Celebrating the 8th of April 2013 with Massive Protest by Roma Representatives in Bulgaria

On April 8th, many Roma throughout Europe are celebrating International Roma day, but in some of the countries there were organized protests. One of them was Bulgaria where 15 representatives of Roma organizations officially walked out of the first meeting held by the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues led by the government. The reason for their departure is the Council’s lack of efficiency and effectiveness. They asked for complete restructuring of the body to ensure effective participation of Roma civil society organizations in Bulgaria for the implementation of Roma integration policies.

National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues meeting on 8th of April, 2013 (photo: http://www.livenews.bg/)

After the Prime Minister’s statement and on behalf of the NGOs,  Stela Kostova (Vice-President of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues and a civil society representative) read a protest letter, which asks the Council to be restructured. The representatives left immediately after.  In the letter, the organizations stressed the most important issues regarding Roma society in Bulgaria and the government’s passiveness.

This reaction results from a lack of any critical position from the Bulgarian government about raising awareness of racism in the country and the rising toll of Roma victims who have been killed in recent month (6 are official counted). Other ills include hate speech in the media and especially in politics by some leaders of right-wing parties, as well as the active discrimination of Roma civil society members by some institutions.

In their open letter, the Bulgarian Roma Civil Society is calling for:

1. “Council of Ministers should instruct the relevant authorities to monitor the level of racism towards the Roma ethnic group and respond actively and immediately with all eligible legal means in the cases of anti-Roma discourse and events.”

2. “Council of Ministers should take all necessary steps to guarantee that all Roma will be treated as citizens at all levels and in all social spheres.”

3. “Council of Ministers should establish a clear institutional and administrative body with an appropriate mandate and capacity to take responsibility for managing the implementation of the National Strategy for Roma Integration (NSIR) 2012-2020.”

4. “We insist in appointing specialists – Roma – on a competitive basis in the authority responsible for the implementation of the National Strategy for Roma integration.”

After the unexpected reaction of their unified walk-out, Ognyan Isaev, representative of Roma Civil Society gave an interview for Darik (Bulgarian news web site) explaining in detail the situation with Roma in Bulgaria today and in the past. He started by explaining their reaction on the meeting on 8th of April  with the height of indifference to Roma issues in Bulgaria”, referring to the last killing of Roma citizens in the country:

“This decision [to protest] was made in advance, because of  last month’s unpleasant events in Bulgaria related to seeking retribution through ethnically motivated. Furthermore there has been a total lack of response by the Prime Minister, Interior Minister, the President and National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration issues.”

Ognyan Isaev (In the middle) photo: http://www.romatransitions.org

But in the interview Mr. Isaev also explained that this is not the only reason. He remarked on the unacceptable behavior against Roma Civil Society by Bulgarian institutions, stating that:

“In recent years the Ministry of the  Interior has done enough to ruin the prestige of Romani activists. They have destroyed  them by security checks and constant threats by the local police….[Faced with these obstacles] there is no way for your authority to succeed. ”

This is the second massive protest against the government in less than two years. In 2011 with banners, red cards and reflective vests a group of Bulgarian Roma representatives protested during a high level forum on the contribution of EU funds for Roma integration. The forum included representatives of the Bulgarian government, Roma civil society, as well as the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion László Andor.

The first Roma protest against the government, 2011 (photo: http://www.dnevnik.bg)

During the speech of László Andor, some Roma participants, including students, doctors and journalists raised banners reading “Europe stop funding Roma Exclusion” in English and Bulgarian. As Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov spoke, the group raised  red cards.

The first Roma protest against the government, 2011 (photo: http://www.dnevnik.bg)

The motives for this protest were the same as the one that occurred on Monday, 8th of April. Since 2011 Bulgaria has witnessed horrible acts against Roma including protests, killings, active discrimination, hate speech and ignorance from institutions.

Video interview with Orhan Tahir, part of the protest in 2011:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJXN8FiiYcA

Being both Bulgarian and Roma puts me in the position of being able to write my personal opinion of this strong reaction by Roma representatives.The situation of Roma in Bulgaria is unfortunately so bad that I am afraid to think where it might go in the future. Even more frightening is the fact that the government, institutions, police, politics and media not only  does not protect us, but they either silently or actively agree with the discrimination we face.

So I have to ask myself: What else can we do when the peaceful and diplomatic methods have all been tried?

I think the answer to my question is actually the reactions we saw in 2011 and on 8th of April . The only option left to us is to protest loudly and collectively and hope for lasting change.

We can’t be silent any longer!

By Galya Stoyanova