Roma professionals bare their teeth in civil protest

By • on July 8, 2011

‘Do not screw 12 000 000 Roma!’, read a poster in the audience that had gathered to hear the declaratory and well-meaning speech of EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Laszlo Andor in Bulgaria. Reputable Roma journalists, lawyers, teachers, economists and others pooled funds to print the message ‘Europe, stop financing the Roma exclusion!’ on 50 t-shirts. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true – the same people showed a red card to Bulgarian vice-PM Tsvetan Tsvetanov during his speech and left the room in protest, because ‘Mr Tsvetanov reduces the Roma debate to one of petty crime, whereas the real debate on Roma issues should not only include crime rates in the ghettos, but also the absence of any institutions there,’ as some of the protesters said. This is undoubtedly a serious message by the Roma intelligentsia regarding the policies and the attitude of the reportedly democratic Bulgarian state towards the Roma.

The Roma left the room in anger and indignation as Tsvetanov’s introductory remarks about the importance of positive media coverage for the image of the Roma were emptied of meaning by Tsvetanov’s discussion of Roma crime rates minutes later. ‘This is in itself a contradiction. He first talks about image and then gives a negative spin on the issue,’ said one of the protesters. Among the questions directed at the speakers were ‘Since when does petty crime have a religious and ethnic definition?’ and ‘What law says that crime can be Roma, Bulgarian, Turkish, Jewish, Armenian?!’. The beginning of the meeting was soured by Tsvetanov’s remarks, whose other opinion that Roma ghettos are an incubator for crime was not long ago criticized as ‘inadmissible’ by EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding.


The two-day high-level meeting was aimed at creating an opportunity for the state and the Roma to debate on how EU funds can be used for Roma integration. At the end of the day, money will be found for Roma integration, but it will not come from Bulgarian tax-payers – it will come from the fat European wallet. One can only hope that this money will be traced and well-spent by the state so that later on ministers and mayors will not be able to wash their hands by pointing to the good or bad practices of civil organizations and NGOs. This is all old news for true Roma leaders who remember the time when the state hoped that George Soros would arrive with suitcases full of money to integrate Bulgarian citizens. Local and central government simply stood aside without doing anything, while demonstrating feeble political will to work on Roma issues. Fortunately, Soros’ investments created a Roma elite that is no longer toothless and anaemic, but has awareness and feels responsibility for Roma problems, as well as for the wider issues in Bulgarian society.

Today Soros is replaced with EU funds. The state once again hopes that European money will solve Roma problems. It has transpired however, that the issue is no longer a financial one, but political and administrative. All those who have common sense see the state diverging from a long-term vision on the Roma issue by favouring partial projects. But this time the state has nowhere to go because the generation that Soros educated has begun to see the need for state action on national and local level. It is precisely these Roma that advise the state about the need to really involve local authorities and the Roma on a local level in the planning of Roma integration programmes.

These Roma professionals are asking the government to create a mechanism to bind local administrations to consistently and systematically follow through with clear, concrete and well-funded action plans. The Roma experts advocate a bottom-up approach, where each local administration together with its Roma community defines priorities and focuses on their multi-faceted execution, because produced in this way actions plans will be realistic and local authorities and Roma will feel ownership over the policy. The Roma experts are also pressing for the return of institutions to the Roma neighbourhoods in order to enforce the law as regards disciplining but also protecting Roma citizens.

The Roma elite stress that the Roma community is diverse and encompasses different groups with different needs and this calls for a differentiated approach that takes into consideration local specifics and the different social classes within the Roma community. This message is meant for the state and the European Union. The Roma activists are not few, they number 2000 from all over the country and their signatures can be found under these proposals. They reminded Minister of the Interior Tsvetanov that not all Roma are criminals. They showed that among the Roma are also active citizens ready to work on Roma issues. These Roma do not claim to represent the abstract term ‘Roma community’ the way political opportunists like Tsvetelin Kanchev (leader of the Euroroma movement) do, but show that there are Roma who are mature enough to participate in national decision-making.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov might be right about one thing – that the media have a role to play in the arduous process of Roma integration. The media have to be involved. It is precisely the media that can create awareness among Bulgarians that the Roma are their fellow citizens and not aliens or an abstract mass. It is time the media became better oriented in society and began to tell true Roma leaders from political opportunists like Tsvetelin Kanchev who simply gain political dividends on the back of the hungry and poor Roma from the ghettos. Journalists have to engage with the integration debate in an adequate and responsible way. Journalists should get to the heart of the matter and not make sweeping generalizations based on single cases. Unfortunately, leading Bulgarian media that usually report on Roma issues were absent during the meeting. These are media that claim to be very interested in the Roma. But they are actually only interested when a teenage Roma girl gives birth, when Tsvetelin Kanchev’s son steals metals for resale and when the Roma embarrass themselves. These same media are absent from the serious debate about the Roma and instead pick up the yellow populist messages that smack of propaganda. ‘It is time the journalistic ethics code began to be observed’, has said Gogo Lozanov (chairman of the Electronic Media Council) many a time.

Laszlo Andor did not stir the crowd and his mechanical speech did not resonate with the posters and t-shirts of his Roma audience. The Roma told Europe to stop financing their exclusion. The Roma asked Europe to end its hypocrisy and stop organizing conferences where problems are simply restated. ‘ Europe cannot at the same time speak about unity in diversity and send back Bulgarian and Romanian citizens on the basis of their ethnicity. All have equal rights, but some are more equal than others for Europe,’ some said. ‘Let them invite us to meetings, where they talk about results instead of going on about their intentions and give us shiny folders, expensive pens, nice bags, notebooks, textbooks and reports,’ others complained.

Vice-PM Tsvetan Tsvetanov need not have made the effort to explain and apologize that he did not want to offend the Roma. Vice-PM Tsvetanov, as well as Bulgarian journalists, should change his vocabulary as regards the Roma, which reduces their image to crime, illegal ‘traditions’ and mockery. The red card is for all governments so far. Tsvetanov was the one to receive it because the Roma felt mature enough to overcome the fear of facing up to the Minister for the Interior.  They all think that the policy of Bulgarian governments is ineffective and compounds exclusion and ethnic tension.  The protesters asked where is the sum of € 70 485 175 that Brussels disbursed to previous Bulgarian governments for Roma integration in the framework of the PHARE programme for the period 1999-2007 and where are the millions of Euro that the current governments keeps receiving via structural funds for ‘social inclusion.’ They made an appeal to the European Commission to stop the funds for ‘Roma inclusion’ that are part of the funding programmes for Bulgaria until an audit is completed and the results of it made public together with recommendations for changes in government policy; until effective results are achieved in accordance with adopted strategic documents (over 10 so far); and until political will for Roma inclusion in the decision-making process is demonstrated.

Many Roma keep saying that the ghettos have not seen any of the integration money. What does it mean for the money to reach the Roma? Does it mean to hand it out? To give them houses? To give them food? What kind of a statement is this? What has to reach the Roma is functioning infrastructure, access to good education and public services and last but not least equal opportunity on the labour market. All of this is their civic right. If this is not provided for, the Roma cannot be expected to fulfil their civic duties. If it is not guaranteed the Roma will remain isolated from Bulgarian citizenship and their human rights. And in this way the state will see the Roma as an object. This will in turn make Roma attitude consumerist, even clientilistic. The Roma who showed the red cards do not want this, they want the opposite.

Whether in resonance with the protesters or out of personal persuasion the director of the European Social Fund Peter Jorgensen said that the myths that the Roma do not want to work, that they do not want to integrate, that they are thieves, that they have more rights than everyone else, must be put to an end.  Jorgensen is right because such statements are pre-election fodder for mediocre journalists and unscrupulous politicians. But then again, elections are coming up.