The Strategy of Missed Opportunities was adopted

At its regular meeting on 05.05.2022, the Council of Ministers adopted through its Decision on the National Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria for Equality, Inclusion and Participation of the Roma (2022-2030). Despite the insistence of civil society organizations, the document is not expected to be voted on by the National Assembly – as happened with the previous strategy in 2012. And in the last third procedure of public discussion of the strategy, held in March and April 2022, the main non-governmental organizations involved in the process reiterated their key proposals. Only one of the 67 proposals was approved. The others received the answer “Not accepted” or “Taken into account”, which in practice means the same thing. Thus, a strategy was approved for which all major stakeholders have serious reservations. Although not a misunderstanding, it does not inspire or portend a major change in the implementation of Roma policies. What does the new strategic framework envisage and why were the proposals of civil society organizations to it not accepted?

Previous Roma strategies

Bulgaria was one of the first European countries to approve its Roma Strategy – Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society in 1999. Subsequently, the Strategy for Educational Integration (2004),  the Health Strategy for Integration (2006) and the National Program for Improving Roma Housing Conditions (2007) were approved. The general opinion of the civil society organizations was that these documents were prepared with the real participation of the non-governmental sector and the Roma community. However, they were not backed by real funding and there was no political will to implement them. As a result, these strategies were used primarily as “evidence” of the existence of Roma policies in the process of Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union, but did not lead to visible change.

The National Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria for Roma Integration

On 6 April 2011, the European Commission published an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. It followed the social inclusion approach, setting goals in the areas of education, health, housing and employment. The framework required national governments to adopt their own national strategies. In accordance with this requirement, Bulgaria has developed its National Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria for Roma Integration. Civil society organizations and the Roma community actively participated in its preparation, participating in the working group for the preparation of the document together with the institutions, discussions were organized at regional and local level. At the proposal of the non-governmental sector, the strategy was voted by a decision of the National Assembly on March 1, 2012.

The new European framework for the Roma: new opportunities offered at national and European level

In October 2020, the European Commission published a renewed European framework for national strategies for Roma equality, inclusion and participation. It combined the social inclusion approach with the fight against discrimination and anti-Roma racism, the requirement to take into account the diversity of the Roma community (including the rights of Roma women) and the promotion of Roma participation. In March 2021, the European framework was further developed by a Decision of the Council of the EU.

The preparation of the Bulgarian National Roma Strategic Framework: the difficult consultation process

In December 2020, the Secretariat of the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues (NCCEII) (which is also the National Contact Point) published for public discussion the first working version of the National Strategy for Equality, Inclusion and Roma Participation. It was drafted without the participation of civil society organizations and provided for the document to be voted only by the Council of Ministers on the eve of the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2021. The draft document was criticized by all participating organizations and experts preparation. The opinion of the Amalipe Center from 2021. see here,  the Amalipe Center’s opinion on the preparation process see here.

In response to the proposals made, in February 2021 a working group was formed to prepare the new strategy by order of the Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the NCCEII Tomislav Donchev. It was attended by representatives of the main institutions at the expert (rather than political) level, as well as some of the Roma organizations. Due to the lack of political participation on the part of the government, other Roma organizations refused to join the working group.

In the following months, the two caretaker governments appointed by President Radev did not adopt the renewed National Strategy for Roma Equality, Inclusion and Participation. Some parts were improved (including the Roma Women’s Equality chapter prepared at the suggestion of the Amalipe Center and the Roma Integration Network), but the main proposals of civil society organizations were not included.

After the approval of the regular government of Kiril Petkov, the process of preparation of the new National Strategic Framework and the action plan for it was restarted. The Deputy Prime Minister and Chair of the NCCEII Kalina Konstantinova organized an online discussion with civil society organizations in early February 2022. On February 15, 2022, she joined a discussion organized by the Amalipe Center and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, together with MPs from all parliamentary groups and a number of other institutions. Thus, at the end of March 2022, the National Strategy and its Action Plan were published for public discussion for the third time. It turned out that no changes were made to the strategic document; some changes have been made only under the Action Plan.

As mentioned above, the main civil society organizations involved in the process reiterated their proposals: the National Network of Health Mediators, Integro Association, Habitat Bulgaria, the Trust for Social Achievement, Amalipe Center and others. The proposals were again not accepted. Information on the conducted public consultations can be found here.

The new National Strategy and its Action Plan: missed opportunities

The National Strategy for Equality, Inclusion and Participation of the Roma, approved on 05.05.2022, misses some of the main options recommended by the European Commission and the Council of the EU. It practically does not include the topics of combating anti-Roma racism and promoting Roma participation. Despite the proposal of the European Commission in the countries with large Roma populations to be not only horizontal priorities, but also specific chapters, and although until recently Roma organizations offered specific texts for these chapters, they were not approved. Only nominally, a chapter on “Equality of the Roma woman” is included: the chapter itself does not contain specific goals and activities, despite the many suggestions made. It is not clear what is the reason why these heuristic new moments in the European framework did not find a place in the Bulgarian strategy.

The new strategy gives way to one of the important achievements of the previous one – approval by an act of the National Assembly. Although Roma organizations have insisted on this until the last moment, the government will not propose a strategic document in the National Assembly. The formal argument is that the National Development Program Bulgaria 2030 was approved only by an act of the executive branch. This retreat has both a symbolic value (shows a reduction in the already weak political determination for Roma policies), but also concrete practical dimensions. For example, the new National Strategy may be amended or even revoked at each subsequent meeting of the Council of Ministers. It is difficult to engage non-executive institutions, such as municipalities, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the National Ombudsman and many others.

The approved action plan has low added value. It is above all a descriptive document that describes the programs and activities that the institutions are still doing for vulnerable groups. Its prescriptive value, ie. the possibility of prescribing new activities and commitments is practically reduced to zero.

Author: Deyan Kolev

The strategy and the action plan (in Bulgarian) could be downloaded here