Eastern Europe

Bulgarian Roma: The Multiplication of Misery

Vassil Chaprazov, editor of the first Roma newspaper and magazine
Vassil Chaprazov, editor of the first Roma newspaper and magazine (Photo: BulPhoto).

Sky-scraping mountains and deep blue sea can wait. What a foreign motorist is first likely to encounter after crossing the northern Bulgarian border at Vidin-Kalafat are bumpy roads lined by dark-skinned girls in high-cut mini-skirts, beckoning the lonely driver. If the stranger looks straight ahead, he may miss the Roma—or, to use the derogatory term—Gypsy shantytown: the dilapidated houses, the ragged clothes hung out to dry, the children splashing in mud puddles. But chances are good that our hypothetical tourist will not be able to pass the shantytown without overtaking a group of surprisingly cheerful Roma men driving a horse-drawn cart loaded with scrap iron. Their warlike yells at the tired horse, the eyes of the young women by the side of the road: This might be the tourist’s introduction to the plight of the fastest growing and poorest minority in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian government estimates that there are 313,000 Roma in the country today. But the official figures, based on old census information, do not take into account the speed of the growth of the Roma population, or that many Roma identify themselves as either Bulgarians or Turks, depending on their religion or social status. Roma advocates put the population at 800,000-900,000—a significant figure against Bulgaria’s fewer than 8 million inhabitants.

Aid workers estimate that 90-95 percent of Roma in Bulgaria are chronically unemployed, hampered by illiteracy and prejudice, and the overall economic slump. There are some Roma “barons,” flashy dressers in shining luxury sedans, scorned by their kin for their aloofness. And about 117 Roma non-governmental organizations distribute international aid, often to little effect. Nor are Roma political leaders setting a good example, engaged as they are in ego-polishing and personal wars.

The condition of the Roma minority may prove to be a snagging point for Bulgaria as it seeks to put its house in order for accession to the European Union, tentatively scheduled for 2007. Acknowledging that Bulgaria has achieved a functioning market economy, the European Commission noted in its 2002 annual report that little has been done to remedy problems of social discrimination and poverty affecting the Roma.

Worsening conditions among the Roma have planted a time bomb in Bulgaria’s aging society, sociologists warn. According to figures compiled from Bulgarian police reports, one in four crimes are committed by Roma. The Electricity Distribution Company blacked out Roma ghettos this fall as unpaid bills—and the amount of electricity stolen—mounted. Residents took to the streets in protest and neighborhood leaders warned the local authorities that there would be riots if power was not restored.

O Roma magazine, the first in the Roma language
O Roma, the first magazine for Bulgarian Roma.

The warnings justifiably worried the local governments. A lethal brew of illegal firearms and economic desperation makes Roma ghettos dangerous places. On Oct. 19, rival Roma and Bulgarian gangs settled accounts in a Pernik bistro with baseball bats. Soon after, about 300 angry young Roma men blocked a nearby road to protest “the racist onslaught,” prompting 24-hour police patrols of the troubled area. Some talk of a new Kosovo in the making.

But even in this distrust-laden darkness enlightened men and women are building bridges and sowing the seeds of change. “Our top priority is better education for Gypsies,” says one of them, Vassil Chaprazov, editor of the first Roma magazine, O Roma and the monthly newspaper Drom Dromendar.

Sipping coffee agitatedly in his luxurious office in downtown Sofia, Chaprazov, 57, receives a steady stream of Roma lads as they file through the open door to pay a visit to their mentor. One of them, we learn, has just staged a romantic play in the Roma tongue in the city of Montana titled “The Bird of Gypsy Happiness.”

A human-rights activist in the communist past and a passionate advocate of school desegregation, Chaprazov thinks the Ministry of Education’s recent steps to bring together schoolchildren of all ethnic groups together are belated. “A series of democratic governments failed to realize that you couldn’t proceed to democracy by separating the Other from yourself—at school, in the ‘hood,’ at the police station, in the government institutions…. Responsibility grows out of confidence. A man you don’t trust can bear no responsibility…. Some eight years ago, we sounded the alarm that the schools for the mentally handicapped are packed with normal, healthy, smart Roma kids! No one seemed to be paying attention. But what are the authorities doing now? Forcing 15-year-olds to enroll in first grade for their parents to be entitled to unemployment benefits!”

The editor acknowledges that many Roma parents bar their children from school—either for misguided fear of “assimilation” or because they cannot buy them decent clothes and school supplies. He recalls his own frustration when, as a child fresh from the ghetto, he found himself at an elite school (he was a prize pupil and later earned a university degree). And he remembers how he hated his teacher for demanding that he and his parents buy things they could not afford.

Chaprazov suspects that there is “something rotten” in the way state and foreign funds are distributed for welfare and education. He claims there is enough money to feed the people and guarantee them basic education. “These are the foremost and most elementary prerequisites for any statehood. Are we speaking of European integration? The way I’ve sat in the same classroom with children of teachers, doctors, officers, feeling like something the cat dragged in. All just so Bulgaria can [join the European Union], which is distressed by [Bulgaria’s] illiteracy and poverty. Moreover, the E.U. would require an ever more qualified workforce, and not only Roma would fall short of those requirements. But apparently some forces don’t need a well-off and learned nation; it wouldn’t be as easy to manipulate,” he remarks wryly.

Chaprazov also deplores the demise of the internationally famed Roma choirs and dance companies and accuses the Bulgarian media of “sadistically” proliferating the “dirty, lazy, thievish Gypsy” stereotypes.

It was to counteract this view that he originally began publishing O Roma in 1991. The magazine was later discontinued, but was revived in September 2002 with financial backing from the U.S.-based Soros Foundation. In its pages, Chaprazov aims to give the Roma greater self-confidence through awareness of their history, language, and culture. O Roma provides an outlet for prominent Roma artists, musicians, and scholars, many of whom, he says, are so high in society that they fear admitting they are Roma.

Leading Bulgarian Roma contest Chaprazov’s views. “School desegregation is necessary, but our efforts should be focused rather on alleviating the unbearable poverty of ordinary Roma families,” counters Simeon Blagoev, a high-ranking expert at the Ministery of Culture, a friend of Chaprazov’s during the resistance days, and a fellow Rom. Despite their shared lineage and old association, the two are now at odds. Blagoev claims that school desegregation was a poorly prepared process, organizationally and psychologically, more guided by the interests of self-serving bureaucrats than those of the children. He paints the example of a Roma child who spends a few hours at a Bulgarian school and then returns to his bleak and benumbing home environment—quick to unlearn the day’s lessons. Blagoev sees a glint of hope in the plans of the government to waive taxes on corporate profits and reinvest them in areas of high unemployment. He envisages small, modern production plants in which the Roma can work and get training.

Blagoev, risking ostracism as a cultural heretic, says the Roma’s behavior may share the blame for their poor image. “Historically the Roma have failed to integrate well in the society, but now they must choose between assimilation and misery,” he says sternly, reinforcing his words with a thump on the table. And he urges the numerous Roma organizations and leaders to leave their cozy offices and return to their people “in the Inferno,” where the time-bomb is ticking.