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In Class or in Jail?

A summer of attacks by Roma has Bulgaria again looking for answers, but, this time, politicians might actually be serious about it.     

by Boyko Vassilev 19 July 2017

It is an old saying that misfortunes, like pleasant surprises, always happen thrice. And if there is a fourth time, the omen turns into a pattern. Such coincidences have already turned fatal in the dramatic turn of events involving Bulgaria’s Roma minority in recent days.


In late June, a group of ethnic Roma men got into a fight with a local rowing team near the town of Asenovgrad in central-southern Bulgaria. In early July, another group of Roma beat up an ethnic Bulgarian man in Smolyan in the south of the country. Two days later, an almost identical incident happened in Byala, on the Black Sea coast. While in the first case the victims suffered only minor injuries, one of those from Byala, an 18-year-old man, died this week as a result of the beating and a 16 year old is in serious condition after being attacked this Monday in the town of Nova Zagora – also by a group of Roma.


At first glance, these are purely criminal cases in a country where criminality has never been tamed. It is always hard to determine who provoked whom, but the police have arrested the suspects, who will face trial. However, the Roma issue, the most complicated and hard-to-solve on the Bulgarian agenda, can easily catalyze aggression, especially in hotheaded boys in the middle of the summer. That is what is happening now.


And it has happened before. In 2011, a similar incident occurred, leaving two deaths in the village of Katunitsa, near Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city. Then, as now, the reaction of the Bulgarian majority has been similar: to protest. Disturbed locals and “guest” protesters from elsewhere, including nationalists and rockers on motorbikes, chanted slogans targeting the usual suspects: the Roma (for aggressive behavior that “goes unpunished”), the liberal elites (for “siding with the perpetrator against the victim”), the media (for not covering the topic more aggressively), politicians (for not dealing with it properly), and the era of political transition (for neglecting security).


There is some improvement though. Unlike in 2011, according to General Kalin Georgiev, chief secretary at the Ministry of Interior when the attack took place in Katunitsa, both the politicians and the police nowadays have taken note from the past. They have tried not to inflame the situation or jump to conclusions about the aggressors or victims.


The deep reasons for the problem are more or less clear. During communism, Roma, like all Bulgarians, had to serve two years in the military; they and other minorities were assigned to the so-called construction forces, working in state construction enterprises – a type of forced socialization with the majority ethnic group. Afterwards, they found work in these businesses, collective farms (located in villages), and in big, dirty industrial factories in the cities. Yet, none of the three survived under democracy – and most of the Roma who did not have land to inherit or assets to privatize joined the army of unemployed. Misery, disintegration, ghettoization, and a surge in crime followed.


What to do now? The question acutely looms over Bulgaria, the country with the biggest proportion of Roma in Europe (9.9 percent according to The Economist and rising). It would have helped if any country in Central and Eastern Europe had found a recipe for integrating its Roma minority. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case.


Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov has highlighted two questions at the core of the issue: the money for Roma integration, which has been misused or stolen, and the politicians, who manipulate Roma into voting for them, and then, once elected, forget their promises altogether, turning a blind eye to the Roma’s problems. The former is a commonly heard argument, which the police have never managed to prove. The latter is true.


But this time, the politicians seem determined to look for a long-term solution for Roma integration.


The Bulgarian government has been concentrating on one solution: education. Officials believe that if Roma children go to school, a legal requirement that they often evade, integration would increase and criminality would decline. Society and most Roma NGOs agree. They may quarrel on the means of bringing all the kids into the classroom, and on whether the state should use coercion (resented by liberals) or bonuses (resented by the Bulgarian majority). Yet almost everyone is confident that the silver bullet is education.


There are some still some serious questions here, however. As social scientist Parvan Simeonov has asked: “What if all the Roma children go to school and the Bulgarians refuse to let them in?” There have been cases when Bulgarian parents pulled their kids from classes with a high Roma percentage. If so, does the ghetto really offer a viable alternative for Roma education? And even if we miraculously attain a certain standard of education, and produce an educated Roma generation, will the economy be able to absorb these now-qualified workers? Industry and education are intertwined; if one is missing, the other may crumble.


The task is gargantuan. And I do not want to discourage it. Incomplete as it may be, education is a valuable first step. Better to have it than to linger between anger and gloom. Otherwise, the incidents that have multiplied in the past two months will only intensify. 

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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