The rise of the networked ghetto

Continuing our series of guest contributions about energy poverty in the Balkans, Rosalina Babourkova reflects on issues around electricity use in Roma settlements in Bulgaria and Macedonia.

 Since my first visit to a Roma settlement in Bulgaria in 2007, I have been forever fascinated with electricity meters. The politics of electricity metering in Roma settlements became first the subject of my masters thesis and is now the topic also of my PhD research at the Development Planning Unit, UCL. It is not widely known outside my home country that electricity meters in Roma settlements only are locked up in boxes (now also equipped with security alarms) and placed at inaccessible heights of 6-12 meters above ground. Here is an example from the Fakulteta settlement in Sofia:

Fakulteta

This practice, which started as a pilot project (to counter electricity theft) in the Hristo Botev neighbourhood in Sofia in 2002, has since spread to all Roma settlements in Bulgaria. Because of the location of electricity meters, one can now recognise Roma settlements in Bulgaria as (to paraphrase Graham and Marvin, 2001) “networked ghettoes” from quite a distance. Throughout the years, this practice has prompted community protests, complaints and even lawsuits on the basis that it constitutes discrimination on ethnic grounds. However, with one or two exceptions (such as EVN’s approach to Plovdiv’s neighbourhood Stolipinovo – this youtube video is in Bulgarian only at the moment) – to no avail. Bulgaria’s now privatised electricity distributors prefer to keep the electricity meters where they are and residents, other than being additionally stigmatised, have no visual control over their electricity consumption. This prompts all sorts of questions for social and environmental justice as well as consumer autonomy / dependence within energy vulnerability.

Wondering whether such discriminatory practices were allowed to take hold elsewhere, I recently undertook a short research trip to Serbia and Macedonia, other Balkan countries with similarly large Roma populations, to look at the location of electricity meters. The result? In short: no such particular discrimination in either of those countries.

In Serbia electricity distribution is still publicly owned and managed and relatively behind other Balkan countries in upgrading electricity distribution networks and metering systems. Roma neighbourhoods either have access to electricity like everyone else, or in the case of illegal “slums”, especially in the capital city Belgrade, are not connected to the grid at all.

In Macedonia, electricity distribution is privatised and is owned and managed by the Austrian energy company EVN. Electricity meters in established Roma settlements in Skopje, such as the ones in Topaana in the photo below, are located at ground level and a glass panel allows for visual control of each individual meter – just like anywhere else in the city. However, plenty of other issues with electricity access, especially around pricing and illegal construction, came up – very similar to the ones that exist in Bulgaria as well. But more on this in later blogposts.

Skopje

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