Promoting Multi-Cultural Consensus-Building in Bulgaria
Establishing consensus-building procedures and structures which involve different ethnic groups in former communist societies poses a number of significant challenges. The success of democratizing societies in answering these challenges will be critical to the establishment of a civic society and to the resolution of ethnic tensions in a peaceful and participatory manner. Often times the test as to whether a society can handle these tensions within legitimized structures are expressed through conflicts centering on economic, educational, cultural and environmental issues. If these areas of concern cannot be addressed through legitimized channels, then more dangerous ethically-based challenges to the legitimacy of the newly established civic society are more likely to emerge.
Bulgaria presents an interesting example of some of the problems in establishing such structures and some of the ways in which these problems might be addressed. Bulgaria is a society composed of several different ethnic groups. There are plenty of historical examples of severe conflict in Bulgaria, but there have also been periods of peace and cooperation, or at least of tolerance. Currently, there are sources of tension between the different groups which are sources of tension between the different groups which are economically, religiously, and culturally-based, but these tensions have so far been handled without major incidents. Still, Bulgaria is on the border of Serbia, Macedonia, Rumania, Greece and Turkey. There is considerable concern within Bulgaria about the potential for a significant escalation of tensions, flamed in part by some of the ethnic conflicts in surrounding areas.
Challenges and obstacles to establishing multi-cultural consensus-building processes in Bulgaria 1 Problems in consciousness about procedural entitlement, accountability and consensus
There is a considerable awareness of civil liberties and civil rights among many Bulgarians, and there are laws and institutions protecting these rights. Effective democracies, however, require more than just the protection of these rights. They require more than just the protection of these rights. They require a normative system which promotes a sense that different interests have a right to be heard and to have their needs addressed, that public officials are in fact accountable to the people, and that different interests are not necessarily in a win/lose relationship to each other. It may be that it is the belief on the part of all citizens that they have a right to be heard and responded to by public officials that provides the greatest check against the tendency of bureaucracies to gather in power in an anti-democratic manner.
Procedural entitlement can be defined as the sense that individuals or groups have that they are entitled to a particular process for how their concerns or needs are going to be addressed, which is separate from their belief about what the substantive resolution might be. This belief is a foundation of democratic institutions and is the basis on which constructive dialogue institutions and is the basis on which constructive dialogue processes can be built. Without such a sense, a party which has a significant need that is not being addressed is faced with a choice which will appear as being limited to approaching, as supplicants, those with power, or trying to go outside the system entirely. In Bulgaria, the sense of procedural entitlement is at best in a nascent stage, particularly among ethnic minorities.
This lack of a sense of procedural entitlement has many roots, some cultural, some based on current realities, about how to get things done. Certainly, one source has to do with the long history of authortiatian decision-making structures in virtually all social institutions from government to the family. This is not just a result of the experience of Bulgarians during the Communist era. Bulgaria was a part of the Ottoman empire for approximately 500 years until their liberation by Russia in the late 19th century. This period is referred to as the period of the "Turkish Yoke" and memories of it fuel considerable suspicion on the part of ethnic Bulgarians of Turkish (or Turkish-identified) ethnic groups and of practicing Muslims.
One consequence of the lack of procedural entitlement as a part of the civic consciousness of different groups is that the resolution of conflicts through the consensus-building process can not really take place. Unless people expect that they can hold officials accountable for the decisions that they make and for the way in which they make them, it is hard for those people to conceive of or constructively participate in the process of consensus-building thorough multi-cultural or multi-interest dialogue procedures. It becomes far easier for people to believe that their interests will be addressed through isolation, separation, or violence than through participation in civic society.
The other side of this dynamic is the lack of a culture of accountability on the part of public officials. Public officials for the most part have been trained in their roles or have been exposed to models of decision-making in authoritatian institutional structures. Their view of how interests should be understood and addressed is still through "top down" decision-making. This is particularly true when dealing with the needs of ethnic minorities. Public institutions are dominated by ethnic Bulgarians. There is very little consciousness about the importance of involving representatives of different minorities in decisions that will greatly affect the lives of these communities. Instead, the understanding of officials is that they should analyze the needs of the community and make the decision that is best. Of course, this leaves enormous potential for cultural stereotyping to insert itself into the process in a destructive way. It also prevents public officials from conceptualizing consensus-building in any practical way.
The lack of a sense of procedure or of a culture of accountability often gets expressed in how environmental conflicts are handled. Velingrad is a picturesque town of redtile roofs, nestled in the mountains amid pine, spruce, beech and fir trees. There is also tremendous amount of unemployment among Gypsies and Turkish-oriented mountain Muslims in and around Velingrad. A number of Gypsies were harvesting timber and manufacturing charcoal illegally in the Velingrad area. According to the Gypsies, charcoal production was one of the very few job opportunities available to them since the changes following Communism, which brought the closure of most of the factories in the area, the loss of jobs and an unemployment rate of 90% in the minority community. Furthermore, the location and the character of the work provided additional benefits for the Gypsy community. The neighborhoods adjoined the forest where the charcoal production occurred so that people could walk to work. The nature of the work was intermittent, requiring sporadic part-time working hours. From the municipal perspective, charcoal production in this area violated environmental and health regulations and contributed to serious air pollution and deforestation problems. Furthermore, the municipality perceived that Gypsies liked this line of work because it was easy, did not require a fulltime focus and allowed the "Gypsy lifestyle of singing, dancing and parties" to proceed without too much interruption.
Neither the Gypsy community nor the municipal leadership had a clear sense that this situation required a consensus-building dialogue among the different interest groups involved. From the Gupsyperspective the choice was to appeal to authority figures and to try to circumvent unfavorable decisions. For the municipal leaders, the problem was how to analyze the problem, make an appropriate unilateral decision and implement it. Consequently, the municipality unilaterally decided to designated more remote forested area, considerably outside the city limits for the manufacturing of charcoal. While this designated area did not contribute to air pollution because of its isolated location, it was also far from the Gypsy neighborhoods, without a mode of transportation; nor was the larger issue of unemployment in the neighborhood addressed. As a result the decision was never effectively implemented. This experience was one of the key motivations to the establishment of a Multi-Ethnic Commission in Velingrad.
It is important to understand that it is neither a lack of willingness to be held accountable or to discuss issues with interest groups on the part of officials, nor a lack of openness to participating in such a dialogue on the part of community members, that is the crucial part of the problem. On numerous occasions when community members and institutional officials were brought together in an atmosphere that promoted dialogue, most were quite ready to participate in a constructive manner (although they had no real independent model for how to do this). Rather, the problem is the lack of consciousness hat such activities can occur and are, in fact, crucial to establishing democracy in a diverse society. A key question in establishing effective collaborative problem-solving processes is, therefore, how to begin to inculcate the necessary processes is, therefore, how to begin procedural entitlement, consensus-building, and accountability in Bulgaria. A second key question is whether it is possible or even appropriate to try to foment such a consciousness. To what extent is the society prepared to deal with the consequences of a change in consciousness with regard to these issues, and to what extent are western values about participation in decision-making healthy for a society as economically unstable and vulnerable to social disruption as Bulgaria? 2 Lack of consensus-building structures among different ethnic groups
The structures for building consensus among groups, for providing meaningful forums for input and dialogue about community concerns and public issues, and for holding public officials accountable on a day-to-day basis, are not adequately developed in Bulgaria, or continue to be based on a hierarchical model. Structures and consciousness develop hand-in-hand to a large extend. The structures for organizing around elections and for enforcing civil rights are developing in Bulgaria, although not at a rate that satisfies everyone. Democracy, however, required more than the vote and freedom of expression. This is particularly true where there are significant ethnic, religious, or other divisions in society. Structures such as public hearings, scooping processes, EIS procedures, neighborhood organizations, citizen boards or advisory committees for public institutions, facilitated policy dialogues, or mediation procedures for the resolution of community disputes have not been developed in Bulgaria. Thus, there is no effective or robust mechanism for different interests to conflict and dialogue with each other in a constructive way.
Since the most serious ethnic conflicts are expressed as differences between ethnic Bulgarian-dominated social institutions (such as education, employment and labor, and social welfare on the one hand, and the ethnic minorities they serve on the other), ethnic conflicts and a sense of social disenfranchisement are all wrapped up together. Sometimes the conflict among different ethnic minorities is expressed by their different position in particular institutions. For example, in the example discussed above, many of the forestry jobs are held by Turkish-oriented Muslim mountain villagers who are greatly concerned with problems of deforestation, whereas the bulk of the illegal woodcutting has been done by Romas who are desperately looking for income. This has led to considerable ethnic tension between these groups. 3 Lack of enough democratically skilled leadership in some ethnic communities
The Bulgarian majority has established and developed democratically based political structures to a greater extent than has the Turkish or Roma communities. Bulgarians have had greater access to education, employment, and participation in the leadership of social institutions and, thus, have developed the skills that allow them to participate in democratic processes more fully. Their socially privileged position, thus, is reflected not only in their economic situation, but also in their ability to participate in decision-making structures. While there are certainly effective, democratically-oriented leaders in the other communities as well, the development of such leadership on a local level continues to be an important need. 4 Economic problems
The economic crisis faced by all in Bulgarian society exacerbates tensions in all directions. There simply are not enough jobs or resources to go around. Many times the practical effects of this crisis are expressed when ethnic Bulgarians in social institutions such as welfare have to announce limitations to ethnic minority clients. Since ethnic minorities are in a socially disadvantaged position, they are disproportionately affected by the crisis, and they are well aware of this. Many minority group members will frankly admit that they felt they were considerably better off frankly admit that they felt they were considerably better off under Communism, although at this point very few seem to be advocating for a return to the old system. However, the economic crisis tends to delegitimize all public institutions and the basic political structure itself. Ironically, it may also delegitimize the developing consensus-building structures which could, in fact, empower minority communities.
Another aspect of the crisis is the heightened sense that all minority groups seem to be in competition with each other for limited resources. This exacerbates all disputes and is frequently expressed in environmental conflicts in which the immediate economic concerns compete with a longerterm concern about depletion of natural resources and depredation of the environment. 5 Ethnic self-identification
Effective ethnic group leadership and organization requires clear ethnic self-identification. Multi-ethnic dialogue is harder to create in the absence of such factors. In Bulgaria there is considerable confusion about ethnic group identification. It is no accident that the naming of the different ethnic minorities has been very tentative in this article. There are three major ethnic groups in Bulgaria: ethnic Bulgarians who are essentially Slavic in origin and are linguistically, religiously, and culturally closely connected to the Russian people; Turkish; and Roma. The Roma (Gypsy) population can be divided into the Christian Roma and Muslim Roma. Many of the Muslim Roma reject their Gypsy background and instead identify themselves as Turkish, even if they do not speak Turkish and have different cultural traditions. The Roma language is spoken less and less. There is a fourth minority group who are non-Turkish-speaking Muslims who live primarily in mountain villages and identify themselves as Turkish. The ethnic Bulgarians insist that they are Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the Ottoman Empire and are referred to frequently by the pejorative term, "Pomock," which means traitor.
Thus, at least two significant groups identify themselves as Turkish, taking perhaps some comfort in the powerful nearby presence of Turkey, but are not necessarily accepted as such by the Turkish-speaking, Turkish minority. Ethnic Bulgarians are very threatened by this and worry about its separatist implications. These problems in self-identity have created some obstacles for creating multi-cultural understanding and dialogue processes because the lack of clear identification makes it more difficult for effective leadership structures to develop.
Approaches to establishing multi-cultural consensus-building processes in Bulgaria
In the end, the growth of a consciousness about procedural entitlement, accountability, and consensus is probably the key to the long-term institutionalization of multi-cultural consensus-building processes in Bulgaria, but it is hard to attack this goal directly. Instead, it is important to establish the structural framework to promote these processes, to develop a set of individuals in key institutions and in different ethnic communities with the skills, commitment and influence to create and conduct consensus-building processes, and to create a positive set of actual dialogue and consensus-building experiences among different groups that can provide a successful model and history for dealing with this approach to problem-solving.
In Bulgaria, the Multi-Cultural Cooperation Project has attempted to do this through a variety of activities: 1 Structural Approaches
Commissions have been created in five separate communities throughout Bulgaria to create and conduct dialogues among different ethnic groups and social institutions. These Commissions are, for the most part, composed of leaders from different ethnic communities and representatives of municipal government, education, social welfare, and employment agencies, although each Commission varies in particular composition and mission. The Commissions undertake a wide variety of activities, but their central goal is to build a variety of consensus-building and dialogue procedures in each community. Commissions have brought together different groups and institutions for consideration on how to handle environmental disputes; housing problems; equitable distribution of job opportunities and social services; dealing with homeless children; improving relations between schools and communities; creating dialogue between ethnic minorities and media representatives about how minorities are presented in the media; handling conflicts between municipal government and particular neighborhoods; promoting better interaction and understanding among youth of different communities; and providing better information about available services and resources to disadvantaged communities. Most of the Commissions have been officially chartered by the municipal government in which they are located. Some have become licensed NGOs. 2 Skill-building among key leaders
A series of programs has been conducted to develop the skills (and more importantly the consciousness) of key leaders in organizing and conducting consensus-building procedures and in sensitizing people to diversity issues. A key element in these programs has been the creation of a cadre of trainers and facilitators from different communities and ethnic backgrounds. This cadre is partly drawn from Commission members and, in turn, is a resource to the Commissions for conducting different dialogue processes. 3 Creating consensus-building activities
Opportunities abound for consensus-building dialogues. In many ways, people are thirsting for this kind of activity, but lack the experience to recognize the potential in different circumstances for resolving issues in this manner. If they do recognize the potential, they are often unaware of how to turn it into an actual consensus-building process. Part of the Commissions' responsibility is to identify and exploit such opportunities. On a number of occasions, the opening for such dialogues was created through building on spontaneous expressions of discontent with particular circumstances, an approach that could be characterized as "consensus-building by walking around." Commission members could actually create an opportunity for dialogue by walking through communities who were experiencing conflicts with government agencies, especially if they were accompanied by legitimate representatives of both the neighborhood and the social institution itself. This was a situation in which the presence of foreign consultants could act as a useful catalyst because their presence tended to encourage the participation of community leaders and government representatives, and to attract the immediate attention of neighborhood representatives. Two examples illustrate this approach.
In a particularly impoverished, primarily Roma area of a mid-sized city in Bulgaria, there had been a police shooting the previous day. There was considerable anger and a potential for violence. Several Commission members and project consultants had planned on visiting the community the next day. They were accompanied by neighborhood leaders, social welfare officials, and staff from the local school. The level of anger was high and there was debate among the community leaders as to whether it was safe to conduct the visit, but they decided to proceed. Community members gave very articulate and dramatic, but non-violent, expression to their concerns. The neighbors were asked to identify several representatives and this group marched several blocks to the local school where a meeting to discuss neighborhood concerns about jobs, infrastructure, social services, and education was held. Out of this meeting an ongoing dialogue process between social institutions and community members was begun, and several neighborhood leaders agreed to act as community liaisons to different social institutions.
In other mid-sized city, a similar group of Commission members, consultants, and welfare officials went on a scheduled visit to a community outreach center that was being planned as a liaison center between social welfare agencies an an impoverished Roma/Turkish neighborhood. The building also housed a welfare distribution outpost at which a number of minority women were waiting for checks, despite a previous announcement that they were not going to arrive that day. The consultants and Commission members approached these woman and began a discussion to their experience with the social welfare organizations. The welfare officials were brought into the discussion and a set of community meetings to discuss issues of concern were planned on the spot.
It is important to make use of the myriad of such opportunities for promoting dialogue, and to use these opportunities to begin creating a set of experiences and an awareness that consensus-building dialogues among different groups and institutions can occur. When these meetings occur, it takes trained and credible facilitation to change them from a framework of where supplicant meets authority figure, or from one of attack and defense to one which is genuinely problem-solving and consensus-building in nature. When this occurs, however, new models for solving multi-ethnic issues in a collaborative, democratic way will readily develop, and consciousness about consensus-building, procedural entitlement, and accountability will change rapidly.
Questions and Implications from the Bulgarian Experience
Bulgaria offers some interesting examples of problems and opportunities. A civic society is gradually being built, and the consciousness, structures, leadership, and experiences necessary to promote consensus-building activities among different ethnic groups is emerging. There are many pitfalls and danger points in such a development, however. The economic crisis, the lack of faith in democracy among many disadvantaged groups, a failing infrastructure, the growth of organized crime, and the manipulation of fears by anti-democratic forces are some of the more serious obstacles.
In many ways the successes and failures of this project reflect the overall development of a civic society in Bulgaria. Democracy must be built from the bottom up as well as from the top down, and this is a slow and often unclear process. Western conflict resolution consultants need to approach a project such as this with great humility and flexibility. American-style facilitated dialogues, regulatory negotiations or environmental mediation programs will probably not take root in Bulgaria at this point. For these processes to work on a large scale, a much different kind of consciousness and political culture needs to exist, and it may well be that the time is not yet ripe for this to develop. In the Bulgarian project, after some fairly significant false starts, a focus on the type of institutional structures that would have legitimacy with different ethnic groups and that could focus on the culturally appropriate and possible ways of promoting consensus-building dialogues was achieved. On the other hand, neither the society nor the project were ready and able to engage in such consensus-building dialogues on the hardest and largest issues that Bulgaria faces. The question remains whether the approaches and structures described here can maintain the legitimacy necessary to survive and grow in the face of the serious economic problems facing the society and the strongly entrenched hierarchical decision-making structures that exist in Bulgarian institutions (including those whose purpose is to bring about a more democratic society). It may well be that the basic premise of utilizing the experience of western consensus-building dialogues and conflict resolution procedures to encourage similar activities in emerging democracies is, at best, naive and possibly even dangerous.
On the other hand, the response of a broad variety of people from many different classes, communities, ethnic groups, and institutions in Bulgaria to these efforts has been extremely positive and even enthusiastic. They want this kind of activity to occur and to succeed, and it is the Bulgarian colleagues who will have to judge the value and impact of multi-ethnic consensus-building efforts and who will have to make it work.
In the end, the biggest armament in democracy's weapon is the determination of citizens to be heard and to have their needs addressed. If the consciousness, structures, and processes necessary to develop and harness this determination in a constructive way are promoted, the chances of building a democratic, peaceful, multi-cultural society capable of addressing serious problems will be significantly enhanced.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.