Bulgaria: A model for multi-cultural society?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Bulgaria: A model for multi-cultural society?

The King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) and The European Policy Centre held an open panel discussion on 12 November 2002 to discuss “Bulgaria, a model for multi-cultural society?” The panelists were Metin Kazak, Head of Office of the Minister without Portfolio, Chairman of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues within the Council of Ministers, Mark Bossanyi, Director Inter-Ethnic Initiative for Human Rights Foundation, Sofia, Rayna Gavrilova, Executive Director Open Society Foundation, Sofia, and former Deputy Minister for Culture, Nicky Kirilov, Chair of the Roma Lom Foundation and Executive Director of the Pakiv European Roma Fund. Vesselin Valkanov, Counsellor at the Bulgarian Mission to the European Communities and Helen Campbell, Bulgaria Desk, European Commission made comments. The chairman was Raymond Detrez, Professor of Central and Eastern European Studies, University of Gent.

In his introductory remarks Gerrit Rauws, KBF Director of European programmes, welcomed panelists and participants to the first joint KBF/EPC event of their recently agreed strategic partnership. He said that the KBF had been active in Bulgaria since 1993 and had been instrumental in 85 initiatives for bridge building between ethnic groups. He hoped that the evening’s event would provide some policy insights into the practical work that had taken place.


Opening the discussion, Professor Detrez said that “Bulgaria, a model for multi-cultural society?” was a rather provocative question. Finding an answer would involve looking at how successful Bulgaria had been in providing equal access to all cultural and religious groups. The panel would need to consider not just legal aspects but also social traditions. He pointed out that many forms of discrimination were not, and could not, be covered by legislation. He emphasized the importance of looking at which ethnic groups did what jobs and with what status and how far the police and military embraced a broad ethnic distribution. All these factors would determine to what extent ethnic communities had a share in national identity.

For those members of the audience unfamiliar with the ethnic composition of Bulgaria, the chairman explained that there were some 8 million Bulgarians of whom 85% were ethnic Bulgarians, 10% ethnic Turks, around 4% ethnic Roma. There were also many other much smaller ethnic groups such as Armenians and Greeks. Not all faced the same problems. Of the two main ethnic minorities, the Turks had been viewed with suspicion due to the past (e.g. perceived danger of historical territorial claims) while the Roma suffered a vicious circle of extreme poverty, which was both the cause and result of their status. The solution to this was radical economic and political change accompanied by a change in mentality. Bulgarian Muslims also suffered economic and social problems but their religion did not exclude them from Bulgarian national identity. Being Bulgarian does not require membership of the Orthodox Church.

Rayna Gavrilova examined the reasons as to why the Bulgarian model had been viewed as successful. In her opinion it was because the first response to the demands of the Turkish community had been expressed and dealt with in terms of political and not cultural rights. Cultural and historical arguments often obscure real debate but as this question had been pursued using politics as the base these aspects had been pushed into the background.

The leaders of the Turkish community were skilled and educated and had been able to articulate their needs to the general public. Post 1989 (the 80’s had seen a period of ethnic unrest that had been harshly dealt with by the Communist regime), the Turks had claimed only those rights and freedoms based on politics and had so avoided resentment on the part of the majority.

The model did have shortcomings, however, it was not comprehensive. Not all minorities were treated as the Turks had been. Clearly, the situation of the Roma was most difficult. She doubted that the same model could be used to improve the situation of the Roma. This was not a problem to be resolved politically but would require cultural and generational changes. Improvements in education and successful leadership would be vital in this process.

Mark Bossanyi felt that the Bulgarian model was something to be proud of a few years ago and that as far as it went it had been successful in improving the lot of the Turkish minority and avoiding armed conflict. But, he maintained, this had to some extent cloaked the problems of other ethnic groups such as the Roma and the Bulgarian Muslims.

He accused politicians of ignoring ghetto conditions and said that everyday conversation demonstrated alienation between the various groups. Bulgarian claims such as “we are tolerant’ were, in his opinion, claims to the moral high ground and not based on any real sentiment of tolerance. The adoption of legislation was a positive sign but the difficult part was the construction of institutional mechanisms and changing public perception. Bulgaria was still a long way from achieving this.

On the question of the Roma, Mr Bossanyi said that although their problems were interpreted as something outside the mainstream of society, this was not true. They belonged to Bulgarian society. For Bulgaria to advance all ethnic groups had to be included in the development process.

Metin Kazek wondered if the Bulgarian model was in fact a “model” or simply the Bulgarian experience. A model would need to deliver successful reconciliation, protect ethnicity and integrate all groups into the national community. He said that post the tragic events of the late 1980s, the mistrust of the Turkish minority had been overcome via the political route in the Movement for Rights and Freedom. They had sought integration via a political party. The Roma had preferred to work through NGOs at local level. Mr Kazek felt that the 1999 National Committee for Ethnic and Demography issues that brought together government agencies and NGOs representing minorities provided a useful way forward, especially in the fight against economic and social problems.

Nicky Kirilov said that the situation of the Roma was specific in that, post 1989, they did not choose the political way but preferred to use NGOs. The adoption of the National Framework for the Integration of the Roma in 1999 had led to a successful dialogue between the Roma and the Bulgarian government. But it needed to be further developed. Mr Kirilov was pleased that for the first time representatives of the Roma community could sit down and discuss with the government. He felt that the problems of the Roma were well enough known – action was required.


For the European Commission, Ms Campbell said they were encouraged by the fact that Bulgaria had adopted the 1993 Copenhagen Criteria on respect and protection of minority rights and as an accession country, Bulgaria would have to take on the anti discrimination aspects of the “acquis.” This should not be viewed as an imposition from Brussels but as providing a valuable contribution to a just society. She emphasised that though there had been a promising start on judicial reform, this needed to be translated into the political will to draw up a strategy for reform that could be driven forward by means of an integrated action plan. “It is important to avoid a piecemeal approach.”

Mr Valkanov considered that managing a multi-ethnic society was a challenge to any government or community leader as it takes considerable political will, acumen and stamina. The potential for conflict can endure and measures had to be sought to minimize ethnic problems becoming violent. He suggested that this coul d be achieved by adopting an integrated approach, ensuring legislation was properly implemented and backing the whole process up with clear information campaigns that could help change the public mentality. Governments also had a duty to live in peace with their internal and external neighbours. Failure to do so could be mirrored in ethnic disputes.

There were no easy solutions to the Roma problem. Probably the main cause of their social exclusion was their poverty. But it was important not to view the Roma as an isolated issue. Policy makers had to be clear that this was a common task for all Bulgarians to solve and pressure from the EU had been an important factor in the search for change.

Open Discussion

In answer to a question about the concrete results of the 1999 Roma Integration Plan, Ms Gavrilova agreed that it was important to have a proper action plan accompanied by an appropriate information campaign. She said such plans appeared bureaucratic but were very important to ensure real progress continued. The EU had had a welcome and positive effect in this area but she suggested that the Roma NGOs should be called together to a “Roma parliament” to design such an action plan. This would help them take part in the democratic process but in parallel there needed to be accompanying legislation on education.

In reply to a question on the Charter of Fundamental Rights the panel agreed that although this would be a fruitful topic for debate in Bulgaria, it had not yet been touched on.

Mr Kazek, responding to a question on what one could learn from other countries in the Balkans with minorities, said that Macedonia and Serbia had shown the way in educational opportunities for the Roma while Serbia had demonstrated that civil society could campaign for minority rights. New political leadership in the Balkans could provide a positive impetus as regards treatment of minorities.

In response to another question about the role of the media, Mr Bossanyi thought it had been rather offensive on ethnic issues prior to 1996. Although this had now improved, there was still a lack of sensitivity as to the difference between free speech and offensive speech.

One questioner wanted to know how much time Bulgaria had left to deal with its ethnic problems. The panel agreed that, given the fast rate at which some of the minority groups were growing, there was very little time left. Demographic trends, however, dictated that the country make best use of its human resources. This implied education and training of all citizens. Given the economic situation, Bulgaria could not afford to ignore any of its citizens.


Professor Raymond Detrez concluded that the Bulgarian ethnic model had succeeded in taking a new approach on sensitive issues making peaceful reconciliation possible and this had been a valuable contribution to Balkan reconstruction. Although EU standards had played an important role in the process, Bulgarian political parties, ethnic groups and NGOs could claim most of the credit. It was an open question whether the Bulgarian model could be applied elsewhere in Europe.

For more analyses from The European Policy Centre, visit the

EPC website.