Authors: Mensur Haliti & Emil Metodiev
Escaping violence, we Roma left India 1000 years ago and arrived in Europe. This exodus scattered our people and transformed them into a distinct and stateless entity, present everywhere and discriminated against everywhere. In Bulgaria, we brought new technologies for forging metal, crafts, trade, healing, and new art forms. We arrived in the spirit of peace and freedom and lived in cohabitation with those around us, unlike others who arrived to conquer and plunder, spread violence, and wage wars.
However, we met hostility and violence. Our freedom has been under constant threat: Bulgaria made us live as slaves; expelled us from our homes; took away our children; changed our names; attempted to eradicate our language, culture, and religion; prohibited mixed marriages; suspended our voting rights; abolished our organizations; destroyed our every attempt at political self-organization; made us an easy target for fascists, racists, communists, and oligarchs, and the collateral damage of political and economic transitions; banned our lifestyle, and systematically denied our very existence so that we would have no future.
Since the Ottoman Empire, we have fought for freedom, for our rightful place in the administrative organization. We were taxpayers, the best workers in Sliven in the first half of the 19th century. As Bulgaria became an independent state, the election law of 1901 suspended our voting rights by spreading lies and fear. We were treated as extremist nationalists who could incite violent unrest and threaten Bulgaria’s territorial integrity.
Despite this, we succeeded in building a consensus for a favorable decision for equal voting rights. These events inspired and encouraged a more vibrant political movement after World War I that was nurtured by Shakir Pashov. He mastered a political vision and strategy, established structural foundations, and took on bold initiatives to strengthen our position. In 1946, Pashov became the first Roma member of parliament in the Great People’s Assembly.
We fought for our freedom and our country’s freedom, even though Bulgaria did not treat us the way we deserved. World War II was a peak of our pain and suffering. In Auschwitz, our ancestors fought back SS forces and postponed their extermination. Our people from Sliven joined the worker’s union, and many of our bravest people joined the anti-fascist movement and died as partisans. Pashov was sent to a concentration camp by the communists in 1949 and killed shortly after. Even though Bulgaria was an ally of Germany that introduced restrictive laws against us, it did not recognize the Holocaust against our people or pay tribute to the millions of our victims. Instead, it displayed ignorance and continued oppression against our people in different forms.
Unlike others, we have resisted becoming killers. Throughout our painful history, we have always had the choice to take up arms and kill for our freedom as others have done. Unlike many others, however, we have never shed other people’s blood through war or terrorism; we have never seceded or declared our own state. The killing instincts of others did not make us killers. We always had a vision of humanity at its best, loving life and freedom to keep on being who we are: proud and free, not to be defined by others but ourselves.
We fought for more inclusive political and economic institutions. In 1947 we established our own theatre, in 1948 we established our first newspaper, Roma Voice, and subsequently, we established associations and national congresses that defined our politics. Our elders, freedom fighters, organized the first World Romani Congress near London in 1971. In a time more difficult than today, their fight for freedom brought us our name, our flag, and our anthem. First, they claimed freedom from our mental slavery, knowing that we had to fight for our independent “state of mind.” From 1989 through 1997, we established organizations with national political aspirations led by Peter Georgiev, Vassil Caprazov, Manush Romanov, Vassil Danev, Milcho Russinov, and many others.
However, our country took on a forced-assimilation campaign and ban the formation of political parties based on ethnicity. Our applications to run as candidates in elections were rejected, while parties allowed us to operate under their control in order to exploit our political power. Despite this, we established new political parties, such as the Democratic Union of Roma chaired by Manush Romanov (later an MP) and new parliament members such as Sabi Golemanov and Peter Alexandrov. However, these voices had to choose between being co-opted by leading political parties and being excluded from public and political life. To avoid further fragmentation of our voting bloc, we initiated a cross-party national unification. Vasil Chaprazov chaired the conference on unity in 1992, and in 1993 these efforts continued through a new initiative led by Peter Georgiev. These efforts aimed to protect our political freedom and prevent increased political pressure and violence by the leading political parties. In 1996, only Dimitar Dimitrov from the Bulgarian Socialist Party became an MP in the new parliament.
In the same period, the government failed to ensure effective policies and institutional mechanisms with a political mandate, capacity, and resources for our participation and instead decided on our behalf. It failed with the inter-departmental Council on Ethnic Problems, which later transformed into the Inter-Administrative Council on Social and Demographic Issues. The Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), elected to government in 1996, declared a new state approach to the so-called Roma issue, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues at the Council of Ministers. This, however, was another failure, as it had no substantive mandate and impact. Due to the political crisis of 1996–1997, not one of our candidates was elected. (Assen Hristov of the UDF became a substituting deputy in 1998). Similar practices of political exclusion and tokenism continued even after EU accession, and public decisions on our behalf continued to be made without us, illegitimately.