Why Are Bulgarians So Angry?

Views on BG | September 30, 2011, Friday // 16:48

From The Economist

By T.E.

BULGARIA'S biggest cities have seen violent protests this week, following the death in a hit-and-run last weekend, in the village of Katunitsa near Plovdiv, of a 19-year-old boy, allegedly at the hands of a member of a local bigwig's clan.

What makes the case particularly incendiary is that the bigwig in question, Kiril Rashkov, or "Tsar Kiro" as he is known locally, is a Roma (gypsy), and Angel Petrov, the young victim, was an ethnic Bulgarian.

Mr Rashkov, a wealthy man with few visible sources of income, had supposedly had a number of previous brushes with the law, none of which had led to any charges. Following the incident enraged locals surrounded and torched Mr Rashkov's palatial house, overwhelming the police, who had to escort his family to safety.

Earlier this week protests spread to Bulgaria's largest cities, as groups of mainly young people held banners calling for "Equal Rights and Responsibilities for All," and shouted slogans against the country's Roma and Turkish minorities.

On Wednesday Mr Rashkov was arrested in a separate case, and the protests appeared to have died down by yesterday. It is not yet clear if further marches planned for the weekend will take place.

The disorder is unwelcome for Bojko Borisov, Bulgaria's prime minister, who came to power two years ago promising to deal with the kind of corruption that allows criminals to buy their way out of legal trouble. A former bodyguard who cultivates the image of an efficient strongman, Mr Borisov was hoping for an easy ride at local and presidential elections next month.

But the prime minister's image has taken a few blows lately. Last week the European Union decided not to admit Bulgaria and Romania into its passport-free Schengen zone. Throughout the past year the EU's poorest country has been struggling to break out of a recession, which has been exacerbated by the troubles of neighbouring Greece. Not only is Greece a major destination for Bulgarian exports, Greek-owned banks have a strong presence in the country.

Corruption and crime were at the top of Mr Borisov's domestic policy agenda, and joining Schengen was the first foreign-policy priority. But progress has been limited. The government has blamed the Schengen rejection on Eurosceptic, anti-immigration sentiment in Finland and the Netherlands. But the Dutch immigration minister has suggested otherwise.

"Imagine you have a door with eight of the best locks in the world. But before that door is standing someone who lets everybody in—then you have a problem," he said last week.

This week's protests have been about more than the Roma. "This is about the failings of the political class over 20 years," says Kiril Avramov, a political analyst. "People are in despair about their futures, about jobs and they're angry about corruption." Talk of a highway-building programme which Mr Borisov hopes will win him next month's elections is unlikely to help much.

There are bright spots. The Bulgarian lev is tied in a currency board to the euro, meaning it has avoided the foreign-currency debt problem that has been crippling for some other eastern Europeans. Tough economic management by Simeon Djankov, the finance minister, has left the public finances in a relatively healthy state.

But the situation is tense. The Movement for Rights and Freedom, an ethnic-Turkish party that gets much of the Roma vote, has shown commendable restraint over the past week. But Volen Siderov, leader of Attack, an anti-Roma party, who is running for president under the slogan "I am your weapon, use it", must be licking his lips.

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Tags: Roma, protests, ethnic tensions, Katunitsa, Plovdiv, Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister, ethnic clashes, DPS, Movement for Rights and Freedoms
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