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20 April 2022

Interview with Dr. Krassimir Kanev: Organization Drom wrote its name in the history of Roma education in Bulgaria


Ms. Savelina Danova, external expert

NGO Organization Drom

Dr. Krassimir Kanev is the Chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. For the last 30 years he has been actively working on projects to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including Roma. He is a co-author of the Framework Programme for Equal Participation of Roma in Bulgarian Society and is one of the public advocates for the desegregation process.

Dr. Kanev, thank you for agreeing to talk about the educational integration of Roma children and the role of Organization Drom. As the chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and a member of the management of the Human Rights Project, you have been involved for years in the efforts of Roma to integrate into society. You know the desegregation process in depth, you were part of the discussions that preceded it.  Tell us briefly how the idea of educational desegregation came about?


The idea of educational desegregation was born in the process of discussing the draft of the Framework Programme for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society. It was an alternative to the educational segregation that was imposed on the Roma during the years of the totalitarian regime. The zoning of education and the introduction of special curricula in the so-called 'Gypsy schools' were discriminatory. They directed the Roma living in the Roma neighbourhoods towards certain social roles in Bulgarian society and made it practically impossible to break out of the vicious circle of house-neighbourhood school-low social status. Desegregation was unanimously supported by Roma activists in the 1990s.

You are also a co-author of the Framework Programme for Equal Participation of Roma in Bulgarian Society. What do you think was the importance of the Framework Programme for the Roma, for the human rights movement and, of course, for desegregation?

The great importance of the Framework Programme for the equal integration of Roma in Bulgarian society lies in the recognition at the highest state level of discrimination against Roma in Bulgarian society in key areas of public life - education, housing, medical care, employment, culture. It has set the pattern of assessment of the situation of Roma that has been replicated in all subsequent Roma integration programmes. The solutions it proposed in the various areas are as relevant today as when they were formulated in the Framework Programme. It was therefore a profoundly innovative document. The emphasis that the Framework Programme put in the field of education on desegregation was something new not only for Bulgaria, but for the whole of Eastern Europe. Other Eastern European countries with significant Roma minorities adopted the idea of desegregating Roma education from Bulgaria. International donors have also adopted the idea from Bulgaria, as has subsequently the European Commission. No one in Europe had talked about desegregation in the context of minority education until then. On the contrary, on the European continent, minority education has traditionally meant teaching the mother tongue, studying minority history and culture, and control by minority representatives over the curriculum. This implies the concentration of the minority, its gathering together in separate educational institutions. Desegregation as a form of solving the problems of minority education is a rather American idea and practice.

The government of Ivan Kostov in 1997-2001 has no grounds to claim that it had a negative attitude towards the Roma issue. In fact, it was the government that, albeit with difficulty, started a dialogue with Roma representatives and finally adopted the Framework Programme. In this sense, how do you explain the subsequent lack of real steps to implement the commitments made for state policies under the programme, in general and desegregation in particular?

The Framework Programme and its measures are a great challenge to Bulgarian society. It implies major investments in a number of areas, especially education and housing. These should be made by the Bulgarian state for the benefit of the Roma, and this in a context of mass poverty and, at least in the early years of the democratic transition, of a significant decline in living standards. Bulgarian society, however, proved unprepared for such a sacrifice. It could not recognise its interest in Roma integration, and Bulgarian politicians proved unable to articulate it and provide leadership. In the end, the deep-rooted anti-Roma racism in Bulgarian society had its say in the failure to implement the commitments made. It proved to be a restraining factor at the level of mass attitudes, as well as against the reluctance of politicians to take the necessary action. It is the one that hinders Roma integration, including in the field of education, to this day.

It is well known that the Drom Organization implemented the first desegregation projects in Bulgaria and actually created the model for the projects in other cities. How did you see the beginning of the process?

The beginning of the process was accompanied by high hopes. I was personally hopeful, but I have to say I was also somewhat divided. I was hopeful because the process started exactly as I imagined it - with the enrolment of Roma children from the neighbourhoods in the other schools in the city, with the provision of transport where it was needed and with the offer of additional support to those in need. My ambivalence came from the fact that the process started and continued as a non-governmental one. I had my doubts that the state would commit to this process to make it sustainable. The state and municipal governments in the cities where this process was taking place viewed the process as something that supported the education system with additional resources. But there was no serious financial commitment from the state and municipalities even when it became clear that desegregation was significantly improving Roma education. This raised serious questions about the sustainability of the process.

How do you assess the role of the Drom Organisation in relation to the desegregation process in the country?

The Drom Organization was a pioneer in desegregation. Its project was the first and was in a sense a pilot. Drom tested the mechanism of enrolment, the logistics of transportation and additional support for Roma children. It created the model of the desegregation project, which was almost literally replicated in other Bulgarian cities where these projects were implemented. Drom's project was also the most successful in terms of the number of Roma children enrolled, as well as educational achievements. In this sense, the Drom Organisation has written its name in the history of Roma education in Bulgaria.

In April 2001, at a large and well-publicized conference on desegregation in Sofia, President Petar Stoyanov welcomed the process of desegregation of Roma education initiated by the Drom Organization and encouraged our education system to follow this model. Can it be said that President Stoyanov's call has had a decisive influence on increasing public support for the process, and on the government starting to take the process seriously?

At this stage of the development of the process, President Stoyanov's address had its positive significance and it created some public and political support for the process. However, I would not overestimate this call. After all, he did not make the state make the desegregation process as large-scale as it should have been.

It is known that the dialogue between the initiators of the desegregation and the government continued after this event and began to produce some results. How do you assess the next steps of the government regarding the desegregation process - the MES (Ministry for Education and Science) Regulation on Educational Integration of 2002, the MES Strategy for Educational Integration of 2004, and the establishment of the Centre for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities at the MES, 2005?

These results are very modest. The MES strategies for Roma education, as well as government strategies in other areas, have generally turned out to be paper documents, intended mainly for external use. They did not generate the effects they were supposed to generate and did not lead to the allocation of significant financial resources for their implementation. The resources that the state began to allocate after the establishment of the Centre for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities were and continue to be more than modest. Moreover, they are not only directed at desegregating Roma education.

How do you assess the role of the international community, of the EU institutions in terms of desegregation in our country over the years?

From the very beginning, the international community expressed support for the desegregation of Roma education in Bulgaria. This also applies to the European Union. The EU could have contributed very seriously to financing the desegregation process if the Bulgarian governments had prepared the relevant projects and sought the financial support of the Union. However, this has happened on a very limited scale exclusively through the fault of the Bulgarian governments.

It is well known that in the second decade of this century, the Bulgarian political elites made a sharp turn in relation to the Roma, moving into an open attack and deliberate deterioration of inter-ethnic relations. The leaders of desegregation projects became the object of state and media repression. How do you explain these actions?

The desegregation projects mobilised large groups of the Roma community on the ground and their leaders became very popular. The GERB government and its affiliated both organisations and media saw this as a threat. This became the main reason for the attack on the leaders of the desegregation projects, in which the prosecutor's office actively participated. The aim was to undermine this centre of alternative influence in the Roma community, which was not under the control of the government. As far as the turn on Roma rights is concerned, there was indeed one. But the years 2017-2021, when GERB and the United Patriots were in power, were dark years for human rights in Bulgaria in all spheres. It was a period of organised racist attacks on entire Roma neighbourhoods and communities (examples - Voyvodinovo, Gabrovo), accompanied by ethnic cleansing at regional level, in which high-ranking government officials (for example, Deputy Prime Minister Karakhachanov) took part. Similar was the situation with the rights of migrants, the LGBT community, and other minorities. This period also saw the organised campaign of lies against the Istanbul Convention, which led to the unfortunate decision of the Constitutional Court that disgraced Bulgaria before the whole of Europe. I very much hope that our society has permanently put those dark years behind it.

According to Prof. Elena Marushiakova's assessment, the three main goals that the initiators of the desegregation process have set for themselves - the creation of a working model for educational desegregation, engaging the government in a dialogue on the issue and a commitment from the government, at least through a binding document for the implementation of a future policy - have been met. What lessons do you think can be drawn from this process for future similar action?

I think the initiators of the desegregation projects had set themselves more ambitious goals. They expected that, once the process had proved its effectiveness, it would be taken over by the state, as it had promised in the Framework Programme. This unfortunately did not happen. The lesson for future similar actions from this process is linked to the commitment of the state from the very beginning. Future projects must involve the authorities at state and local level programmatically, logistically and financially from the outset. And from the outset they should set a trajectory within which the state at some stage takes over the financing of activities.

I agree, the main goals of the initiators were achieved, but their expectations for state policy were greater. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, there was no favorable socio-political climate for this to happen. After all, we know that the possibilities for the civil sector to have an impact in this field have a limit. However, the very fact of reaching this limit illustrates that the main problem of Roma education is precisely the lack of political will on the part of the government to overcome segregation, not the lack of aspiration for education among Roma themselves. And this is a very important message for the Roma. However, we remain hopeful that one day the political elites will reflect on the societal benefits of these processes.

Thank you, Dr. Kanev, for your time.