Hundreds of Bulgarians rallied for a third night in major cities on Wednesday to protest against the Balkan country's Roma minority. The death of a 19-year-old in southern Bulgaria had triggered the protests.
Petrov was run over by a car
Bulgarians have been taking to the streets for several days to voice their anger at the country's large Roma minority, after 19-year-old Angel Petrov was run over by members of a Roma family in Katunica, 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the capital, Sofia, last Friday.
His death has reignited simmering ethnic tensions in Bulgaria, not least because Bulgaria's notorious Roma boss Kiril Rashkov, also known as "King Kiro," was in the car that killed Petrov. Eyewitnesses said there had been a dispute between Petrov's family and King Kiro.
Rashkov, who is the richest man in Katunitsa, is notorious throughout Bulgaria for a variety of illegal activities, including dealing with non-licensed alcohol. He has never had to go to court over this, and in addition to that, has been terrorizing the village for years, according to residents.
"There is no one in this village who hasn't been threatened by him," one man, who did not want to be named, said.
On Wednesday, 69-year-old Rashkov was arrested and charged with issuing a murder threat to a resident of Katunitsa.
Petrov's death has made the people of Katunitsa furious, prompting them to gather in front of Roma families' houses and set them on fire. They were supported by football hooligans from nearby Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city. In clashes with the police, one 16-year-old died, allegedly of heart failure. Five people were injured and around 130 were arrested for vandalism.
And that was just the beginning. Thousands of people from all over Bulgaria got together on Facebook, to voice their support for the people of Katunitsa and organize street protests in major cities.
Young people in particular have been very vocal with racist and nationalist slogans like "turn Gypsies into soap" and "all Gypsies out," with at least 400 people being arrested as a result.
Bulgaria, which has the highest percentage of Muslims in the EU, likes to see itself as a beacon of ethnic peace in the Balkans. Nearly 500,000 Roma live in Bulgaria. But far from being peaceful, anti-Roma sentiment has been building up for two decades.
"Over 90 percent of Bulgarians of Slavic origin think that the Roma live off the state," said sociologist Anna Mantarova, who has worked on several studies on the topic.
"Also, most of those believe that Roma don't respect the law. Add to that the government's inefficient way of dealing with criminals, who have been going about their business unpunished. And that has been fueling prejudice against this one ethnic group," she explained.
The latest statistics on ethnicity and crime, from 1998, showed that Roma were responsible for most thefts, burglaries and instances of assault in the country. Mantarova said since then the situation has not really changed and that people are particularly sensitive to these types of offenses.
Tough living conditions often fan the flames of ethnic prejudice, and Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in the EU. People are keenly aware of where the state's money is going, and that many Roma live off of state handouts.
"Eight out of 10 Bulgarians feel threatened by the Roma to a certain extent," Mantarova said, adding that the Roma are among the poorest in Bulgaria, often living in ghettos in dreadful conditions.
Bulgarian politicians are trying to get on top of the situation by showing a united front. President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who rarely agree on anything, faced the television cameras together, warning their people that further escalating the tensions would isolate Bulgaria.
Deputy Interior Minister Veselin Vuchkov also appealed to all politicians to be reasonable.
"I hope that all politicians will, at least in this case, do their utmost to be responsible and to not use this tragic incident to their advantage. It would be only too easy to do that," he warned.
Vuchkov was referring to the election campaigns that have just got under way. On October 23, Bulgarians will go to the polls to vote for a new president and new local governments.
Author: Blagorodna Grigorova / ng
Editor: Nancy Isenson