We Are Proud to Be Roma in Free Bulgaria

Escaping violence, we Roma left India 1000 years ago and arrived in Europe. This exodus scattered our people and transformed them into a distinct and stateless entity, present everywhere and discriminated against everywhere. In Bulgaria, we brought new technologies for forging metal, crafts, trade, healing, and new art forms. We arrived in the spirit of peace and freedom and lived in cohabitation with those around us, unlike others who arrived to conquer and plunder, spread violence, and wage wars.

However, we met hostility and violence. Our freedom has been under constant threat: Bulgaria made us live as slaves; expelled us from our homes; took away our children; changed our names; attempted to eradicate our language, culture, and religion; prohibited mixed marriages; suspended our voting rights; abolished our organizations; destroyed our every attempt at political self-organization; made us an easy target for fascists, racists, communists, and oligarchs, and the collateral damage of political and economic transitions; banned our lifestyle, and systematically denied our very existence so that we would have no future.

Since the Ottoman Empire, we have fought for freedom, for our rightful place in the administrative organization. We were taxpayers, the best workers in Sliven in the first half of the 19th century. As Bulgaria became an independent state, the election law of 1901 suspended our voting rights by spreading lies and fear. We were treated as extremist nationalists who could incite violent unrest and threaten Bulgaria’s territorial integrity.

Despite this, we succeeded in building a consensus for a favorable decision for equal voting rights. These events inspired and encouraged a more vibrant political movement after World War I that was nurtured by Shakir Pashov. He mastered a political vision and strategy, established structural foundations, and took on bold initiatives to strengthen our position. In 1946, Pashov became the first Roma member of parliament in the Great People’s Assembly.

We fought for our freedom and our country’s freedom, even though Bulgaria did not treat us the way we deserved. World War II was a peak of our pain and suffering. In Auschwitz, our ancestors fought back SS forces and postponed their extermination. Our people from Sliven joined the worker’s union, and many of our bravest people joined the anti-fascist movement and died as partisans. Pashov was sent to a concentration camp by the communists in 1949 and killed shortly after. Even though Bulgaria was an ally of Germany that introduced restrictive laws against us, it did not recognize the Holocaust against our people or pay tribute to the millions of our victims. Instead, it displayed ignorance and continued oppression against our people in different forms.

Unlike others, we have resisted becoming killers. Throughout our painful history, we have always had the choice to take up arms and kill for our freedom as others have done. Unlike many others, however, we have never shed other people’s blood through war or terrorism; we have never seceded or declared our own state. The killing instincts of others did not make us killers. We always had a vision of humanity at its best, loving life and freedom to keep on being who we are: proud and free, not to be defined by others but ourselves.

We fought for more inclusive political and economic institutions. In 1947 we established our own theatre, in 1948 we established our first newspaper, Roma Voice, and subsequently, we established associations and national congresses that defined our politics. Our elders, freedom fighters, organized the first World Romani Congress near London in 1971. In a time more difficult than today, their fight for freedom brought us our name, our flag, and our anthem. First, they claimed freedom from our mental slavery, knowing that we had to fight for our independent “state of mind.” From 1989 through 1997, we established organizations with national political aspirations led by Peter Georgiev, Vassil Caprazov, Manush Romanov, Vassil Danev, Milcho Russinov, and many others.

However, our country took on a forced-assimilation campaign and ban the formation of political parties based on ethnicity. Our applications to run as candidates in elections were rejected, while parties allowed us to operate under their control in order to exploit our political power. Despite this, we established new political parties, such as the Democratic Union of Roma chaired by Manush Romanov (later an MP) and new parliament members such as Sabi Golemanov and Peter Alexandrov. However, these voices had to choose between being co-opted by leading political parties and being excluded from public and political life. To avoid further fragmentation of our voting bloc, we initiated a cross-party national unification. Vasil Chaprazov chaired the conference on unity in 1992, and in 1993 these efforts continued through a new initiative led by Peter Georgiev. These efforts aimed to protect our political freedom and prevent increased political pressure and violence by the leading political parties. In 1996, only Dimitar Dimitrov from the Bulgarian Socialist Party became an MP in the new parliament.

In the same period, the government failed to ensure effective policies and institutional mechanisms with a political mandate, capacity, and resources for our participation and instead decided on our behalf. It failed with the inter-departmental Council on Ethnic Problems, which later transformed into the Inter-Administrative Council on Social and Demographic Issues. The Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), elected to government in 1996, declared a new state approach to the so-called Roma issue, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues at the Council of Ministers. This, however, was another failure, as it had no substantive mandate and impact. Due to the political crisis of 1996–1997, not one of our candidates was elected. (Assen Hristov of the UDF became a substituting deputy in 1998). Similar practices of political exclusion and tokenism continued even after EU accession, and public decisions on our behalf continued to be made without us, illegitimately.

The great disillusionment caused by these developments strengthened our determination to move more decisively together. We initiated alternative forms of self-organization led by Peter Kostov, Toma Tomov and his party ‘Roma”, and others. Kiril Rashkov established “Free Bulgaria”, which set the ground for local elections in 1999. It was a massive national organization financed by Roma and represented by 3386 delegates and 205 municipal organizations. It was also a demonstration that we could organize without outside help and use our power effectively. In 1998, other Roma political parties emerged, such as the “Euro Roma” led by Cvetelin Kanchev, Democratic Congress Party led by Ramadan Rashid, the Union for Democratic Development led by Ivan Kirov, the Bulgarian Party “Future” led by Sabi Golemanov, “Free Bulgaria” led by Angel Rashkov, and the Political Party Democratic Movement led by Ivan Kostov. These new political voices threatened the political status quo, which is why the leading parties introduced new techniques for detaining our people under false criminal accusations.

Despite this, in 1999, we won more than 280 municipal council seats and critical positions on many municipal councils. Several Roma mayors were also elected – more than 400 Roma played a vital role in the local and regional administration.  We became an important political factor in the country’s political development. This was a period of massive emergence of Roma evangelical churches. Just as we had been excluded politically, our churches were excluded from the mainstream church and had no other option but to determine our own place, elect our pastors, build and establish our churches. These developments have helped raise our fight for freedom to new heights in Bulgaria, Europe, and worldwide.

Over time, a pattern has emerged that blocked our political progress: 1) before elections, leading political parties would finance the establishment of satellite organizations in our communities for the purpose of organized vote-buying; 2) they would promise changes and positions to our people in exchange for our votes; 3) close to elections, parties would suppress Roma candidates and put them in non-winnable seats; 4) left without options, our people would become objects of control, co-optation, and corruption; 5) on election day, parties would use political violence through paramilitary groups, including police forces, state-captured media to demonize and justify systemic corruption and suppression of our votes; 6) and after elections, there would be no accountability, just silence until the next elections.

This pattern became a vicious cycle for our political exclusion, and the situation even worsened due to a mixture of ambivalence and contempt toward our people. Xenophobic nationalists used us as a scapegoat for the broader failings of the state and society. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (Turkish-led party) introduced even more sophisticated models, exploiting our votes and power without working with and for our people, especially in locations without a strong Turkish presence. To prevent our voters from casting their votes for rival mainstream parties, parties also used their authority to move polling stations significant distances away from our communities with no public transportation and had the police prevent us from traveling to the new polling stations.

Our history has been painful―from the men, women, and children who arrived in Bulgaria 1000 years ago to those who fought for our freedom and progress. However, we have shown that we are fighters for freedom, fighting to determine who we are, who we want to be, and what we want to achieve. Despite the injustice, we are successful, creative, hardworking, talented, peaceful, and courageous; we are proud people, proud Roma, and proud Bulgarians. We pay respect to our elders and ancestors, love our children and our families, work hard, live in peace with our neighbors, and keep fighting for the freedom to keep on being who we are―proud and free―and not defined by others.

Against all odds, we have found ways to survive and overcome. More than this, we have built resilience and adaptability (mobility, language skills, quick cultural adaptation, an entrepreneurial mentality) that has made us more potent because of what we have gone through. Despite differences, we are one people, one nation. The painful past has separated us into different tribes and separated us by dialects of Romanes, religions, countries, territories within countries, and gadje languages. However, we are one people, we belong to the same fight, and we must come together and stand firm against injustice and our oppressors.

Our diversity is richness. The great composite nations of the world are based on differences, not similarities – the USA, Germany, France, Spain, Italy. These countries understood how governing coalitions emerge. Majorities and minorities are represented in the national governments’ highest levels, and different groups are portrayed as equally worthy members of the national family. However, many other nations have been captured by the elites of a particular ethnic group, who shut others out of political power. This has led to secessionism, civil war, and ethnic cleansing.

The Roma are what Bulgaria and Europe aspire to be, a diverse and united community that prospers with a cosmopolitan vision of cooperation. Bulgaria belongs to us too. We are Bulgaria, and we are here to stay. Others have learned and can still learn from us about conflict mediation, finding ways to overcome crises and scarcity, living in harmony and healing our natural environment, and adapting to new environments. We have a joint fight for freedom. Those who wanted to take freedom away from Bulgaria (fascists, neo-Nazis, xenophobic populists, and oligarchs) are getting stronger again. We have to fight together for freedom in Bulgaria.

Today we have a reason for pride because we are the biggest minority in Bulgaria and Europe. Thanks to our elders and ancestors, we have become the largest ethnic minority on the continent. Our ancestors, our heroes, showed us the way: fighting to be free to say who we are, always eager to stand for a strong and united Roma people. If we lived in one country, we would be a more significant population than 20 of 27 EU member states: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Sweden.

However, our government shows that we are fewer than we are, so they disrespect us as Roma. Our number has been recorded and undercounted in all Bulgarian censuses to date―except for 1975, for political reasons. Twenty thousand Roma were counted in 1884;  89,549 in 1900;  98,451 in 1920; 134,844 in 1926; 149,385 in 1934; 170,011 in 1946; 197,865 in 1956; none in 1975; 523,519 in 1980; 550,000 in 1992; 370,908 in 2001; and 325,343 in 2011.

We know that there are more than twice as many of us than the 325,343 recorded in the last census. Besides, about 10% of the total population did not declare its ethnicity in the last census, including many members of our population. However, we realized why the government does this. If the census shows that we are fewer than we really are, others will take our resources (public funds, government positions) and use them against us. It is also about fighting systemic corruption. Our public funds are wasted because the statistics are corrupted and do not show where the real problems are and who needs public support the most. This is not good for our country and its people.

The government has created many obstacles to our freedom to participate and openly declare who we are. The recent censuses have not allowed Roma to freely express their ethnocultural identity. The statistical authorities have not implemented monitoring mechanisms to guarantee our ability to freely declare our identity and have not introduced appropriate data protection measures. We have been kept out of consultations about drafting and testing census questions, defining classifications, or designing statistical outputs. Nor have we taken part in the structures that implement the census. We have continued to be counted by non-Roma census takers who are often insensitive and use subjective judgment regarding ethnicity, and who often avoid “hard to reach” Roma communities or only partially count our people.

For more than 100 years, our data were used systematically for ethnic profiling and anti-Roma politics and to enforce anti-Roma legislation and policies. The data from official censuses are not accurate and complete, especially compared to other data from unofficial censuses – so-called “secret censuses.” In 1980, the Ministry of Internal Affairs organized such a census to count the Roma and registered 523,519 Roma. Secret censuses were done twice more: one in 1989 registered 576,927 Roma, of whom half had “identified” as Turks, and another in 1992 recorded about 550,000 Roma. While these numbers were closer to reality, the purpose of these counts’ was unclear, and many Roma feared that the data would be misused.

Following the most recent census, in 2011, the National Statistical Institute (NSI) declared that ethnicity data was a “gross manipulation.” This led to the prime minister’s decision in 2014 to fire the head of the NSI, Reneta Indzova, who had claimed that the census had not provided accurate or complete data on Roma, a development that only added to the fear and mistrust of Roma and its leadership regarding censuses.

Widespread stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination have led many of our people to declare themselves as Turks or Bulgarians, who are numerically dominant where we live. In such a context, and despite the dynamic natural increase of our numbers, our people are discouraged from freely participating and openly declaring their ethnicity. In the 2011 census, an estimated 200,000–400,000 of our people were identified as ethnic Turks or Bulgarians, particularly in so-called Roma ghettos such as Pazardzhik, Stolipinovo, and Hadjihasan Mahala. Our people in these locations face severe conditions,  and some choose to associate themselves with more socially favored groups, although they often have no real desire to deny their ethnicity.

The 2021 census is an opportunity for us to be bigger and gain and to contribute more. Bulgaria faces the most critical question: Is Bulgaria free? Is there freedom so that we are not slaves of racism and prejudice? Is there freedom so that we can say and show who we are? We want Bulgaria to be free. We believe that in Bulgaria, we can be free to be who we are.  However, Bulgaria must do better. It is not a question of our formally given freedom and constitutional rights. It is about providing a substantial foundation for our freedom to think, speak, and act. Freedom cannot be only for the most privileged. Bulgaria must end its deliberate campaign for the cultural, religious, socio-economic, and political marginalization and exclusion of our people. For us, Bulgaria can only be free if the state creates an environment for accountability and recalibration of power in order to restore our agency.

It is not smart for Bulgaria to leave most of our people jobless, living in poor housing conditions, and having their children in substandard segregated schools. It is not smart to make us victims of police abuses and forced evictions, to keep us subject to systemic racism, hatred, and incidents of deadly violence. It is not smart for Bulgaria to tolerate a reality of fundamental problems of weak or no control over public decisions that affect all our people. It is not smart for Bulgaria to tolerate a reality in which there are competitive elections but not many surprises about which party will win. For most of our population, politics has become an unknown phenomenon. None of us can tolerate a reality in which all of us experience abusive police, domineering local oligarchies, incompetent and indifferent state bureaucracy, a corrupt and inaccessible judiciary, and a ruling elite contemptuous of the rule of law and accountable to no one but themselves. It is not smart for Bulgaria to tolerate a reality in which neo-Nazi mobs and uniformed paramilitaries control our communities, and local authorities build walls to isolate and segregate our communities and impose forced evictions to remove our people from public view and onto toxic sites.

It is smart for Bulgaria, however, to recognize that our size, youth, workers, entrepreneurs, and voters are essential for our future, the future of Bulgaria, and Europe’s future. We are getting stronger in knowledge. The number of Roma university students and graduates, journalists, writers, civil servants, doctors, and teachers have been increasingly growing over the last two decades. Besides this, our communities are potential game-changers. Under Bulgaria’s current proportional representation system, if we were to vote en masse for candidates of a single and perhaps predominantly Roma party, we would wield a swing vote in the national assembly and with it become an unavoidable political subject in the formation of the country’s government. Also, we represent a significant voting power in many municipalities and provinces, where political power often matters most when it comes to fundamental rights and opportunities and awarding public jobs and contracts.

Moreover, Bulgaria faces severe demographic and economic challenges for the future. We believe Bulgaria is smart to recognize that we are the youngest and fastest-growing demographic segment in the country and in Europe. We are vital for Bulgaria’s economic future, considering its economic growth, increasing labor demand, and aging population. Our economic exclusion is too costly, creating GDP losses in the billions of euros, fiscal losses, and social assistance spending. Our strength and potential are the only sources of hope for transforming our future and ensuring the wellbeing of all Bulgarians.

We as Roma also face the most critical questions: Do we want to be free? Do we want to be free in our hearts and minds so that we can say we are proud to be Roma? Do we want to be free of the chains of fear and shame? Do we want to be free to pay respect to our elders and ancestors who were enslaved, tortured, sterilized, and exterminated but still fought back by all possible peaceful means, or will we betray them? Do we want to be free to respect their sacrifices, to show that we are the most significant Bulgarian minority? It is time to say that we are free. It is time to take off the chains from our minds and hearts. It is time to set our children free so that they can be proud of who we are. It is time to respect our elders and ancestors, who survived and fought for our freedom to be who we are.

The future of the new generations depends on our answer and our country’s answer. If we want to see more Roma in our government, more Roma as police officers, more Roma as teachers, more Roma as doctors, we must liberate ourselves and show who we are. If we want to grow and progress as a community, we must liberate ourselves and show who we are. Now is the time show that we are not slaves, that we are free, and that we are bigger than they say!

We are proud to be Roma in the 2021 Bulgarian census!

The original article was published on the Roma Standing Conference website:

We Are Proud to Be Roma in Free Bulgaria