ANTAGONISMS surrounding the ethnicand cultural differences of Bulgaria's minorities have been put under the spotlight in an innovative programme introduced at Sofia University, with positive results.
Although only 15 per cent of the population is officially described as other than Bulgarian, such as Turks, Romanies or Armenians, some human rights organisations suggest the real figures are much higher and are still hidden by the lingering effects of a communist-era policy of deliberate assimilation and lack of ethnic data.
The programme is attempting to educate and prepare "intellectual mediators in the field of the relations between ethnic and cultural minorities in Bulgaria", said Plamen Makariev of the faculty of philosophy,who runs the MA programme on intercultural dialogue. He said the course was needed "because of the awareness of the insufficiency of the academic activities concerning Bulgaria's very acute, very important issues of ethnic and cultural antagonisms.
"We are trying to combine the potential and profoundness of academic research and some more practical interests with our ambition to influence the processes of inter-ethnic and intercultural interactions. "
The one-year programme involves academics from psychology, philosophy, cultural anthropology, political science, sociology, law and the history of Islamic and Christian theologies.
"We train experts capable of contributing to cultural interactions within the perspectives of universal values as applied to the specific conditions of Southeast Europe," said Professor Makariev.
Students are from different faculties, but mostly within the humanities. There are also several representatives from the minority Turks and Romany groups.
"We are proud of them - their performance is excellent and their role is to multiply the ideas which they have got in our programmes."
But the programme has been criticised in some parts of Bulgaria because it encourages the minorities to maintain their own "encapsulated" culture, contrary to the strategy of suppressing the importance of ethnic and cultural differences.
"We believe that our attitude is a fruitful one, favouring dialogue and mutual understanding, and we are convinced that if the aims are realised there is no danger of ethnic separatism or secessionism," said Professor Makariev.
A media and minority course has been taught in the faculty of journalism for some years. Maria Neikova, professor of journalism, believes it gives her students a better understanding of diversity in Bulgarian society. "I am sure they will be more responsible in their job once they start working."
Professor Neikova's students are already producing their own programme. Diliana Kirkovska, a student and broadcaster at the student Alma Materi radio station, is proud that it is the first Bulgarian medium openly to discuss issues which are still taboo in Bulgaria. "We introduced subjects such as Aids, drugs and sexual orientation. It is easier now for others to follow," she said.
Others are learning, unfortunately with difficulty. At the end of a two-day seminar on "Bulgarian Media and Minorities", where most participants said the word "Gypsy" was offensive, one Bulgarian newspaper described the Romany people as thieves and criminals. The headline on the report was: "Gypsies: We do not steal more than others".