Roma Riot in Bulgaria after Electricity Switched Off
07 May 2002
According to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) published on February 25, 2002, at about 7:00 PM on February 18, 2002, between three and four hundred Roma demonstrated in the Stolipinovo Romani neighbourhood in Plovdiv, southern Bulgaria, against the decision of the state-run electric company to cut power to their neighbourhood due to unpaid bills. During the protest, Roma reportedly blocked streets in the neighbourhood with burning garbage containers, as police assigned to the neighbourhood looked on. At approximately 8:15 PM, officers from the Public Order Service (POS – a special police force) arrived carrying truncheons and shields. According to the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project (HRP) press release dated February 22, 2002, when POS officers attempted to disperse the Roma, several Romani women and children were injured after officers struck them with truncheons. At this point, according to HRP, protesters began to throw stones at police officers. Shortly thereafter, police and POS officers allegedly left the neighbourhood, and HPR reports that a food shop was broken into and looted, and a trolley bus was stoned. At approximately 9:00 PM the same evening, police reportedly blocked the access of cars and public transport into the neighbourhood, but reportedly did not intervene. The police also allegedly prevented the residents of another Romani neighbourhood from blocking a major highway.
According to RFE/RL, Plovdiv Mayor Ivan Chomakov called for peace and order, while at the same time, the director of the electric company, Mr Valentin Kirchev, categorically ruled out any deal with the demonstrators. RFE/RL also reported that the Roma of Stolipinovo allegedly owe about 6 million Bulgarian lev (approximately 3,070,000 euros) to the electric company. The electric company stated on February 19, 2002, that it would return power to their neighbourhood for four hours per day, provided that local Roma pay 30,000 Bulgarian lev (approximately 15,350 euros). RFE/RL reported on February 21, 2002, that on the evening of February 20, 2002, Stolipinovo Roma resumed protests in the centre of Plovdiv, following the impossible request made of them by the state electric company. Approximately one thousand Roma participated in this protest, during which eight ethnic Bulgarian homes in the neighbourhood were stoned and one police officer was injured. Power was subsequently returned on a limited basis, but RFE/RL reported on March 14, 2002, that according to the national daily newspaper Monitor of the same day, approximately two thousand Roma from the Stolipinovo neighbourhood again took to the streets, in protest against the limited electrical supply to the community by the state electric company. The episode was accompanied by a number of articles in the national media blaming Roma in general for the theft of electricity and non-payment of bills. Few articles explored the problem of extreme poverty among Roma. Anti-Romani sentiment in Bulgaria is reportedly now at very high levels, even by local standards.
(Human Rights Project, RFE/RL)