Political tensions and instigators are behind the ethnic clash between Bulgarians and Roma in Bulgaria’s Garmen municipality, it has been alleged.
The May 23 clash in the town, which is about 127km south-east of Sofia and has a population officially of about 1900 people, left four people injured. There were eight arrests.
A protest was held on the morning of May 25, demanding that mayor Minka Kapitanova take steps, and with participants saying that they were prepared to demolish Roma illegal housing themselves.
According to a report by Bulgarian National Television (BNT), the protest – held to the accompaniment of “patriotic music” and a large police presence – was expected to be joined by football supporters and residents of nearby Hadjidimovo and Gotse Delchev.
The May 25 protest was also attended by people from Sofia, Plovdiv and Kostinbrod, media reports said.
Residents of Garmen adopted a declaration in which they gave the prosecution a week to answer the question “how the Roma had been placed there and how they acquired property”.
The BNT report said that there had been tensions in the municipality for years because of illegally-built houses, frequent thefts of agricultural produce and robberies of homes, for which residents blamed Roma people.
Kapitanova said that the protests should not be politicised, but a solution should be sought.
In her view, the problem was social, because some of the Roma were integrated, while others sought only to obtain benefits.
She said that certain political forces sought to gain political dividends from the situation. She declined to name names but said that there were “instigators” among the protesters.
Blagoevgrad regional governor Bisser Mihailov convened a meeting for the morning of May 25 to discuss the situation. Among those to attend were Kapitanova and the head of the regional directorate for construction control.
Mihailov told Darik Radio that the problems had been continuing for many years and a specific plan was needed.
He appealed to residents not to allow an escalation of tensions.
Bulgarian National Radio said that participants in the protest on May 25 said that “hundreds” of Roma people had come to the village in recent years.
Those who had come, the protesters said, were “criminals expelled from elsewhere.”
They said that their daily reality was “theft and threats of assault”.
The report said that of the about 140 houses in the Roma neighbourhood Kremikovtsi, only about 20 had been built legally. Local authorities and construction control officials had for years turned a blind eye, residents said.
Mayor Kapitanova said that if it came to a forced demolition of buildings, the municipality would be unable to accommodate those left homeless, as required by law, because it had no public housing.
Reformist Bloc MP Atanas Atanassov, of Parliament’s public order and safety committee, said that in Garmen, the fight was between two wings of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
The MRF is led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish descent, but in the most recent national parliamentary elections, said that it had made major inroads into the Roma electorate.
Atanassov told bTV that there was a battle over who would get the votes in the autumn municipal elections, between current mayor Kapitanova and former mayor Ahmed Bashev.
Bashev was elected mayor of Garmen in 2007 as an independent, beating the official MRF candidate.
He was detained in March 2009 by State Agency for National Security agents in connection with allegations of furthering radical Islam, but was released without charge a few hours later after questioning. Bashev said that the arrest had been the result of a politically-motivated campaign to defame him.
Separate media reports quoted residents as alleging that Bashev had brought in additional Roma people in order to bolster his chances in the autumn 2015 municipal elections.
Radan Kanev, leader of the right-wing Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, said that it was quite clear that in Bulgaria, ghettos continue to exist, because during local elections, “these ghettos become the main resource” and sometimes it is precisely they that decide the outcome.
Atanas Stoyanov, an MP for the nationalist Patriotic Front, said that he would raise the Garmen matter in Parliament.
Patriotic Front co-leader Valeri Simeonov, whose coalition supports the centre-right cabinet in Parliament without holding seats in the executive, said that the PF would reconsider its attitude towards the ruling coalition unless urgent measures were taken against everyday crime.
He asked to have a volunteer corps “for protection of the population”. Other measures should include increasing the police presence “in critical areas with the relevant Roma ghettos” and the placing of CCTV cameras at road junctions.
In seven months, the government had done absolutely nothing to curb petty crime, Simeonov said.
On May 25, Interior Minister Roumyana Buchvarova and the ministry’s chief secretary, Georgi Kostov, headed to Garmen to assess the situation.