There were clashes between police and protesters in the central Bulgarian town of Gabrovo on the night of April 11 as a reported more than 1000 people turned out in the central part of the town amid tensions that arose from an incident that sparked ethnic conflict.
The situation in Gabrovo followed an incident in which three young men of Roma origin were recorded on video assaulting a shop assistant. This was followed, on the night of April 10, by a large group of young Bulgarian men mounting an assault on Roma houses in the town.
A second night of protest began peacefully, according to reports from the town. After the arrival of Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev, a former mayor of Gabrovo, tensions escalated, reports said.
Donchev attempted to hold talks with the protesters, who then went on to try to enter Roma neighbourhoods. Clashes with the gendarmerie followed, in which two local journalists were injured.
In the clashes, protesters threw bottles, stones and fireworks at police, reports said.
At about 10pm, the protesters dispersed, while the increased police presence that had been ordered by authorities in Sofia after the previous tensions remained.
The three men accused of the assault of the shop assistant are in custody facing court proceedings for theft and assault.
Amid the conflict, the municipality of Gabrovo began demolishing illegally-constructed buildings in the area where the Roma minority were living, reports said.
The shop assistant who was assaulted in the initial incident, Ventsislav Ivanov, called for calm.
“There is no way I can tolerate something that leads to violence. I am grateful to the people who supported me. My message is to work peacefully and quietly and we do not want to create ethnic tensions in the town,” Ivanov said.
The Amalipe Centre for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance said that 70 Roma children had stopped attending school and their parents, who had had nothing to do with the incident, had been threatened on social networks.
Reports said that further protests were expected.
In recent years, there have been periodic outbreaks in some towns in Bulgaria between ethnic Bulgarians and Roma people. These incidents tend to be seized on by ultra-nationalist political forces to push their agenda.
In Voyvodinovo in the district of Plovdiv in January 2019, there were tensions as far-right supporters threatened violence against Roma following an incident in which two men of Roma ethnicity assaulted an off-duty member of the military.
The tensions in Gabrovo come as Bulgaria is scheduled to head to the polls in European Parliament elections in May. So-called “gypsy crime” is a signature issue for Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist and far-right political parties.