The communist experiment for the desegregation of Roma population vs. the democratic attempt to apply segregation within the European Union
I wrote the article you are now reading in 2005, but I never published it because I believed that the problem with the housing policy for the Roma was on its way to a solution. I now allow myself to expand this article because I believe this is no longer a problem of Bulgaria only. This is a common European problem and we found out much to our surprise that the European models are caravans, special parking lots, solutions on wheels, solutions of a temporary nature that the Roma have invented long ago: “JELEM, JELEM – LUNGONE DROMENDE.”
In the 70’s and 80’s the communist government used to move the Roma from the segregated communities of Fakulteta, Filipovtsi, Hristo Botev and other quarters to apartments on the lowest floors in the new ‘modern’ apartment blocks in the then ‘modern’ housing complexes. This process was called “Housing policy addressing minorities”. By unspoken order of the people’s municipal councils the Roma were forbidden to build massive and solid structures to satisfy their housing needs. This was regulated by the Territorial and Urban Planning Act (TUPA) where it was generally stated that that all existing buildings on unregulated terrain are considered temporary and are limited to 60 square meters of constructed area. This was aimed only at the minorities as they were the ones occupying chiefly unregulated by TUPA terrains and small buildings which the state had no desire to legalize and consequently to invest in infrastructure and social work for them. The policy of the state and party management back then was for the authorities to assess and resolve the housing needs of the common citizen – they told you where you should live, with whom, on which floor, and on how many square meters. The older Roma still remember the public committees that went through the neighborhood inspecting and compiling long lists in order to put you on the register of people awaiting housing. And in order to move up the line in this register families welcomed the committee as it should – with a box of chocolates for each of the members, an opulent lunch and sometimes, an envelope for the head of the committee, which was full of money. The word corruption did not exist in those times.
10 years after the triumph of democracy
The democracy came. And it came for the Roma too. The democratic municipal councils all cried out as one: ‘Go, Roma, solve your housing problem – build! The state will no longer take care of you. Solve your housing problems as free citizens of a free country.’ A process began that followed the motto: ‘Roma from all quarters, unite!’ The conditions created by the transition to democracy encouraged a large proportion of the Roma living in the large housing complexes in Sofia to sell their apartments and to move back with their family in the quarters where they felt safer and more comfortable. On the other hand the abolishment of residence restrictions allowed a large number of people from around the country to move to Sofia (which by no means is a bad thing). As a result of these processes Roma population in the Fakulteta quarters grew from 20,000 to 30,000 – 35,000 by the year 2000. A growth due not to natural demographic reasons but the result of an attempt at segregation made by the democracy. The law remained unchanged despite the attempts of a large number of Roma organizations to put the ghetto problem on the table and find a democratic solution to it with the aid of the numerous parties so concerned with the living conditions and the well-being of the Roma population.
This is how the ghetto phenomenon was born and came to mar larger Bulgarian cities like a sore. New committees were formed and the Roma re-listed as awaiting housing but it was unclear where they would be placed. The difference was that the committee no longer came to your home but the Roma went to the committee. The chocolates were disused as a method of corruption and the only way to receive an apartment was by finding a mediator, handing him an envelope full of money, which he would in turn hand over to the authorized local representative who could issue an order for the person to be accommodated. They were usually placed in a construction workers village or in the former boarding houses for Vietnamese workers, but those were facilities for temporary housing and the occupants were to find a permanent housing solution within three years. So Roma started coming from Kyustendil, Pazardzhik, Samokov and other cities and they got housed. They took advantage of the relatively good social services of Sofia but they were also forced to pay out of their social subsistence to the mediators, because the three years went by and it was already 2003. Every new regional mayor and every new secretary that came, brought with them a whole new contingent.
18 years later
There are no rules and no new construction. The hopes are gone, but after they were put on paper under pompous titles – Framework program for the equal integration of the Roma, Housing strategy, Decade of the Roma inclusion and so on.
The sore grew bigger! Suggestion for amputation appeared. People were whispering that the ghettos must be removed and that the quarters, which had such a long history and such atmosphere, were a problem. A problem for those who came from the country to the capital as professionals and experts, as common construction workers, as social immigrants. At least in one respect we became more like Europeans. Those immigrants too settled along the border.
This is the invisible line where the ghetto starts and civilization ends. And where communication with the authorities and the state breaks down. Just like at any other border, that is where conflicts arise. That is where the incompatibility between cultures occurs and coexistence becomes impossible (I am rephrasing the words of one Bulgarian historian of great merit, Vera Mutafchieva). And from there war starts, naïve at first glance, with a subscription of a couple of hundred signatures from one side, in a civilized manner and well-reasoned. And the other side answers with hopeless protests and a little envy. But then nobody asked the Roma if we wanted them in the now aged ‘modern’ apartment buildings. The Roma in Sofia did not file subscriptions and never complained they were being suffocated by the new construction along the ring road, by the concrete panel walls in the Ovcha Kupel housing complex or by the decisions of ‘professionals’ and ‘experts’ from the villages, who only knew Sofia by the names of its streets and the public transport lines. The Roma simply were tolerant. They left the newcomers to plan our European future, to promise and to secretly imagine that everything as always depended on them. This is how the problem remains unsolved for 40 years already. It grows bigger and more complex and is no longer under anybody’s control, while the situation at the border is even more uneasy.
Subscriptions became national but Sofia was the ‘frontline’. Some even declared a cold war that grew warmer at times. Ovcha Kupel no longer wanted the Roma, encouraged by the Batalova Vodenitsa case, where the regional mayor Eva Seizova first declared that the Roma there were not originally from Sofia and came from nowhere and that in the small village she was from there were no such problems. She had never seen so many Roma in one place, she claimed. At the border the situation has been even more uneasy. There are truces for a week or two. But we expect that the spring will bring new hostilities.
The solution must come from the border and the signatures must support a humane plan of action because it is far more fearsome to see through your window hungry, barefoot, poorly dressed, savage and bitter people who in turn see through the windows across the street how the entitled and the empowered walk around in their underwear in the middle of winter. And there are lights everywhere, just like in Smirnenski’s poem[a1] . And when the solution comes from both sides of the border, corruption will seize and there will no longer be higher and lower ranking cultures. They will be equal and the sore will heal. It just needs patience and time.
Both the Roma and the non-Roma are responsible for finding a solution. The solution should be based on history and the present. It depends on the tolerance of both. On one side are the Roma – unemployed, landless, with a legally uncertain residential status and all of that, for centuries. And on the other, are the professionals, the politicians and the public figures – THAT CAME FROM WHO KNOWS WHERE. But it will take patience and time. First and foremost the responsibility should be radical and specific. It would not be just to blame the Roma alone for these 17 years of unsolved problems.
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