Distinguished members of the Commission,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for the invitation to participate in this hearing. It is, indeed, a great honor for me to appear before you today and speak on behalf of my Government on a topical issue of concern for Bulgaria, Europe and the US. The protection and the promotion of the rights of Roma people quite justly stand in the focus of attention of governments, human rights activists and international bodies such as the UN, EU, OSCE and the Council of Europe. We are thankful to the Helsinki Commission of the US Congress for taking the lead in organizing a series of hearings on the same subject here, in Washington.
This hearing symbolically coincides with the International Day of Roma, 7 April, as well as with the International Day of the Holocaust which is today.
The work of the Helsinki Commission is broadly appreciated both among Bulgarian politicians and human rights activists, many of whom as “dissidents” under the totalitarian regime were inspired by America’s overall commitment to freedom and democracy.
I would also like to thank the previous speakers who have outlined a realistic picture of problems, experiences and solutions with regard to improving the protection of the human rights of Roma in the OSCE area.
Let me start with a few general comments. There is no doubt that finding solutions to the complex issues of full-fledged integration and equal participation of Roma minorities in European democratic societies is inseparably linked to the existence of functioning systems of democracy, market economy, rule of law and human rights protection as a whole. No European government facing such issues can claim to be democratic, without addressing them properly and effectively.
Due to specific historic, economic and cultural factors, the social integration of Roma population features high on the agenda of many European countries. This is especially true of those countries in Central and Eastern Europe who have substantial Roma minorities and are, at the same time, undergoing radical reforms and deep transformation of their societies.
We are proud of the fact that in the past 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall my country – Bulgaria has been widely recognized as a positive example and a factor of stability in Southeast Europe, notably for having preserved its long-standing tradition of peaceful interethnic relations and a social climate of tolerance and solidarity. Against the background of permanent crises and instability in the Western Balkans and facing serious economic hardships Bulgaria has succeeded in maintaining political stability, holding a series of free and democratic elections, strengthening its democratic institutions, applying European standards in protecting the rights of its citizens. A most significant achievement of the Bulgarian people today is the obvious absence of interethnic problems or tensions that could potentially develop into a violent conflict, as well as the overwhelming public rejection of policies and politicians of aggressive nationalist and extremist brand. Bulgaria’s foreign policy priorities of becoming a member of NATO and the EU are based on a firm consensus among the political parties and a strong public support for fulfilling with commitment all necessary criteria for membership.
Let me also add that rejecting aggressive nationalism and applying democratic European standards in both its domestic and foreign policy, Bulgaria has developed excellent relations with all its neighbors. It has conducted a consistent and proactive regional policy in defense of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms and has acted as a true partner and a de facto ally of the US and NATO - e.g. during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, the ethnic hostilities in the Republic of Macedonia in 2001 and, most recently, in the US-led global campaign against terrorism. I should also mention that Bulgaria now serves its term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and is an indisputable candidate for OSCE Chairmanship in 2004.
The protection of the rights of persons belonging to different ethnic and religious groups is of primary importance for the government and is implemented on the basis of an intensive dialogue and involvement of the groups concerned and of other interested non-governmental partners.
Moreover, it is for the first time in modern Bulgaria that the junior coalition partner in the government is the Movement for Rights and freedoms – a party of the Bulgarian ethnic Turks, which has two Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers in all ministries.
Focusing on the situation of Roma in Bulgaria, I will quote the results of the latest 2001 census, according to which the Roma population in Bulgaria numbers 365979 representing 4.6 % of the total population of the country. Most of the persons of Roma ethnic origin indicate Roma language as their mother tongue – 85.8 %, and the rest of them – Bulgarian and Turkish. Eastern Orthodox Christians are a majority among the Bulgarian Roma - 55.2 %, while Muslims are slightly more than 26 %. Roma live in all parts of the country, but they are relatively densely concentrated in the districts of Sliven (13.5 %) and Montana (10.7 %).
The legal framework created in Bulgaria after 1990 (the Bulgarian Constitution and respective laws and legal norms) fully guarantees to all Bulgarian citizens equality before the law and totally precludes any form of discrimination on grounds of race, nationality, ethnicity, sex, origin, religion, education, opinion, political affiliation, personal or social status or property status. According to the Constitution, the international instruments to which Bulgaria is a party, form part of the domestic legislation and have priority over those domestic provisions that might contravene them. Bulgaria has ratified all basic international instruments concerning the rights of persons belonging to minority groups, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Moreover, the adoption of a comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law is envisaged in the legislative program of the Government for the year 2002. A working group was set up in March 2002 to work on the draft.
It is an undeniable fact that Roma in Bulgaria, as other minority groups – ethnic Turks, Armenians, Jews, etc. - enjoy the same rights and freedoms as other Bulgarian citizens, including the right to freedom of association, the right to develop their own culture in accordance with their ethnic identity, etc. There are more than 300 Roma NGOs and associations officially registered in Bulgaria. These groups contribute to the integration and enhanced participation of Roma in social and political life and to the elaboration and implementation of programs and projects addressing their problems. There are 7 Roma political parties that participate in local and national elections. Members of Parliament of Roma origin have been elected to all National Assemblies since 1990 as representatives of various political parties. Exercising the right to receive and disseminate information in the Roma languages through electronic and printed media is an everyday reality in Bulgaria. In 2000 the first Roma private television operator was given a license in Vidin.
Having said that, let me assure you that the Government of Bulgaria fully recognizes the scope and the complexity of the problems faced by the Roma minority in our country as well as the fact that the progress in solving these problems in some areas by now has been far from satisfactory. Some of the problems are long-standing and rooted in history, while others have emerged with the radical changes that took place in Bulgaria after 1990. The Roma population is unfortunately among the most vulnerable social groups that have been most stricken by the hardships of economic transition. Poverty and unemployment have become a nation-wide problem, but it is the Roma communities and some other vulnerable groups that have been hit particularly hard by these phenomena. For example, if the average unemployment rate for the country ranges between 17 and 18 per cent, for the Roma population it amounts up to 70%. The high rate of unemployment of the Roma population is the result of a disparity between their labor skills and employers’ high requirements under severe market conditions. The overwhelming part of Roma in Bulgaria have insufficient education, weak professional skills, poor discipline and low living standards. This places them in a non-competitive position on the labor market.
The Constitution guarantees the right of education in the mother tongue if other than Bulgarian, alongside official Bulgarian tuition. In the case of Roma, though, this right has not yet been adequately implemented despite the efforts made in the last decade. Some of the difficulties are related to the large variety of dialects spoken by Bulgarian Roma, the absence of textbooks and school aids. There is also a lack of trained teachers for the higher classes. The so called “segregated Roma schools” are also a de facto reality, though there is no legal ground whatsoever for the usage of the term “segregation”. Concentrations of Roma children in district schools emerge as a result of territorial agglomerations of Roma population. According to available data on the educational level of Roma, 8 % of them are illiterate, 37 % percent finish fourth grade, 46 % have primary education, 8% finish secondary education, and less than 1 % higher education; over 50 % of Roma children of school age do not attend classes. The educational problems of Roma are due to a number of factors: among them are poor socio-economic conditions, low level of attendance of primary and secondary school, high percentage of drop-outs, as well as the vicious circle of Roma family - Roma school - Roma neighborhood, which does not facilitate their integration in the school system.
Specific Measures adopted by the Bulgarian Government
- Establishment in December 1997 of a National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues - a consultative body at the Council of Ministers which is tasked to perform dialogue and coordination among the government institutions and non-governmental organizations aimed at formulating and implementing the national policy on ethnic issues. The Council includes representatives of State authorities and 34 ethnic minority NGOs, 21 of which represent Roma. The Council is chaired by a cabinet minister who is an ethnic Turk.
Institutional and administrative strengthening of the Council started in October 2001 through a grant of the World Bank. Experts on ethnic and demographic issues of Roma identity have been appointed to work in the state and local administrations, including the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry on Labor, the Ministry of Education. District Ethnic and Demographic Councils have been established in 25 of the 28 districts, with a structure similar to that of the National Council.
- In April 1999 the Council of Ministers adopted a Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society, elaborated with the active participation of Roma NGO’s. Preventing discrimination against Roma was defined therein as a priority task. The adoption of the Program marked a serious political commitment by the Government to go further in adopting additional positive steps in a number of sensitive areas especially designed to ensure equality and opportunities for the persons of Roma origin. The Framework Program was highly evaluated by the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Financing of the Program is done through the state budget, the EU PHARE program, and the World Bank.
- Significant efforts have been made in the field of education The Ministry of Education implements in cooperation with NGO’s special programs and projects raising the educational and qualification level of the Roma population and promoting equal opportunities and equal access to education for Roma children. The successful implementation of such projects in several Bulgarian cities is an encouraging fact. The positive experience of integrated schools where Roma children learn together with their classmates of other ethnic identity must be supported and further expanded as conducive to long term solutions.
- In August 2000 a Commission on Human Rights was established within the National Police Service. Currently 92 Roma serve in the Bulgarian National Police Service.
- A Council on Roma Cultural Issues was established at the Ministry of Culture as a consultative body, which elaborated short-term strategy for the development of Roma culture. Roma Information and Culture centers were created in Sofia, Sliven, Plovdiv, Montana. The National Council on Radio and Television licensed a Roma TV station in Vidin in 2000.
- The Ministry of Labor has also developed and implements special projects aimed at the reduction of the high unemployment rate among Roma.
I believe the above facts demonstrate clearly that Roma issues are of utmost importance on the agenda of the Bulgarian Government, which cooperates closely with the NGO sector in the search of concrete solutions to them. Bulgaria is firmly convinced that its model of interethnic peace and cooperation serves as a stabilizing factor in Southeast Europe and a positive example for integrating diversity and building tolerant relations between the majority and minority groups within a country. It is clear that solutions to many of the above mentioned long-standing problems cannot be quick and easy. Finding the adequate approach and solutions to them is a complex, costly and a time-taking task which requires patience and perseverance. This is why Bulgaria is fully open to active international cooperation in this field on a bilateral basis, through the NGO’s network or through competent international bodies, such as the EU, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.
We would welcome increased US support and material and financial assistance in improving further the social status and civic integration of Bulgarian Roma.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In conclusion, I would like to convey to you my most important message. And it is particularly relevant on this day of April 9. Bulgaria has been traditionally a land of ethnic tolerance. The Bulgarians have never experienced ethnic hatred. These days the Bulgarian nation is being commended as a role model in the years of the Holocaust – when the Bulgarian Parliament, the Bulgarian King Boris III, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Bulgarian people rescued their 50 000 Jews (the largest rescue in the Holocaust!!). They did not let a single Bulgarian Jew to be deported to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.
This dramatic historic legacy has far from been wasted. Moreover, we realize we must live up to it and keep up the respect for human life and human dignity.
Thank you for your attention.