Roma Rising from Status as a Despised Minority

Roma Slum in Bulgaria

Sofia        Bulgaria and other Eastern European and Balkan nations with significant populations of the Roma minority can easily be compared to African-Americans and their situation in the American South of fifty years ago.  They are a despised minority that has begun to see some improvement after years of forced segregation, disempowerment, and secondary status, but they are still impoverished and largely powerless.  The good news, after several hours of meeting with key Roma activists in Bulgaria, where the largest Roma population in Europe lives, is that they are rising with ambitious organizational and political plans that, if successful, could be transformative over coming decades.

The statistics are dismal and contradictory.  Roma populations are seriously undercounted in the Bulgarian census with some stating their ethnicity and as much as 10% of the population leaving the question unanswered with arguably even answering disingenuously to protect themselves and their status.  Recent census figures, though disputed, count 325,343 Roma in Bulgaria or 4.4% of the population, but other figures including the European Union estimate, claim there are 800,000 or more than 10% of the total population.  Some nongovernmental groups argue that the population is increasing by 35,000 per year, and that the number is significantly more than one-million, and perhaps twice the EU estimate.

What is beyond dispute is the level of poverty in the community.  Though decreasing, 21stcentury figures hover above 60% of the Roma population below the poverty line with unemployment figures over 50%.

Illiteracy is decreasing but the situation in the schools constitutes de facto segregation even if not de jure segregation.  The government contends that there has never been a mandatory segregation policy, but that it is a matter of “administrative districts.”  There is no pretense of “separate, but equal,” rather the government argues that this situation is simply a matter of people living in close communities.  An Open Society Institute report cited in Wikipedia is explicit:

A monitoring report by the Open Society Institute found that Romani children and teenagers are less likely to enroll in primary and secondary schools than the majority population and less likely to complete their education if they do. Between 60% and 77% of Romani children enroll in primary education (ages 6–15), compared to 90-94% of ethnic Bulgarians. Only 6%-12% of Romani teenagers enroll in secondary education (ages 16–19). The drop-out rate is significant, but hard to measure, as many are formally enrolled but rarely attend classes.[66] The report also indicates that Romani children and teenagers attend de facto segregated “Roma schools” in majority-Romani neighbourhoods and villages. These “Roma schools” offer inferior quality education; many are in bad physical condition and lack necessary facilities such as computers. As a result, Romani literacy rates, already below those for ethnic Bulgarians, are much lower still for Romani who have attended segregated schools.[67]

Activists argue that housing is the key issue since the lack of a governmental support policy has led to informal and often haphazard construction everywhere, often on municipal lands without title.  Other key objections are dealing with the large youth cohort which means supplementing education and developing new community leadership styles, and ending “hate speech” and blatant discrimination.

Organizational ambitions are analogous to the civil rights movement focusing on pressuring parties and office holders without aligning or forming a separate party, but holding feet to the fire on programs and accountability both in elections and socially.  One-hundred organizations of Roma have already coalesced around some issues and demands.  Leaders have set a goal of mobilizing more than 100,000 Roma in Bulgaria over the next year, and are looking to build organizational and communications infrastructure to make the movement sustainable and powerful.


Please enjoy Natalie Jean’s What Would You Do for Love? Thanks to KABF.


Leaving the Bunkers Behind in Albania

Sofia    One of the most unusual things I saw in Tirana, Albania was a museum of sorts called BunkArt near the central square and the main government buildings.  Using a modern reference, it is fair to say that Albania for fifty years from the end of World War II until the embassy sieges and the fall of the government in 1991 was the North Korea of the 20th century.

The ruling, communist government made it illegal to attempt to leave the country, branding any migrants as traitors.  Internal migration was rigorously restricted in order to keep the population on the farms.   The border was heavily fenced in a way that would please President Trump, though more intended to prevent leaving, it was equally effective at preventing entry.  Hundreds of bunkers were built around the country to guard the borders and hold prisoners before sending them to sentence in camps or worse.

interior minister’s office in bunker

Several of us visited the bunker museum between.  This is one of two in the country, but the only one in the capital.  It could double as a house of horrors.  Tunnels ran from the bunker to the offices of the Interior Minister who was responsible for these policies.  One room showed his underground office and that of his secretary complete with pictures of all of the Interior Ministers from WWII until the 1990s.  There were lists of the executed.  Rooms were allocated to lengthy expositions of the surveillance mechanisms, spy craft, police dog training, and more.

telephones handing to demo phone tapping

I found it both fascinating and repelling.  There was an important story to tell, but if anything, it was almost too heavy handed and as oppressive in its own way as the horrors it was detailing.  There were grotesque mannikins for example in half a dozen rooms that were all seven or eight feet tall meant to represent everything from the mundane, like the dog training protection to prevent bites, which is relatively benign, to robo-cop, Star Wars stormtrooper type representations of the riot police to prisoners.  As important as reconciliation might be in some countries, it was hard to swallow some of this medicine as it crossed the line from history to the same propaganda and brainwashing that it condemned.

Hoxka’s Palace

There were two more symbolic and, in my view, more powerful symbols of the excess and reign of the dictatorship and program of Enver Hoxha.  One was his 1950s style house built during his 40-year reign until his death in 1985.  The house is opened several times a year when Albanians are allowed to visit.  The other is his giant, concrete mausoleum.  Compared to Mao’s or Turkey’s Ataturk mausoleum, that might have been models or inspirations, this was smaller in scale, though the ambitions were as grand. Now, it is being allowed to fall apart.  Looking from a distance past the trees in the small part around the site, anyone could see chunks of concrete being allowed to fall.  The whole affair looks like a giant fallout shelter, but its deterioration seems to say it all.

Hoxka’s Mauseleum