Roma riots stir unease in Bulgaria


An outbreak of violence in a rundown quarter of Sofia has reignited concerns about the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society.

By Ivan Tchomakov for Southeast European Times in Sofia - 31/08/07


A Bulgarian Roma family rides a horse cart in the city of Plovdiv. [Getty Images]

Ethnic harmony in Bulgaria suffered a blow in mid-August as hundreds of Roma men armed with clubs and axes took to the streets, setting garbage cans on fire, breaking car windows and threatening residents in Sofia's so-called Faculty quarter. Police did not intervene, relying instead on a Roma political leader, Tsvetelin Kanchev.

He restored calm after several hours and said the Roma had come out to protect themselves after hearing rumours that they would be attacked by skinheads or drug dealers wanting to establish control over their neighbourhood. However, the precise reasons for the riot have yet to be fully established.

"There are no ethnic tensions" between Bulgarians and the Roma, Kanchev said in several interviews. Most, if not all bloggers, in the country seem to think differently. The events of August 15th have elicited a wide range of reactions, from anger to compassion and soul-searching.

"I grew up in a racist family. My mother hated the gypsies, but I could never hate them," writes Dusha. She laments the fact that Bulgarians have built a stereotype of the gypsy as someone who is lazy, refuses to pay his bills, steals, and does not want to work.

"Whenever we see someone darker than ourselves, we always make these associations. But why? Have we forgotten that we are all human," she says.

An anonymous reader of her post agrees: "We have gotten used to judging people by their ethnic affiliation and are totally ignoring the humanity in them … Hopefully, we will come to our senses, as this is an illness of our society. It is a prejudice that is taught to us by our mothers and fathers."

Grigor Gatchev is largely in agreement. "Perhaps the time has come when we must draw a clear line between Roma and Gypsy. The word Roma describes a person's ethnic affiliation while Gypsy designates a mentality and a way of life. Many of the Roma are also Gypsies but many are not. Do you think you will easily recognise that someone is a Roma if he has a decent job, dresses cleanly, and has good manners? We may be having plenty of problems with the Gypsies but we certainly do not have any problems with the Roma," he argues.

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Realnapolitika, meanwhile, blames the state for the current situation of the Roma minority. Successive governments, he argues, have taken the easy way out by paying the Roma a meagre amount of monthly assistance, while failing to integrate them into the country's economy.

"The state has created a parallel reality for the Roma, one in which they do not have to work but one in which they do not really live the lives of humans," he writes.

Another blogger, Delian Delchev, also finds fault with the government. The Roma, he argues, "have risen because they do not believe that they are treated as equals and that the state will help them." He argues that the Roma must enjoy equal opportunities, including being able to work for the government and become fully integrated into society.

At the same time, Delchev writes, while the government must ensure equality it must also insist that the Roma share the obligations of citizenship. After all, he suggests, society is not just about rights, but also about responsibilities.

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