Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Courting Minorities

by Maria Koinova
The Bulgarian government's new activism could signal a passing fancy or a long-term trend

At two political forums held by the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) on 6 September 1998, leaders of the top parliamentary party launched an initiative on the integration of minorities into local and district administration, police, army, and Bulgarian society as a whole. The initiative would be the first step toward a national policy on minority integration. Minorities would be judged by their individual qualities--not according to quotas, "like it was done during communism," says SDS deputy Plamen Ivanov.

According to Ivanov, during the forums and at SDS's National Conference of 16-18 October 1998, politicians discussed the creation of a special apparatus within the party to work on minority integration with the support of SDS's local structures and local nongovernmental organizations. It is unclear which minorities the initiative would address. But it is clear that minorities play an important role in domestic and international politicking. Politicians are eyeing the minorities in anticipation of next year's local elections, but a more tangible impetus for action on minority issues could be parliament's expected ratification later this year of the European Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, which calls for cultural, media, language, and other freedoms, as well as reflecting European Union minority rights principles.

According to the 1992 census, ethnic Turks are the biggest minority (about 800,000 out of Bulgaria's population of 8.5 million). The next largest group is the Roma, at about 313,000--though human rights activists claim the real number is closer to 800,000. The third-largest are the Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks), which number 250,000, according to unofficial estimates. The Bulgarian state views them not as a minority but as Bulgarians who adhere to Islam, unlike the Orthodox majority of the population. After the September political seminars, "minority" became a buzzword in the media and the fashion of the political season. The daily newspaper 24 Chasa speculated that the initiative was announced prior to the European convention's ratification to show that the government initiative is part of the domestic political agenda, not something imposed from abroad. The government's courtship of the Roma and the ethnic Turks began at the same time. The president and other leaders of the SDS-dominated United Democratic Forces (ODS) government sent welcome messages to the first nationwide Roma unification congress, Kupate (Together), on 16 September, organized by Roma leaders. Parliament chief Jordan Sokolov attended the opening. The same day, the SDS replaced one of its parliamentary deputies with Assen Christov, who become the sole Romani representative in parliament. And on 3 October 1998, during a meeting launched by the Sofia-based Human Rights Project of  government representatives, Roma leaders, and members of nongovernmental organizations, state officials pledged their support for a roundtable discussion on the Romani question in February 1999.

But the main obstacle to their true integration is the overall discrimination against Roma by Bulgarian society, says Savelina Danova, Human Rights Project director--despite whatever good faith the government shows toward Roma. The government also is discussing a national program on Roma integration. However, Danova says this topic has not been broached with most Roma leaders.

The SDS also seeks to reduce the political influence of the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which holds 15 seats--out of a total 240--in parliament. The SDS has become close to reform-minded deputy Gyuner Tahir, who was elected on the Shortly before the April 1997 elections, DPS abandoned the coalition and formed the Union for National Salvation. Because Tahir and 24 of his DPS colleagues opted to stay within the ODS, they were forced to leave  the DPS.

Since its creation in 1990, the DPS has remained strong. However, economic stagnation in the regions inhabited by ethnic Turks has created a gap between the minority and its traditional political leadership. Emigration to Turkey was quite high--over 120,000 people--from 1989 until 1993, when Turkey imposed a visa regime. The economic discontent remains today, and ethnic Turks continue to leave the country.

The government did take some steps prior to its new initiative. In December 1997, as a successor to two ineffective councils on ethnic issues within the executive, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues was established. Members include representatives of traditional minorities in Bulgaria--Roma, ethnic Turks, Jews, Vlachs, Armenians, Karakatsans, and Tatars. Council Chairman Petar Atanasov says Bulgarian Muslims are expected to join soon. The council would implement the integration initiative after political and administrative details were ironed out.

While it is too early to judge whether the integration initiative will take root, the current government is the first one since 1989 to profess serious ambitions to integrate minorities. Prime Minister Ivan Kostov regularly expresses concern for them when speaking in public. But the initiative still would have to be followed by concrete plans and actions. Atanasov, of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, hesitates to venture a specific date for when results may be apparent. Antonina Zhelyazkova, director of the minorities studies center, says the initiative should be given grace period of at least six months to a year; any criticism before then, she says, would show partisan bias.

Maria Koinova is a freelance journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Copyright © Transitions November 1998, E-mail:
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.

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