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Bulgaria: Roma at home and abroad respond to violence committed during anti-Romani protests

25.6.2015 0:18
At the end of May 2015 anti-Romani protests  and violence broke out in the village of Garmen in southwestern Bulgaria, followed by more such protests and violence in the capital during June.
At the end of May 2015 anti-Romani protests and violence broke out in the village of Garmen in southwestern Bulgaria, followed by more such protests and violence in the capital during June.

On 23 June 2015, Jovan Damjanović, president of the Belgrade-based World Roma Organization, sent an open letter to the Bulgarian Prime Minister expressing his organization's surprise over the recent violent anti-Romani protests that have taken place in Sofia and elsewhere. "I expect that you will do everything to avoid the use of force against the Roma community and I urge that, in accordance with international conventions and the rights of national minorities, you will provide all human and civil rights of Roma in the Republic of Bulgaria," the letter reads.

The letter comes as reports are beginning to surface of incidents of violence against Romani people. The freeroma.wix.com website has posted photographs and video as well as a report by Emiliya Dancheva outlining incidents from the 16th, 20th and 21st of June.

The report refers to "Skinheads" as perpetrating violence. It also says that the "silence of major world news agencies" about this ongoing violence "also raises many questions", stating that more than 35 arrests and 10 hospitalizations have resulted from the incidents in May and June.  

On 19 June, human rights activists and the members of the "Intellect" multicultural coalition issued the following Open Letter, which news server Romea.cz presents here in full:

 TO MR. ROSEN PLEVNELIEV
PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF BULGARIA

TO MR. BOYKO BORISSOV
PRIME MINISTER OF THE REPUBLIC OF BULGARIA

TO MRS TZETZKA TZACHEVA
HEAD OF PARLIAMENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF  BULGARIA

TO MR. IVAYLO KALFIN
HEAD OF NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR COOPERATION ON ETHNIC AND DEMOGRAPHIC ISSUES (NCCEDI, National contact point)

TO MR. SOTIR TZATZAROV
HEAD PROSECUTION OFFICE OF THE REPUBLIC OF BULGARIA

COPY:
TO ALL INTERNATIONAL AND EUROPEAN INSTITUTIONS, ENGAGED IN THE PRESERVATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

OPEN LETTER

We, the signatories, citizens of the Republic of Bulgaria are, members of the national multicultural citizen’s coalition "Intellect" and activists for human rights, hereby expressing our concern in relation to the increasing number of incidents, which start off as local conflicts, but end up being entrenched in deep rooted mechanisms for denying equal rights and representation to those of different ethnic or religious background, as well as for the longstanding marginalization of basic standards of governance concerning multi-ethnic communities. We believe that incidents such as these give rise to opportunities for further inter-ethnic conflicts and threaten peace and national security. For these reasons we appeal for the following political and administrative actions:

In a state of dire urgency, we appeal for:

1. The President, the Prime Minister and the Head of Parliament to make a formal statement to all citizens for abstaining from all acts which may heighten tensions between ethnic Bulgarians and Roma; and also for disallowing all manipulations of a distinctly anti-Roma character. We maintain the opinion that it is a crime for decade-old problems to be crystallized in a political manner for the maintaining of a division between Bulgarians and Roma while civic and political institutions act only in cases of crisis (usually in the before-election period). We demand for a clear political engagement to be made for the following of strict protocol at election time, for a clear position on how to solve these longstanding issues, which are obligation, undertaken by these authorities under international and European institutions.

2. For a clear political engagement to be undertaken concerning public speaking of politicians on all levels of government institutions and safeguarding the national and international ethic and legal norms for preventing ethnic or religiously motivated hate speech, in this current case, with an anti-Roma sentiment. We put it to your attention that the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe, in recognizing the destructive impact of hate speech, especially when uttered by persons or organizations of a wide political and social scope, has included in its list of recommendations in the Fifth Monitoring Report for Bulgaria from 2014 (p.13-16) the incorporation of exact guidelines for protection from hate speech in the course of exercising civic duty, as well as the verification of the criminal status of such acts. Another recommendation listed was the need for prohibition of publicly financed organizations and political parties which use racism as a tool or in some other way support the message of racism.

3. The Head Prosecution Office to exercise self-referral and make an impact for the unwavering following of the law by the Prosecution office at all levels. More specifically - in relation to Article 162 of the Penal Code concerning crimes related to the different treatment of citizens and ensuring their equality before the law in light of disallowing ethnically motivated discrimination and to the prevention of the use of violence for those who would use it for such an end. These legal norms are intended to work exactly against the instances which we are now witnessing, yet they are not enforced and crimes of this character are left unsanctioned by the law, which unsurprisingly leaves everyone feeling a sense of demoralization.

4. The State to ensure appropriate forms, methods and the relevant legal regulations for the workings of an effective consultative process for institutions with Roma (or other minority groups) organizations. The now-acting National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues is ineffective, worthless and even counter-productive at times. We maintain the position that it is utterly unacceptable for democratic forms of cooperation between institutions to be exchanged for methods by which different parties pick and choose, by their own "rules" (especially during election time), those representatives of the Roma community who best suit their interests. Forgetting the fact that such unregulated "cooperation” is being arranged by a multitude of channels, not solely with Roma people, and not solely during election time, we are most concerned with the atrocious results they yield in the context of ethnic tension.

In a short-term and mid-term plan we are demanding for the following changes to occur in our state’s politics:

1. We demand for the Roma people, through a series of subsequent measures, to turn from being an object of the policies made for them into the subjects of action, into active participants in planning, carrying out and evaluating policies. The Roma communities are not in need of painkillers. What they do need, however, is for the uprooting of the disease - the secure, constant participation of Roma people in the political process. Roma people should have a say not only on issues closely connected to their own communities, but also on such issues that concern the general public at large. Depending on their educational background, they should participate in all areas of civic and local governance, on all levels of public decision-making, in the media, in the consulting bodies and in public organizations.

2. We demand a total halt to the absurd "measures and policies aimed at the Roma population” which visualize and generalize the minority as a monolithic whole without any regard for individuals within the community and all the different layers of Roma individuals within the social stratification - differences in education, social status, social perspectives and realization, acclimatization with the other part of society, etc. The so-called "integration policies for Roma", "policies for vulnerable groups", fail to represent the nuanced reality from within the Roma community and fail to provide a relevant set of tools of "measures for development", but rather aim at the problem through the vastly ineffective way of universal measures, adopted for all, quite on a very neighborhood/rural type principle, mainly basing their criteria on the requirements of the financiers. We demand for this practice to be put to rest and for the measures adopted to be more refined, precise and more in sync with each Roma community.

3. We appeal for the performance of a transparent civil audit of the funding and measures used for the "integration of Roma". After all of the manipulative ruckus that has occurred, we are stressing the fact that the Bulgarian state is currently providing no such funds, based on their budget reports. The workings of the state are not of an institution with pro-active functions concerning the wider public-economic scenario in planning its functions according to the needs of the different social groups that reside within it, but is rather acting mainly as a beneficiary in European projects, acting for "whatever there is money for” and following the logic of "if we get funded from outside, we can act, but if the funding stops, so do the projects”. In conditions such as these the irrelevance and ineffectiveness of the measures adopted seems easily explainable. We demand for the Accounting Office to hand over a detailed list of information concerning the size of the funds and description of activities, in which, in one form or another the dimension of "Roma inclusion", "Roma integration", "inclusion of vulnerable groups", etc. are present; funding for which has been, à propos, provided for by the European institutions for the last 15 years. It is of paramount importance to end the manipulation on the topic of "the unsuccessful integration and waste of funding", aimed almost exclusively at the Roma minority. This facade succeeds at nothing but making the problem even deeper and harder to tackle.

4. We appeal through all legitimate political and institutional means for the securing of ethnic and religious tolerance in the media and public sectors, where generations of Roma could grow with their sense of dignity intact, instead of falling victim to oppression and the daily stress of being an object of hate and public distrust. We demand for the journalists to uphold the principle of professionalism and not allow the spilling of criminal, misanthropic ideologies onto the pages of their papers or on their airwaves in TV or radio programs. We demand the Council on Electronic Media strictly monitor the non-inclusion of hate speech through the media. We draw your attention to the fact that in the recent conflicts between Roma and Bulgarians, the Roma side of things is usually always omitted, or portrayed in a lesser fashion, which shows the personal attitudes of the journalists on the scene. We cannot stress the fact how dangerous and unacceptable it is to have such sensitive topics commented on by aggressive persons (often politicians), who, without thinking of the consequences, put whole ethno-cultural communities at odds with one another, without any critical intervention being done by the journalist. Yet again we must underline the fact that ethnically or religiously motivated hate speech which seeks to question fundamental human rights is not "free speech" and as such is not protected by the international conventions on human rights.

5. We are vigorously opposed to the practice of the police being the sole instrument of the state within the Roma neighborhoods. Roma people are Bulgarian citizens. We demand for the state to enter the scene with its entire resources of tools, to rightfully regulate and create the same conditions and opportunities for living there as in all other living areas. It is unacceptable for children born in Roma neighborhoods to have drastically different opportunities for personal development, purely based on their place of birth. No "strategies for educational integration" can be seriously put forward when youngsters continue to attend isolated and unquestionably lower-quality "ghetto schools" while the neighboring multi-ethnic schools are denying them admission. The tendency that unfolds before our eyes is that all neighborhoods of Roma habitation are turning into ghettos and the vast majority of Roma people into a marginalized group. This tendency must be stopped.

We demand energetic political and administrative actions for the above-listed problems, a demand which is shared in vast numbers in all Roma and non-Roma communities. Let work be done in the direction of turning these negative views around. Only then can the gates of inter-ethnic acceptance, equal standing and cooperation be opened. This is what should stand behind the loosely understood, but widely-used and ever-repeated mantra of "integration".

We will continue to voice our concern on these issues and support for the people who are victims in these situations. We believe that the law should be applied in such a fashion so as to have the true culprit brought to justice, the individual responsible, and not for the entirety of an ethnic, social or religious group to be stigmatized. The different application of the law is a problem in the conducting of Bulgarian politics at large, but in the field of inter-ethnic relations, its effect gets multiplied many times over.

We state clearly and responsibly that we do not wish for our country to turn into a battleground and that we should strive to preserve its integrity. We still believe that we can co-exist together, despite our differences, in a Bulgaria which is meant for us all.

19th June, 2015

1. Daniela Mihailova, attorney, Equal Opportunities Initiative Association

2. Prof. Ivaylo Turnev, doctor, Health Problems of Minorities Association

3. Kalina Bozeva, expert on minority policy, Inter-Ethnic Initiative for Human Rights

4. Lilia Makaveeva, expert in social policies, Integro Association

5. Prof. Maia Grekova, lecturer, Sofia University St. Kliment Ochridski

6. Milen Milanov, former national coordinator of the Decade for Roma Integration

7. Ognyan Isaev, journalist

8. Dr. Stefan Panayotov, doctor

9. Tzonko Tzonev, mayor of Kavarna municipality
agw, Roma Virtual Network
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Bulgaria, Civil society, Hate violence, open letter, Riots in Bulgaria, Roma



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