Bulgaria: Nationalists exert political pressure to override suspension of Romani home demolitions
The BBC reports that nationalist parties in Bulgaria are pressuring for the continuation of the demolition of two Romani settlements which has temporarily been suspended by the European Court of Human Rights. Non-Romani residents of the town at issue, Garmen, also marched in the capital over the weekend to demand the demolitions go forward.
Houses inhabited by Roma are also now slated for demolition in the Orlandovci suburb of Sofia, which also saw anti-Romani protests earlier this summer. The BBC reports that human rights groups are accusing the Government of bowing to nationalist pressure and risking increased inter-ethnic conflict.
The BBC reports that nationalist politicians claim illegal constructions occupied by Roma have heretofore been ignored by authorities. Bulgarian Regional Development Minister Lilyan Pavlova said last week that eight buildings in Garmen have already been demolished out of 124 total slated for demolition.
Bulgaria is the EU's most impoverished Member State, the BBC reports, with many people, including the wealthy, living in buildings that have been illegally constructed. Romani people are estimated to comprise between five and 10 % of the country's population of 7.4 million.
Mayor of Garmen Minka Kapetanova told the BBC that she is caught in a vicious circle when it comes to addressing the issue of illegal constructions. She says Romani people were forced by the communist regime to settle on agricultural land on the outskirts of the town in the mid-1960s.
Today more than 800 people live the locality. Most have permanent residence there.
News server Bnt.bg reported on an incident of anti-Romani violence in Garmen on 24 May. The mayor told the BBC that non-Romani locals complained the Roma were playing music too loud, leading to a brawl that degenerated into attempts to set Roma homes on fire.
"Some Bulgarians in the village seemed well prepared," the mayor told the BBC, speaking of those who had attacked the Roma settlement. She said she suspects what she calls "a hidden agenda", but refused to name names.
Krassimir Kanev, head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, told the BBC that the Patriotic Front (PF), an electoral alliance of two nationalist parties, has been stoking hostility against the Roma by turning a local quarrel into a national scandal. "This could turn into a violent conflict, and spoil inter-ethnic relations in Bulgaria," he said.
The BBC reports that last fall's elections put a record number of eight parties into the Bulgarian Parliament. The coalition government is dependent on PF votes.
This October the country will hold local elections. The PF seems to want to show its voters that it is taking action on demolishing illegal Romani settlements which, along with preventing asylum-seekers from entering Bulgaria, is one of its main policy aims.
News server Romea.cz reached out to members of the Romani community in Bulgaria for comment on these incidents in June. Velcho Mihalev of the Etnosi information portal said on 18 June that anti-Romani protests "are usually organized before elections in Bulgaria. Everywhere [the] same individuals and organizations encourage ethnic tension. According to me, these events are political in order to stabilize [a] certain electorate [for] local political leaders or parties. [The] ethnic tension started in Garmen village and after that transferred to Orlandovtsi neighborhood in Sofia. [The] parties and participants in these anti-Roma protest[s] are the same. They are representing themselves as rockers, football ultras, etc. but probably these provocations are paid to keep [up] the tension between Roma people and ethnic Bulgarians. The reason for tension [in] both places [was] the same - loud music around Roma houses. I am afraid that protests against Roma will expand in more villages and neighborhoods. Roma people in Garmen and Orlandovtsi are stressed, afraid of attacks or fighting. They can’t leave their neighborhoods ... still [the] police and gendarmerie guard them."
The "Intellect" multicultural coalition in Bulgaria, in an open letter on the issue, also mentioned tokenism in domestic politics as a factor that complicates Romani representation in the country. "We maintain the position that it is utterly unacceptable for democratic forms of cooperation between institutions to be exchanged for methods by which different parties pick and choose, by their own 'rules' (especially during election time), those representatives of the Roma community who best suit their interests," the open letter reads.
The pattern is reminiscent of anti-Romani violence that took place in the Czech Republic from 2011-2013. Bulgaria has experienced several anti-Romani riots of a similar nature in recent years.
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