We need political will to avoid it…
Interview of transindex.ro journalist Tímea Bakk-Dávid with Bulgarian anthropologist Stefan Krastev on the recent anti-Roma riots that shook Bulgaria. Original (in Hungarian): http://vilag.transindex.ro/?cikk=15577
Tímea Bakk-Dávid [TBD]: How did it happen that a local conflict escalated and became nationwide movement with a nationalist, racist character? What were the reasons, the social-economical background?
Stefan Krastev [SK]: Perhaps the short answer to that question is that the event in Katunitsa was not just a local conflict, but a conflict which had the potential to be read by a wide array of people as an apt metaphor for what is going on in this country. There is a general sense of something broken in Bulgaria, of great social inequality and of institutions failing to provide any kind of justice, or rather, functioning to provide injustice as a norm. what happened in Katunitsa was seen as kind of concentrated image of all this in one site, at one time, and thus it was capable to invoke very strong emotional responses among great masses of Bulgarians.
The place of nationalism and racism is rather curious and troubling in this equation. For decades politicians, analysts and other opinion leaders systematically avoided any kind of social critique of the existing order. Thus such analysis became illegitimate in public discourse. The great feelings of discontent and disempowerment which are experienced by many Bulgarians during the so called transition, can only find such dangerous expressions as radical anti-systemic nationalism and racism towards minorities and foreigners.
TBD: According to the latest surveys, or Inter-ethnic Relations Barometer, can you say the majority of the people are tolerant? Or the minorities, including Roma people, faces general discrimination in your country?
SK: Bulgarians love to think of themselves as a “naturally” tolerant nation. We most often cite the salvation of Bulgarian Jews during WW2, or the lack of violent ethnic clashes, anyhow comparable to what happened in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, as proofs of that. But of course inter-ethnic relations are not a given, but rather an indicator for a dynamic processes taking place in a society. There has always been a stable dose of latent racist attitudes towards Roma, throughout Bulgarian history, and instances of inter-ethnic skirmishes here and there have always been part of the history of shared existence here. But processes among Bulgarians and among Roma taking place for the last 20 years, change the very nature of minority-majority dynamics in Bulgaria, bringing them into the very focus of public attention, making them a means to conceptualize what has been going on in the country, making the inter-ethnic conflict a source of identification and a tool for political mobilization.
Sadly, we may say that liberal attempts since the beginning of 1990s to prevent exactly this kind of development had in fact, quite paradoxically, contributed to it, with their inadequate discourses, tactics and means of action.
TBD: Who was responsible for triggering this conflict, and who is responsible for continuing it? What should have done the Bulgarian government, and what should do now?
SK: No doubt, if we should search for someone responsible for triggering the conflict, it is the Bulgarian state and its institutions such as judiciary and police which for decades have failed to provide justice in the case of the so called Tsar Kiro / Kiril Rashkov. It is a well known fact that he has been a generous financial sponsor to practically all political parties, as well as an important broker of Roma votes in general and municipal elections. In response to his favors, he escaped the law on many occasions. He ruled as a local landlord in the village of Katunitsa, his sons and grandsons attacking, beating and threatening people. For years villagers of Katunitsa, both Roma and Bulgarians, were filing complaints to police and prosecutors, but never received any answer. Several days before the incident, a local man reported that grandsons of Kril Rashkov were threatening him to death, and asked for police protection, but such was not provided. The continuous neglect of the state institutions and their failure to provide justice are the reason for the eruption of such a serious and violent conflict.
The conflict has been taken gladly further on by several nationalist parties which recognize in it their best chance to widen their otherwise waning electoral support before the upcoming municipal and presidential elections. It wouldn’t be unwise to suspect that at least several of the ensuing violent protests and marches that took place in the week after the incident, have been incited, coordinated and supported by these nationalist parties.
TBD: Some said that behind the protests lays social, not inter-ethnic problems. What’s your opinion about this?
SK: It is precisely the fact that, as we said, social and ethnic problems are so intricately interwoven here, which makes this conflict so dangerous and troubling. We have real social problems and feelings among great number of people in Bulgaria, of discontent and dis-empowerment, a general feeling of failure of the whole system by which the country is governed. All these sentiments, sadly, take the form of violent anti-Roma clashes directed towards those who are the most vulnerable and unable to strike back. It is the most desperate among the Bulgarians who attack the even more desperate Roma. Most participants in the protests last week were 15-16 old boys from poor neighborhoods who have received inadequate educational and are now facing no opportunities on the labor market. If you compare their life chances with those of their Roma peers, one would find quite a similar situation of disenfranchisement. This is the revolt of the young Bulgarian underclass who realized their parents were the losers of the transition and the chances they avoid their fate are extremely slim.
TBD: How does the Bulgarian academic community try to deal with this situation? Do they have a strategic plan or some recommendation for the Bulgarian government regarding this issue?
SK: The Bulgarian academic community has been caught quite off guard by the sudden sprawl of ethnic hatred that we witnessed last week. This is partially due to the fact that for many years we were living in a situation of a relative ethnic peace. In constant comparison to neighboring Yugoslavia, we perceived ourselves and were perceived by the West as an island of peace and tolerance. We spoke proudly of the so called “Bulgarian model”. There have been a number of critical studies about the Roma poverty and marginalization and the raise of radical anti-Gypsism among Bulgarians, but no one could actually imagine a real conflict of such dimensions taking place.
This is perhaps the reason why academics and NGO activists never really took the Roma issues seriously. There was a whole industry of academic and applied projects of studies and social intervention towards Roma, but they were never tailored to the local context and more importantly, there were lacking a real motivation and engagement of people implementing them. For many years studies and social projects directed at solving the Roma issues were just a business, and a profitable one. No one is innocent in this process. This situation was only made possible by the hypocrisy of the European institutions, which established minority protection as part of the acquis communautaire or entering the EU, but never really had a genuine interest in guaranteeing it.
Last but not least, current clashes show the failure of the human rights approach of minority politics, which many of the most prominent academics were advocating in the 1990s and early 2000s. Minority protection was never conceptualized as an immanent need of Bulgarian society. Bulgarians were not persuaded we need to treat our Turkish and Roma compatriots equally just because it is good for the society in its own right. Instead, minority protection was always presented as requested by the Big Western Brother, part of the western-inspired reform package of transition to a market economy and democracy based on the rule of law. Consequentially, with the rise of anti-system sentiments and anti-western sentiments after EU accession in 2007, in the minds of the new angry multitudes gypsies are coupled together with all those who are to blame – politicians, westerners, liberal elites and oligarchs. In times when most people experience they are losing rights – to work, to housing, to minimal wage etc. – speaking about human rights of Roma – the only human rights discourse voiced loud enough during transition – has been perceived as establishing unjust privileges, and establishing a corrupt relationship between politicians and gypsies. This is where the liberal elites of the 1990s are guilty of paradoxically stimulating racist notions and explanations of the situation.
TBD: In you opinion how much time is needed for the parts to calm down and start thinking about their shared, common future? How long could be the reconciliation process? Is there any sign of moderation yet?
SK: Although there are certain eruptions of tension here and there, generally two weeks after the events in Katunitsa, there are clear signs of calming down, among anti-Roma protesters and Roma communities alike. There are no great reasons for optimism in the long turn though. Apart of the nationalists, none of the mainstream parties is giving any signs that it has drawn any lesson from the critical situation. No politician has shown he or she understands the seriousness of the situation and is willing to engage with focused efforts at solving the problems. We are likely to see, and are already seeing, a wave of populist, shallow responses, such as arrest of Kiril Rashev, making a lists of “local oligarchs” and “conspicuously rich”, etc., and a wave of policing to contain rioting elements on both sides, as we already start to witness. No politician – left or right – has thus far shown any will to engage with the real structural problems both Roma and Bulgarians face in this country. The problems remain. Without addressing them with the necessary vigor and urgency, they will become more and more profound. This could result in devastating racial clashes followed by establishing disastrous apartheid-like relations between ethnic groups in many communities around Bulgaria.
TBD: Until the end of this year, every EU-country has to make a national integration plan for Roma people, and their communities as well have to participate in this planning process. What will or should the Bulgarian national Roma Strategy contain?
SK: It is quite odd to see the EU bringing up this initiative of composing integration plans as its central measure to support Roma minorities in the member states only now in 2010. From the viewpoint of Bulgaria it is quite anachronistic. Bulgaria has a Framework Program for an Equal Integration of the Roma in Bulgarian Society, a detailed and comprehensive document developed by the widest representation of Roma activists, intellectuals etc. From all communities in the country, adopted by Bulgarian government in the remote year of 1998, there are numerous strategies which specify the necessary policies for the successful integration of the Roma in different areas such as health-care, housing, education, etc. There are plenty of strategic policy documents in any sector, at the expense of any meaningful action taken to follow up the incentives of these documents. What we lack are not more strategies, but simply political will to act to solve these problems. Politicians calculate that engagement with minority issues is a highly risky investment with very small chances of return in foreseeable future. They also calculate the great potential costs of electoral influence among majority populations. Until there is no political actor or party willing to take the risk and act to address the pressing social and structural problems of Roma and Bulgarians, we would be sinking deeper into a spiral of ethnic and racial confrontation.