Bulgaria’s tense week: spark, fire, and solvent

A local incident turned national conflict mixing anti-Roma sentiment and nationalist mobilisation reveals flaws in Bulgaria’s political order that demand a coherent response, says Daniel Smilov.
Daniel Smilov
4 October 2011

Katunitsa is a village in southern Bulgaria in which Roma and Bulgarians - all of them Bulgarian citizens - lived peacefully for ages. It is known by outsiders primarily as the residence of a notorious figure referred to as“tsar” Kiro.

This rich Roma businessman - whose real name is Kiril Rashkov - accumulated vast wealth from the production of unlicensed alcohol in the years after the fall of communism in 1989. His influence was such that people viewed him as an embodiment of the fusion of wealth and political power that was a feature of that period: hence the colloquial title “tsar” - an expression that mixed irony, dismay and fear.

An incident on 23 September 2011 exposed some of the dark undercurrents that have flowed through Kiro’s life and the Bulgarian society that has incubated him. In the context of a simmering conflict between relatives of tsar Kiro and some other local people, a 19-year-old boy died after having been viciously run over by a van whose driver (it was alleged) was acting on instructions from tsar Kiro or his relatives.

This incident provoked a series of protests which began that same night when two of the houses of tsar Kiro were stormed and set on fire by a mob comprising mostly football fans from the nearby city of Plovdiv. The protests’ ostensible target was “Roma criminality”, a shorthand to describe the petty crimes perpetrated by Roma that reportedly are widespread in certain parts of the country; but they also acquired strong nationalistic and racial overtones, and as they spread across the country in ensuing days there was at least one racially motivated beating, of two Roma boys in the town of Blagoevgrad.

The political parties most adept at exploiting anti-Roma sentiments - mostly the nationalistic Ataka and VMRO - attempted to draw immediate dividends from the events in their campaign for the presidential and municipal elections due on 23 October 2011. Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka, toured the TV studios to expound on the dangers of “Roma criminality” and defend the protesting crowds as conscientious citizens. There were processions of nationalists whose political slogans verged on incitement of racial hatred, and in the case of some participants their racism was explicit.

The problems revealed

The Katunitsa incident and its aftermath are hardly remarkable in comparative perspective, though in four ways they mark a precedent in Bulgarian politics.

First, the nature and scale of the turbulence - in terms of the number of incidents, the mix of spontaneity and (as it developed) organisation, the degree of violence (albeit only in some places), the prevalence of racist sentiments and anti-Roma activities throughout the country (including the capital Sofia) - has been striking and worrying.

Second, in previous sporadic cases of tension (for example, when an Ataka demonstration in front of Sofia’s historic mosque in May 2011 led to violent clashes with the police) there had been a relatively strong and fast public outcry. After Katunitsa, the public - although disproving of violence in general - was more ambiguous in its feelings, and many probably approved the torching of tsar Kiro’s houses.

Third, the way the police let the mob set the two houses on fire showed its bad mishandling of the situation in Katunitsa.

Fourth, there was a tangible political vacuum during and after the events. An immediate, unified and categorical political reaction was notable by its absence - whether from prime minister Boyko Borissov and the governing GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) or the other establishment parties. This may well explain the hesitation of the police in taking effective action on the night of the killing.

It is true that the authorities were caught by surprise, but a more decisive governmental response at the start could have defused much of the public tension. The failure of the political mainstream surrendered the interpretation of what was happening to the media and the nationalists. As a result, the Katunitsa incident allowed racist language to enter the pre-election campaigns at unprecedented levels.  

These aspects of the Katunitsa incident suggest that it should not be treated in isolation but rather be seen as a crystallisation of structural conditions, political pressures and social frustrations that had been accumulating in Bulgaria over several years.

The deeper factors

In this perspective, Katunitsa can be seen as the culmination of four such elements.

The first is a crisis of the party system. The mainstreaming of nationalism and extreme populism started in 2005 with the emergence of Ataka, which built on the inroads made earlier by VMRO and other small parties. Of more lasting significance, however, is the disintegration of the “programmatic” established parties, which continues to this day.

The centre-right, which was dominant in the 1990s, now commands less than 5% of the electorate; the ex-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party stands at around 15%-17%; while the rest of the public tends to give its votes to parties led by charismatic leaders (such as Borissov’s GERB, the nationalist Ataka [which wins less than 10%], and the ethnic-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms [DPS, which also accounts for around 10% of the vote]).

The occasional success of minor populists - such as Order, Lawfulness and Justice (RZS, now represented in parliament) - completes the fragmentation of the party system. This, reinforced by the associated high voter volatility and low levels of professionalisation and institutionalisation, presents serious political risks for the future.

Moreover, the political and party system is almost wholly detached from the Roma minority, engaging with it only during elections in order to buy Roma votes (vote-buying in Roma ghettos is said to be rampant and to present a significant source of income for local Roma leaders).

The second element is very low trust in democratic authorities. A survey published by Alpha Research just before the Katunitsa incident showed that just 5% of people had trust in parliament. Many people feel unrepresented by the political establishment, and as a result some seek extra-parliamentary forms of participation - whose manifestations include rallies and violent outbursts.

The third is Roma exclusion, which has been rendered intractable by current policies. This exclusion is grounded in the Roma people’s poverty and poor (or in many cases zero) education. Any conceivable solution to this problem will involve a massive, publicly funded (and inevitably paternalistic) effort to educate Roma kids and to increase employment in the Roma community. This effort must be sustained over a generation at least.

No political party or significant group, however, is prepared to embark on such a policy. The nationalists would strongly oppose any preferential treatment or benefits for the Roma, and the currently dominant economic fashion (for fiscal discipline, free markets, and rollback of the state) generally excludes the kind of large-scale public investments that a serious strategy would require. So, the Roma problem will barely improve, and exclusion will most probably only accelerate.

The fourth element is persistent failures of the rule of law. The enforcement of the law against the rich and powerful, and a neglect of the interests of ordinary people, has always been a problem in Bulgaria. Furthermore, the arrogance of rich people who live above the law has become particularly visible and obnoxious in cases such as that of tsar Kiro of Katunitsa (albeit he is now in custody)

In fact, the unrest there started as a revolt against a local feudal lord whose self-importance had become boundless. This agenda was quickly overtaken by nationalists and racists, but the initial anti-oligarchical enthusiasm continued to be present in most of the subsequent protests, which lent them the sympathies of sections of society which would normally be indifferent to or even despise political nationalism.

The challenge

Katunitsa is thus revealing of the tests which Bulgarian democracy will have to face in the future, even more so if urgent and systematic measures are not taken soon. The incident may have started as a criminal case, but an exclusive focus on law-enforcement will be insufficient to address its repercussions. The social condition of the Roma minority, among other problems, must be tackled in a meaningful way.

The incident should also not be met by paranoid measures and reactions against nationalists. After all, their actions (the aforementioned incidents excepted) have remained within the limits of legality. The generally peaceful character of the demonstrations suggests that Bulgarian society has the resources to accommodate ethnically flavoured controversies and conflict. But a reliance on these resources must be accompanied by the application of common-sense rationality rather than emotionalism by the political class. Since this class is today increasingly populist, sensationalist, and unprofessional, it will be a tough challenge.     

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