Being Roma in Bulgaria

The Bulgarian communist regime had an extensive program of assimilation of all ethnic groups. Nowadays, do the Roma work under the common labor rules in European Union? These populations referred to as « subject to return back to their country of origin » do they serve as a political leverage for valorisation with the voting populations in other countries of Europe? Statistically Roma, economically yours... 

The Bulgarian communist regime had an extensive program of assimilation of all ethnic groups. Nowadays, do the Roma work under the common labor rules in European Union? These populations referred to as « subject to return back to their country of origin » do they serve as a political leverage for valorisation with the voting populations in other countries of Europe? Statistically Roma, economically yours... 

The Roma population of Bulgaria has settled for several centuries and has been administratively part of the official Bulgarian population since the end of the Ottoman rule in 1879. However, its status remains differentiated and its rights are only partial compared to the rest of the population. During the rationing regimes of the 1930s and 1940s, and according to data stored in the archives, three levels for food rations were distinguished. For bread, for example, the rations were allocated as follows: a loaf of bread for the ethnic Bulgarian, a half loaf of bread for the Bulgarian Jew and a quarter loaf of bread for the Bulgarian Tzigane (Roma). 

By establishing a communist regime in 1946, the parliamentary monarchy was replaced by the People’s Republic and the equality of all was put into the legislation. An extensive program of assimilation of all ethnic groups was funded and followed by the governing Communist Party. Schooling, access to health care, housing and wage earning for all. Roma people were mainly employed in the agricultural kolkhozes, metallurgy, low-ranks of the police, construction sites and services relating to street cleaning and waste collection. 

Starting from 1956, a second phase of assimilation began as regards the forced change of names aiming at erasing the administratively visible differences.

In public places, the practice of languages of ethnic origin other than the Bulgarian was prohibited and punishable with a fine, teaching Tzigane languages was banned. This program of linguistic unification of the 1960s was promoted by the Bulgarian Communist Party as inspired by « the copy of the French policy on protection of the language of Lumières ». French was then the official language for all Bulgarian international documents and remained such until 1994.

In return for a better cooperation as regards the assimilation, minorities obtained quotas for facilitated admission to universities and heavy support aid intended for housing and health care. The names as Hassan or Djouhri changed to Assen or Youri.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the economically disadvantaged and socially vulnerable population, such as the retired people, disabled persons or poor workers, were the first affected by the liberalization of electricity and heating prices. Support policies were frozen. Entire buildings inhabited by people qualified as « Roma » had their electricity cut off, and then tampered the utility meters by plugging into the neighboring buildings for heating during the first winters of democracy. This fact caused a first wide movement of « anti-tzigane » rejection by the rest of the Bulgarian population. Quickly, neighborhoods integrated real estate market segregation and the « Roma » people were expelled by poverty to the suburbs or to the countryside:  the economic problems openly took an ethnic form.

In 2007, the year of the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union, the estimated number of the Bulgarian population of Roma origin is 650 000 persons (Roma Guide, study of the Open Society foundation), that is approximately 8% of the whole Bulgarian population. 

Being Roma in today’s statistics  

The census of the Roma includes approximations. It is not straightforward to include a box « Roma» in the administrative documents. The Bulgarian republican model, just like that of other members of the EU, is based on the sovereignty of citizens and not on their belonging to a specific ethnic group.

It’s a real maze to establish reliable data. Sociological studies use and overlap information such as the language practice, family affiliation, self-declared membership, or, more recently, the census of the inhabitants of certain quite distinctive neighborhoods, called « tziganska mahala » (Tzigane neighborhood). Any inhabitant of these shanty towns is automatically considered « Roma».

The language practice is greatly reduced due to the decades of prohibition and reveals only a small part of the Roma population. The family filiation is also a criterion that is not clearly defined due to the great number of mixed marriages encouraged during the communist regime. The children of these marriages are they Roma or not? Nowadays, statistical sources represent a mixture of data aggregation, which also use information included in some lists unofficially held in maternity hospitals when recording the deliveries, in national educational institutions regarding children’s access to school or by employers when staff hiring.   

An economic rationality?

Unemployment of the Roma in Bulgaria, according to national statistics, is about 46%. The Roma population, that represents 8% of the Bulgarian population, occupy about 90% of jobs in the field of waste collection, waste treatment and street cleaning in Bulgaria and more than 70% of jobs on construction sites.

The free movement of persons in the European Union allows this population to be widely employed by subcontracting companies involved in the public works projects. A large number of European construction sites subcontract the work to Bulgarian construction companies – these contracts are particularly relevant for German and French companies.

Standards of wages of these Bulgarian companies –subcontractors on construction sites in Germany or in France are in line with European legislations and subject to compliance with the minimum remuneration fixed in the country sponsor of the construction site. Employment contracts are signed by the Bulgarian employer and are presented in appendix to the subcontracting agreement signed with the German or French company, which won the call for tenders relating to the public construction site in its country. It is a visible and regulated part relating to the working conditions that is subject to intensive monitoring by the labor inspection authorities. However, the multilateral cooperation stops at this level of the inspections, without investigating further the internal relations between the Bulgarian employer and its employees working on the European construction sites. 

Nevertheless, employees report on another internal common practice inside these Bulgarian companies. At the time of signature of the official contract, which is to be presented in appendix to the main subcontracting agreement, the Bulgarian worker, hired by the Bulgarian company, is « asked» to sign a general power of attorney for the management of his bank account on which his remunerations are paid for the duration of the contract. This power of attorney is « given » to a person external to the subcontracting agreement. Often, these authorized representatives are individuals close to or family members of the owner of the Bulgarian company.

On the payday, wages are duly paid into the accounts of the Bulgarian employees, and it is thus visible for any audit of the labor inspection authorities. At the same time this transfer is completed, another transfer into the opposite direction is ordered by the person holder of the general power of attorney exercising the right thereby granted to him on the employee account. The trick is that these transfers, which take up a large part of the wages legally contracted, appear as operations of private concern and are not traceable and directly linked to the employment contract relating to the subcontracting on European construction sites. This way, Bulgarian workers, Roma and non-Roma, working on these construction sites are subject to a double salary negotiation, one intended for French, German inspectors, and another one, intended for the internal use within the Bulgarian company, the latter amounting to the half-price of the agreed for the Bulgarians and to the quarter of price for the Roma.

This double treatment is not subject to any control by both the tax administrations and the labor authorities. No national or supranational institution initiates investigations on the above practices to allow legal proceedings against this invisible theft. To the present date, none of the employees has broken the omerta. If the Roma testify the fact in private, speaking out publicly can be a source of threat and even more repression. « Go and say that… These people are powerful and they risk nothing. But as regards to us, we are going to be severely beaten, and as we have already signed, bah, then we’ll not have a job anymore and that’s all… » 

Survival Strategy

A group of seasonal workers of Roma origin has been recruited to dig holes for planting large size cypress trees. The site is in the countryside, in Bulgaria, in the secondary residence of a former Minister. The work must be done urgently because the survival of cypress trees, that have been uprooted and transported over a long distance, requires they to be quickly put into the soil. 

The group includes several Roma workers. The workers are accompanied by their families and the vans, which serve them as housing for the duration of the project, are located nearby. During the working day, women and children are on the site. The sturdiest of the children are carrying buckets with soil to locations near the cypress trees. The youngest ones are running all around. The trees are stacked, the roots carefully wrapped in plastic bags while waiting to be planted. After a fight erupts between some children, one of the youngest loses balance and falls into the cypress trees. Some roots are crushed, and it’s difficult for the kid to go out of the heap. The former Minister, owner of the domain, witnessed the incident, then he goes furious out of his datcha screaming: « Pick up this damn tzigané (child tzigane) out of here. My cypress tree is much more expensive than this garbage called tzigané ». The head of the group of Tzigane workers stops the work. He asks what has been said to be repeated again, and the owner repeats his words. Then, the head of the group makes a sign to other workers, all of them put down on the ground their instruments. Following to his signal they leave the site, « Since our tzigané costs cheaper than your cypress tree, then dig your holes yourself ». The evacuation of the camp is done within an hour, while the owner and the site chief landscape artist are screaming in protest. « Cypress trees must be planted this evening! Otherwise they will not survive, come back immediately! »

The Roma workers do not change their minds and leave to go back to their respective villages within 60-70 kilometers radius from the secondary residence of the former Minister.

At night, bodyguards with motorbikes make the tour of the villages where live the workers who have resigned the site. They are taken out of their houses, beaten and forced to be transported back to the site in the dead of night. The workers end up digging early the next day and can go back home without being paid.

No complaint has been filed. « Why ? To beat us again…? They may even put us in jail. They are going to say that we were thieves, that we had nothing to do in a private property at night. Go, we are what we are, since the time we are used to… »

Damages and compensation

These populations referred to as « subject to return back to their country of origin » and having « a lifestyle incompatible with ours », don’t they serve as a political leverage for valorisation with the voting populations in other countries of Europe?

When the question on migration flows called of « Roma origin » raised in France, the attitudes of some key politicians look much more like attitudes of administrators and managers than attitudes of politicians guarantors of public order in the Republic. The « management » of migration flows seems to have been based on « an electoral return on investment ».

Maybe, it is to highlight a new more general trend in politics. The philosopher Michel Feher speaks of a securitization of government policy. In his works, he finds out the shift of political action towards political management governed by managerial criteria of profitability. Unable to find solutions to economic and social problems dominated by the deregulated financing that is beyond their political actions, politicians exercise the power conferred on them by people’s vote focusing on problems, which are minor but attractive because of having a wide media coverage. All the more so as most of the media are owned by the same financial circles that oust the political control. If we extend the striking analysis of the neo-liberalism of Michel Feher, we could better understand the actions towards the 20 000 Roma migrants in France and describe them as a kind of « speculative bubble ».

Who sets the objectives to political « managers »? The « electoral market », via voting intentions. Furthermore, « given new technologies of continuous information, politicians are in almost permanent electoral campaign », in other words, the quotations on the electoral market are constant. Politicians, acting as managers who wish to be re-appointed, are interested to have achievable goals. In this context, their efforts are naturally set to guide appropriately the goals that will be imposed by « the shareholders », the voting population. To be reelected, it is good to have quickly achievable objectives with results immediately perceptible by the largest number of voters. Thus, for a politician, a manager, to direct the « electoral market » on objectives of an effective management of migration flows rather than on objectives of management of financing is much more « profitable » from this point of view.

To choose an objective focused on the so-called « Roma » population as « venture capital » is clearly an effective choice for the « electoral return on investment » and Manuel Valls acting as a perfect entrepreneur of a LBO is looking for an optimal leverage effect.

On one hand, the number of undesirable Roma is much less compared to that of the voting population with its « complaints », the « risky capital » is thus low;  the Roma capital is « borrowed » at little cost, and  the « shareholders » of that « Roma capital » do not hold voting rights on the « electoral market », which is important for French politicians like Manuel Valls and his party. 

On the other hand, the 20 000 persons spread over hundreds of camps are periodically moved from district to district and from region to region, and so affecting a much larger number of « suffering local residents ». This multiplies the impact of the speculative bubble. The policy led for the protection of residents turns to serve as effect of leverage that many high-level entrepreneurs could envy to Mr. Valls. This would be the same as if a manager raised funds from several bank institutions by using little start-up capital. By focusing in the beginning on a very small population – a few thousand of Roma – Valls obtains the support and potential entry of electoral votes multiplied by a coefficient of several hundred times compared to the « capital focused » at first.

The dynamics of dismantling Roma camps and their movements towards other residents locations produces a snowball involving a lot of « occasional inconvenience », and thus ensures a greater political profitability, without the need for a new investment in « risky population », as the same Roma « borrowed » at little cost from the partner countries within Europe shall stay focused. At the time of their forced departure from the camps, numbers of residents-voters feel relieved, and thus convinced of the efficiency and the political power of the Minister of Interior who exercises the sovereign function ensuring the protection of the population. At little cost, this managerial policy relating to the migration flows allows a greater electoral profitability.

Whatever are the indignations of ideological or moral order that may accompany the notice according to which « the Roma are undesirable », this consensus on « the Roma problem » could at a local level, inside « the speculative bubble of neighborhood », be of a high electoral profitability. However, no comparative study has been required for the time to analyze the amount of damages due to occasional theft caused by the 20 000 Roma and the amount of funds misappropriated from tax circuits or profits realized thanks to this discrimination against this part of the European discounted population. There is thus no estimation of « damages and compensation » as regards this operation.

Meanwhile, construction sites involved in European public works projects continue to use the workforce of minorities referred to as having « an incompatible lifestyle » and maintain their « role » to dig the holes in the gardens of secondary residences, to wash streets and build highways at little cost in Europe.

Sarkozy, with his « open minded right-wing politics », had already calmed the consciences. Since 2010, he had « denationalized » these migrants who have been camping in France, and who according to the media were no more Bulgarians or Romanians, but Roma. In the cafés of Sofia, people were commenting with some relief: « You see, nobody wants these tziganes, even France with its great humanists throws them outside, and what about us… they are not Bulgarians, Sarkozy has well understood it ». And if in Germany there is still a big risk resulting from a tag « Tziganes into soap », in Bulgaria such kinds of tags are spread over the walls of markets and public places. Today in France, we manage to identify a population living in camps of poverty and to define it according to criteria of Roma ethnicity. Valls, with its left orientated politics, speaks of new categories after the soap bubble used to describe the word « race » had exploded and transformed to the much softer way to say « lifestyle incompatible with ours ».

While waiting for the elections of 2014, the quotations on the « electoral market » continue aiming at preparing those of the presidential ones of 2017, but we should be wary of new Madoff in the politics. 

Bibliographic References

Bulgarie, Être Rom ou les dangers d’une lecture figée de l’identité, Nadège Ragaru, La Documentation Française.

La Titrisation de la Politique GouvernementaleMichel Feher, Vacarme.

The Roma in Bulgaria, study of the Open Society Foundation, in English.

Useful Links

Crédit, estime de soi, partage : «s'approprier les concepts du néolibéralisme»: Questions by La Parisienne Libérée to the philosopher Michel Feher.

L'Europe au miroir des Roms: part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5.

Translation from French (Etre Rom en Bulgarie) into English: Polyglot Ltd, Nadia Todorova

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