Sleepy village an unlikely spark for Roma protests

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 30, 2011 12:24 PM
Sleepy village an unlikely spark for Roma protests

By Irina Ivanova

KATUNITSA, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Nothing in the cool autumn morning suggests the sleepy village of Katunitsa would have been the flashpoint for Bulgaria's worst outbreak of civil unrest for more than a decade.

Ethnic Bulgarian and Roma villagers agree the trouble behind what developed into nationwide anti-Roma protests was really a local dispute with Roma clan leader Kiril Rashkov, known locally as "Czar Kiro," after a man he was linked to ran over and killed a 19-year-old.

"Our problem is not a problem between the communities. Our problem is with the family of Kiril Rashkov," said resident Dimitar Zdravkov, who works for the council in a nearby town.

"We are living together with the Roma and we don't have any problems."

Residents of the village, which sits on flat farmland within commuting distance of Bulgaria's second city Plovdiv some 160 km (100 miles) east of Sofia, say Rashkov regularly behaved as if he were untouchable, grabbing land and making threats.

They regretted that their local problem had been hijacked by nationalists who used it as a pretext to rampage against Roma in the cities.

In revenge for the death of Angel Petrov, soccer "ultras" -- die-hard fans often at the center of violent incidents in southeast Europe -- from Plovdiv stormed Katunitsa and set some of Rashkov's houses and cars on fire.

The trouble quickly spread to bigger cities, rocking the European Union's poorest state for three nights and sounding a warning for other central and eastern European states.

The rallies have their roots in three of the region's most pressing concerns -- unemployment, organized crime and corruption, and the fragile position of ethnic minorities -- and show how even minor spats can swiftly escalate in countries where many people live in poverty.

Bulgaria has an average wage of 350 euros a month but in Katunitsa, a village of 2,400 people clustered around an Orthodox church, Rashkov owns fashionable cars, several luxury houses and a mansion with a pond and a private zoo.

He was convicted several times before the fall of communism for possession of foreign exchange and gold, has been arrested multiple times -- including for illegal production of alcohol -- and is currently being investigated for large-scale tax evasion.

It is a scene common to many places across Bulgaria, the EU's second most corrupt country where public dissatisfaction with official efforts to clamp down on people who flaunt unfeasible wealth is widespread.

Katunitsa's residents -- some have jobs in Plovdiv, others work in the fields and some rely on welfare -- say money is tight. But the village's long, paved streets lined with identical houses are tidy enough and villagers say the problem is not Rashkov's wealth, but his behavior.

ISOLATION

Roma are an easy target for frustration because they tend to live in specific districts, often in poor housing on the margins of big cities, and many are unemployed and perceived to be living off state benefits.

Hungary's Roma have been shot dead in their homes, killed by hand grenades and attacked with petrol bombs.

Last year in the Czech Republic, a court imposed the country's longest sentence for a racially motivated crime on four men who firebombed a Roma family's home, leaving a two-year-old child with burns over most of her body.

"Unfortunately it seems to have become a background pattern in this part of Europe," said Dezideriu Gergely, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center. "It's much easier to turn on minorities and Roma are the most vulnerable."

Neighboring Romania is the logical flashpoint, with the largest Roma population in Europe both in total numbers and in proportion to the overall population.

"In a society marred by strong economic pressures, people are always looking for an enemy or culprit," said independent political analyst Bogdan Teodorescu.

It is no surprise then that many Roma migrate to western Europe, a phenomenon that sparked its own controversy last year when France deported many Roma en masse.

POVERTY

This week's events have moved crime and Roma up the political agenda before next month's presidential elections -- though it remains to be seen what concrete action will be taken.

Rosen Plevneliev, the ruling GERB party's candidate for president, pledged to make more serious efforts to crack down on graft and also said it was time to resolve the Roma question.

"Many governments have done almost nothing about it over the last 20 years and more, now it must be made a priority," he told Reuters.

In Katunitsa's Roma neighborhood, residents say the weekend was terrifying and are grateful to ethnic Bulgarian villagers who stood up for them.

"The ultras wanted to come but the village didn't let them in," said Andon, a father of two who declined to give his second name.

"The people fighting in the cities are fighting for nothing. They are making Nazism."

(Additional reporting by Sam Cage and Radu Marinas in Bucharest; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)