Romania 27 years after: Minority Rights and the Issue of Education

Iulian Stoian is a dedicated human rights activist, advocating for vulnerable groups such as LGBT and Roma minorities. He worked for several prestigious organisations and institutions such as the Romanian National Agency for the Roma, Council of Europe, Open Society Foundation, National Democratic Institute. He has an in depth expertise as program manager, trainer and researcher in working on issues such as Social inclusion, Anti-Discrimination, Trafficking of Human Beings, Roma political participation.

The interview was shortened. You can read the full transcript here: Interview_Iulian Stoian_Transition and Minority Rights in Romania_2016.

Interview with Iulian Stoian by Irina Ilisei in December 2016, Translation: Vlad Costea

Let’s start with a personal question: What did the experience of the transition mean to you?

I was a fresh graduate after the Revolution, and to me the transition meant a series of major experiences to which I felt like a spectator and sometimes like a Guinea pig. These experiments have somehow influenced my professional path, but also my personal life.

When I say Guinea pig, I mean that I experienced almost all the possible changes that a  student could experience at the time, from the modifications to the legislative framework which, naturally, impacted us as subjects of education, but I also career-changing events. For example, I have always prepared myself, from the earliest school years, to become a chemistry teacher.

When I graduated in 1996, I realized that the social reality no longer reflects my childhood dreams. Just like me, a whole generation of teenagers has had this opportunity to look for a different path on the labour market, as well as in career and life.

Did you feel like you were a subject to a kind of experimentation in the society?

I’ve learned to take life for what it is since I was a child. I’ve learned to try to adapt to the new realities. And I can say that from this point of view I was quite privileged, in the sense that everything I’ve done in my life so far has been a part of what I wished and planned.

In the early 1990s, when I was close to my senior year in high-school, I had the chance to work for “Revista 22” [prestigious magazine on culture and politics] and that’s where I got in contact with what is called nowadays ‘the civil society’, with debates on democratic topics, on human rights, and it was then that I realized that the career that I was about to pursue was in the field of human rights.

We were all learning and breathing democracy, and we were all eager to learn about what this new paradigm Romania had become a part of really means: Romania’s transition towards a democratic state, one that puts human rights at the core of its actions.

How do you evaluate the evolution of human rights or the legislation on human rights? You practically were both a witness and a participant to this process of change.

I believe that the evolution of the human rights is an on-going process: it’s a learning process for us all as a society, regardless if you were born and educated during the communist regime, or if you were born in this post-1989 framework.

During these 26-27 years, there was a process of adapting the national legislation to various juridical systems Romania was aspiring to. For example, Romania’s ascension to the Council of Europe produced a series of changes to our legislative framework: we abolished death penalty, we abolished article 200 from the Penal Code which would bring penal charges for homosexuality, and so on.

Lots of such rights have been progressively adopted, but this came at the cost of not educating the population properly during the process. Practically, we were all a part of a learning process, learning by doing if you may.

Was the transition period a continuous progress in regards to human rights, or did it have its ups and downs?

In the field of human rights, I can say that it’s a continuous struggle. For instance, the fight against racism towards the Roma community. It has taken various forms from the cases of violence in the early 1990s – inter-ethnic violence and all the way to more subtle forms of racism which become more and more refined by the day. People learn to refine, if you may, the way they express racism.

In 2008, according to public opinion surveys, 8 out of 10 Romanians didn’t want to have neighbours who were members of the Roma community or the sexual minorities. In comparison, today the number has decreased to 6 or 7 Romanians out of 10 who declare themselves openly against these unpopular minorities.

In regards to these statistics, I don’t think that racism or homophobia have decreased too much, I do believe there is an influence regarding the self-censorship of survey respondents, because we have all learned that we shouldn’t say certain things when we are being interviewed about sensitive topics such as these unpopular minorities.

What do you think would be required in order to grow the majoritarian population’s acceptance in regards to ethnic and sexual minorities? What should be done in our society?

We should also get used to the idea that we all have rights and should benefit from them equally and equitably as citizens. The major fault, if you may, for this high degree of intolerance in Romania is given by the communist regime itself, which used to try by all means to remove every difference between social classes. That utopia of creating the new man who would fit perfectly in certain pre-determined patterns and in which we all had to fit to be accepted in society.

In terms of evolution, where do you think the transition started and ended?

I believe that the transition has started from the moment when the dictator’s helicopter has left the roof of the Romanian Communist Party from Bucharest, from the days of the Revolution when we all wished to be accepted by the international community, to become an occidental state like we used to see in movies and magazines when they would escape censorship… I think that’s when it began and transition still continues to this day.

Were measures undertaken in the early 90s to support human rights?

1993 Romania has adhered to the Council of Europe. I think that was, if you may, one of the milestones for our discussion: the fact that Romania has adopted a series of normative documents which came to consolidate the human rights dimension from the legislation, but also the efforts that we’ve made for the population to know and internalize these values. I think that was a first milestone. The next one, I think that was technically in January 2007, when Romania became a member of the European Union. We have the obligation, through our member state status, to respect and comply to all these laws.

Let’s talk about the adherence of human rights laws now that Romania is in the EU!

As a human rights activist, I knew from my colleagues from countries that once these human rights regulations are adopted, the state’s interest in human rights will decrease dramatically. It also happened in our case, in the sense that it was assumed that as we adopted all the legislation required for Romania, we would also respect it. In practice, things weren’t this way and they aren’t today either. The big problem we notice for years is the wrong application or the lack of application of this legislation.

I believe that here, what plays a big role is the fact that we don’t make sufficient efforts to inform the population, the economic agents, and the institutions about these topics of human rights. I think that the lack of sanctions – even when the infringements are obvious – encourages the others to think that this is the normal state of affairs.

Do you believe that civic education could improve knowledge and respect for human rights in the population, and also make the population empathize with the rights of minorities?

Civic education and education for citizenship should be, in my opinion, the central component of Romanian schools, not only because we have to catch up compared to other states that became EU members before us, but also given the fact that Romania has had one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the former Communist Bloc, and this supressed the civic spirit.

Therefore, citizens associate civic education with the kind of education they would receive before 1989: patriotic education, combined with lectures from the speeches of the former State Secretary of the Communist Party. Because I will say it again, those of us who lived in that period do not associate civic education with education for citizenship as something where you put human rights in the centre. Because, in essence, that’s what it’s about: the rights we all enjoy and we should apply and promote to the others.

Are there visible changes of mentality from a generation to the other, in regards to human rights?

To those who were about 45 years-old during the Revolution hang on to the values and norms they used to respect strictly in the past. So, we can safely affirm that the younger generation which was born after the Revolution is much more sensitive to subjects like human rights and minority rights.

However, I realized that at least in the case of my generation – the ones who graduated from high-school when the Revolution was taking place or were still in school at the time –  among university graduates a very hard to explain conservatism. A kind of conservatism which manifests itself through racism and homophobia, sexism, ultra-nationalism, maybe, and also anti-Semitism. These things come packaged together and can sometimes be discovered among people with an education that would surprize you.

Still, we’re heading towards an area where acceptance towards diversity is higher than what it used to be in the communist period or in the first few years after the Revolution. We enjoy free movement within the EU for quite some years and see what is and what isn’t done abroad, but also have access to information (television, internet) … we all enjoy the right to free expression and right to free information so that we learn about these topics on the go, while doing.

Did the transition period have an impact on the daily lives of people who are part of ethnic or sexual minorities?

Well, we have to make a little distinction: among ethnic minorities, for examples the Roma, there is this widespread perception, that the situation was much better before 1989 in terms of finding a job or having a decent housing, as well as the chance to study if there was a desire for it. Of course, all these things came with drawbacks and inconveniences, such as no right to free speech, to free assembly, or to speak or use the maternal language. There are pros and cons that somehow make the discussion a lot more difficult.

But in my perception, Roma people have been the big losers of the transition. They were the first to lose their jobs, the first to be pushed towards poverty, the first to sell their homes due to poverty, and lots of them have migrated to rural areas or poor urban ghettos. They were literally and practically marginalized from society.

On sexual minorities, I think that they have faced an improvement in terms of perception, for instance some weeks ago, they had a march against the Christian-conservative “Coaliția pentru Familie” (The Coalition for Family), the organization that wants to limit the right to equality for sexual minorities: the right to marriage or the recognition of family life, which is an universal right. We see an increasing number of young people who become sensitive to the problems of this minority and decide to participate actively to associative movements by signing petitions, taking part in marches, manifesting themselves on the internet in favour of human rights and diversity of every kind.

I need to add that also Roma enjoy new supplementary rights since 1989: education in the minority’s language, class on the language, civilization and history of the Roma, special spaces for the Roma youth in high-schools and universities, a series supporting services and professions such as sanitary mediators, or school counsellors who bridge the communities with the local administration.

But these jobs and facilities shouldn’t exist in a normal society because the local administration should be inclusive enough to be able to discuss with the citizens of Roma ethnicity in their language, but also deliver to them high-quality services that are comparable with the services the other citizens receive.

I would say, these jobs and these facilities are transitory. We need to understand that they exist to compensate for historic injustice.

What has civil society done to support minority rights?

After 1989 there was an explosion of forces that were trying to coagulate at the level of political parties, NGOs, foundations, to quickly improve the problems that existed in our society. I remember that at the time there were many functioning foundations and associations which attempted to help children from orphanages, and still it took quite some time.

Minorities of every kind have tried from the very beginning to express their identity. Since the first free elections we have a deputy in Parliament, who benefitted the Roma by coagulating a movement and the establishing an association that gathered together the members of the Roma community at the time.

Also, on the topic of sexual minorities, there were a series of social actors who worked in this area.

I have been involved in civil society, and Roma society, and the one supporting the rights of sexual minorities since the early 2000, and as an evolution I can say that we have had ups and downs. But we are much more prepared right now than we were in the early 1990s, when Romanians would only see certain realities for the first time.

Were people ready at the time? There was a lot of need for people that had the right kind of knowledge, were sensitive towards the issues, knew legal matters, but also had abilities to organize communities. You simply didn’t have all these things in the communist period.

It often happens that the civil society functions primarily on the foundation of good intentions: in the sense that maybe you weren’t the best prepared in a certain field: But if you had the particular interest to work in that area and you were the only one offering these services, then it was clear that those entities, associations, and foundations that were established and deliver services. It went on like this until the accession to the European Union, when it all began to be much more specialized and exchanges became easier to do. The quality of the services provided, however, is questionable. It was a learning process for all of us.

Bulgaria and the issue of “Otherness”

OTHERNESS THROUGH THE EYES OF THE GENERATION OF TRANSITION IN BULGARIA

The biggest and arguably most important group of people in Bulgaria today is the so called “generation of transition”. Those are the individuals, born between the late 1960s/early1970s and 1989. They are currently taking most important decisions and serve as a driver in today’s society. They largely shape the societal attitudes towards certain events or phenomena and have the influence to steer society in a direction of their choice.

These are also the people whose life is marked by the profound change which occurred in Bulgaria after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 and the subsequent transition period. They have experienced life in both communist and democratic Bulgaria. The large extent to which these changes were fundamental for the Bulgarian society makes it possible to hypothesise that the behaviour and attitudes of the generation of transition are, at least partly, influenced by their experience in both political systems and the transition between the two.

Following this line of reasoning, we decided to address one of the most salient topics in Bulgaria today, namely the refugee crisis, and see “otherness” through the eyes of the generation of transition. It is a puzzle how from a functioning multicultural society only 70 years ago, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived peacefully together, today Bulgarians have such a negative attitude towards “the other” in the face of the refugees. Paradoxically, while we are a nation with strong emigration, we perceive those fleeing war as too different to live in our country.

In order to address this puzzle, we asked representatives of this generation with diverse educational, professional and cultural background a number of questions about Communism, transition and the way they perceive “the other”. The analysis below is based on the findings from seven in-depth interviews with representatives of different Bulgarian communities, including an intellectual, an entrepreneur, an office worker, a person from a minority, a civil servant, a physical labour worker and a civil society activist.

“Others” during Communism

In order to understand the negative stance in today’s society towards the refugees, we explored the way the state handled “the other” in the different systems before and after 1989.

When the Communist regime was in power, integrating minorities was a matter of attempting to fit them within the framework of what was considered “normal”. Nobody was allowed to be different from the rest or if they were, their identity had to be hidden and changed. Repressions were commonplace but somewhat invisible for the Bulgarian population that did not belong to a minority. The most striking illustration of this type of policies is the so called Revival Process in Bulgaria – a campaign designed to change the names, and ultimately, the identity of the Bulgarian Turkish minority. This effort resulted in protests and the subsequent arrests, resettlement within Bulgaria and ultimately the expulsion of 350 000 Bulgarian citizens from a Turkish origin from Bulgaria to Turkey.

The attitude towards the other large Bulgarian minority – the Roma – was also one of forced integration. Many of the interviewees recalled that in the period before 1989 all Bulgarian Roma went to school and were subsequently given a job by the state. However, these achievements were attributed to the fear the Roma had from the state apparatus rather than on a genuine integration that was taking place.

In those times foreigners that did not come from the Eastern Bloc were rare in Bulgaria and almost worshiped. People from the West were well off and possessed items and knowledge that were unattainable for the ordinary Bulgarian citizen. They also illustrated the clash between what the state propaganda was claiming and the reality.

“Otherness” and transition

When the wall came down, a period of volatility and narrative change followed. The social security which was guaranteed by the Communist regime suddenly disappeared and the people who were used to depending on these safety nets had a hard time adjusting. The order and discipline, imposed by the regime were gone. Nevertheless, many of the restrictions associated with Communism were now gone as well. The freedom of choice, the increase of opportunities and the possibility to travel abroad are often cited as the greatest benefits of democracy.

Bulgaria entered a globalising world that was very diverse and colourful. There was access to all the previously unavailable information and many travelled outside the country for the first time only after 1989. Many of the Bulgarian Turks who left the country during the Revival Process returned to their homes in Bulgaria. Foreigners from all over the world visited Bulgaria much more often. The reaction of the Bulgarian society towards these changes was split – some embraced the diversity around them and took advantage while others felt that core elements of their identity were being threatened.

While the freedom to travel, study or work abroad is generally considered a good thing, many do not approve of immigrant coming to live in Bulgaria. Some immigrants, namely those from the West, are more welcome than those who come from poorer regions. Still, the societal uniformity imposed during the Communism tends to make Bulgarians suspicious towards everyone who deviates from what is “normal”. The efforts to integrate the Turkish and Roma minorities within the Bulgarian society are largely judged as fruitless and the stereotypes, associated with these groups are widely spread.

The refugees as a threat to the Bulgarian identity and way of life

Against the background of everything discussed above, it is hardly surprising that the majority of Bulgarians consider the influx of refugees to be a threat. Most often, their fears are justified through one or several of the following arguments: the majority of refugees are Muslim and will bring their Islamic culture and traditions here without being able or willing to integrate within the Bulgarian society; refugees need help but if we leave our borders open nothing will stop terrorists to enter as well; the number of refugees is too great and due to Bulgaria’s negative birth rate they will soon outnumber us; refugees demand rights and privileges that they are not truly entitled to and are unwilling to obey Bulgarian laws; most refugees are in fact just immigrants trying to get to Europe. Interestingly, these convictions are usually coupled with the idea that someone should in fact help the real refugees in some way because they are the people who run away from a war and fight to protect their lives and the lives of their families. This attitude, exhibiting a striking lack of solidarity and empathy, can be summarised in a single sentence: “Refugees are not a Bulgarian problem”.

In contrast to the discussed above widespread opinion, there is also a minority group of people who perceives the refugee crisis as an opportunity rather than as a threat. They believe that refugees can be used for both our benefit and their own. The large number of young people who come to Europe have untapped potential that can serve well in an aging society.

Conclusion

Bulgarians attitude towards “the other” is often one of suspicion, distrust and fear. The idea that everyone should not only be equal but also the same as everyone else, imposed during the Communist period, is still prominent in the minds of many representatives of the generation of transition. Although this outcome is certainly disappointing, there is also cause for optimism. On the basis of the small-scale research we conducted in Bulgaria a tentative conclusion can be drawn. Those who travel abroad and have frequent contact with people from other cultures and religions are less likely to consider refugees as a threat. It appears that the personal contact with “the others” dissolves many of the existing stereotypes and leads to more understanding and ultimately, empathy.

21/10/2015

Iva Kopraleva (Sofia Platform)