Ready for action – The Bulgarian Roma civil society’s boycott and occupation of the Council of Ministers

A few months ago, on the 8th of April 2013, we witnessed a new phase in the Roma rights movement in Bulgaria. Representatives from fifteen different Roma organizations adamantly refused to take part in the first meeting of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues (NCCEII), a governmental body responsible with the implementation of Roma policies. The reason behind their boycott lied in the Council’s incompetence and unwillingness to implement the National Roma Integration Strategy. According to the Roma civil society representatives, fundamental changes are greatly needed in the structure of the body in order to bring about sufficient solutions. Without the participation of Roma civil organizations, however, this would be hard to imagine.

The excitement of the protesting NGO representatives soon evaporated and months later it turned out that the NCCEII continued its activity without any considerable change. In the consultation process, none of the Roma organizations were included as before, in spite of the fact that the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies clearly states that Roma civil society representatives must be included in the decision-making process.

On the 10th of December a conference was held in Sofia that bear the title “Beyond programming: implementation and results of policies for Roma integration in Bulgaria” – ironically the same day when the world celebrated the International Human Rights Day. Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Zlatanova, who is also the president of the National Council on Ethnic and Integration Issues, was surprisingly not present at the event, but sent a representative instead who was responsible for presenting the government’s results on the implementation of Roma policies. It wasn’t a big surprise, although the government’s representative did not seem competent in giving straight answers to the questions raised by the Roma representatives who refused cooperation months before.

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Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Zlatanova
(photo:http://www.24chasa.bg/Article.asp?ArticleId=2043793)

The lack of clear policy-making on Roma issues and the absence of Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Zlatanova immediately provoked a spontaneous protest of 30 Roma non-governmental organizations before the building of the Council of Ministers. Sadly, as protesters arrived at the building, they were told that they cannot be allowed to meet Ms Zinaida Zlatanova without any prior arrangement. As a reaction, the protesters occupied the building for hours, until Ms Zinaida Zlatanova agreed in consulting them.

From this point on, the story presented in the newspapers and the narratives of the Roma civil society were noticeably different. One of the central points during the meeting was the question of restructuring the NCCEII and the request for establishing a Ministry for Minorities Issues. Another important question raised during the meeting wasn’t related to the already implemented policies. The Roma civil society is concerned about the government’s refusal to implement polices for Roma as a national minority group not as “socially vulnerable” groups, which is in contradiction with the “Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”.  The Roma activists who participated in the meeting, however, found the consultation not only disappointing but also downright offensive.

In their own words during the meeting with Ms Zanaida Zlatanova:

“1. Repeatedly was using the derogatory term “socially vulnerable” with regards to Roma, thus denying the very existence of national minorities in Bulgaria and the right of self-identification of Roma guaranteed by the International Law.  

2. Told the Roma that she refuses further communication unless Roma NGOs return to the National Council on Ethnic and Integration Issues.  

3. Told the Roma that she refuses to put the question of a new Ministry on Minorities to the next session of the Council of Ministers.  

4. Told the Roma that there will always be other Roma NGOs who will collaborate with the Government.”

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The consultation with the Roma civil society on 10th of December, 2013
(photo: http://fakti.bg/bulgaria/83638-zlatanova-shte-podobrim-komunikaciata-s-romskite-organizacii)

Nevertheless, the story, as told in the Bulgarian news depicts a more positive picture. According to them, the consultation between the Roma Civil Society and the Deputy Prime Minister was peaceful and quite productive. By reading some of these quotations, we are left with the guise that their cooperation will be more efficient and respectful in the future.

What is the truth about these stories? What will the future bring about? After the protest on 8th of April, the overt exclusion of the Roma representatives made many Roma remain quiet and afraid. By doing so, the Bulgarian government has silently or actively contribute to all forms of discrimination and violations against Roma. However, according to newspapers, the consultation with the protesting Roma civil representatives came to an end with the following:

“Will you listen today, December 10, 2013 – World Day of Human Rights, 5 years after accession to the European Union, and two years after the National Assembly adopted the National Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria for Roma Integration? Or will you rely again on counter Roma parties in order to justify the failures of the past 20 years?”

The article I wrote on the events on 8th of April ended with the following statement: The only option left to us is to protest loudly and collectively and hope for lasting change.” Nine months later one cannot help but raise the question – Are we, the Roma civil society, ready to put behind any of our own interests and take the common responsibility to take political action together? Because if we are seeking for the lasting change, no other opportunity is left for us.

By Galya Stoyanova