Fight for Human Rights in Bulgaria Meets With Mixed Success
Krassimir Kanev monitors and assesses human rights for minorities in Bulgaria.
Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
Bulgarian politician Ahmed Dogan was in the news this weekend after surviving a dramatic assault at a party conference in Sofia. Dogan is the controversial leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), an organization established in 1990 that has largely championed the rights of ethnic Turks and Muslims living in Bulgaria. Dogan was going to announce during this speech that he was stepping down as the head of the party.
It was not a clear-cut assassination attempt. The assailant, Oktai Enimehmedov, used a gas pistol, usually a non-lethal weapon though it could do considerable damage at point-blank range. But the pistol was loaded only with pepper spray and noisemakers. Enimehmedov, who is an ethnic Turk himself, was immediately set upon by members of the audience and security personnel, who punched and kicked him. The video of the dramatic scrum has gone viral.
It’s not entirely clear why Enimehmedov engaged in this half-attack on Dogan. He may simply have disliked the MRF leader and wanted the media limelight. This being Bulgaria, however, conspiracy theories abound. The most popular seems to be that Dogan orchestrated the whole affair, though this scenario makes little sense.
Ahmed Dogan is no stranger to controversy. He has long been criticized for his autocratic style and the many years he was on the payroll of the state security services prior to 1989. And the MRF has witnessed various fissures, most recently when former deputy chairman Kassim Dal broke with Dogan and later established his own party.
Despite these controversies, the MRF has achieved considerable successes, both as a political party and as a movement to advance the ethnic Turkish and Muslim community in Bulgaria. I spoke recently with Krassimir Kanev of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. He has worked on human rights issues in Bulgaria for more than two decades and helped write one of the first reports on the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria in the 1980s.
“Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria,” he told me. “They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live — especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade.”
“There were, however, also some negative developments,” he continued. “They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you’re an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue.”
In addition to the rights of ethnic Turks, we talked about a current court case against 13 imams accused of promoting violence, the declining status of human rights NGOs in Bulgaria, and why Roma in Bulgaria have not replicated the success of the MRF. Below this interview, to provide a point of comparison, I have appended excerpts from an earlier discussion we had in 2007 about identity questions.
Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell, what you were thinking, and whether you thought about its impact on life here in Bulgaria?
As with many other people in Bulgaria, it was something I sort of expected. Because I was active in the “non-formal” organizations under communism, before the Berlin Wall fell I envisaged that the political development in Bulgaria would be somewhat similar to what happened in Russia under Gorbachev. There would be more openness, more possibilities for the freedom of expression, but with certain restrictions imposed by the communist regime. In the long run I thought that communism had no future, but I thought of this perspective as long-term. And in Bulgaria, as in the other Eastern European countries, it happened quickly, this dismantling, this dissolution of the system — against the expectations of many people. At that time I was surprised, I was pleasantly surprised, but at the same time it went against my social, and personal, and advocacy strategy. So I as well as lots of people around me had to reconsider strategies in view of the circumstances.
You were here in Sofia in November 1989?
Yes, yes, I was always here in Sofia. On that day I moved to a new home, where I am still! In the evening we heard that Todor Zhivkov had been dismissed. So it was a new life and a new home, as well as something new in society.
Was there a point when you remember a clear dividing line in your life, between being non-political and being political?
That dividing line was before communism fell, certainly. I can’t think of a specific date, but it certainly happened when I was a PhD student at Sofia University. At that time, my social and political outlook was formed, and I got involved in informal politics at that time. I was sure that this was going to be my future, whether communism would last longer or fall as it did.
You did informal politics with a group of people at the university?
Yes, with a circle of people, some at the university and some outside. They were all intellectuals.
And was there anybody in your life at that time that said, “Krassimir, this is not a good idea?”
Oh, yes! My mother and father of course. They still think it’s not a good idea.
How strenuously did they try to convince you?
They were quite persistent. They thought that this was dangerous and wrong. My life should be more focused on my academic career and my family. They always thought that speaking out in public creates enemies—which is true. At that time more than now, but more or less they were always against this public activity.
At what point did human rights in the sense of monitoring and assessing the situation for minorities in Bulgaria become the focus for your work?
My involvement with minorities and with the persecution of the Turkish minority was a motivation for my initial involvement in politics. That specific period in Communist history, 1984-85 and the name-changing campaign of the Turkish minority, took place in the middle of my Ph.D. time. I was involved investigating this campaign immediately since the beginning. I published an article with several other people, an article about the campaign that was smuggled out of Bulgaria and published in the West.
I was telling Deyan Kuronov that I felt that the opposition came together around the issue of ethnic Turks and he said, “No, no, no! It was just me, Krassimir, and Dmitrina Petrova.
In this intellectual circle of people, yes. But there were of course many other people outside this circle who were involved as well. And those were mostly Turkish intellectuals and activists. There were several other groups in society who were in one way or another involved in this issue, but we were not in touch.
I got the sense from Deyan that for the opposition as a whole, as it came together in the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and allied organizations, the issue did not become a rallying point.
No, never. The situation of minorities has never been the focus of anybody’s political work, including the opposition. There were serious debates in the opposition. In the UDF at the beginning were people with very nationalistic outlooks and approaches. That was the reason why the Movement for Rights of Freedoms at that time was not accepted in the UDF.
Was there anything that you think could’ve been done differently at that time to link democracy with the human rights of minorities?
Yes, of course, lots of things. But there was a price to be paid. It was a society heavily indoctrinated into nationalism, under Communism but also before. This nationalism and ethnocentrism is very much part of the Bulgarian national identity. It’s how people think: “We are Bulgarians because we were enslaved by the Turks, and we emancipated ourselves from Turkish rule, and therefore these are our basic enemies.” Therefore it is very difficult to make a political issue from the rights of the Turkish minority. If you try, you will lose.
That was part of the reason why the Union of Democratic Forces could not win a majority in the first elections: because the UDF was perceived (and was made to be perceived) as people who would return the names of the Turks. Within the UDF at that time were people who refrained from taking up the issue of ethnic minorities because they didn’t think they could win on this issue. So my answer would be: Yes, lots of things could have been different, if these democratic forces had been more sensitive to the rights of minorities. But on the other hand it’s not clear what influence this opposition could have had on society.
In other words, it would have been a much better opposition in terms of its agenda, but it also might have been…
Weaker politically, yes.
That’s a common dilemma.
Also now in the United States, I guess.
Yes, unfortunately. When you think back to your perspective in 1989-1990, are there any positions that you’ve had second thoughts about? Or do you feel that your perspective is pretty much the same as it was back then?
One of the things I’ve thought that I could have done better is to go through some additional form of education, either in Bulgaria or abroad. I didn’t, I was very busy. So I made do with my education under the Communist regime. I had to self-educate a lot. I did this, I think, quite successfully, but I always regret that I haven’t taken an additional Masters, or an additional Ph.D. Not because I would have been better at what I do if I had this formal education, but because other people look at these things seriously when you start talking about human rights. This issue of whether you have a law degree always comes up one way or another, for example.
In terms of the focus of my work, I should have picked some topics in the beginning that were obviously serious. Some institutions in Bulgaria that were away from everybody’s eyes — children’s institutions — were revealed as horrible in the late 1990s and 2000s. We didn’t pick those issues at the beginning.
There are lots of children’s institutions in Bulgaria, for orphans but also for other children, children with disabilities, delinquent children.
That’s very interesting, and I appreciate your candor about those choices that you made. But I’m also interested in any change in thinking you might have had in 22 years.
Yes probably. In human rights particularly, my thought evolved with lots of issues. At that time, for instance, I might have been more inclined to think that it might be horrible to have these institutions—children’s institutions, psychiatric institutions, other types of institutions—but they could be improved by themselves. Now I’m reluctant to tolerate any type of institution for anybody. So my thoughts in that regard evolved.
My thoughts evolved on other human rights issues. In the early 1990s we used to focus predominantly on ethnic and racial discrimination, whereas subsequently we found that other types of discrimination were also worth considering. Those issues were somewhat disregarded, like for example discrimination against sexual minorities or women or people with disabilities. I only started focusing on these issues at a later stage. Other issues became more serious over time. For example, in the early 1990s we didn’t have any refugees or migrants here. This issue became more serious over time, and we had to give some more thought to this.
When I was here in 1990, among the people I talked to, the status of NGOs was very high. Since there was so little trust in government at that time, if you were non-governmental that was a plus. I’m surprised to come back and discover when I talk to people that NGOs are not always viewed so positively.
Well, this image changed a lot – for different reasons. One is that in the 1990s the funding of NGOs was more independent, and so NGOs could be more independent. They could be seen by society as something not part of the government. Now this independence is completely compromised by NGOs associated with some forms of governmental funding that comes either directly from the government, or through some European Union program that also goes through the government. Now there’s not much sense in even saying you’re an NGO if you’re taking your money from the government, one way or another.
Then some NGOs allowed themselves to be used. But that goes also hand-in-hand with funding by the government. They lost their independent image. Still, I must say that there still are NGOs that are able to preserve their status as independent, outside monitors and evaluators of governmental policies. And I believe our organization is one such organization, but there are several other groups too. There are not many, though. On paper and in reality, maybe the amount of money that goes to the NGO sector is the same as in the 1990s, maybe even more. But if you think of really independent NGOs, now there are much fewer than there had been in the 1990s.
In the realm of human rights in particular, are there any other options other than NGOs, government, and the European Union?
There were some governmental structures, like the ombudsman. We had several independent governmental bodies such as the Commission Against Discrimination that became players in this field five or six years ago. And that made a positive change. On the other hand, we had a sharp decline in NGO activity on human rights. There are very few human rights NGOs left, compared to the 1990s.
Largely because of funding?
Yes, the shift of funding negatively affected the human rights NGO world in particular.
What about the emergence of informal movements?
There has been very little development in that regard in Bulgaria, and those groups have had no influence on public policy at all.
In terms of political parties, I’m particularly interested in the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. How would you evaluate the work of the MRF over the last 22 years? Has it made a real difference in the lives of ethnic Turks?
There were positive developments and they were probably more than the negative developments. Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria. They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live — especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade.
There were, however, also some negative developments. They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you’re an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue.
So, for instance, the current minister of culture…
He’s Turkish, yes. And the party now in government, GERB, also tries to reach out to the Turkish minority to some extent, with some success. The splinter group that emerged from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms is viewed as going into prospective alliance with the party now in government. The Socialist party (BSP) had some success in the Turkish regions, but very modest. So, both GERB and the BSP have reached out to the Turkish minority.
When you look at the level of prejudice in society over the last 22 years, do you think the Movement or any other efforts have succeeded in reducing the overall level of prejudice specifically toward ethnic Turks?
Oh, yes, I think so. The very fact that ethnic Turks became visible in society reduced a lot of prejudice. The research also indicates that this has happened. There’s still a lot of prejudice, but certainly not at the level that we had in 1992-93. The fact that we now have government ministers who are ethnic Turks is quite significant. This was unthinkable in the 1990s. When the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was involved in the government in the 1990s, it had to propose a Bulgarian as a government minister because at that time it would have been unacceptable to have a Turkish government minister.
Someone told me that an important cultural indication of the change is the popularity of Turkish soap operas here.
Indeed, yes. But that was a recent thing. I think that they too contributed to better acceptance of ethnic Turks.
When I talked to people in 1990, there were some people who really thought that ethnic Turks would be a fifth column for Turkey to re-colonize Bulgaria. But I don’t have the sense that those suspicions still exist.
They do exist, but at a much lower level.
Let’s move to the Roma issue. I don’t get a sense that there really has been much improvement there, but what’s your impression?
Not at all. There’s even been a decline over the past several years with this government. With the Roma, different governmental institutions adopted different papers expressing some positive attitudes towards integration, but those were largely papers. None of them were implemented in reality. And the situation of Roma remains the same as it was in the 1990s, including the level of prejudice and discrimination toward them.
At the non-governmental level, there were some developments in the desegregation of Roma education over the past 10-12 years. But this government basically attempted to put a stop to this development. There were police investigations into these projects, harassment. The local governments in many situations obstructed any effort at the integration of Roma.
The housing situation improved somewhat for those Roma who were relatively affluent. But for others it worsened, and over the past several years there were forced evictions from several cities, which never happened in the 1990s. The access to health care worsened dramatically since the health-care reform of 2001-2002. Roma were able to benefit much more from the health-care system then than they can now. The last census indicated an increase in illiteracy and in Roma children not attending school.
There hasn’t emerged anything comparable in the Roma community to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms? Do you think that there is still a possibility of a Roma party emerging?
No, it’s impossible. Because they are very diverse. They are diverse religiously, they are diverse linguistically, they are diverse in terms of regional identity. I think that a Roma party comparable to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms has no chance here.
When I ask people, “What will make a difference for the Roma community?” I get different answers, such as jobs or political power. What do you think?
There are lots of things that could make improvements in the Roma community. Measures to desegregate education, for example. Segregated education is a serious problem. This is a ghetto-type education that produces illiterate people with degrees. The housing situation can improve, and yet it doesn’t improve. In certain cases it gets worse. Most Roma in Bulgaria actually live in illegal houses. They can be evicted at any time and left on the street. Access to health care is also important. This health-care reform doesn’t work for Roma, but no one thinks of improving the way poor people are insured. And these factors — particularly education — influence employment. There’s ethnic and racial discrimination in employment, but people are also not hired because their level of education is very low.
Has there been an effort to train Roma teachers to work in schools?
There are Roma teachers, but they teach in segregated schools and that is a vicious circle.
Is there a legal basis to bring the government to court to force it to desegregate?
No, the Bulgarian justice system doesn’t work that way. You cannot expect a court to order the government to desegregate the school, as in the United States. It’s impossible here. There have been efforts to take up this issue in the courts, but all of them were so far unsuccessful.
When you talk about legal strategies, for the most part you’re talking about individual cases involving individuals, or maybe a couple of individuals?
Yes mostly. But we’re looking at these cases as a strategic issue, an issue that would affect the situation of a larger number of people. We had a case this April where the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights over a situation of forced eviction. And the legal standards it came up with must be relevant not just to this small Roma community that was affected here in Sofia, but also elsewhere in Bulgaria.
In theory, this would produce a change in the legislation. The problem, however, is that we’ve had lots of such cases that uncover incompatibilities between our legislative framework and international law. But Bulgaria doesn’t execute these judgments. It just pays compensation and doesn’t do anything to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar situation.
You can only go to the European Court if you’ve exhausted…
…all domestic remedies. Which means that very often the Court will find an incompatibility between a certain national law and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. But the execution of these judgments is a serious problem.
Other than enforcement mechanisms connected to payment, there really is nothing the European institutions can do to force the Bulgarian government to change policy?
There’s a possibility to impose a fine. The European Union does this when you’re found in non-compliance with a certain EU directive. They impose certain penalties within, say, five months. After five months it becomes double, then triple, and so on. But the approach of the Council of Europe is different. They never fine a country for the execution of these judgments.
The case you’re working on now is connected to religious minorities.
Yes, this is a very serious problem now. There’s a case now in a regional court in Pazardzhik. Thirteen Islamic imams and muftis are on trial for propagating anti-state ideology – for propagating Shari’ah law, which the government considers to be anti-state. They’re not accused of promoting violence. They just say that Shari’ah is the supreme law, which is above the laws of the state. And not all of them, only some.
The initial reason for this trial was a massive raid by the secret police back in October 2010 in areas populated mostly by Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. The police went to the mosques, went to peoples’ homes, went to offices, and took 33 bags of books. And this trial of 13 people came out of this action. Back in 2010, this government was in alliance with the Ataka party, and I think this was part of the reason for the raid. They wanted to display their anti-Muslim sentiment and their anti-Muslim approach. But this was also something that Ataka provoked, and the government party wanted to keep Ataka on its side.
Ataka has always been talking about Islamic fundamentalism, extremism, and things like this. But Muslims perceive this talk as a direct attack against their Muslim religious identity. When this trial started several days ago, there was a gathering in front of the court of Muslims from all those regions, and they spoke at that gathering of a new “revival process.” The name-changing campaign back in the 1980s was officially called the “revival process.”
Are there Shari’ah courts here in Bulgaria as there are in the United States, in the UK, even in Israel?
No, we abolished them in 1938.
So there’s no informal application of Shari’ah?
So you are challenging the government on…?
Freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The defense argues that the peaceful expression of even fundamentalist religious beliefs should not be a matter of criminal prosecution. It would be another thing if you incite violence, but there was no such evidence of this. And the law actually doesn’t require that you incite violence as a condition for prosecution. The mere propagating of ideas that are anti-democratic without violence is a provision in the criminal code that dates back to the Communist period, when it was used to suppress the anti-Communist opposition. I think it is now being used for the first time since 1989 against these Muslims.
So actually it is going to be difficult with this law on the books to argue for the freedom of expression in this case.
This law was passed in 1968. After that we ratified the European Convention of Human Rights and other international treaties. So, it should be interpreted in the light of the standards that were established at that level.
So you think you can get the right judgment in the case without actually getting rid of the law entirely? And just have a reinterpretation of the law?
Yes, that’s what we’re aiming at in that case. But ultimately the law should be repealed.
But if you first have a reinterpretation, then you can use that as the basis for an argument for repeal.
And what do you think the prospects are for getting a good judgment in the case?
I would say 50/50. We’ve had very bad judgments affecting Muslims. I am now the representative before the European Court of Human Rights for two people who were convicted in 2010 for organizing a party along religious lines, the Muslim Democratic Union. They simply took the statute of the Christian Democratic Party, which was registered and legally operating—they even have municipal councils here and there—and changed “Christian” to “Muslim.” But that was considered by the criminal court in one area as a crime, and one of the people was sentenced to one year of imprisonment suspended for three years. The other one was fined 4,000 leva. So that case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. We formally have a provision in the criminal court, that again dates from the communist period, that punishes people for organizing a political party along religious lines.
I thought it was also in the Bulgarian constitution.
Yes, the constitution has a prohibition, but you can enforce that prohibition through different means, for example by refusing to register a political party. It is one thing to refuse to register and another thing to go after the person. By the way, in the constitution we have a prohibition of political parties organized around ethnic and religious lines, but in the criminal code we have a provision that punishes only for religiously based political parties. But that is a remnant from communism. They just haven’t introduced the ethnic provision in the criminal code.
Are there other cases similar to the one in Pazardzhik?
Oh, yes. We have now one case of a Muslim girl who was suspended from school for five days for wearing a hijab. That is also likely to go to the European Court of Human Rights, but it is still in the domestic courts.
Is there a law here that prohibits the wearing of the hijab?
No. The law that regulates education says that education should be secular. But that is interpreted apparently in different contexts. On the one hand, it’s secular. But on the other hand, nothing prohibits, for example, Orthodox priests from doing activities in the schools. But when you wear a hijab, then yes, you get suspended.
Has there been any attempt here to introduce the same kind of laws that we’ve seen in France, and elsewhere in Europe, explicitly prohibiting the hijab?
There’s a lot of talk about this. It would be difficult to introduce it here, but I would not be surprised.
What about mosque or minaret construction, like in Switzerland?
No. That actually is something quite positive here. Lots of people laughed about this amendment that was passed in Switzerland. Lots of people here thought that was totally ridiculous.
Well, that’s good.
Because we have 2,500 mosques.
That would be challenging.
To demolish their minarets.
Have any other religions come under legal challenge? Judaism, for instance?
For now it’s only Islam. From time to time Jehovah’s Witnesses get harassed at the personal level when they proselytize in peoples’ homes. They would have problems with the residents, and sometimes also with the government. And the Mormons. But other than those…
Now that Ataka is no longer in government, some people say that the age of Ataka is over — at least politically, as a party.
I very much hope so. But it’s not clear.
Do you think that the ideas of Ataka still are very strong, even if the party isn’t?
Yes. The age of Ataka is over because it shows very poorly in the public opinion polls. But this is because there are several splinter groups from Ataka that also score some results in the public opinion polls. And the combined percentages of all these would make as much as the percentage of Ataka from the last election. So the percentage of people who are prepared to support extremist nationalistic views continues to be quite high.
For instance, people who support VMRO…
Yes, they are now in alliance with Ataka and this will probably become formalized in the next elections. It is not clear what is going to happen.
And they are also talking about forming a kind of paramilitary—similar I suppose to Jobbik in Hungary. Do you think that’s an actual possibility? Do you think there are enough people who are interested?
Oh, yes. There are enough people who are interested in forming such a group, but it’s legally impossible now. I’m not sure that could be made possible by the government.
It’s legally impossible now because…
You are not allowed to maintain private armed militias.
But they might do it even though it’s illegal.
Oh, yes. They have these people, and they have their uniforms. They march from time to time. Every year they celebrate. In February they have a march here in Sofia. Some of them are in uniforms in that march.
We’ve been talking about relatively negative trends. But in terms of a future tolerant Bulgaria, or a future multicultural Bulgaria — if we can go that far — do you see any bright spots or positive trends?
Ethnic minorities have a better presence in public life and the government. Now this is accepted. Roma are heavily underrepresented, but their number is growing as a relative share of the population, so the prospects for them are becoming better. I don’t think that they will ever become influential as a single political party, but they might act through different political parties at the local level. It is now largely accepted that we have Turkish government ministers, something that was previously unthinkable. We never had them actually, not since the liberation!
Yes! That is a very positive sign. And consecutive governments have had Turkish government ministers. Even this government, which is anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim, has a Turkish government minister! So, the acceptance of the Turkish minority in the mainstream politics seems to be going well, and that is a positive sign. The migrant population, I guess, will grow too, and will have also influence. Initially probably at the local level, but at some point maybe at a national level.
We have lots of Chinese now, but we have also migrants from the other EU member states. Lots of British, for example, have settled here and bought houses on the Black Sea coast, in the mountains. We have, for example, British municipal councilors.
If they are EU citizens they are allowed to vote and be elected to municipal government.
Do they speak Bulgarian?
Some do, because they have been here for many years. Most, though, don’t study Bulgarian. They speak English and tend to communicate between themselves. But some learn, get involved in politics, and are basically well accepted by society. We have a very strong Russian community, too, on the Black Sea coast, which is growing.
The last question is about trust. I understand from talking to people, and also from an Open Society report, that there is a low level of trust in this society: trust toward the government, toward civil society, even interpersonally. And I was wondering whether that’s something you’ve also not just seen but experienced…
And what do you think is a way to build trust in society?
That has always been a problem in Bulgaria. I wouldn’t say that there has been a positive or negative trend in that area. The level of trust, interpersonal and institutional, has always been very low. Probably part of it comes from the heritage of Communism. Then there’s all these issues of organized crime, and corruption, and government involvement in corruption. This has also undermined trust in institutions. This is a very bad thing, and very un-European. It’s more American, I think, particularly with regard to trust in institutions.
The institution in which Americans have the highest trust is the military, which is very, very frightening.
Here too! But there is very little trust in anything that reminds people of a government.
Other than an anti-corruption campaign, and transparency, and an end to impunity—the usual kind of Open Society Foundation type of programs—is there anything you think can be done, at a non-governmental level, to build trust?
Trust comes with large societal reform: reducing corruption, making an inclusive government, strengthening the democratic process, and learning from the past. We’ve never re-elected a government. Every time we have an election, the party in power steps down and another party steps in. That has to do with trust too. Political parties haven’t learned from their mistakes and from the past.
Finally, some quantitative questions. On a scale of one to 10, with one most dissatisfied, 10 most satisfied, how would you evaluate what has changed or not changed in Bulgaria from 1989 to today?
Probably between 6 and 7. So, overall it was satisfying, although the expectations were higher than the result. Maybe five years ago I would have said 7.
Same period of time, 1989 to today. Same scale, 1 to 10, most dissatisfied 1, most satisfied 10. But this time your own personal life.
Around 5, let’s say.
Finally, as you look into the next couple of years here in Bulgaria, what is your feeling about what will happen, with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen in Bulgaria over the next several years. That would mean perhaps I should say 5 again.
Sofia, September 28, 2012
ON THE BALKANS
Bulgarians are the only ones proud of being Balkan, because the Balkan Mountains are here. Otherwise people are afraid of being branded Balkan.
There is a tradition here in the Balkans that we have better relations with Germany and France, and not with each other. There is a bad image of the Balkans in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Whoever can avoid calling him or herself Balkan will do their best to do so. The Serbs maybe would now accept being called Balkan, but it’s for the worst reasons: to oppose Europe, to pose Balkan against European.
There are some scholars like Maria Todorova trying to promote the view that everything bad in the Balkans is the influence of the great powers. This is more true for the Middle East and the Muslim world than for the Balkans. Very often the involvement of Europe was very positive in the Balkans.
The idea of a Balkan federation has its origins in the Ottoman Empire. It has had proponents in every Balkan country. Unfortunately, it was also promoted by the communists, and that means that it is opposed and denounced here.
There is a deep-rooted idea in Bulgarian politics of nation-building. This nation-building of Bulgaria was an attempt to establish a homogenous, ethnically-based nation on a territory that has never been homogenous. Bulgaria was more successful than some of her western neighbors, because the number of ethnic minorities here is relatively small.
There is an image here that we have lived peacefully with our minorities for centuries. This is not true. There has never been peaceful coexistence. There were lots of policies of ethnic cleansing. There were assimilation attempts. For Bulgarians, particularly after the fall of communism, there was some pride that “we managed to keep the peace in Bulgaria.” Because of this, you would hear from some that interethnic relations are harmonious. But it was because there was no ethnic conflict of the magnitude of former Yugoslavia. But this also serves as a deterrent in terms of how far it can go.
People here say, “We are not against the Turks, we are only against their political party.” Or they say, “We have nothing against them personally, but why do they build mosques?” The relationships with the Muslims in Bulgaria are probably not that problematic. They can be sorted out one way or another. This country has the highest share of Muslims in Europe on a per-capita basis. In some Western countries, the attitude toward Muslims is based on the assumption that they are not civilized, that they violate the rights of women. There is less of that here, because a Bulgarian would not value gender equality as much as a French or a Dutch would.
ON ETHNIC MINORITIES
For some minorities in Bulgaria, the situation got better, of course. For all the smaller minorities, except the Macedonians, it got better: for Jews, Armenians, Vlachs. They were able to freely express their identity. Their schools were opened. For instance two Armenian schools opened, one in Plovdiv, one in Sofia. There’s one Jewish school in Sofia. The Karakachani registered their associations and opened an out-of-school center for studying their language.
The situation of the Turkish minority generally improved with the restoration of their right to their names. They started to study their mother tongue in public schools. Their political participation has always been strong at the local and national level, and it is improving.
For the Roma, though, I couldn’t say that there has been any improvement, except that they were able to assert their identity. They could register their associations. They could publish their Roma newspapers. But many elements of their life worsened, such as their exclusion from society. They were always excluded from society, but this process of ghettoization increased, particularly after 1990-1, particularly after they lost jobs. There is now a parallel life outside of Bulgarian society. No one pays attention to this parallel society. Mainstream society is interested in guarding itself from Roma society. Neither are the police interested in what happens in the ghetto.
The ghettoization of Roma life has increased. More Roma entered the ghetto. Some of the ghettos got larger – in Sofia and several of the big cities. People are coming from villages outside Sofia because the employment opportunities are better or at least they can try to find some work – in garbage collection and so forth. With the increased size of the ghettos has come all the consequences. The education became more segregated. And discrimination is quite severe in almost every sphere of social life, such as housing and health care. The latter particularly worsened after the introduction of the current health care reform because it is based on insurance. Before 1999, it was free health care. It was the socialist model. You go to the hospital and get the care for free. Now you have to pay. And in addition to that you have to pay a consumer tax. The Roma are not able to pay. So their access to health care has worsened dramatically.
The situation with employment has improved a little bit with the employment boom over the past several years. There are also possibilities to travel abroad, especially from the beginning of this year, to other EU member states. Many Roma were on social assistance in the 1990s. Since May, the government cut social assistance for everyone, but mostly for Roma. On January 1, the first 18 months of temporary social assistance expires. Perhaps 40,000 Roma will remain on the street. Because of the economic boom, the assumption of the government is that everyone will find employment. But that’s not true, particularly in the countryside. Anyway, the access to social assistance is conditioned on whether the person actually sought employment. If they were able to find a job, they would have found it.
With the economic boom, the price of property went up. The government started targeting Roma neighborhoods for demolition. Last year, in one Roma neighborhood in Sofia, very close to the center, all the 200 inhabitants were supposed to be removed without compensation and just left on the street. At the last moment, four members of the European parliament wrote a letter to the mayor of Sofia and he stopped the demolition. Otherwise, the courts approved that the Roma were occupying the flats illegally. But 70 percent of Roma occupy their houses illegally. They usually can only build illegally.
Since 2005, the general perception of Roma has worsened. The racist Ataka party entered the parliament in 2005. It’s not just Ataka. Their language has also been picked up by other parties as well.
The Macedonians are another group whose situation has not improved since 1990. It’s not like under communism when the dominant ideology was that everyone is Bulgarian. After 1990, minorities could publically express themselves. For the Macedonians, however, their political party was prohibited several times. They went to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decided in 2005 that this was a violation of freedom of association. After this decision, the Macedonian party tried to register. Twice it was turned down, the last time on August 23rd. They and the Pomaks are the only peoples whose self-expression and self-identity are not recognized by the government. The opinion of the Council of Europe advisory committee on national minorities issued last year described the situation in Bulgaria quite fairly and singled out these two minorities for mention.
No one seriously fears separatism since the Macedonians are such a small group. But this is the tradition in Bulgaria, to view Macedonia as a Bulgarian land. After the liberation from the Ottoman Empire, there was a gradual process of accession of lands that were at that time outside of Bulgaria. Then came all the wars fought to bring Macedonia under the Bulgarian government. This was the major reason why Bulgaria joined with Germany during World War II, because Germany offered Macedonia to Bulgaria. There was a period of ten years after the communists took over when the government recognized Macedonian identity. There was this dream of a Balkan federation. Bulgaria’s Dimitrov and Yugoslavia’s Tito made a formal agreement. Macedonia was supposed to be a constitutive member of this federation. But this federation failed. For a short time, Bulgaria tolerated this identity. Since Zhivkov came to power, the communist government became gradually more nationalistic and denounced Macedonian identity. But now everyone in politics considers the recognition of Macedonian identity a communist policy!
In formal relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia, there were very few agreements before 1999. Bulgaria initially refused to recognize Macedonia because the treaty was proposed in both Macedonian and Bulgarian languages. The formula in 1999 was that the Macedonian language would not be mentioned. Instead, the treaty would be concluded “in the official languages as provided for by the respective constitutions.” This situation gradually improved through mutual relations. There were a lot of factors involved. One of them was the Macedonian fear that this issue would block integration into Europe. Macedonia also has a problem with Greece and it didn’t want to create a problem with Bulgaria, too.
Macedonia sponsored a Macedonian cultural center in Bulgaria. Two years ago, they employed a Bulgarian national. He was an ethnic Macedonian, with a clear Macedonian identity that he wasn’t afraid to show. The Bulgarian government wanted this person removed. So Macedonia eventually removed him and appointed someone from Macedonia itself.
ON EUROPEAN INTEGRATION
The European commission took a very schizophrenic approach to Bulgaria’s accession. Every report contained a comprehensive list of human rights problems and some of them were quite significant – torture, the situation in prisons, Roma integration, the situation of the mentally disabled. But then, in the end, the commission would say, “Nevertheless, Bulgaria fulfills the Copenhagen political criteria.” The Bulgarian government would just simulate taking some measures. But only those measures that were part of the EU Acquis were effectively taken – the adoption of an anti-discrimination law, the adoption of the data protection law. But on the desegregation of Roma education, the commission simply mentioned that education was too segregated. There were several policy papers from the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. The ministry followed up with several programs that were never fulfilled. It was just paperwork. Bulgaria took small amounts of money from the EU to improve the situation here and there. But it was on a haphazard basis and sometimes based on the political interests of particular politicians. On paper, there are plans and policy documents for the integration of Roma education. But in practice nothing happened, not one Roma child was integrated. Yes, there are several desegregation programs going on, but they are non-governmental, sponsored by the Roma education fund, the World Bank and Soros.
There was a Roma survey on education in May 2005. Roma were asked to evaluate the ongoing desegregation projects and the prospects of desegregation. Only four percent said that they would prefer their children to be in school only with other Roma children. The rest wanted their kids to go to schools with all other kids. The Roma are very much more open about being integrated with Bulgarians. It’s the Bulgarian attitudes that are the problem.
There is usually high support for European integration. Some Bulgarians would say that accession means joining a club of rich people, that it increases the prospects for better social welfare. There isn’t much understanding of a political or human rights agenda. For some ethnic minorities, the perspective is different. You hear from some Roma leaders that they would like to be part of a larger community of nations, that “we would feel more equal in that community.” Also from ethnic Macedonians, they would rely on the influence of the EU to bring their minority situation up to EU standards. But there is no public support for their position. Even in civil society, our organization is perhaps the only one with Macedonians as members.
There have not been many Bulgarians in the past who have promoted ethnic tolerance. There is a feeling of historical deprivation and this feeling is promoted in the culture. We don’t have figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t have anyone who has promoted tolerance with the Turks. One popular figure of the Bulgarian enlightment, Vassil Levski, had one sentence in his writings about the future Bulgarian republic that all the nations in Bulgaria would live together in peace. On the other hand, he created an organization in Bulgaria to fight against the Turks. Everyone in the Balkans has such contradictory traditions.
The dominant idea of America is the melting pot. It has had some bad influences here in Bulgaria. Because America is a melting pot, and everyone who goes there speaks American, therefore we should assimilate our minorities and make them speak Bulgarian and make them disappear. This is the view promoted by nationalistic circles. On one hand they hate Americans. On the other hand, they give this example of how everyone speaks English, becomes American, and renounces their previous identity. There is no understanding of Americans as a people who assert their ethnic identity. Hip-hop is popular but there is no understanding that this is an expression of a particular culture.