My City Is Not Yours, Let Me Be (Build) On My Own Or How Politics Molded The Ghetto

by Rositsa Kratunkova

‘Dirty, stealing gypsy’ –  this is probably the most widespread stereotype about one part of our society – Roma people – feeding into existing social and spatial separations between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Thus almost every city in Bulgaria has within its borders a so-called ‘ghetto’ infused by myths and legends of horrible violence, which are sporadically reasserted by reports ‘from the scene of the action’ or by personal stories of friends and neighbors (and their friends and neighbors). As a result, ‘white’ Bulgarians are already equipped with a full and firm image about the people from the ghetto without having even set a foot there. State and municipality play a significant role in the creation and reinforcement of this stereotypical narrative. Аcting as feudal lords, who set parts of the population against each other instead of allowing them to solve their common problems, state and municipal bodies unevenly distribute public funding, exclude Roma neighborhoods from municipal projects, close institutions in those areas, overtly ‘hide’ the inhabitants behind walls and explicitly trump  their civil rights. Being the main figures in city planning, through their public policies, the state and the municipality exercise structural violence on whole segments of their citizens. They also form the perceptions about them. Mayors and clerks exercise symbolic violence by popping from talk show to talk show and ascribing infamous qualities to the same people they discriminate against. In this article, I will examine how the public policies in several cities in Bulgaria demonstrate an identical tendency towards segregation of Roma amidst increasing physical and social distances between distinct social groups (Roma, on one side, and the ‘righteous’ and ‘honest’ Bulgarians on the other). I will also pose the question if a ‘punitive’ action of the administration could ever solve the so-called ‘integration’ problem.

Kyustendil: a bastion of order

In the past few years the city of Kyustendil has acquired a reputation not only of the City of Cherries, but also of a city whose mayor acts as if he himself has climbed a cherry tree and is shaking the branch called ‘Iztok’ (East) neighborhood. Petar Paunov, nominated by UDF (Union of the Democratic Forces) party, has occupied the mayoral position since 2007 and since his first days in power has managed to convince the people of Kyustendil that the biggest threat to the city is the inhabitants of the Roma neighborhood. There are only two entrances to ‘Iztok’ neighborhood –  one leading from from Sofia Street and one from road E871. For years there has been a wall separating E871 from the neighborhood, which hides the Roma from the drivers. The argument that the wall is there to protect the citizens from the dangerous road would have had some ground if it had continued towards the non-Roma part of the city. Since this is not the case, the questions remain: who is being protected from whom or what and is there a need for this wall at all?

Before becoming a mayor, Petar Paunov worked as a lawyer, which would lead to the presupposition that he is judicially literate. After taking up the position of mayor, law started assuming new dimensions for Paunov –  for him civil rights turned into a privilege contingent upon one’s residency and not one’s citizenship. In 2012 the mayor loudly hailed the relocation of the school and the kindergarten outside of the ‘ghetto’, because he would not tolerate the spending of public money on educational institutions producing illiterate people [1]. This means that more than 750 children would have to be resettled. Apparently in the mayor’s account bad results in school are not to be ascribed to the ‘optimization’ of the latter and the implementation of the delegated budgets*, which led to the most serious increase in the number of school dropouts [2]. In 2012 the mayor vowed to relocate the school outside of the Roma neighborhood, but the transfer agenda is also set as the main educational strategy of the municipality of Kyustendil [3]. Its principal goal seems to be to desegregate Roma children. According to statistics, 59% of them study in public schools across the city and 41% in ‘Iztok’ neighborhood, this suggesting that this area is somehow external to the city. The punitive policy of limiting equal access to education and accusing Roma themselves for the inept educational system in the country stiffens the ghettoization and adds to the stereotypical image of the ‘illiterate’ Roma. Finger-pointing at Roma is skillfully exploited by the municipality when it needs to  cover its real intentions – namely, the dismissal of teachers and school closures [4]. Budget cuts are difficult to ‘sell’ to other Bulgarians if you don’t play the ethnic card. Probably the population of Kyustendil would be more willing to fund a successful school program like ‘Every student can have an A’ instead of futile and costly new construction projects.

Taking vengeance on the people of ‘Iztok’ neighborhood, in 2015 Petar Paunov conducted a survey whether or not he should run for a third time under the condition that only citizens not living in the Roma part would participate [5]. The main argument of the mayor to exclude the neighborhood was that many TV reports showed vote-buying during elections in Roma neighborhoods – despite the fact that there is not a single judicial sentence for such a crime. The fundamental principle of criminal law such as the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty are a thorn in the flesh of the lawyer-turned-mayor. He even took things one step further by completely removing the electoral sections in the Roma-populated area in the last local elections in 2015 [6]. This, according to Paunov, means to ‘look the truth in the eyes’. Whose truth exactly remains an unsolved mystery. The mayor thus (un)intentionally contributes to the stigma surrounding the image of the lawbreaking gypsy. The European Human Rights Court has substantial practice on the matter of the right to vote and the right to free elections as stated in art. 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention. In the Namat Aliyev v. Azerbaijan case from 2010 the Court ruled that several violations during the election day prevented one of the electoral candidates, Aliyev, from finding out the real opinion of his potential voters, which led to violation of his right to free elections [7]. For the mayor of Kyustendil the matter of human rights is a mere ‘detail’ and the inconvenience of 5000 people holding a right to vote, having to walk more than 1 km, constitutes a pure formality. At the last elections Petar Paunov won 15 363 votes (or 59,43% of the vote), while the second candidate took 5 443 (or 21.05%). We would have to guess if the outcome would have been different if 5000 people had exercised their right. There might have even been a second round, with a result not in Paunov’s favour. Yet again, instead of acting as a platform to discuss the political agendas of the candidates, elections turn into a convenient instrument of pitting parts of the population against each other and glossing over the (non)results of the past term of office. For some obscure reason, Roma people always find themselves at the centre of the debate on deteriorating urban conditions, while flawed provisions in the social, health and education systems never become its subject.

After winning the local election for the third time, Paunov set out to discipline the inhabitants of ‘Iztok’ neighborhood by banning outdoor celebrations [8]. On July 28th 2016, the Municipal Council voted to ban weddings and other celebrations in open spaces, whether they are municipal or privately owned. Outdoor public spaces could be used – but only by some, not for just anything, and only if the mayor gives his permission. Why did not this time around the mayor conduct a survey among the citizens if they mind outdoor celebrations? After all, the ban is supposed to be for the sake of people and their tranquility. However, surveys seem to be conducted only around elections.

The positive side of the story from Kyustendil, is that in 2015 the Municipal council adopted a plan of action for executing the regional strategy of Roma integration. It envisages the actualisation of the 1978 city plan of ‘Iztok’ neighborhood and the engineering of technical infrastructure like water-supply, sewage system and a street network. This will finally address the problem of access to the sewage system faced by 70% of the households in the neighborhood [9]. Kyustendil Municipality safeguards us from excessive optimism, however, since it has adopted some odd integration initiatives. One of the main strategies of dealing with the 16% unemployment rate is through ‘motivation for active job seeking’. This is not very helpful when there are simply no jobs. Precisely because there are none, the municipality will strive to increase the entrepreneurial culture of the Roma, despite the fact that many of them fall under the definition of entrepreneurs but never in the paradigms of mainstream entrepreneurial gurus [10].

The municipality’s plan also envisages law enforcement by counteracting  intolerance and hate speech. The police will be instructed to work in a multiethnic environment, with particular view on places with dense Roma population. If the accent is on fighting intolerance, then the practical and theoretical course for the police should be aimed not so much at the Roma parts but towards the source of intolerance – namely citizens outside the neighborhood. Otherwise, one is left with the impression that the victim is made responsible for their situation, whereas the culprit was merely ‘provoked’. This wouldn’t be surprising, however, since it perfectly fits the described policy of the municipality from its last few office terms: reaffirmation of structural racism in a situation of allegedly scarce public resources.

Plovdiv: we shove you away, you stay

After winning the title European Capital of Culture Plovdiv stated that it would have a different approach towards ghettoized communities, in particular in respect to ‘Stolipinovo’ neighborhood. But here again the political class does not disappoint by steering away from its linear course of policy. The Plovdiv neighborhood stretches over an area of 0.8 km², which makes co-habitation very strenuous for more than 40 000 people. The data from the last census from 2011 draws a similar picture by demonstrating that the average living space of an ethnic Bulgarian is 23.2 m², while for an ethnic Roma it only amounts to 10.6 m². Against the background of this ‘crammed’ co-existence the municipality periodically intervenes by demolishing some buildings and pushing the inhabitants even further inside the neighborhood. The last demolition* was in July 2016 and left several families on the street. Some of them had to move in with relatives, as Plovdiv, a city of more than 338 000 inhabitants, only has 20 places in a shelter for temporary accommodation.*

In order to clear up more space for municipal housing in ‘Stolipinovo’ and perpetuate the ghettoization of the neighborhood, in 2009 the 40th National Parliament, acting on a motion put forward by two members of the Plovdiv branch of the nationalist party VMRO –  Zahari Georgiev and Boyko Vatev, voted in favour of amendments in the Law of municipal property. These changes allowed for private property to be substituted for municipal, following tax evaluation. These amendments were intended to favour roughly around 200 Bulgarian families [11] and yet again trumped on a basic principle of the juridical norm – namely to work for the regulation of public relations and not personal ones.

The aim of this exercise in law-making was to assist the last remaining Bulgarians in ‘Stolipinovo’ in leaving the area as they felt to be in a minority – a position that nobody likes to adopt. The way how the municipality decides who is to be considered ‘a real Bulgarian’ deserving the benefits provided by the law is most certainly based on racist colonial paradigms. At the last 2015 local elections former mayor Slavcho Atanasov nominated by the Patriotic front [a far-right nationalist party] reiterated his promise to revive a program which was temporarily on hold – namely, for the ‘extraction’ of Bulgarians from the ghetto [12]. Does the white patriot Slavcho Atanasov (or whoever other politician) think that an openly segregationist policy in the style of South African Apartheid is representive of a culture that should be promoted in Plovdiv 2019?

Instead of thinking how to homogenize one neighborhood, the municipality should be investing more in public infrastructure. The city plan of ‘Stolipinovo’ has not been updated since 1963 and the prospects of this happening any time soon are slim, unlike in Kyustendil. This is because this neighborhood doesn’t count amongst the priorities of the municipality – as recently confirmed by the former chief architect of Plovdiv, Rumen Russev [13]. As public finances are limited and there are many other parts of Plovdiv waiting for a new city plan, the densely populated neighborhood will have to wait as usual. If we compare the money spent in other parts of the Iztochen (East) district, in whose borders ‘Stolipinovo’ falls, we will notice a huge discrepancy in terms of the quality and quantity of the renovation works.

There is no one to represent politically and to defend publicly the interests of the neighborhood’s inhabitants on a local level and even when there is someone, it is done by people close to the ruling party. After the last local elections only one person from ‘Stolipinovo’ (whose population is 1/9 of that of Plovdiv), managed to win a seat in the 51-member municipal council. Nobody from the neighborhood works in the district city hall either, although this would greatly alleviate the work with the community.

This non-representation can hardly lead to the development of successful public policies for fighting ghettoization and stereotyping. One such unsuccessful attempt is evident in the Strategy of the Region of Plovdiv for integration of the Roma 2012-2020, where it is stated that a working model for integration is to find employment for Roma in the municipal companies ‘Chistota’ [Cleaning], ‘Parks and gardens’, ‘Municipal security’ [14]. The upside is that at least Plovdiv unlike Kyustendil is trying to create employment opportunities but it remains doubtful how one can make a living on minimum wage in Bulgaria’s second biggest city. And when the municipality fails to provide work, the state steps in with the scheme ‘You work for me, I don’t pay you’. The law provides that those registered in a Job Centre for more than 6 months should receive minimal social benefits depending on age, number of children and health status. These benefits are not only received after providing community service for 14 days for 4 hours and further depends on a series of excluding factors, such as not owning an apartment that has more than one room. According to the logic of the state, an apartment with a kitchen and a bedroom is considered a luxury.

The strategy of the Region of Plovdiv also envisages the construction of a sports hall. So far, in ‘Stolipinovo’ only an outdoor fitness facility has been built. It is arguably more dangerous than useful and its location cuts away space from one of the few remaining green areas in the neighborhood. At the same, just a few hundred meters away there is a vast green field covered in weeds which could have been turned into a football or a basketball pitch. Such facilities, however, have already been constructed in the ‘Bulgarian’ part of ‘Stolipinovo’. Several playgrounds, a basketball field and table tennis are practically glued next to each other. Why are there never municipal funds for the ‘non-Bulgarian’ part?

Not only is there unequal distribution of public funds for the renovation of the district, but the citizens are also often left buried in trash as garbage containers are highly insufficient. A view on Google Street shows that Sokol street, one of the inner streets in ‘Stolipinovo’, has had 16 containers in 2012. Four years later, there are only 6, while the population has increased. It is a public secret that the whole city’s construction waste is being dumped in big quantities directly into Maritsa river, at the fringes of ‘Stolipinovo’ neighborhood, in order to avoid the additional tax. One of the explanations given by the employees of the municipal company ‘Chistota’ is that the garbage does not get collected regularly as most of the houses are illegal and do not pay landfill taxes. At the company’s website [15] can however be read that there is an option to pay for garbage collection – something the inhabitants are not informed about, even if they were willing to pay. This is how the municipality sustains the stereotypical image of Romas as being dirty.

In some cases the citizens of ‘Stolipinovo’ decide to self-organize and appropriate functions of the municipal companies. With common efforts they have managed to make a small community garden which they maintain against all odds. Some of the more well-off citizens fix the pavement on their street and plant trees.

In the past few months the municipality has shown that it has not completely forgotten about the neighborhood – this has become apparent, for instance, in the replacement of the macadam and the setting up of a bike lane. It is to be hoped that the municipality will increase its efforts to also include the small inner streets, which get completely flooded with every rain fall.

Kazanlak and Vidin: old fortresses

At first glance the cities of Kazanlak and Vidin might seem separated by a great distance but they do share something in common – namely, their the politics of segregation and ‘concealing’ Roma neighborhoods. Kazanlak* might smell of roses but only if it is beyond a wall. The Roma neighborhood ‘Karmen’ is hidden from passers-by in a double manner. Not only is there only one entrance to this area, but the Roma houses and apartment complexes are also physically separated from the rest of the city by a long wall. As if to hide this shameful policy, the municipality has planted a long row of bushes in order to conceal the wall, instead of removing it completely [16]. In addition one of the apartment complexes which applied for a state energy-saving program was rejected on the grounds that it has bad sewerage. Once again, one gets the impression that public policies are not in place for the people who need them most. Instead, they are sanctioned for the fact that institutions did not do their work properly.

In Vidin the Roma neighborhood ‘Nov Put’ (New Road) does in fact have a new road and it passes under a kilometer-long concrete wall which blocks the shortest way to the other side of the city. The official entrance to the neighborhood is via a detour road passing by the cemetery. The ‘new’ old road under the wall has been dug by children who have to crawl one meter in the dust in order to reach the nearest kindergarten, as the one in the neighborhood itself is not working for years. In Vidin, like in Kyustendil, the mayor claims that the wall serves to protect the citizens from the train line, which passes nearby. Despite a petition initiated by the locals the wall has not been removed. Why are there no walls in every other city with dangerous train lines and roads? In the years preceding the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, whole neighborhoods called favelas were hidden behind walls not on grounds of security but to make them more ‘appealing’ [17]. In both cases the walls are founded on the unwillingness of the elite to face the deprivation surrounding it.

Vidin’s neighborhood is segregated in one more way. There is a 72 million project for the water-supply in the city in which the area with Roma population doesn’t figure at all [18]. Not a single street will be renovated and not one pipe will be changed, despite the fact that any stronger rainfall leaves the neighborhood without a road.

Cities where Roma neighborhoods are not antagonists, but protagonists in political plays

Not all cities in the country implement such excluding policies towards the Roma population when it comes to public funding. In Montana, for instance, the municipality has won a project for the construction of a new kindergarten in the Roma quarter ‘Kosharnik’. Next to it a health and consultative center will be build.

It is also worth noting the well-known example of the city of Kavarna, where the municipality put a lot of effort into fixing the infrastructure and the buildings in the city. Streets have been renovated and sewerage, water- and gas-supply infrastructure are being constructed. Ethnic Roma constructors are themselves participating in the building of accommodation. Dumping grounds have been cleaned.

A successful practice for the sexual education and support in family planning and disease prevention is the program for health mediators. Often this is the only connection between the people and institutions. Yet, this useful initiative receives very little funds. The largest cities with Roma populations – Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas – respectively have 3, 4, 5 and 7 health mediators, while in cities such as Vetovo, Dobrich and Shumen there are 4, 3 and 4 health mediators.

Ethnic Roma constitute a group which is most frequently subjected to negative stereotypisation. These stereotypes, however, are contradictory and weak and can easily be countered through proper policies. The seemingly insurmountable differences between population groups can be overcome through a concentrated effort by the state and municipalities in the implementation of public policies of desegregation, education, increasing opportunities for employment and inclusion of Roma into society as a whole, which also means political representation. Currently, such efforts seem unattainable, considering the fact that one of the ruling parties NFSB (National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria) openly campaigned in its 2013 political program for the creation of ‘attraction’ concentration camps outside of cities, where Roma would be resettled [19]. A recent example from Sofia also demonstrates a wrong approach to solving people’s problems. Following altogether 23 crusades to demolish illegal housing, the mayor of ‘Studentski’ district reached the conclusion that once deprived of their homes, people would quickly start building new houses close by. Will the mayor adopt a different policy after his 35th  attempt?

Instead of houses we should be tearing down walls unless we expect a different result from the same action which is the endless demolition of houses. Paraphrasing the French sociologist Éric Fassen, when phobia directs itself solely at the borders separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, it will not only affect ‘them’ (behind the wall) but also ‘us’ (beyond the wall), blurring the intended functions of this wall.

Edited by Neda Genova


[1] Project of the Mayor of Kyustendil disrupted the Roma neighborhood. // Vesti.bg 16 jan 2012. <http://www.vesti.bg/bulgaria/obshtestvo/proekt-nakmeta-na-kiustendil-razbuni-romi-4475591> (03.10.2016)

[2] More students drop out of school- what can we do. // Capital.bg 16 may 2016. <http://www.capital.bg/politika_i_ikonomika/mnenia/2016/05/16/2760663> (03.10.2016)

[3] Plan of the Municipality of Kyustendil for action and execution of the strategy for integration of the Roma in the region of Kyustendil (2012-2020), for the period 2015-2020- page 12.

[4] Plan of the Municipality of Kyustendil – page 4.

[5] The mayor of Kyustendil will not allow the Roma to participate in a local survey.// Vesti.bg 9 june 2015. <http://www.vesti.bg/bulgaria/obshtestvo/kmetyt-na-kiustendil-niama-da-dopusne…> (03.10.2016)

[6] No electoral sections in the Roma neighborhood in Kyustendil. // Bnt.bg  11 sep 2015. <http://bnt.bg/bnt2-regionalni/bnt2-blagoevgrad/bez-izbiratelni-sektsii-v-romskata-mahala-v-kyustendil> (03.10.2016)

[7]NAMAT ALIYEV v. AZERBAIJAN (Judgement), App. No.18705/06, Eur. Ct. H.R. (2010) <http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng>

[8] End to the loud Roma weddings in Kyustendil.// Btvnovinite.bg 28 july 2016. <http://btvnovinite.bg/article/bulgaria/regionalni-novini/kraj-nashumnite-romski-svatbi-v-kjustendil.html> (03.10.2016)

[9] Zahariev, Boyan. Living conditions of the Roma households in Iztok neighborhood of the city of Kyustendil (preliminary report from a research on households) // website of the Institute of “Open society” 11 jan 2013. <http://pgf.osi.bg/pgf.php?lang=1&q=1&i=133&p=5> (03.10.2016)

[10] Medarov, Georgi; Tsoneva, Zhana; Hristov, Momchil; Kassabov, Ognyan.

Entrepreneurial spirit and ghost entrepreneurs: expert knowledge, neoliberal governing and social suffering, Sofia: KOI, 2015.<http://novilevi.org/media/Entrepreneurs_Online-Edition.pdf> (03.10.2016)

[11] Zhelev, Zlatko. 200 Bulgarian families save themselves from Stolipinovo// Dnes.bg 26 may 2009. <http://www.dnes.bg/stranata/2009/05/26/200-bylgarski-semeistva-se-spasiavat-otstolipinovo.71463> (03.10.2016)

[12] The 16 promises of Slavcho Atanasov if he gets elected mayor. // Plovdiv24.bg, 30 june 2015. <https://www.plovdiv24.bg/novini/plovdiv/16-teobeshtaniya-na-Slavcho-Atanasov-ako-stane-kmet-566734> (03.10.2016)

[13] Yeremieva, Valentina. Stolipinovo remains a ghetto forever// Marica.bg 13 nov 2013. <http://www.marica.bg/“столипиново”-остава-ге-то-завинаги-(целият-текст)-news174432.html> (03.10.2016)

[14] Strategy of the Region of Plovidv for integration of the Roma 2012-2020- page 29. <http://www.pd.government.bg/wp-content/uploads/pages/osseiv/OSSEIV_Strategia_RM_2012-2020.pdf> (03.10.2016)

[15] Website of municipal company “Chistota”<http://www.chistota-plovdiv.com/index> (03.10.2016)


[17] Bowater, Donna. Rio‘s ‚wall of shame‘ between its ghettos and shiny Olympic image // Telegraph.co.uk, 23 юли 2016. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/23/rios-wall-of-shame-between-its-ghettos-and-shinyolympic-image/> (03.10.2016)

[18] Technical help for preparation of investment projects for the water-supply system of PSOV of Vidin. <http://vik-vidin.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/MYSCAN_20121015_-02-126.pdf> (03.10.2016)

[19] National front for the salvation of Bulgaria. Election program- 2013, page 11. <http://nfsb.bg/public/IZBORNA_PROGRAMA_NFSB_2013.pdf> (03.10.2016) 


Rositsa Kratunkova is a Law graduate from the University of Plovdiv and is currently enrolled in a postgraduate programme in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris.

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