Why Did Bulgaria's Cauldron Boil Over?

Editorial |Author: Milena Hristova | September 26, 2011, Monday // 11:53|  views

"No, we won't let a mafia baron, all the more so a gypsy, boss us around! There is no justice for him! There is no court! He buys them with whole briefcases of money!"

The firm vow, voiced by a local from the southern village of Katunitsa near the town of Plovdiv, sums up best the recent bloody events there, which shook the whole country. Ten years of smoldering tensions between an affluent self-proclaimed Roma "tsar" and the residents, escalated at the end of the week into riots, cutting short the lives of two young Bulgarians. Their murder stirred sheer outrage in social networks and a wave of rallies across the country.

The unprecedented for Bulgaria events were widely described as ethnic clashes, but that is something of, though not entirely, a misnomer.

The violence erupted Friday after a 19-year old teenager was struck and killed by a mini-bus driver linked to the local Roma leader Kiril Rashkov, who piled up his huge wealth thanks to unscrupulous trade in bootleg alcohol and votes.

Rashkov and the boy, friend of the former mayor's son, had unsettled scores over land plots. Apparently the Roma baron decided to settle scores by killing the boy - an insolent and hideous act, which (accidentally) coincides with the launch of the presidential election campaign.

The issue here is not the bravado of a Roma. The issue here is the bravado of a man - who happens to be a Roma - that he can place himself above the law and terrorize the locals.

The question here is why the (obviously) corrupt police has left this mafia (not just Roma) clan do whatever they want?

"Tsar" Kiro comes from the typical derelict, garbage-strewn streets of Bulgarian Roma ghettos, which are home to most of the country's 375,000 Roma - although unofficial data estimates their true numbers come closer to 750,000, out of a population of 7.8 million. Here he lived together with skinny men rooting through piles of rubbish alongside pigs and fat women in flowing skirts cradling babies.

Today he has turned into a clan chief, one of those who struck it rich after the collapse of Communism, lives in luxury, drives gleaming cars and has replaced his ramshackle house, made of poorly "cemented" bricks of clay and straw, with a true royal palace.

It was this palace that the rioters torched, creating a powerful symbol of what happens when there is no rule of law – people just take the law into their own hands.

The widely touted muscle-flexing police exercises failed to yield satisfactory results during the riots as well – the men in uniforms just stood in silence and watched.

It turns out that the authorities in Bulgaria, generally not held in high esteem, have little power not only over the larger Roma ghettos, where clan chiefs are left to rule, but also at villages and towns where the Slav people are majority, but Roma clan chiefs are left to rule. So the culture of the local Roma ghetto easily takes the upper hand and the place becomes rife with extortion, human trafficking, baby selling and other menaces.

And this is exactly why the simple wrangling over land plots escalated into a so-called ethnic clash, giving politicians the chance to play the ethnic card.

The Roma baron's power has been so extensive that Katunitsa was on the brink of becoming the "first private village" in popular parlance. His control relied on a small squad of Roma hitmen, who terrified anyone who dared to disobey.

It was only natural that at one point nationalists, chanting racist abuse, joined the riots. The culprit is a Roma man (and a mafia boss at that) and the stereotype is hard to fight for many reasons. Pickpockets and thieves, dirty, lazy, uneducated people, who have tons of kids and sponge off social assistance. This is how the average Bulgarian perceives the Gypsy people, despite the inroads the politically correct term "Roma" has made in people's everyday speech.

The self-proclaimed Roma tsar and a virtual landlord of the village of Katunitsa has been delivered a number of sentences, totaling thirty years in prison. But that was before the communist regime collapsed in 1989.

After that he seems to have been the darling of all those in power – none of the complaints or investigations against him has ended up in court. Reports say Rashkov was ready to fork out a whopping BGN 100,000 in bribes to make officials "forget" his case.

Besides it is more than clear that those in power need Rashkov – he is the man they rely upon to secure the votes of the Roma minority, who tip the balance in any elections in Bulgaria.

The events are clear defeats for Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and his interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov who, since taking office in late July 2009, repeatedly pledged to send top-level criminals to jail.

Katunitsa has turned into a symbol of the consequences of an inefficient judicial system and rule of law deficit. The conflict is a national problem, which perfectly illustrates the corruption and hideous perversions of justice that reign in Bulgaria.

And this is exactly why the country was forced, just days before Katunitsa's cauldron boiled over, to say goodbye to its bright Schengen hopes.

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Tags: Rashkov, Kiril, Kiro, Tsar, Katunitsa, Roma, ethnic clashes, ethnic violence, Bulgaria, Plovdiv, Tsar, police, Schengen


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