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The debate over the proper form of minority rights in the post-communist world has intensified significantly over the last decade. The representation of ethnic minorities in the political process is one of the components of minority protection. Minority representation can take various and diverse forms. Minorities can have their own representatives in the legislative institutions at both national and regional level; they can have minority “experts” in various consultative bodies to the government; alternatively, minorities can also be given a right to self-government. Achieving legislative representation can also be done in several ways – minorities can participate in the political process through non-minority specific parties or they can try to form their own parties and achieve representation along ethnic lines.
The Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria forbids the existence of ethnic political parties in article 11 (4). It states that “[t]here shall be no political parties on ethnic, racial, or religious lines, nor parties which seek the violent usurpation of state power.” (Bulgarian Constitution 1991). This restriction is in line with the general spirit of the Bulgarian constitution which avoids the mention of the word minority and does not provide for any collective rights (Vassilev 2001, 43). Despite arguments by minority rights advocates that the constitutional ban of ethnic parties is discriminatory and violates international laws, there has been no discussion of amending the constitution in any relevant way.
Despite the constitutional ban, the party of the Turkish minority, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) has been a very integral part of the Bulgarian politics since 1990. It has managed to do that by proclaiming to be a liberal rather than ethnic party and ensuring the presence of ethnic Bulgarians in both its leadership and its membership. In contrast, Roma parties have been unable to secure a stable place in Bulgarian politics. Several factors account for this. First, the initial registration of some Roma parties was not permitted based on the Constitutional ban of ethnic parties. Second, the Roma minority is much more heterogeneous than the Turkish one, and is also scattered around the country. This makes it almost impossible for them to mobilize and support a single national party. Finally, the Bulgarian Roma represent 4.6% of the population, which is barely above 4%, the threshold of the electoral system. This makes the success of an even well organized and unified Roma party doubtful.
The Roma in Bulgaria began to organize right after the democratic changes of 1989. By mid 1990 they had formed the Democratic Union Roma (DUM), led by Manush Romanov. The union, however, was denied registration as political party and could not compete in the immediate elections. In addition, the Union was plagued by disagreements about its ideology and position on cooperation with other parties (Parushev 2003). While the Roma NGO sector grew relatively quickly over the next few years, and partly because it did, Roma political mobilization was stunted. For the most of the 1990s the only representation the Roma got was through the mainstream political parties. This was a very limited form of representation in which one or two Roma had a symbolic presence in Parliament during each term. According to Danova of the European Roma Rights Center:
“This practice proved to be a dead-end road for the representation of Roma in parliamentary politics. Not only it accounts for severe under-representation of Roma, but also makes their cause contingent on the policies of the majority parties, generally indifferent—if not hostile—to the aspirations of Roma. Again, this practice served best the majority politicians and the authorities who were provided with a shield against criticism that Roma were excluded from political life (Danova 2001).”
It was not until 1997-1998 that Roma organizations again began to show genuine political ambition and to make the first steps towards organizing for elections. Due to the constitutional ban Roma political organizations are either not registered as parties or have non-Roma specific names. Twenty one Roma political organizations were founded between 1997 and 2003 in Bulgaria, including Free Bulgaria, Party for Social and Democratic Change (PSDC), Evroroma and Citizens’ Union Roma.
The local elections in late 1999 were the first occasion at which Roma parties competed. Free Bulgaria managed to get three Roma elected as mayors and place over 60 Roma as local councilors. The successful Roma participation led to quite high optimism about the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2001. “The recent local elections indicate that there is a possibility that a Roma party may reach the 4% threshold and win seats in parliament in the next parliamentary election in 2001“ (ERRC 1999).
However, the heterogeneity of the Roma population and infighting among the leaders prevented a unified Roma party from emerging despite numerous efforts of various NGOS and international organizations to encourage this. Two of the main parties – Free Bulgaria and PSDC appeared in a coalition with six smaller organizations and parties at the 2001 elections. However, Evroroma chose to run in a coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, while Citizens’ Union Roma joined the BSP coalition. At the 2001 elections, National Union Tzar Kiro, as the Roma coalition was called, got 27,000 votes or about 0.6% of the popular vote. Very few of the Roma in Bulgaria voted for the party although Roma participation in the elections is estimated at around 65% (UNDP). After this defeat the coalition perceived as a defeat, it fell apart. Thus, during 2001-2005, there were only two Roma representatives in the Bulgarian Parliament. One was elected through a coalition with the BSP and one elected through the lists of NDSV.
The slim chance of even a unified Roma party to surpass the 4% threshold made their electoral coalition even more unlikely. Forming coalitions with one of the bigger parties and securing a few seats is a much better strategy from the point of view of the leaders of Roma parties. While in early 2002 Tomov, leader of the Citizens’ Union Roma, was quite optimistic about the future unification of the three Roma parties, by late 2002 he was actively campaigning for continuation of his cooperation with the BSP in light of the upcoming local elections in October 2003 (Tomov 2002, Sega 2002). Both Evroroma and PSDC participated on their own in the local elections, while Free Bulgaria did not run their own candidates, but supported various candidates depending on local circumstances (BTA 2003, Sega 2003).
At the 2005 elections, this trend continued. The BSP alliance run Tomov on their lists, the ODS alliance included another Roma organization, DROM, and Evroroma ran alone, failing to win representation in Parliament. As a result, there is currently only 1 Roma representative in the Bulgarian Parliament. However, there were also some positive developments in the Roma political mobilization process. Evroroma managed to get a vote share of 1.25 percent, which should secure it some state support and help it develop as a political organization of the Roma minority. Further, there was an increased interest and higher participation from the Roma NGO sector, which similarly might help develop higher level of political awareness among the Roma (NDI 2005). Finally, there were more Roma candidates on the lists of the mainstream parties than ever before. This should provide them political experience and promised a better final outcome at the next elections.
Maria Spirova, Leiden University
BTA. 2003. BTA News. 30.08. 2003 http://www.bta.bg/site/elect2003/archive-form/08aug/24-31.htm
Danova, Savelina. 2001. "More Empty Promises? The state of Roma affairs in Bulgaria." Central European Review 21 May 2001. http://www.ce-review.org/01/18/danova18.html
ERRC, 2003. Roma Rights. http://www.errc.org/rr_nr4_2003/noteb1.shtml)
National Democratic Institute (NDI). 2003. Roma Political Participation in Bulgaria. Available at: http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1611_romaassess_020803.pdf
National Democratic Institute (NDI). 2005. Roma Participation at the 2005 Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria. Available at: http://www.ndi-bg.org/docs/OSCENDIRonRPinBG_bg.pdf
Parushev, Georgi. 2003. Personal interview with author. Sofia.
Sega. 2003. http://www.segabg.com/06092003/p0020011.asp
Sega.2002. 27 November, 2002. “Romite i bledolikite vozhdove na chervenite [The Roma and the pale-faced leaders of the Reds.]”
Tomov, Toma. 2002. Interview. http://www.bgns.net/Bg/actual/med/arhiv/drugi/190702.html
UNDP, 2002. Avoiding the Dependency Trap, Regional Data Set http://roma.undp.sk/
Vasssilev, Rosen. 2001. “Post-Communist Bulgaria's Ethnopolitics” Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1(2).
 This figure reflects data from the Bulgarian census of 2001. Experts estimate the real number of Roma in Bulgaria at about 8%.