On the Movement for Rights and Freedoms
Yes, it is corrupt. But no, that doesn’t mean it plays a bad role in today’s political establishment. One of the reasons is that the whole establishment is corrupt. Perhaps the MRF is more corrupt, but it doesn’t make a qualitative difference in their behavior or the outcomes of their behavior. I’d rather bracket the corruption. Corruption is ubiquitous. To fight it consistently, you would have to go back to a police state. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather have democracy with corruption.
The MRF has become a “normal” Bulgarian political party. It represents mostly the interests of its own elite in parliament and in the executive. It has a populist politics: it protects tobacco, it helps Turkish businessmen like everyone else in power. In fact, it’s neither better nor worse than the rest. There is not much to differentiate them by. They of course have extra leverage through the press, and they can manipulate their electorate. And they have that ethnic leverage when they say, “We are the only ones for you because we are the Turks in power.” It works, as it works for other minorities in transition and post-transition situations.
It’s a good thing that there’s a party that represents a minority in parliament and that it didn’t bring an end to the Bulgarian political system. We were unsure whether or not it would cause major turmoil. We were afraid not of the Turks in the party, but of the backlash from Nazi-type Bulgarians. For some reason, that kind of backlash never really materialized.
When Ataka appeared two years ago, we were very concerned. Our center found the money to do a special survey. Our conclusion was that it was not as dangerous as we initially thought. The party would probably succumb to internal strife. That did not happen. Rather, it was sort of eaten and swallowed by the political machine, a bit like the king’s movement was four years ago. It turns out that Bulgaria had established quite robust democratic political mechanisms that don’t allow for many fuhrer-type formations. The king tried to be a fuhrer figure hidden behind the guise of a father figure. As king, he tried to be above politics. When he won elections in a landslide victory, he was forced by the party to become a formal leader, to become prime minister and take the rap. Simeon’s movement was streamlined by the machine. So, the same is happening to Ataka. It is becoming a quasi-normal party.
One of their representatives who is now a European parliament member started a fight at a bar because these other customers were talking in Turkish. When the police tried to stop him, he called the police chief and swore at him over his mobile phone, and that was broadcast over the news. We’ve had two or three similar incidents like that lately. It doesn’t help the image of the party.
Before the tripartite government formed, feelings were running so high then that even I came out of internal political exile and talked to the socialist government to say, “Hold on to this coalition, make all the concessions you need, because if we go to another election, Ataka will win.” It had garnered 25 percent, and they were in for more. But now, you see, Ataka’s popularity has fallen 10 percentage points over the last 12 months. Why? Because the political mechanism has started to operate on them. I emphasize mechanism. It’s mechanical, not due to any effort by a particular group making a special effort against these fascists. Of course, it’s important that all three parties united against Ataka. The whole political spectrum united against them. These isolation tactics worked. Ataka was branded as unacceptable.
On nationalist backlash
In the 1990s, we were constantly afraid of nationalist backlashes. There were several possibilities. One of the most interesting was the ex-oppositionists. There was this absolutely vigorous person who used to be a priest. In the summer of 1989 he gave us use of his church to celebrate a mass for the victims of ecological catastrophes all over the world. He was excommunicated for these things. Of all things, he’s also a motorbike fan. He tried to organize the Bulgarian bikers. We were a bit of afraid: they were part of the fascist bouquet, and attracting part of the youth. This went on for two years. We thought, “This is going to get bigger.” And it didn’t.
I wrote an article on the cases of nonviolence In Bulgaria. We expected violent incidents to happen. When they didn’t happen, we couldn’t explain why. There were some incidents that involved Turks, and some backlash. Yet it never came to blows. We still don’t have a rational explanation for that. I’ve seen it elsewhere. I’ve seen it in Russia. So, there was no major clash here. No one came up with the slogan, “Let’s kill some Turks.”
Initially, the Ataka crowd was writing “Make Roma into soap” on the walls and trams. Now, on their TV channel, they have a permanent show run by Roma. Why? Because they are trying to mobilize all the negative attitudes, all the complaints, all the anti-government spirit. And of course the Roma have a lot to complain about. For the moment, Ataka is forgetting that they are Roma because they are anti-government. This is the most popular TV channel. I occasionally force myself to look at it. It’s very interesting: real people giving the world a piece of their mind. Most of the time, it’s not a very pretty piece of mind, though. Yes, there have been beatings and even murders, but it’s not Ataka. It’s the marginal types, skinheads, and that could happen all the time. Now we are hearing about some sort of group that just formed and has intentionally adopted the Nazi uniform. They look just like a caricature of an early Sturmer, rather fat, very stupid looking. So there are some 20-30 guys in Sofia. But, based on previous experience, they won’t develop into a big movement. The Roma have created a commando group of their own. But I don’t think that they will last either. Looking at Roma development, we’ve been speculating that of the new generation, the ones in their early 20s and now in their early 30s, some of them will turn to violence, much like the Black Power movement in the United States. They certainly have reasons to turn to violence, but they haven’t done so yet. It would not be politically productive. There was no violence when Bulgaria recognized Macedonia. There was a backlash, but it was all words. We were afraid of a coup against the president. It didn’t happen. By the way, the president did that without waiting for anyone to make a suggestion. He simply did the right thing.
Integration – whatever that means in Bulgaria – might be okay. But anything called ‘integration’ is either not done, or ends up being a form of forced acculturation. So, you can choose between the two bads. You either lose money for nothing. Or you don’t lose money but the situation becomes worse because the minorities end up losing their ethnic identity and being coerced into doing so.
We did some research, conducted focus groups and interviews to follow how desegregation worked its way through the schools. At a class level, teachers are teaching racism, behaving in racist way, even within the framework of desegregation policies. Why? Because they have been trained that way, and taught that way. The latest thing we’ve started is a kind of informal group, people from our center, from the university – historians, philologists, etc. – to figure out how we can counter this sort of attitude. To change education, we first have to educate the teachers. Then we go from teachers to students. It sounds a bit idiotic. But our surveys in the schools show how deeply rooted these attitudes are. We’re looking at Bulgarian history. It is generally portrayed as a zero-sum game in which everyone is trying to get their nation from the Turkish empire. Everyone is against us. We can only be Bulgarian by being anti-Turkish, anti-Serbian, anti-Greek. This is the basic paradigm in Bulgarian schools. It has prevailed for over 100 years. During Communist times, there was no real change.
Though some attempts were made, they were short-lived. If in the late 1940s the envisaged unification with Yugoslavia had happened, maybe we would have broken away from that paradigm.
Based on the experience of the ethnic Turks, probably the best thing for Roma was to get political representation. Initially I was against ethnic parties on theoretical grounds; then I thought, okay, if that’s the way it’s happening in Bulgaria, the Turks have proven that this is feasible. Let Roma do it this way. So we started monitoring their party-building process. But it’s been a total fiasco, repeatedly. For me, that has been the major political problem for the Roma community. For the near future, they won’t be able to unite their vote to get political representation. They’ve been split this way and that. They’ve been bought and sold politically.
Some of their leaders – I’m thinking of the newer generation leaders here – have managed to get into the bargaining game preceding elections and secure something good for the Roma community, or at least for part of the Roma community. They have started out quite well, but I don’t think they will be able to do much more. The massive inclusion of Roma elites in political parties like the Socialists or the MRF has not really happened. They have some people in the parties, but that’s not what defines Roma politics today. Rather, it is this pre-election bargaining, which is rather rudimentary as a political tool.
Yes, Roma are getting abused. On the other hand, most of them are not ready for the job market. Because of radical cultural differences, we will see a cultural acculturation in the sense of learning to be a normal economic person, normal by Bulgarian, European, or international standards – that is, modern standards. The only real integration for the Roma in the near future is at this level. This is not an ethnic issue any more. It’s an issue of modernizing a traditional worldview. I’d rather not spend time and money on desegregating the educational system unless we change the basic paradigm. Desegregation will backfire unless we deal with this. On the other hand, the state can do a lot by helping the Roma to modernize. The state doesn’t have to push them. They are pushing themselves. The state could create a bit more opportunity, more incentive.
Our center ran an exercise in deliberative democracy. The topic was: what do we do with the Roma. We had a representative sample of 300 Bulgarians that was meticulously chosen. We brought them to Sofia for two days, crammed them with information about Roma. We had a plenary with the best experts to speak to the audience. Then they had discussions in groups. The most interesting thing was that you could really see a sample of Bulgaria. When you do a poll, you usually don’t see the people. Here, you could see, hear, and smell them. We polled them at the beginning and at the end of this process. There was a marked change. This was the case three years ago, too, when we had a similar exercise on judicial matters, when 60 percent of the participants started out for the death penalty and ended 60 percent against. Here again there was a pro-Roma trend at the end. The discussions showed a moderate and rational attitude in most people. If you ask them about Roma, they say, “Yes, I hate them, but they are people, what can we do about them?” Then they switch to a pragmatic perspective. On the topic of privileges, like affirmative action, they said no, they don’t work, they backfire, they demoralize the Roma themselves, it’s bad for their image. They supported education, but not the sort of bullshit about desegregation – just better education. Make the parents responsible, make them pay for not sending students to school.
On the Balkans
We started calling ourselves Balkan in the mid-1990s, partly as a way to show off: “I am a Balkan and I am proud of it.” But also, we never had a chance to say that we are not in the Balkans. I’ve heard that Romanians and Serbians say that they are not in the Balkans. I don’t think that we are very comfortable with this. We’d rather admit it and turn it into a bit of pride, like saying, “I am black and proud of it,” or “I am a woman and proud of it.”
I went to ex-Yugoslavia on an evaluation mission. Our chief finding was to stop funding of post-war programs. “Post-war” no longer obtains. It doesn’t mean that the war wounds have healed. But the threat of war no longer exists, even with all the problems that Kosovo still generates. The group of Dutch churches that hired me – and they do very good work on ground – they didn’t believe me. They still wanted to go on with anti-war programs because the Balkans are a war-generating place. But even with the situation in Kosovo sharpening, even with nationalists in power in Serbia, nobody says that war is a possibility.
It’s the next big non-event, the next case of non-violence.
It was a mantra in 1990s that Bulgaria was overperforming politically and underperforming economically. After the 2003 transition, we were rather stagnant democratically but doing better economically. This seems to be some kind of mechanism we don’t know anything about, the equalizing of economic and political development.