Fighting stereotypes is Bulgaria's biggest challenge regarding its sizeable Roma community
A year ago, Roma divas shook Sofia with heart-wrenching songs. No, it wasn't a Goran Bregovic concert, but a meeting of the Roma Inclusion Decade. It represented a musical and ideological triumph for the politically correct "Roma" in their battle against the pejorative "Gypsy". It was also a lofty moment for George Soros, who pledged to help the Roma cause and take on prejudiced locals. "Like me?" I think as I search my bag for my purse. Damn! My purse has been snatched!
Pickpockets and thieves, dirty, lazy, uneducated people, who have tons of kids and sponge off social assistance - this is how the average Bulgarian perceives the Gypsy people. The stereotype is hard to fight for many reasons, despite the inroads the politically correct term “Roma” has made in people's everyday speech.
"Stereotyping behaviour continues to exist - in my opinion, due to unfinished business with the country's integration into the EU," says Maria Metodieva, the Roma Programme Director at the Open Society Institute Sofia. Indeed, Brussels feels very far away when you stand on the derelict, garbage-strewn streets of Bulgaria's Roma ghettos. They are home to most of the country's 375,000 Roma - although unofficial data estimates their true numbers come closer to 750,000, out of a population of 7.8 million. Here you can see skinny men rooting through piles of rubbish alongside pigs, fat women in flowing skirts cradling babies and clan chiefs - who struck it rich after the collapse of Communism - driving gleaming 4WDs.
Interestingly, most of the ramshackle houses in the ghettos, made of poorly "cemented" bricks of clay and straw, sport a TV satellite dish. This precious equipment, perched on the roofs like an extraterrestrial eye, brings the shack dwellers a programme that (almost) everyone in this country loves - an evening talk show hosted by Azis, a flamboyantly gay Roma with a phenomenal voice, strong entrepreneurial flair and controversial personality.
Just like his people, Azis has been both maligned and romanticised. Yet he is duly honoured by all for smashing the stereotype and showing a very different side of modern Roma life.
Who says the Roma must be losers by default? "We won't be losers if we bring more Roma young people into universities and schools," says a 20-year-old man, who studies Bulgarian philology at Sofia University and represents what may soon become the new generation of Roma intellectuals. He admits he had his share of difficulties before his colleagues learned to accept him without prejudice. Now he is having the time of his life and often goes back to where he came from to help. There, he and people like him, including foreign enthusiasts such as US Peace Corps volunteers, are facing an uphill battle.
The ghettos are rife with extortion, human trafficking, baby selling and other menaces. The basic educational level is shockingly low, as many parents refuse to let their children waste their time studying instead of taking advantage of the commercial opportunities the street offers.
In Sofia, for example, Roma play a key role in what are thought to be highly organised begging rings. Bulgaria is the only European country besides possibly Romania where you can see a Roma family riding a donkey cart along the capital's chic central boulevard, find a smuggler willing to sell you a gold necklace for 30 leva despite soaring international prices or be assaulted by underage Roma windscreen washers.
"If prejudice, poverty and illiteracy are the problem, providing a level playing field and equality is the solution," says Maria Metodieva.
Figures support her theory. An Open Society Foundation report entitled "The Costs of Non- Inclusion" reveals that Roma integration does not require massive funding and its positive effects would exceed 20 or even 30 times the cost of expenditure.
"The total expenses for a period of 10 years are estimated at 800 million-1.1 billion leva, while the positive returns are significant," Metodieva explains.
"Through saved social benefits, improved efficiency, increased labour output and earned incomes, and lower mortality and criminality rates, the benefits to the whole of society from the integration of the Roma are estimated at 13-31 billion leva over a period of 10 years."
EU money for the Roma minority, like most financial flows in this country, is hard to track. Professor Ognyan Gerdzhikov, former chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and Religions, admits that it is impossible to detect all the channels that attract funding for vulnerable ethnic minorities, let alone their absorption. A big slice of the pie is in the hands of foreign NGOs and consequently part of the money return to Brussels. The rest is in the hands of Bulgarian NGOs. The Roma organisations themselves never get their hands on that cash as they don't meet the required standards.
The result is a long list of conferences and studies on Roma life, rather than hands-on activities designed to improve it.
"So far the steps in regard to integration have been chaotic, without a consistent policy and without implementation of the main strategic documents such as the Framework Programme for the Integration of Roma into Bulgarian Society," says Metodieva. "The NGO sector is making efforts, but they are insignificant since the major responsibility lies with state authorities."
The authorities, generally not held in high esteem in the country, have little power over the larger Roma ghettos, where clan chiefs are left to rule. Policemen see their job as providing security from the Roma. However, their handling of last year's Roma-skinhead clashes in the capital, one of Bulgaria's biggest race-relation crises ever, showed their inability to cope with the situation.
Roma shack-dwellers, armed with pitchforks, stones, axes and cudgels, claimed that they were provoked by a group of skinheads - an accusation that got lost in the outcry that followed the two nights of unrest. The city no longer felt safe.
"It seems that this was the effect being sought by certain politically dependant individuals," says Metodieva. "To my knowledge the impact of the clashes has been huge both for the local Roma community and their ethnic Bulgarian neighbours. It was a completely new phenomenon. We hadn't seen such a clash in years."
The violent outbreak sounded a note of caution. The existing public policies on integration and the promotion of ethnic diversity within Bulgaria must be redefined, as the OSI expert put it.
Authorities should also redefine their response to injustice - because as long as no Roma thieves or violent Bulgarian skinheads are put behind bars, nationalists and Roma leaders alike will use racial hate rhetoric to play on people's fears.
Fears of a different kind have been plaguing Europe. Even though it had already admitted several poor, former Communist countries with Roma populations before opening its doors to Bulgaria, the poverty in the Balkan country's larger Roma ghettos is being a bitter pill to swallow. The ghettos have become part of European diversity and Europeans imagined nightmare scenarios in which huge numbers of Bulgarian Roma headed to the West to plunder the generous welfare systems there.
"Nothing like this happened," notes Metodieva. "Of course, there are some Roma who travel and work in Greece, Spain, and Italy, for instance, usually illegally. They believe that working abroad will contribute to the well being of their families here."
Contrary to alarming reports of Roma pickpockets and thieves flocking to Western Europe, Metodieva says she has not heard of any serious problems with local authorities. However, Europeans are more than tolerant of the Roma in Bulgaria than the Bulgarians themselves. Sometimes. Members of the European Parliament quickly came to the rescue of an illegal Roma ghetto in Sofia when it faced demolition for the suffocating stench of animals and excrement. Yet nobody would expect tolerance from the English family whose newly acquired house in the village of Gostilitsa was invaded by Roma squatters while they were out of the country.
"Western Europe and Brussels have their own agendas and, of course, they are not to blame for this. On the other hand, considering their own experience with the integration and non-integration of ethnic minorities, their stance is not so hypocritical," Metodieva contends.
Metodieva believes that Europe will help Bulgaria and other Central and Eastern European countries realise that ethnic minorities are "a source of richness, an immense human resource and people who deserve the same living standards".
Significantly, this can happen only when equal rights and rules apply to all - and are not just part of the rhetoric disguising the vote-buying schemes in the last election.