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.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

But many – most – Bulgarians feel that the Roma have an easy ride. The latter are accused of not paying taxes or utility bills and of involvement in crime. Regular complaints are that the police will not press charges against Roma, and even that ticket collectors on public transport will give them a wide berth.

“If a Bulgarian kills a Gypsy, he’ll go to prison, but if a Gypsy kills a Bulgarian, he goes free,” Aleksandar Damov, a marketing manager leaning on his bicycle at Monday’s rally in Sofia told Christian Science Monitor. “Bulgarians are discriminated against. The police don’t do anything.”

Another demonstrator related that his grandmother had been attacked and left in the snowy street by Gypsies who stole her purse. “I’m not racist,” he said, “but I pay 120 leva a month for water and electricity bills, and pay taxes, while people who haven’t done a single day’s work get government money.”

These views are not the preserve of the far right and associated football hooligans, but are widely shared among the Bulgarian middle classes.

Wealth and crime

Bulgarians are also increasingly frustrated with successive governments’ inability to deal with organized crime and corruption. The European Union has suspended tranches of funding to Bulgaria over graft on several occasions. Stories about the wealthy’s ability to bribe their way out of trouble and buy political favors abound. It is alleged that local tax inspectors turned a blind eye to Rashkov’s expensive properties. Over recent years, a number of senior politicians have been accused of involvement in organized crime, from contract fixing to drug trafficking, forcing several out of office.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who styles himself as a no-nonsense man of action in jeans, was elected on the strength of his promise to break the old, corrupt elites, but has himself been accused of being too close to business interests. Even the muscular “Big Brother Boyko” has proved unable to cut out the corruption, and protestors now see him as part of the problem.

“Enforcing the law against the rich and powerful has always been a problem in Bulgaria,” Daniel Smilov, of the Sofia-based think tank Centre for Liberal Strategies, told The Christian Science Monitor. “What is distinctive is probably the arrogance of the rich in living above the law, which in the case of Tsar Kiro and his associates became particularly visible. So, the unrest was in its core started as anti-oligarchic, but soon turned racist.”

Mr. Smilov is pessimistic for the future. As even many demonstrators agree, when the protests die down, Bulgaria will still be left with the challenges of race, corruption, and crime, with the background of a worsening European economy.

“Roma exclusion is grounded in the poverty of the minority and its poor education,” Smilov says. “The only conceivable solution to this problem is a massive, inevitably paternalistic, publicly funded effort to educate Roma children, and to increase employment in the Roma community. This effort must be sustained over a generation at least. No one is prepared to embark on such a policy. Moreover, the predominant economic fashion for fiscal discipline and rolling back the state excludes the possibility of such large scale public investment. So, the Roma problem will not be solved, and exclusion will most probably accelerate.”

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