Ethnic tensions mar Bulgaria’s presidential elections

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The visit of Bulgaria's ruling party presidential candidate to Brussels yesterday (26 September), seeking support from his European political family the EPP, was overshadowed by ethnic violence in his home country. Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria, contributed to this article.

On a visit to Brussels, Rossen Plevneliev, the candidate for president of the EPP-affiliated GERB ruling party, condemned recent events in the town Katunitsa as "purely criminal actions." He said the occurrences should not be politicised to avoid the risk of a 'blame game'. Rather, he insisted, one should hold a real debate about policies.

Violence erupted in Katunitsa last week (23 September) when 19-year old ethnic Bulgaria was reportedly killed by a man employed by Roma mafia boss Kiril Rashkov, known locally as 'Tsar Kiro', sparking an unprecedented outburst of anger among the local population and the arson of the crime leader's property.

More than 500 angry residents gathered in front of one of Rashkov's houses, hurling stones and setting it on fire, also destroying a flashy Mercedes. A 16-year-old boy collapsed during the protest and later died in hospital of heart failure. Five others were injured.

Many observers agree that in spite of the ethnic dimension, the main thrust of the problem is the impunity which powerful people in Bulgaria obtain vis-à-vis the country's authorities, independently of their ethnicity.

Fears of ethnic escalation

Football 'ultras' and more than a thousand black leather-dressed bikers joined the protests in Katunista, raising fears that the ethnic tension could spread across the country.

Reportedly, police forces were deployed in the Roma neighbourhoods of Plovdiv, the country's second largest city. Local media say the Roma in the Stolipinovo quarter have nonetheless armed themselves as a result of rumours that they will be attacked by groups of ultras and skin heads.

Many fear that Ataka, a xenophobic and extremist party (see 'Background'), may use the incidents to boost its image ahead of the elections. Ataka's leader Volen Siderov is a candidate for president.

Elections at stake

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on his opponents for the elections, Rossen Plevneliev said that 17 candidates had been registered, but his main opponent was the candidate of the Socialist Party Ivailo Kalfin.

He apparently neglected Meglena Kuneva, a former commissioner, who is running on an independent ticket. According to opinion polls, Plevneliev, Kalfin and Kuneva are the favourites and two are likely to go on to the second round run-off.

In Sofia, Kalfin, an MEP and former foreign minister, strongly reacted against the appeal that the Katunitsa case should not be politicised. The events have been triggered by the lack of justice and the inaction of institutions, he stressed.

In a written message, Kalfin states that the developments in Katunitsa reveal the reality of the daily life of Bulgarians: "The police and the law enforcement do nothing, people are defenseless, and there is no will to impose law and order. Instead, citizens try to solve their problems themselves trough mob law."

Kuneva made similar remarks, also raising the question on why until now law enforcement has shown no interest in the crimes and tax evasion by the mafia in Katunitsa.

One of the reasons why Bulgaria did not qualify to join Schengen is what happened in Katunitsa, she said, referring to the fact that the Netherlands and Finland last week blocked the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU's borderless Schengen area.

The events are clear defeats for Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and his interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov who, since taking office in late July 2009, repeatedly pledged to send top-level criminals to jail, writes commentator Milena Hristova for the news website Novinite.

Ironically, the election campaign coincided with the violence in Katunitsa, which illustrates the fact that the police in Bulgaria "does not protect and does not serve". The police in Bulgaria is not a tool of democracy, it is an instrument of the politicians, wrote Petio Tsekov, editorialist in the daily Sega.

Following the July 2009 national elections, the centre-right GERB party of Boyko Borissov obtained 117 seats in parliament, falling short of an absolute majority.

GERB (the acronym stands for 'Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria') is affiliated to the European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament. Six of Bulgaria's 17 MEPs are GERB members.

GERB leader Boyko Borissov, who became prime minister after the 2009 election, leads a minority government tacitly supported by far-right party Ataka and to a lesser extent, by a smaller group, called the 'Blue Coalition'. The latter brings together the remnants of the once powerful anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) and its rival party, the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB).

Ataka (National Union Attack), a nationalist, xenophobic and homophobic party, is represented in the Bulgarian parliament with 21 MPs.

The main opposition in Bulgaria consists of the Socialist Party (40 MPs and six MEPs) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a party harbouring the country's Turkish minority, with 37 MPs and three MEPs. In the European Parliament, MRF is affiliated to the liberal ALDE group (click here for more).

Following a series of political intrigues, the Bulgarian parliament also contains 17 MPs who have become independent. Some of them have left their political groups. The former political group Order, Lawfulness and Justice, a maverick party, lost its status after a number of defections and its remaining members are now described as 'independent'.

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