Collapse of a so-called social model

The riots that rocked the village of Katounitsa and several cities across Bulgaria have not only marked a sudden upsurge in anti-Roma sentiment: an anthropologist argues that they are also a symptom of a sick society which has been unable to overcome the scourge of clientelism.

Published on 30 September 2011 at 13:46
The house of Roma leader "King Kiro", after it was set on fire in the village of Katunitsa on September 24, 2011

What happened in Katounitsa was not simply an incident [see box below] or an isolated case, but evidence of a destructive trend that the passivity of state institutions has allowed to become endemic in recent years. It is a conflict that must be examined within the overall context of politics in Bulgaria.

As a nation without proper leaders, we have been obliged to make do with para-politicians who have undermined our expectations and the hopes of civil society. Since election campaigns began several months ago [presidential and municipal elections are scheduled to be held on 23 October], we have not heard one interesting exchange of ideas on the economy, foreign policy or society. What we have had is a generous serving of plots and betrayals. We have reached a point where Bulgarian politics has now become an offshoot of the scandal sheets which feed on it.

Political dialogue, which is at an all time low, has now reached a level characterised by the shameless exploitation of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in this country. Years have gone by, and we have yet to see one politician attempt to restore order in the relations between Christians and Muslims or between the Roma and other communities. No one has come forward to propose effective strategies for the real integration of minorities, because our self-proclaimed political elite is convinced that the best option is to sustain the humiliating status quo which enables it to cling to power.

Self-proclaimed kings

These tensions are always motivated by political interests, especially in the run-up to elections. There are thousands of reasons that have caused us to abandon hope for social justice in Bulgaria. And the despair that they have prompted has affected every section of society: from doctors to poets, and even subsistence farmers. Obviously the only people who do not appear to be worried by this state of affairs are the nouveaux riches bandits, big-time criminals, corrupt politicians and highly placed magistrates.

In such a situation, and here I am speaking as a historian and social anthropologist, the most effective political strategy is to project anger on minorities, the members of other religions, or any group that is simply different. Once the real issues have been masked by false problems, distinctions become blurred, and it is easy to present political errors or criminal incidents as inter-ethnic conflicts, with occasionally dramatic consequences.

There are powder kegs like Katounitsa virtually everywhere in Bulgaria. We have now had three or four generations of Roma with no education and thus no possibility of succeeding in the labour market, while crime has climbed steeply. At the same time, anti-Roma sentiment in society in general has reached an all time high.

The political parties have corrupted the poorest and most marginal groups by involving them in vote trading deals, which have launched the careers of ghetto leaders and self-proclaimed Roma “kings,” who grow wealthy on the backs of their fellow believers by selling their political support to the highest bidder. These are the people who now benefit from the undisputed control of neighbourhoods, villages and in some cases towns throughout Bulgaria.

Feudal privileges

Like a large section of his clan, so-called “King Kiro” should have been jailed years ago for crimes like the production of bootleg alcohol and the trafficking of women and children. But he has escaped justice, because he can count on considerable resources: large amounts of cash that he uses to pay off police, politicians and magistrates, and also a political capital in the form of several thousand votes.

This is not an ethnic problem, but a national disease. What are we to do about all of these towns and regions that are under the de facto “management” of mafia bosses, who control populations by distributing privileges or sowing fear?

Simply applying the law should be enough to enable us to abolish local feudal privileges, and sentence criminals so that the citizens of this country can be free to vote, live and work as they wish. But as it stands, it seems that this is impossible in Bulgaria.

Context

A wave of anti-Roma riots

Since 24 September, a wave of anti-Roma riots has swept across major cities and towns in Bulgaria. The demonstrators, who term themselves “defenders of the Bulgarian nation” and who are often very young, are protesting against alleged Roma impunity to the law.

It all began with what authorities initially described as a "tragic road accident," in which a 24-year-old man was knocked down by a minibus taking a group of Roma to the home of Kiril Rachkov, a self-styled gypsy king in the village of Katounitsa, population 3,000, which is close to Plovdiv in the south of the country.

The father of the victim insisted his son had been deliberately murdered, while the occupants of the minibus took refuge in the home of "King Kiro," before forcing their way through an improvised roadblock that had been set up by local people, injuring other villagers in the process. Having been joined by hardcore supporters of Plovdiv football club, the inhabitants of Katounitsa then set about burning and looting houses belonging to the Rachkov clan. On the following day, a 16-year-old boy, who suffered from a chronic heart ailement, died amid further scuffles in the village.

The driver of the minibus, who was quick to turn himself over to police, claims to have accidentally run over the young man after a roadside dispute. On 28 September, Bulgaria’s Interior Minister announced the arrest of Kiril Rachkov, who is accused of “issuing death threats” and large scale tax evasion.

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