Every year I travel to Bulgaria and every single time I am surprised again. How can people who are so generous and warm-hearted towards me become so furious, cold and ruthless when a single word is mentioned? Tsigany – the Bulgarian word for Gypsies. Enraged discussions can spark in a landslide once the topic rises.
Nobody tries to be politically correct, nobody would call this minority “Roma”- most people are just swearing angrily about the “dirty, lazy gypsies” and every attempt to calm them with arguments triggers even a bigger fight. Generally speaking, of course.
Persistent stereotypes and lacking effort
There are numerous stereotypes which fuel the hatred against them, the most popular ones:
- Roma steal, lie and always seek for an opportunity to trick you
- Roma receive much more social benefits and support from the state
- Roma don’t want to work and prefer to be lazy
- Roma force their children into arranged marriages and criminal activities, withdrawing them from public schools
- Roma reproduce “tactically” in order to receive more child allowance
- Roma destroy everything they are given and are ungrateful
The accumulation of these stereotypes leads to full rejection by the citizens and the politicians. In 2009, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov openly called Romani people “bad human material”, meaning useless. Moreover, since the Bulgarian population is among the fastest shrinking ones (low birth rates and massive brain drain are the main reasons), many people fear that the number of Romani people will outgrow the Bulgarian ethnicity. According to official statistics, the Roma make 5% of the population, unofficial predictions calculate that currently between 12-15% of the citizens belong to the minority.
Regardless of education and social background, the hatred reaches concerning levels – I have heard more than once how people glorify Hitler’s genocide of Romani people claiming “he had a good idea but was stopped too soon”. As in the neighboring countries, the Balkans or Hungary, such phrases are accepted silently. Yes, people are idealizing one of the most brutal war crimes.
Strangely enough, there are only very few institutions who are actively willing to improve the perception of Roma people although this has been a threat to societal peace for decades. In fact, Roma people, who often live in terribly poor ghettos without electricity and proper sanitation don’t have the necessary means to afford professional advocacy campaigns. Moreover, they are hardly given a public space to explain and defend themselves. In my personal experience, the majority of Bulgarians don’t believe that integration of the Roma is possible and therefore perceive any afford regarding this cause as a simple waste of time and money. Some even claim that during the Socialist era the integration functioned better because Roma were forced to work among Bulgarians in factories and regret that such forceful means aren’t allowed anymore.
No improvements to expect
Poverty and the weak economic situation are influencing the mood in the country. As long as the current challenges remain, a mentality change appears to be unrealistic – or distant, at least.