At two political forums held by the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS)
on 6 September 1998, leaders of the top parliamentary party launched an
initiative on the integration of minorities into local and district administration,
police, army, and Bulgarian society as a whole. The initiative would be
the first step toward a national policy on minority integration. Minorities
would be judged by their individual qualities--not according to quotas,
"like it was done during communism," says SDS deputy Plamen Ivanov.
According to Ivanov, during the forums and at SDS's National Conference
of 16-18 October 1998, politicians discussed the creation of a special
apparatus within the party to work on minority integration with the support
of SDS's local structures and local nongovernmental organizations. It is
unclear which minorities the initiative would address. But it is clear
that minorities play an important role in domestic and international politicking.
Politicians are eyeing the minorities in anticipation of next year's local
elections, but a more tangible impetus for action on minority issues could
be parliament's expected ratification later this year of the European Framework
Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, which calls for cultural,
media, language, and other freedoms, as well as reflecting European Union
minority rights principles.
According to the 1992 census, ethnic Turks are
the biggest minority (about 800,000 out of Bulgaria's population of 8.5
million). The next largest group is the Roma, at about 313,000--though
human rights activists claim the real number is closer to 800,000. The
third-largest are the Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks), which number 250,000,
according to unofficial estimates. The Bulgarian state views them not as
a minority but as Bulgarians who adhere to Islam, unlike the Orthodox majority
of the population. After the September political seminars, "minority" became
a buzzword in the media and the fashion of the political season. The daily
newspaper 24 Chasa speculated that the initiative was announced
prior to the European convention's ratification to show that the government
initiative is part of the domestic political agenda, not something imposed
from abroad. The government's courtship of the Roma and the ethnic Turks
began at the same time. The president and other leaders of the SDS-dominated
United Democratic Forces (ODS) government sent welcome messages to the
first nationwide Roma unification congress, Kupate (Together), on
16 September, organized by Roma leaders. Parliament chief Jordan Sokolov
attended the opening. The same day, the SDS replaced one of its parliamentary
deputies with Assen Christov, who become the sole Romani representative
in parliament. And on 3 October 1998, during a meeting launched by the
Sofia-based Human Rights Project of government representatives, Roma
leaders, and members of nongovernmental organizations, state officials
pledged their support for a roundtable discussion on the Romani question
in February 1999.
But the main obstacle to their true integration is the overall discrimination
against Roma by Bulgarian society, says Savelina Danova, Human Rights Project
director--despite whatever good faith the government shows toward Roma.
The government also is discussing a national program on Roma integration.
However, Danova says this topic has not been broached with most Roma leaders.
The SDS also seeks to reduce the political influence of the ethnic Turkish
Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which holds 15 seats--out of a
total 240--in parliament. The SDS has become close to reform-minded deputy
Gyuner Tahir, who was elected on the Shortly before the April 1997 elections,
DPS abandoned the coalition and formed the Union for National Salvation.
Because Tahir and 24 of his DPS colleagues opted to stay within the ODS,
they were forced to leave the DPS.
Since its creation in 1990, the DPS has remained
strong. However, economic stagnation in the regions inhabited by ethnic
Turks has created a gap between the minority and its traditional political
leadership. Emigration to Turkey was quite high--over 120,000 people--from
1989 until 1993, when Turkey imposed a visa regime. The economic discontent
remains today, and ethnic Turks continue to leave the country.
The government did take some steps prior to its new initiative. In December
1997, as a successor to two ineffective councils on ethnic issues within
the executive, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues was
established. Members include representatives of traditional minorities
in Bulgaria--Roma, ethnic Turks, Jews, Vlachs, Armenians, Karakatsans,
and Tatars. Council Chairman Petar Atanasov says Bulgarian Muslims are
expected to join soon. The council would implement the integration initiative
after political and administrative details were ironed out.
While it is too early to judge whether the integration
initiative will take root, the current government is the first one since
1989 to profess serious ambitions to integrate minorities. Prime Minister
Ivan Kostov regularly expresses concern for them when speaking in public.
But the initiative still would have to be followed by concrete plans and
actions. Atanasov, of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues,
hesitates to venture a specific date for when results may be apparent.
Antonina Zhelyazkova, director of the minorities studies center, says the
initiative should be given grace period of at least six months to a year;
any criticism before then, she says, would show partisan bias.