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Protests underscore Bulgarians' fear of Roma, organized crime

Protests in Bulgaria started after a teenager was run down on Sept. 23, allegedly at the order of a Roma underworld boss, and highlight the worst ethnic tension there since 1990.

By Andrew MacDowallCorrespondent / October 4, 2011

Bulgarian protestors shout slogans during a protest in downtown Sofia on Saturday. Anti-Roma protests took an antigovernment turn on Saturday when several thousand nationalists marched through downtown Sofia demanding an end to a climate of impunity for organized crime in European Union's poorest country.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

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Sofia, Bulgaria

Houses set ablaze; far right activists and football hooligans chanting racist slogans; vigilantes arming themselves with swords, knives, and clubs; riot police charging through normally peaceful streets.

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Last week’s ethnically-charged protests and riots in Bulgaria presented a series of grim images to the world. The country, which rarely makes waves internationally these days, even on the sports pages, is suddenly in the headlines, and it is not a pretty sight.

The events, which started with the killing of a teenager on Sept. 23, are widely seen as the worst outbreak of ethnic tension in Bulgaria since the end of Communism in 1990. The death of Angel Petrov, run down by a van in what many claim was a killing ordered by a Roma underworld boss, sparked protests and riots that have led to several hundred arrests. As gangs of youths clad in Bulgarian flags took to the streets shouting anti-Rom and anti-Turk slogans, police have protected mosques and Roma neighborhoods. Gendarmes in riot gear have been gathering at major intersections in Sofia every evening.

Mr. Petrov’s death has been widely blamed on associates of Kiril Rashkov, a Roma clan leader from the same village, Katunitsa, near the central Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. Mr. Rashkov, the self-styled “Tsar [King] Kiro” has been linked to a range of underworld activities. He was convicted of illegal transactions during the communist period and is under investigation for tax evasion and bootlegging. Locals also accuse him of extortion and illegal appropriation of land. Several of Rashkov’s properties in Katunitsa were torched on Saturday night as villagers vented long-held grudges against the alleged kingpin.

The subsequent incidents have caught the attention of Bulgarians, who have been spared the ethnic conflict that tore apart other parts of the Balkans in the 1990s. Though, a particularly unpleasant government campaign against the country’s Turks took place in the 1980s, leading to (as was intended) many fleeing to Turkey.

Last week’s events should be put into perspective. The demonstrations gathered only a few thousand – a paltry 2,200 nationwide on Tuesday, according to local press reports, following a relatively small gathering of around 1,500 in Sofia the day before. The protestors are predominantly young, and the fringes of Sofia rally outside parliament on Monday evening had something of a party atmosphere, with people drinking and chatting, breaking off to chant “resign!” and jeer at police.

Since the Katunitsa blazes, there have been no major clashes, and the Roma vigilantes showing off blades on television have not been called into action to protect their homes.

More important are the issues in Bulgarian society that underlie the outpouring of anger: the exclusion and perceived impunity of both the Roma community and the power of criminal classes who have profited in the post-Communist era. In the popular imagination, Tsar Kiro is an avatar for what is wrong with Bulgaria, and Petrov a martyr for the ordinary Bulgarian, even though allegations are as yet unproven.

'Bulgarians are discriminated against'

Bulgarian Roma make up between 5 and 10 percent of the country’s population and are among Europe’s poorest and most marginalized people. Those who live in cities often inhabit gruesome ghettos, some of which are even walled off from roads and surrounding communities. Access to jobs tends to be very limited and attendance at school lower than the national average. On the other hand, relations in mixed-ethnicity villages and small towns are often very good, and differentiation between ethnic groups blurred.

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