The death of a 19-year-old killed in a car accident in a small Bulgarian village has set off violent protests against the Roma community all over the country. The young man was run over last week by a relative of Kiril Rachkov, a wealthy Roma patriarch nicknamed "the Gypsy Tsar." The demonstrations triggered by the incident saw some protesters denouncing corruption and the lack of security in Bulgaria, and others used it as an excuse to unleash racial hatred against the Roma community.
After the man died last Friday, several hundred residents of his village protested outside Rachkov’s house. They accused Rachkov of being the mastermind of an organised crime network they say has terrorised the village. Some of the protesters set fire to several buildings and cars belonging to members of Rachkov’s family. The “Gypsy Tsar” was arrested on Tuesday for making death threats.
Since the first protest, demonstrations have taken place in more than a dozen cities across Bulgaria. Racist slogans have become widespread, including, “Put the Turks under the knife and use the Roma to make soap,” and “Die, Roma.”
According to the Home Office, 168 people were arrested on Tuesday night alone, many carrying explosives, knives and hammers. At least 400 people have been arrested in total, and local media have reported a number of violent incidents. For example, in the town of Varna, a Roma prostitute was beaten up by a gang. The situation has become so dire that some Roma families have stopped sending their children to school.
After three days of violence, the government broke its silence. Rosen Plevneliev, who is running for president on the ruling party ticket, tried to calm the situation. He said the death of the 19-year-old was probably a criminal act, but “was not linked to ethnic tensions.”
Like other countries in central and eastern Europe, Bulgaria is home to a large Roma community, whose integration regularly causes friction.
Friday September 23, the "Gypsy Tsar’s" house went up in smoke.
“Nationalist factions are using what’s happened as an excuse to launch a campaign of hate”
Ruslan Trad is president of the Arab Culture Forum in Sofia. He has been closely following the demonstrations, since they have also targeted Muslims.
Lots of people have heard about the Tsar Kiro [the Gypsy Tsar]. Numerous criminal complaints have been filed against him, but he has never gone to prison. [Since 2005, he’s been investigated six times. He was handed a suspended jail term and fined 2,350 euros]. People know he lives with impunity. He’s part of an [allegedly] corrupt oligarchy that puts pressure on Bulgaria’s courts and political systems [Bulgaria ranks as the second most corrupt country in the European Union, behind Romania].
Security forces didn’t react fast enough in the village of Katunitsa, and events in the rest of the country quickly escaped their control. While some rioters in Katunitsa targeted the Rachkov clan, elsewhere nationalist groups used what has happened as an excuse to launch a hate campaign on the entire Roma community. Dozens of Facebook groups with racist motivations have been created. Even mosques in Sofia and Plovdiv have been attacked [Some of the demonstrators’ slogans have targeted the Turkish and Muslim communities]. It’s a volatile situation. We’re all thinking of the ethnic conflict in the Balkans.
The Roma are an easy target. They don’t have a country or a government. When they are attacked they don’t have anyone to protect them. Many Roma communities are run by a sort of lord, like in feudal times. This creates problems because the non-Roma community in Bulgaria don’t want to live by their rules. That said, it’s not uncommon for Roma patriachs to do business with Bulgarian officials [Authorities confirmed Rachkov hasn’t paid taxes for twenty years, suggesting he has benefited from favouritism in government].
If we protest, it should be against the self-proclaimed elite, and not in any way against the Roma minority. For the last twenty years, Bulgaria has been caught in transition to democracy. Lots of things are changing, and these movements come with significant economic challenges, in particular high unemployment. This situation breeds racism towards minorities who live on the periphery of society. However, stopping social security for the Roma community or attacking them will resolve nothing. Heated emotions will get us nowhere. What we need is strong political influence to fight unemployment, oligarchies and corruption.”
"Last week, Schengen Zone countries refused to admit Bulgaria, citing the presence of organised crime. This has proved them right"
Dessislava Dimitrova is a financial journalist in Sofia.
We mustn’t forget that presidential elections will take place on 23 October, less than a month away. Several days ago, candidates began debating, and it’s no surprise that what’s happened has fired up extremist parties. I’m thinking particularly of Ataka, whose leader is a presidential candidate.
The idea that the Roma community equals organised crime doesn’t hold water. Just because Roma people sometimes commit petty street theft doesn’t mean they’re responsible for large-scale organised crime. No racial element plays a role in that.
What saddens me the most is that less than a week ago, Schengen Zone countries refused to admit Bulgaria [and Romania], saying that our borders aren’t secure and citing in particular the strong presence of organised crime networks. What has happened has proved them right.”
Anti-Roma demonstration in Varna.