Bulgaria, named an European Union (EU) member state in 2007, has been witnessing signs of democratic backsliding consistently since then. A strong democracy is one that respects all its people and allows all voices to be heard on a national stage. Its treatment of the Roma people is something almost unimaginable in a country that supposedly meets all of the EU’s democratic standards. There are an estimated 750,000 to 1.5m Romani in Bulgaria, constituting the nation’s largest ethnic minority, and they are treated as second class citizens. The racism that Romani face is both blatant and systematic: from subpar access to education, to verbal abuse and being called the racial slur “gypsy” in public, to illegal evictions, to being scapegoated for coronavirus. Acute racial prejudice and the systematic disenfranchisement of the Romani people is directly at odds with the core promise of democracy– that the government will respond to the needs of the people it governs.
To contextualize the state of Bulgaria today, politics have been plagued with corruption and decline of democratic institutions. The ruling party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), under Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has faced accusations of misallocation of EU funds, vote buying in local elections, and ongoing attacks against the free press. After the financial crisis of 2008, Borisov offered EU funds to media companies who were suffering from decreased revenues (on the condition that they praised the regime and smeared its critics). But perhaps most concerning is the Bulgarian state’s continuing oppression of the Roma. With a freedom house democracy score of 59/100 Bulgaria is no longer considered a fully consolidated democracy.
One of the most prominent democratic theories is Robert Dahl’s “Polyarchy” which defines democracy in terms of inclusiveness and public contestation. This means that for a state to be considered a true democracy it must allow all of its people to participate in politics and be able to freely state their opinions without fear of redress. The Roma in Bulgaria are mistreated and not allowed a meaningful political voice. Although technically allowed to vote, there is no unified Roma party, and the consensus among the Romani population is that no one with any importance in Bulgarian politics cares about their communities. Political inclusion of the Romani people is so hollow that it barely counts.
A study looking at racially motivated violence in Bulgaria between 2008 and 2012 reports that 5% of Roma people had been the victim of assault or threats of violence in a given year. Youth idenifying as neo-nazi’s and skinheads carried out severeal unprovoked attacks on Romani and in 2011 there were a string of anti-Roma protests in 14 towns and cities across Bulgaria. Ethnic Bulgarians can be quite open about their disklike of the Roma, perpetuating the idea that all Roma are lazy and averse to work–the idea that it is the fault of this oppressed population that they stay poor. Borisov himself has been quoted calling the Roma “bad human material.” The ex-head of Bulgaria’s National Council on Co-operation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, Valeri Simeonov has been quoted calling Roma “… brazen, feral, human-like creatures.” This dehumanizing vocabulary parallels Nazi rhetoric. A system where government leaders speak about sectors of their population in such a demeaning way signals danger. If politicians feel comfortable using openly abusive language it signals to the people that racist language or ideology does not have legal or social consequences. A democracy that operates through “tyranny of the majority” cannot be considered democratic.
Personal prejudices are one thing, but systematic discrimination operates in multiple layers. An appalling “96% of hospital staff openly admit to separating patients by ethnicity.” Large portions of the Romani population live in slums or ghettos where residences lack heat and sometimes plumbing. Large percentages of Romani children are assigned to schools for the intellectually or developmentally disabled, purely for their ethnic identity and poverty. Most other Romani children attend underfunded and overcrowded neighborhood schools with their community members. The educational systems in place seem like something right out of the Jim Crow south. Even more concerning, an entire neighborhood outside of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, was flattened rendering hundreds homeless but no one cared as the area was considered an eyesore and an embarrassment anyway. In other municipalities similar mass evictions occurred under the pretense of the Roma residents not having the proper paperwork, while this reasoning is technically legal, a large proportion of ethnic Bulgarians also live in illegal residences but the government only acts to remove Romani.  The messaging that Roma people need to advance economically–to stop being the “social parasites” they are considered to be by a large portion of the Bulgarian population, while the government is simultaneous denying Roma communities education and housing (which are proven to increase stability and opportunity) hippocritcal and is counterproductive.
With the recent COVID-19 crisis the maltreatment of the Roma people by the Bulgarian government has only gotten worse. While various regions of Bulgaria have faced periods of lockdown since March, Roma settlements have been shut down disproportionately more often compared to predominantly Bulgarian neighborhoods with similar coronavirus rates. In July the Roma settlement outside of the city of Kyustendil was completely on lockdown; residents were unable to leave the neighborhood causing a problem for the one pharmacy, and two doctors in the town who were overloaded with patients as residents were barred from going to the hospital in town. Although I am not equating the two, the parallel of the current situation to Nazi’s confining Jews, Romani, and other undesirables in underrescourced ghettos cannot be ignored.
When racism in the majority population goes unchecked, and publically echoed by mainstream politicians, there is no incentive for change. When stereotypes about “lazy unemployed gypsies” are rampant throughout Bulgaria, who would take the gamble to hire one? The Bulgarian Romani population is severely oppressed, and with no mainstream political party willing to champion their cause they are likely to remain impoverished, segregated, and vilified for the foreseeable future. While any sub population remains as oppressed as the Bulgarian Roma, the government is not fulfilling its democratic duty to serve the people who live within its borders.
Footnotes: Imanuel Marcus, “Hated, Incarcerated, Evicted, Discriminated: Bulgaria’s Roma Minority,” The Berlin Spectator, December 6, 2020, https://berlinspectator.com/2020/07/21/hated-incarcerated-evicted-discriminated-bulgarias-roma-minority/.  Emilia Zankina and Boris Gurov, “Bulgaria,” Freedom House, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/country/bulgaria/nations-transit/2020.  Evgenii Dainov, “How to Dismantle a Democracy: the Case of Bulgaria,” openDemocracy, June 15, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/how-dismantle-democracy-case-bulgaria/.  Zankina and Gurov, “Bulgaria.”  Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, Chapter 1.  James Denton, “Roma Political Participation in Bulgaria,” National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, February 1-8, 2003 https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/1611_romaassess_020803.pdf.  Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, “Bulgaria: Violence Against Roma, Including by Extremist Groups; State Protection and Treatment by Police (2008-2012),” 16 October 2012, https://www.refworld.org/docid/50a9ed2f2.html.  Ibid  Imanuel Marcus, “Hated, Incarcerated, Evicted, Discriminated: Bulgaria’s Roma Minority.” Berlin Spectator, https://berlinspectator.com/2020/07/21/hated-incarcerated-evicted-discriminated-bulgarias-roma-minority/.  Yuliya Shyrokonis, “EU Citizenship but No Shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria,” openDemocracy, January 20, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/eu-citizenship-no-shoes-roma-bulgaria/. Atantas Zahariev, “Welcome to Bulgaria! Well, Not if You Are Roma,” European Roma Rights Center, September 14, 2017, http://www.errc.org/news/welcome-to-bulgaria-well-not-if-you-are-roma.  Shyrokonis, “EU Citizenship but No Shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria.”  Marcus, “Hated, Incarcerated, Evicted, Discriminated: Bulgaria’s Roma Minority.”  Shyrokonis, “EU Citizenship but No Shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria.”  Marcus, “Hated, Incarcerated, Evicted, Discriminated: Bulgaria’s Roma Minority.” Shyrokonis, “EU Citizenship but No Shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria.”  Patrick Kingsley and Boryana Dzhambazova, “Europe’s Roma Already Faced Discrimination. The Pandemic Made It Worse,” The New York Times, July 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/world/europe/coronavirus-roma-bulgaria.html.  Ibid
This is a really interesting read, on a topic I did not know much about beforehand. I think your following sentence captures how this discrimination can enter a sort of equilibrium: “When racism in the majority population goes unchecked, and publically echoed by mainstream politicians, there is no incentive for change.” This reminds me of the Civil Right Movement from the 1960s, where the protests ultimately led to change only after they got “moderate” whites in the North to support by showcasing the brutality Blacks faced. If there is no incentive for anyone in the majority to change their ways, discrimination can largely continue unencumbered.
It is interesting that Bulgaria exhibits this behavior despite being part of the EU. I agree that this treatment of the Romani undermines any notion of a functioning democracy, which would seem to be at odds with the democratic standards of the EU. I am wondering why the EU has not applied more pressure on Bulgaria. I guess one possibility is that the EU just does not care that much about racism and discrimination, or does not consider the absence of discrimination as a core component of democracy. Another possibility is that the EU is reluctant to use enforcement mechanisms. I would think the EU has levers to sort of “sanction” Bulgaria for this behavior without taking the step of kicking them out of the EU. As I understand it, the EU wields pretty substantial economic power over its member states, particularly in aiding member states in times of economic downturn (for example, with the Greece debt crisis after the 2008 financial crisis). Perhaps the EU could threaten to withhold such types of aid to Bulgaria if they don’t take steps toward combatting this discrimination against the Romani.