Отклонения, лирически и прозаически
Ethnic Toll-erance

Again it is election time in Bulgaria. Time for counting the chickens, as the saying goes*. Unlike a census, at elections only some of the votes are counted – the votes of those who decide to cast them. This is normally about 35% of eligible voters in Bulgaria. Statistically speaking, most voters in Bulgaria fall into three categories, according to their ethnic background – Bulgarians, Turks and Roma. Of the three groups, there is 100% voting activity with only the last two.

Turks almost always vote for the Turkish party (DPS). If DPS has not made it to the re-run, they normally vote for the socialists. They are a hard-to-win electorate. There is an informal division of the government of the various municipalities in the country – some are ‘Turkish’ and the rest are ‘Bulgarian’. It is only after this division that the further separation into ‘Socialist’ (a.k.a. ‘Communist’), ‘Democratic’ etc is done.

In the big hunt for voters, Roma inevitably play a crucial part – there are about 500,000 Roma (c. 6% of population) in Bulgaria. In this ‘decade of Roma Integration’, billions of leva are being spent on improving the living conditions of the Roma – one small instance is the initiative in the Dobrich region, where 20 Roma were enrolled on a course for learning the alphabet and the language basics – not only is this tuition for free, but everyone of the ‘students’ is paid an additional allowance of 3 leva daily, plus transport expenses. “Many NGOs are trying in a ‘piece-work’ manner to patch the giant shell-holes in the hull of the state ship regarding the Roma policy,” said Antonina Zhelyazkova, Chairperson of the International Centre for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations. “The approach towards the Roma society in Bulgaria needs to be revalued. We must admit that the problem was lost hold of, and that it has been left to deteriorate to infinity. Only in the last couple of years there have been attempts to even begin to solve the Roma problem.”

With all this in mind, some may raise the question of ethnic tolerance in Bulgaria. August has given many more reasons to seriously regard this issue and its true meaning:

On August 13th about 300 Roma people gathered in the Krasna Polyana borough, shouting “Death to Bulgarians”. The Roma claimed that they had been constantly under attack by skinheads. Riots erupted and police officers and citizens were injured. Many motor vehicles were damaged, shop windows broken and properties vandalised. The Roma were armed with wooden poles and threatened anyone who passed near them. The riot ended by the morning of the 14th. During the whole time, the police monitored the crowd but did not actively engage in the situation. In the clear light of day, the politicians moved in to claim their voting platforms. Sofia mayor Boiko Borissov, said the issue with the Roma is a social one, not an ethnic one. “By the end of the month the European Commission will provide three million dollars for Roma housing in the neighbourhoods of Krasna Polyana, Zaharna Fabrika and Batalova Vodenitsa. It does not matter if we like the Roma or not, we should integrate them into our society,” Borissov told reporters on August 21 after meeting Roma leaders. The riot also provoked harsh reactions, with President Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stansihev asking for actions to be taken by the police to investigate the situation. "Anyone who dares violate public order and provoke ethnic tension will feel the hand of the law," Interior Minister Roumen Petkov told reporters on August 20 after meeting Parvanov.

On the same day Vladimir Rasate, a little-known leader of a nationalist group, Bulgarian National Union (BNU), said that the BNU would create a national guard that would protect people in times of riots, when “the authorities do nothing”. Rasate even presented 12 people as existing members of the future guard who were dressed in uniforms and boots resembling army uniforms from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rasate stated that the guard would be Bulgarians’ alternative when the authorities do not fulfil their duties to protect them.

On the night of August 22, in the Rhodopi town of Smolyan, a 17-year-old Roma died in the centre of the town after he was attacked by an unidentified gang. A police presence was required on the day after in order to guarantee no violent outbursts – witnesses reported seeing a big gang of Roma gathered in front of the municipality building, again shouting ‘death to all Bulgarians!’

On the afternoon of August 23, a boy and a girl were walking down the Montevideo Blvd. in Sofia. A group of five Roma - three girls and two boys - stopped them asking for money. Sijka, 16, was then beaten almost to death after refusing to give them any. Sijka was dragged to a nearby bridge, where she was hit with sticks and eventually thrown over the bridge and down into the river. According to the surgeon on duty at the Emergency ward, the girl looked "as if she had been through a meat-mincer".

The problems are set to continue well beyond the next election; all we can hope for is for someone to stop the political games and to get down to trying to integrate Bulgarian society more effectively, before ethnic tensions turn into more serious ethnic violence.

* The Bulgarian equivalent of “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched” is “Chickens are counted in autumn.”

September 2007