Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Anti-Roma Vigilante Demand Shames Bulgaria

Top trade unionist’s call for armed militias to counter gypsy crime undermines country’s reputation for tolerance.
By Albena Shkodrova

In a shabby, narrow alley that is the main street of Konyovitsa, the Roma quarter in the heart of Sofia, tap water dribbles from a broken pipe, forming small rivers and dirty pools among the ruined paving.


The residents of this part of the Bulgarian capital belong to the most deprived ethnic community in the country. They are also, possibly, the most feared – so much so, that an influential trade unionist has recently called for paramilitary groups to counter their alleged criminal exploits.


“Gypsy crime has taken on epidemic dimensions,” Konstantin Trenchev, leader of Podkrepa, one of Bulgaria’s two largest trade unions, said on August 10.


Claiming that the police had become impotent in dealing with the “epidemic”, he said ethnic Bulgarians needed to form a new “nationwide power structure” to counter the crime wave.


Trenchev’s statement, though denounced as racist by human rights groups, has provoked an extraordinary public debate in a country that has generally prided itself on its historic tolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities.


In defence of Roma rights, several human rights organisations signed a declaration of protest against Trenchev’s words, issued statements of condemnation and called on the state prosecutor to investigate, claiming his statement incites racial hatred.


The gypsies at the centre of the furore are probably the least concerned of all. “Trenchev said something about gypsies not paying for their electricity, while Bulgarians do,” a 50-year-old man in Konyovitsa said, apparently uninformed about what Trenchev had really said.


A younger man, surrounded by a crowd of children further down the street, only shrugged when quizzed about Trenchev’s call, before disappearing into a weird-looking shelter made mainly of rusty tin plates.


For all its air of deprivation, Konyovitsa ranks as the best off Roma habitat in Bulgaria, as it is so close to the centre of the capital. A few modest brick houses rise between the more makeshift constructions, many of them hybrid affairs of wooden fences and tents.


Though so close to the centre of public life, non-gypsies rarely pass through this quarter, marked off from the rest of the city by a large boulevard, a renovated Orthodox church and a huge, depressing-looking building that once housed an important state firm.


Konyovitsa has also improved lately, at least compared to its state ten years ago, when garbage piled up in small mountains, filthy rugs hung from fences and donkeys peeped out from small, messy yards.


Since then, Roma advocacy groups and other NGOs have pushed government and society to take measures to integrate Roma better into public life. It is one reason why Trenchev’s call for armed militias has stirred such an outcry.


The gypsy crime wave in question refers in particular to a single, recent case, in which five foresters were beaten up by gypsies near the town of Samokov, as they tried to stop illegal acts of deforestation.


But while NGOs and rights groups predictably denounced the call for paramilitary vigilantes, the row has revealed a worrying degree of popularity for Trenchev’s ideas among the public at large.


Apart from garnering open support from the small, nationalist VMRO party and other radical nationalist groups, Trenchev seems to have tapped into broader, although unofficial, support from a public that is increasingly worried about the size and state of the country’s ethnic minorities.


The exact size of these groups, headed by Turks and Roma in that order, is not certain. The 2001 census said Roma made up 4.6 per cent of Bulgaria’s 7.5 million population. But unofficial estimates believe the true figure is higher, and is closer to ten per cent, or 750,000.


What is certain is that Roma live in poorer conditions than most Bulgarians, suffer high levels of unemployment and are poorly educated.


According to the World Bank, 70 per cent of Roma in Bulgaria were unemployed in 2003 (though many work in the undeclared, or grey, sector). NGOs specialising in education suggest that by the early 1990s, only two per cent of Bulgarian Roma had obtained a secondary education.


A government report in July 2003 shed light on the existence of Roma ghettos, comprising mainly unplanned and potentially unsafe buildings, with no public utilities, or infrastructure. The report said up to 80 per cent of these were illegal constructions that do not meet basic safety standards.


Under pressure to harmonise its legislation with EU standards, Sofia has adopted a comprehensive package of laws to narrow this chasm, but the results are not yet obvious, as most of the measures are long-term.


Meanwhile, the gap between ethnic Bulgarians and Roma remains as wide as ever in terms of segregation, or self-segregation. Europe is monitoring the problem. An EU report on Bulgaria from October 2003 said during that year the situation “slightly improved” for Roma, adding that “discrimination in education, employment, health care and public services still exists”.


A separate EU report in September 2003 on anti-discrimination measures being taken in union candidate states said that in Bulgaria there was “a clear need to tackle prejudice and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities amongst public authorities at various levels, [and] in the media and throughout society”.


The Bulgarian media has been slow to abandon a tradition of not reporting on the minority at all, or reporting solely on the issue of Roma crime.


Research into Bulgaria’s print media, conducted in 2000-2001, concluded that reporting on Roma was “insignificant in quantity” and “focused on crime and misery”. It was “lacking any analytical context”.


Accustomed to this unequal relationship, the gypsy community does not seem troubled by the latest display of intolerance. Ralitza Sechkova, of the St Georgi National Roma Center, said, “Many of them simply don't know [about Trenchev’s statements]. I think Bulgarians reacted more strongly than gypsies did.”


“I don’t think anyone is very aware of the statement, here,” said Nevena Madzharova, of the Dobra Mayka Roma organisation in the village of Vardun, near Turgovishte. “People go out every morning to collect raspberries in the fields. They don’t have time to read the news.”


Yet, Trenchev’s recent statement brought to surface prejudices shared by a significant part of Bulgarian society. Deeply-rooted stereotypes that Roma are lazy, violent and disrespectful of the law, combined with the above-average position of Roma in crime statistics, has fed an idea that the whole community is responsible for the deeds of some criminals.


This sentiment finds no echo in serious political parties, all of whom promote a policy of ethnic tolerance, realising how important this is to Bulgaria’s image abroad and its passage into the EU.


But readers' discussion forums in the country’s on-line media reveal a different set of attitudes. Many are full of hard-line racist statements. “This is a gypsy state. It is disgusting to walk the streets. Everywhere, you see gypsies who look around, hoping to steal something,” reads a typical offering in one of these publications. Gypsies are “not human as we see humans” says another. “Trenchev is not inciting anyone. He expresses the opinions of many people.”


Of 47 comments on the Trenchev issue in the forum pages of the Sega daily, not one opposes the chorus of racist statements. The situation in the online discussion columns of Mediapool.bg and Dnevnik are only slightly different.


Krasimir Kunev, of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, says this groundswell of racism undercuts Bulgaria’s reputation for tolerance. “What is really worrying is that the protesting voices were so few, with the majority of people supporting Trenchev’s allegations,” he said.


Some believe this bigotry is increasing, even among the better educated. “Nationalism, intolerance and even racism are becoming more popular with each year of new students,” a professor at Sofia university told IWPR.


Kunev said there were fears that Trenchev’s words might embolden skinheads or villagers to take action. Romani Bah, a Roma advocacy organisation, claims some gypsies have already been beaten up.


True or not, the lid has been lifted on a debate which many in Bulgaria would have preferred had never started in the first place.


Albena Shkodrova is a regular IWPR contributor in Sofia.