Bulgaria tensions lead to Roma home demolitions
Bulgaria has had to suspend the demolition of two Roma settlements because of an appeal from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but pressure from nationalist parties suggests it will go ahead.
Residents of the south-western village of Garmen marched in the capital, Sofia, at the weekend to demand more demolitions.
There is also tension in the Sofia suburb of Orlandovci, where a smaller number of houses inhabited by Roma are slated for destruction.
Human rights groups accuse the government of bowing to the nationalists, and of risking wider conflicts between Roma and non-Roma Bulgarians.
Nationalist politicians, and residents who support the demolitions, say the law until now turned a blind eye to illegal construction if Roma were involved.
Regional Development Minister Lilyana Pavlova said last week that 8 of the 124 illegal buildings in Garmen had already been demolished, and she was waiting for the local council to provide a timetable for the rest.
Between 5-10% of Bulgaria's 7.4 million people are of ethnic Roma background.
Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, and many people - Roma and non-Roma, rich and poor - live in buildings that could be classified as illegal.
Garmen's Mayor Minka Kapetanova says she is caught in a vicious circle.
In the mid 1960s, she told the BBC, about 20 formerly nomadic Roma were forced to settle by the Communist authorities on agricultural land on the edge of Garmen.
By today, that number has multiplied to over 800, as the families had children and grandchildren. Most have residence permits, granted by the previous mayor.
On 24 May, according to the Ms Kapetanova, a group of Roma returned from selling mushrooms they had picked, and celebrated with loud music. When locals complained, a brawl developed, and there were attempts to set fire to the Roma shacks.
Who are the Roma?
- Europe's largest ethnic minority
- Population of 10-12 million, including six million in EU
- Often referred to as Gypsies, Sinti, Zingari (Italian), Gitanos (Spain), Manouches (France)
- Speak Romani language, with local variations
- Roma have faced marginalisation wherever they have settled
"Some Bulgarians in the village seemed well prepared," she says, speaking of those who attacked the Roma settlement. She suspects what she calls "a hidden agenda", but refuses to name names.
Krassimir Kanev, head of the Bulgarian human rights group Helsinki Committee, accuses the Patriotic Front (PF) - an electoral alliance of two nationalist parties - of stoking hostility against the Roma, by turning a local quarrel into a nationwide scandal.
"This could turn into a violent conflict, and spoil inter-ethnic relations in Bulgaria," he said.
Inconclusive elections last October put a record eight parties into parliament.
The coalition government led by the centre-right GERB party depends on the votes of the nationalist PF alliance.
Local elections are due in October this year in Bulgaria, and the PF appears to want to prove to its supporters that it is active on two of its main policies - demolishing illegal Roma settlements, and preventing asylum-seekers entering Bulgaria.