The predominant ethnic group in Bulgaria is that of Bulgarians. Alongside them, however, have lived and continue to live people belonging to other ethnic groups. Some of them, such as Jews and Greeks, have inhabited the territory that is now Bulgaria as long as Bulgarians themselves. Other ethnic groups appeared later as a result of conquest, migration, and the formation of new ethnicities. After the new Bulgarian nation was founded during the 19th century, the structure of Bulgarian society has continuously transformed. Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union gave a new impetus to these processes by stimulating immigration and emigration.
However, our country lacks sustainable and systematic care for the inclusion and equal treatment of people of different ethnic origin than Bulgarian. This can be seen above all in the policies for the inclusion of people from the Roma community, which, in contrast to the developed national strategies, lead to the deepening of poverty and social exclusion, instead of the other way around. This conclusion is recorded in the new National Strategy for Equality, Inclusion and Participation of the Roma.
Apart from them, however, there are other ethnically distinct groups in Bulgaria. According to the data from the 2011 census, the largest among them are the Turks, followed by the Roma, Russians, Armenians, etc.The United Nations (UN) uses the term “ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities.” This term is found in Article 27 of one of the UN’s fundamental agreements on human rights—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to one of the Convenant’s unofficial definitions, formulated by Francesco Capotorti, minorities are citizens of a country who number less than that country’s population, do not occupy a dominant position in society, have ethnic, religious, or linguistic characteristics that distinguish them from the remaining populace, and demonstrate a sense of solidarity (even if it is only implicit) aimed at preserving their culture, traditions, religion, or language.
The Council of Europe employs the term “national minority.” This term is found in Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as in a series of other documents, including the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The differences in terminology employed by the UN and the Council of Europe are formal. Regardless of how we refer to them—as ethnic minorities or national minorities—the people in question are one and the same, as are the individual rights they deserve.
Establishing a global definition of an ethnic or national minority has been and continues to be a serious obstacle in international human rights law. The differences in ethnic structures across different nations (for example, the lack of a numerically predominant group); the existence of nations where the minority holds a dominant position in society; the existence of nations whose inhabitants outnumber their citizens; disputes over granting minority rights to long-established migrant communities—these are just a few of the obstacles that make it difficult to formulate a legitimate, universal definition of an ethnic/national minority. Nevertheless, in many countries, including Bulgaria, identifying groups that fall under Capotorti’s definition poses no serious difficulty.
The rights of individuals belonging to ethnic/national minorities fall under three categories: right of recognition, right of protection against discrimination, and rights related to the protection of their cultural, religious, and ethnic identity. The existence of an ethnic/national minority is a matter of fact. It does not depend on acknowledgement by the state. On the contrary, the state is obligated to recognize a minority once it exists. This recognition can be accomplished in a variety of ways. In some countries, minorities are identified in the Constitution or in the law; in others, they are recognized in administrative acts; and in some cases, they are acknowledged through court cases (for example, the recognition of an association of a given minority). Even though countries have the critical obligation to recognize the presence of an existing minority, there is no required way to do so. All of the aforementioned methods are sufficient for fulfilling the important responsibility of recognition. Countries may even acknowledge the existence of ethnic/national minorities without identifying them as such in their official documents.
Article 14 of the ECHR prohibits all forms of discrimination in the practice of human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention, including discrimination based on national minority status. Similarly, Article 1 of Protocol No. 12 of the Convention (which has not been ratified by Bulgaria) prohibits all forms of discrimination in the exercise of any right granted by law, including discrimination against those who belong to a national minority. Similar provisions prohibiting discrimination against minorities (national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic) have legal grounds in numerous other documents from the UN and the Council of Europe.
According to Article 27 of the ICCPR, minority-identifying individuals residing in countries where ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities exist cannot be deprived of the right to share a distinct cultural identity, to profess and practice their own religion with other members of their group, and to use their native language. The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities guarantees a series of rights related to the protection of the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural identities of individuals belonging to national minorities.
Since its founding, BHC has been committed to protecting the rights of individuals who belong to minority groups in Bulgaria. During the early years of the democratic transition, one of the organization’s central advocacy efforts was restoring the rights of the Turkish minority, which had seen its freedoms greatly reduced during the so-called “revival process”—a campaign from the last years of the communist regime which aimed to forcibly assimilate the Turkish community. BHC subsequently undertook advocacy initiatives defending the rights of Roma, Pomaks, Jews, and Macedonians. These initiatives involved preparing reports, advocating in front of international human rights organizations, providing legal aid in instances where rights have been violated, and helping representatives of these minorities strengthen their capacity to defend their rights.
Currently, BHC works on the following fronts regarding the rights of individuals belonging to minority groups in Bulgaria:
- Encouraging the Bulgarian judiciary to recognize hate crimes (crimes involving discrimination) committed against representatives of ethnic minorities and prompting institutions to counteract the deep-rooted prejudices which exist in Bulgarian society, as well as at almost all levels of the system meant to investigate and punish hate crimes.
- Defending the rights of minority groups to be recognized, associate, peacefully assemble, and effectively participate in the political process.
- Implementing the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union regarding human rights in legal cases concerning ethnic minorities.
- Using legal methods to counteract discrimination against minority-identifying individuals on a national and international level, particularly in the realms of education, housing, the labor market, healthcare, welfare, and political participation.
- Using legal methods to counteract, on a national and international level, hate speech coming from politicians and the media.
Each year, BHC monitors the state of ethnic minority rights in Bulgaria with the organization’s annual reports, as well as through other projects and initiatives.