Posted on February 8, 2019

Bulgarian Nationalists’ Roma ‘Integration’ Plan Dismays Rights Advocates

Balkan Insight, February 7, 2019

Deputy PM’s proposal to ‘integrate’ Roma communities by curbing welfare and demolishing unauthorised settlements has alarmed human rights groups – which accuse nationalist parties of whipping up anti-Roma sentiment for election reasons.

Bulgaria’s Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Krasimir Karakachanov, who is also the leader of the nationalist VMRO party, on Wednesday proposed controversial measures aimed particularly at the country’s ethnic Roma minority.

Among the proposals contained in the “Concept for the Integration of the Unsocialised Gypsy (Roma) Ethnicity” are to stop welfare payments if Roma refuse to work or send their children to school, or if they “demonstrate an expensive lifestyle incongruous with their socially disadvantaged status”.

Karakachanov goes on to propose compulsory kindergarten classes for every child above the age of four and compulsory graduation from secondary school – which is already compulsory in Bulgaria.

Other measures include eliminating “lone mother” status for Roma women and providing free abortions to Roma mothers with more than three children.

VMRO’s plan calls further for the destruction of unauthorised Roma houses and the total elimination of so-called ghettos by local authorities, while providing Roma with the opportunity to buy the land on which they live.

Lastly, the measures include a crackdown on so-called “Roma crime” in ghettos, with a specific focus on “ring leaders, phone scammers, prostitutes and beggars”.

The propositions have alarmed human rights organisations, which are also a target of VMRO’s criticism, for allegedly “swallowing hundreds of millions of levs” in integration funds and “making matters worse”.

Dimitar Dimitrov, head of the Roma integration project at the Open Society Bulgaria Foundation, told BIRN: “My first impression is that the concept can’t be taken seriously.

“Karakachanov, or whoever wrote it, is perhaps not aware of the law, but all the restrictions on social payments that they talk of are already in place”.

But Dimitrov voiced concern that such words and ideas – repeated often by VMRO and other nationalist parties – are coming from such a high up place in the political hierarchy as the Deputy Prime Minister’s office.

The VMRO party forms part of the nationalist United Patriots alliance, which is a junior partner to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s centrist GERB party in a coalition government.

Dimitrov accused “the so-called patriotic parties” of depending for their political existence on targeting different social groups.

“It is understandable in a pre-election environment that they are returning to their traditional easy target – the Roma,” he concluded. [A snap general election is widely expected in 2019 after the May European Parliament elections.]

But VMRO has sounded unrepentant. Alexander Sidi, a VMRO MP, told BIRN that the party’s next steps in its integration plan would be to propose it to the government and initiate changes to relevant laws.

“We hope this can happen over the next year,” the MP said. He added that the most important part of the party’s proposals were not making legal changes, but establishing effective official scrutiny over illegal constructions or irregular social payments.

As for financing the measures described in the concept, Sidi claimed that the “elimination of irregular social payments would release resources for their implementation.

“Illegal constructions should be destroyed, regardless of the ethnicity of the owners,” Sidi concluded.

Karakachanov’s proposal follows a number of incidents in the past few months involving Roma that have received media attention partly because of the involvement of nationalist politicians, including the Defence Minister.