power used their authority to move polling places a significant distance away from Roma neighborhoods with no public transportation links and then had the police prevent Roma voters from traveling to the new polling stations by car.

Effect on Efforts to Improve Housing and Expand Access to Quality Medical Care and Schools as well as Jobs 

The mainstream Bulgarian parties’ manipulation of co-opted Roma leaders has weighed heavily upon the effectiveness of international and European Union efforts to help vast numbers of Bulgaria’s Roma to overcome their exclusion from the greater Bulgarian society, to improve their housing and expand their access to quality medical care and schools, and to obtain better-paying jobs.

Nongovernmental organizations, some of them Roma-run, have for two decades pressed Bulgaria’s political leaders to undertake programs designed to accelerate the process of Roma inclusion. These organizations have enlisted themselves in the struggle to alleviate the deplorable living conditions so many Roma in Bulgaria suffer and to improve health care, education, and employment of Roma. Some of these organizations are corrupt. Some lack well-defined agendas. Some are exposed to political and official pressure, as well as pressures from within the Roma community. Rivalries between Roma political leaders, including Roma leaders co-opted by mainstream Bulgarian parties and leaders, have dampened the effectiveness of well-run nongovernmental organizations.

The Damage Done

Ten Roma nongovernmental organizations running programs to overcome school segregation suffered setbacks beginning in October 2010. The first Roma woman ever elected to Bulgaria’s parliament—the Evroroma Party’s Milena Hristova—called on the government to launch a criminal investigation into how these Roma organizations spent some $5.5 million allocated by the Roma Education Fund, which is in part funded by the Open Society Foundations. Evroroma was, and remains, no stranger to controversy. It is presided over by Tsevetlin Kanchev, who was a member of parliament in the late 1990s before spending much of the early 2000s in jail after a court convicted him on assault and kidnapping charges. According to Bulgarian political analysts who requested anonymity, while a member of parliament, Kanchev did not distinguish himself as an ardent advocate for the Roma.

Each of the 10 targeted organizations is linked with a Roma leader who was seeking to break away from the nongovernmental sector in order to build a career as a political representative of the Roma people: Rumyan Russinov, the former director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Program and a former deputy director of the Roma Education Fund.

Russinov had returned to Bulgaria in 2009 after years abroad. Within weeks of his arrival, he ran for parliament as the sixth candidate on the list of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Russinov obtained the 10th-highest number of votes of all the candidates in the election. Despite this solid showing, he failed to win a seat in parliament, because the Socialist Party had failed to garner enough votes to place its top six candidates in the assembly. Russinov’s success in winning votes did, however, make him a rival of another Roma leader: Tsevetlin Kanchev, the leader of Evroroma.

Milena Hristova’s demand for an investigation into the finances of the 10 Roma nongovernmental organizations was accepted with the support of Bulgaria’s ruling, right-wing GERB, which had begun to bash the Roma in public in an attempt to shore up its popularity on the racist right and thereby prevent a potential loss of votes to ATAKA, a rabidly racist fringe party. Bulgarian political analysts say that, despite the fact that GERB has a number of Roma who are members of municipal councils, its leaders have an interest in discouraging Roma from participating in the political process, because Roma overwhelmingly vote for GERB’s main rival, the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

After almost two years, the investigation into the financial dealings of the 10 Roma nongovernmental organizations revealed only a few minuscule infractions by one organization. But by then the damage was done.

Asen Karagyozov and his father Anton run a nongovernmental organization, the Association of Roma Youth, in Stolipinovo, the Roma ghetto in Plovdiv. In 2004, the association began implementing a program to remove Roma children from segregated elementary schools and bus them, along with Roma teaching assistants, to integrated schools in the city’s center. By 2007, about 3,000 Roma kids in nine of Bulgaria’s cities were participating in the same program.

“Before the investigation we were very strong,” Asen Karagyozov said. “We had become the face of the Roma people in Plovdiv. We earned the respect of people in the municipal government. Now we are weak. Our efforts are back to where they were years ago.

“They were listening to our telephones. They treated us like thieves. They began calling in the people who had worked for us for years and asked them how much money they had received monthly. The police would come and take our people from their houses in police cars, as if they were criminals. These are people who gave everything to integrate the schools.”

Viktoria Borisova’s father, a former sergeant in Bulgaria’s army, founded The Light Resource Center, a nongovernmental organization that implemented the school desegregation program in the town of Montana. By 2010, it was transporting 300 Roma first-, second-, and third-graders for instruction in integrated classrooms. Petar Borisov’s desegregation program was so successful that the local government had taken it over even before Euroroma’s Milena Hristova called for an investigation.

“My father gave the investigators absolutely everything: emails, contracts, everything,” said Borisova. “Then he had to prove ownership of his house. Then he asked me to get my original diplomas, to prove to the police my three degrees, because, they said, ‘no Gypsy could have three degrees.’” Petar Borisov did not live to learn that the investigation failed to find anything amiss. He died of a heart attack.

This article is part of a series examining Roma political participation in France, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic.

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