SOFIA, Bulgaria—The seven forest rangers were patrolling their region south of Sofia when they came across a group of Gypsies they suspected of illegal logging. A verbal exchange quickly turned violent—and then, police say, the Gypsies went after the rangers with metal clubs.
The confrontation, in which five rangers were hurt, has touched off a new controversy over ancient prejudices: the deep-rooted perception throughout the Balkans that Gypsies are liars, cheats and criminals—and the counterclaim that any criminal behavior by the group is the product of racial oppression.
The question has festered for centuries in this part of the world, where Gypsy beggars—distinct in appearance and culture from much of the population—are a frequent sight on the streets of Bucharest, Budapest and Prague.
Seizing on the forest ranger incident, a prominent politician charged that so-called Gypsy criminality had reached “epidemic” levels and argued that vigilante squads should be created to protect ethnic Bulgarians.
Konstantin Trenchev, a leader of the Bulgarian democratic movement after the collapse of communism in 1989, touched a nerve at a time when the government is scrambling to find ways to integrate the long-marginalized minority as part of its drive to join the European Union by 2007.
His comments, faxed to media and repeated at a news conference, drew immediate reaction from the Gypsy community and human rights activists. They branded him a racist and said centuries of discrimination had left the Roma, as the Gypsies call themselves, a legacy of crushing poverty.
Petty crime committed by Gypsies is not a criminal but a social issue, said Krasimir Kanev, head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group.
“Real crime means harmful intent and there is no such intent when you steal something to eat,” he said.
Bulgaria’s official crime statistics are not broken down by ethnicity and Trenchev was unable to provide any data to support his allegations. But like him, many people in this Balkan country of 8 million people identify the Gypsies—who make up 4.5 percent of the population—with crime and violence.
“I am afraid of Gypsies because they steal,” said Vera Petrova, 62. “I clutch my bag with all my force to keep off Gypsy pickpockets.”
One recent editorial in the popular daily newspaper 24 Chasa (24 Hours) called some Gypsies “more harmful than . . . locusts.”
Trenchev, also a major union leader who represents injured forest rangers, offered solutions such as giving social and economic aid to Gypsies willing to work.
But he also focused on people’s fears of Gypsies, proposing more liberal gun laws to allow people to defend themselves against Gypsies and the creation of vigilante squads to patrol non-Gypsy neighborhoods.
“I am not saying it’s all the Gypsies’ fault,” Trenchev said. “There are some decent citizens among Gypsies who should be taken care of. But those preferring to keep their anti-social way of life should be prevented from doing so by forceful measures.”
Government officials rejected his ideas.
“Our society has many ways to defend itself from crime, and Trenchev’s concept is not one of them,” said Mihail Ivanov, a senior official on a government panel on ethnic issues. “The practice to identify crime by an ethnic characteristic is irrational and dangerous.”
Mihail Georgiev, chairman of the Romani Baht Foundation, called Trenchev’s actions ethnic discrimination and filed a lawsuit against him. “There’s no such thing as Roma criminality, and these discriminatory comments represent a legal offense,” he said.
Official statistics show that most of the 370,900 Gypsies in Bulgaria live in misery. Unemployment among them is at 50 percent, with roughly two-thirds of those out of work claiming they are jobless because of discrimination.
They are among some 8 million Gypsies in Europe. As in Bulgaria, the Gypsies in Romania, Serbia-Montenegro, Hungary and the Czech Republic are among the most impoverished, uneducated, and underprivileged citizens of those countries.
Kanev said a 1997 study on ethnic attitudes in Bulgaria showed that 66 percent of Bulgarians would not vote for a Gypsy politician, 72 percent would not have a Gypsy as a friend, and 68 percent would not live in the same neighborhood as a Gypsy.
“These results remain more or less the same today,” Kanev said. “The two ethnic groups do not communicate with each other—they live separately.”
In Bucharest, the Romanian capital, Ilie Dinca, a government official who handles Gypsy-related issues, said there is a widespread belief among Romanians that Gypsies are responsible for most crimes—even though police reports show the contrary.
“I don’t know if it will be possible to eradicate from people’s mentality the prejudice that Roma are dirty, stink, lie and steal,” said Osman Balic, a prominent official at the Roma Association in Belgrade, Serbia.