By Muzaffer Kutlay
Last Friday (September, 23) in Katunica Village, in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, 19-year-old Angel Petrov was crushed by a Roma-driven minibus. The events which began after this incident spread throughout the country in a short time period and dragged Bulgaria into a serious crisis. When the minibus driver, who was claimed to be connected with mafia leader Kiril Rashkov, also known as “Tsar Kiro,” disappeared, the people of Katunica, with a population of around 2300, began mass protests. Since Saturday, in different regions of the country, hundreds of people took to the streets; Roma neighborhoods were turned into battlefields. In various cities Bulgarian youngsters, in a sense, took to the streets to hunt for Roma.
Measures taken by the government as a result of the events that have continued unabated for about a week were insufficient. On the eve of the presidential and local elections to be held on October 23, this event, bringing Bulgaria to the brink of a crisis, has resonated seriously in the foreign press, particularly when it came to the issue of the Roma. Spiegel Online, while providing the headline “Forgotten Civil War of Eastern Europe” in reference to the issue,has harshly accused Bulgaria of consistently committing violence against Roma in the country.
Policy of “endurance” rather than “tolerance” against minorities
Protests started by the people of Katunica were, at first, a justified reaction. But in the following days, through the manipulation of particular interest groups, they transformed into a social/ethnic conflict targeting all minorities in the country. The leader of ultra-nationalist party ATAKA in particular, Volen Siderov, whose name was often heard because of his anti-Turkish and anti-Turkey rhetoric, began his usual speeches as the “incident in Katunica is a symbolic one, Bulgarians are under threat, Bulgaria belongs to Bulgarians” in order to potentially increase his own vote.
On the other hand, the government, in a sense fulfilling its responsibility of being the ruling party, urged people to use their commonsense. For the first time, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and the President Georgi Parvanov even acted together and made a visit to the region where the incidents took place. Then, approximately 350 people involved in the conflicts at demonstrations and criminals like Kiril Rashkov were arrested. The government also inculcated distinguishing between criminals and people in order to prevent discussionsof acting on ethnic grounds. However, the media showed us that Bulgarian police arrived too late to intervene in the demonstrations and were biased, just as in the attack by ATAKA in May against the Muslim community in Banyabaşı Mosque while it was praying, as happened to the mufti during the communist period, or Nedim Gencev’s private security forces using force against the employees of the Office of Bulgarian Muslims’ Head Mufti at the end of 2010. So various sections of the population, somewhat fairly, criticized the government for not intervening in the incidents properly.
Situation of Roma in Bulgaria
The Roma, who constitute approximately 6-7% of Bulgarian population, are the second largest ethnic community in the country after the Turks. It’s estimated that there are 10 million Roma across Europe and that 1/5 of them live in Romania. The exact number of Roma is not known because in many European countries, censusesare not taken according to ethnic identity.
It is a known fact that the socio-economic status of Roma in Europe is extremely bad. In that sense, Roma living in Bulgaria are not exception. It’s actually much more difficult for them because Bulgaria is among the poorest countries of not only Europe, but also the Balkans. First of all, we are talking about a community living in social exclusion because the population refused to admit them. They are living in isolated neighborhoods far from urban centers and devoid of regular jobs and income. They are exposed to discrimination in public services such as education, health, etc. They earn their living through street business or by selling the scrap metals they collected. Generally, these metals are traffic signs from roadsides which lead to a significant burden on government budget.
The Bulgarian view of the Roma is prejudiced, as it is against other minority groups in the country. A majority of the population thinks that the Roma burden the state and are not fitting intosocietyor respecting its laws. These approaches cannot be said to be completely out of place since the Roma are often mentioned in the reports of various institutions such as the EU or UN along with common crimes such as robbery. On the other hand, Bulgaria has started a long term integration policy for Roma within the scope of the EU acquis. But Bulgarian authorities have expressed and formally documented that Roma are reluctant to attend schools and courses, and refuse to work regularlyor move to houses built for them. All these factors help explain why Roma have a bad reputation in the country.
Bulgaria: a country of working poor
Bulgarian streets became an arena for peoplemost severely feeling the effects of an economic crisis to vent their outrage, and also for the politicians who exploit the events to obtain temporary support for theirapproaching presidential and local elections. Because these days, Bulgaria’s economy is in a rough patch. According to the figures regarding the country, one in five families lives below the poverty line, with a 95 euro monthly income. The overall unemployment rate is around 12-14% in the country (this rate increases to 40% in the areas where mostly Turks live).The highest salary of a university professor is around 500 euro. Dismissing public servants in order to balance government expenditures is up for discussion. The clearest evidence of the state being the reason for poverty is that the minimum retirement pension is below the poverty line.
Hence, in the recent events, the economic downturn prepared a suitable environment for people to gather in the streets more quickly, give credit to nationalist rhetoric, and again declare minorities a scapegoat. A pleasing aspect of this incident is that Turks did not take part in the conflicts. Thankfully, they were neutral, as they have always been.
Muzaffer Kutlay, USAK Center for EU Studies. [email protected]