Colin Freeman, Telegraph (London), December 28, 2013
In the eyes of some, Kiril Rashkov is just the sort of person that Britain should be worried about when work restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania relax next year.
A self-styled “Gipsy King” from the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, he has a reputation as fearsome as the 120-proof brandy he sips while sitting on his gilt-framed throne.
Arrested over the years for everything from bootlegging to intimidation, he was once accused of running a network of Roma child thieves across Europe. For every pocket picked in London or Rome, it was said, a cut of the proceeds would land in Mr Rashkov’s own, helping fund three lavish homes in Katunitsa, on the outskirts of Plovdiv.
Today, the silver-haired 72-year-old, who runs his own brandy distillery, insists he is just a victim of anti-Roma prejudice. The allegations by Italian police that he was some kind of Euro-Fagin, he says, are “rubbish” — just like the tax evasion charges for which he has just served a two-year jail sentence. But while the word of a man just out of prison may not count for much, his is probably as close as the British public will get to any reassurance that yet more Roma gangs will not come over as of Jan 1.
“The Roma are hardworking people, we are just persecuted in our own countries,” Mr Rashkov said, wagging a diamond-ringed finger.
“But do I expect a lot of Roma criminals and beggars to go to England next year? No. If a country has strong laws, they can deal with this kind of thing.”
British politicians do not seem to share his confidence. Only last month David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, warned of riots in his home city of Sheffield because of tensions caused by groups of Roma families, who were accused of littering, anti-social behaviour and intimidation.
As The Telegraph reported earlier this year, Westminster council paid to fly a group of Roma beggars home to Romania, only to find them back at their Park Lane squatter camp weeks later.
Already, some 200,000 Roma are believed to be in the UK, despite the Government claiming in 2011 that “relatively few” had settled here.
The expectation is of a fresh influx next year, when rules giving Bulgarians and Romanians full rights to work in the UK take effect.
For the Roma, though, it is about more than just jobs. Tolerant, multicultural Britain is seen as an opportunity to escape centuries of poverty and discrimination.
As Mr Blunkett warned, though, the growth of large-scale Roma communities in Britain could put that tolerance under strain. Unlike the educated Poles, Czechs and Hungarians working as plumbers, nannies and Starbucks baristas, only about one in three Bulgarian Roma go to secondary school.
In Bulgaria, one does not have to look far to find people sceptical about Mr Rashkov’s claims that Roma will not see Britain as a benefits paradise.
His own lawyer, for one, was in strong disagreement with his client. “The Roma will be the real danger for your social system next year,” grinned Vasil Markov, who sat alongside Mr Rashkov during last week’s interview.
“While other people will come to work, the Roma will come for the benefits.”
A visit to the Stolipinovo district of Plovdiv shows just why many of Bulgaria’s Roma no longer see their future there. Home to about 45,000 Roma, it is a mass of dilapidated, Soviet-era housing blocks, with illegally built shanty towns spreading in between. Lack of a proper water supply caused a hepatitis outbreak in 2006.
The Roma have languished in ghettoes ever since they came to Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages as migratory tribes from north-west India. In communist times, little attempt was made to integrate them, but like all other citizens, they were at least guaranteed state jobs. Capitalism has offered no such certainties.
Among those loitering on a street corner in Stolipinovo last week was Krasimir Simianov, who had just come back from a four-month stint working in Germany. His Turkish employers ripped off him to the tune of €300, he claimed, and he spent much of his time sleeping rough and eating at soup kitchens. Even so, it was better than Stolipinovo. “There is no work here at all, so next year I will go back,” he said.
So too will Ivan Shaip, 54, who did casual labouring jobs in London last year. “I will go back again if I can find a job,” he said, watching a horse and cart gallop past. “The English are very friendly.”
Rather less so are many of Mr Shaip’s fellow Bulgarians, many of whom will be only too delighted if the Roma decamp en masse. “This is a pan-European problem now, not just a Bulgarian one,” said Ivan Todorov, a former army colonel, who was walking past the outskirts of Stolipinovo on his way home. “You Western Europeans have not quite registered the level of criminality that you are about to face.”
With such mutual antagonism, it is perhaps no surprise that the kind of rioting of which Mr Blunkett warned has already taken place in Bulgaria. Mr Rashkov, whose title holds no official weight, is effectively a Roma king in exile, having been chased out of his home town when it erupted into racially charged violence two years ago.
Trouble flared after Angel Petrov, a teenager involved in a feud with one of Mr Rashkov’s grandsons, was killed in a hit-and-run incident, allegedly on the gipsy king’s orders.
The death incensed local villagers, who formed a vigilante mob that burnt down Mr Rashkov’s three homes. More than 350 people were arrested, and while police claimed the mob was infiltrated by Bulgaria’s far-Right, it showed the tinderbox atmosphere that often exists.
Today, Mr Rashkov is still banned from returning to Katunitsa by the new mayor, a tough former policeman who describes him as a “bandit”.
Instead, his ornate, purpose-built throne — reminiscent of one used by an Ottoman sultan — is now in the living room of a modest flat in Plovdiv, from where he protests his innocence.
The claims that he ordered Petrov’s killing are all part of a smear campaign, he says, as were the allegations, later dropped, by Italian police that he ran a pickpocketing ring back in 2006.
“The Katunitsa people are all peasants, they are talking bull–about this incident–it was my homes that were destroyed, not theirs,” he said. “I would welcome a European Union inquiry.”
That is probably unlikely. Brussels does, however, expect Eastern European governments to spend part of the multi-billion-pound subsidies it gives them each year on improving the Roma’s lot.
As it said in a report last year: “The current situation of Roma living in poor conditions . . . has had consequences in terms of increased numbers temporarily migrating to the EU.”
So are such subsidies having any effect? Farcically, it seems that nobody knows, not even Brussels. The main source of potential cash for Roma projects comes from the European Commission social fund, which earmarked £5 billion for Bulgaria and Romania to spend on employment and “social cohesion” between 2007 and 2013.
But the Commission only requires the money to be spent on “vulnerable social groups”, rather than earmarking it for the Roma. Nor does it even keep tabs on how much is actually spent on Roma: a spokesman for the Commission told The Sunday Telegraph that no details were available as no mechanism was in place to gather the information.
That lack of transparency, critics say, gives a free reign for politicians to spend the money on other causes, given that projects that benefit Roma are known vote-losers.
“It gives us the worst of both worlds. The public thinks the money is for Roma anyway and that incites hatred towards us, and in fact we get nothing,” said Orhan Tahir, a Bulgarian Roma activist. Mr Tahir is a lawyer, forming part of a small Roma middle class that includes writers, actors and poets, who confound the stereotypes.
That, however, has not stopped the European Commission spending money on schemes to rectify “less-than-balanced” reporting of Roma issues, having decided that privately owned media cannot do this responsibly.
That, certainly, is the impression given by the blurb for “Roma Beyond Stereotypes”, a film project that received £250,000 from the Commission. Its website states: “As most outlets are commercial and often driven exclusively by market forces, they show little interest in confronting prejudice.”
One Bulgarian Roma who fits few stereotypes is Tsvetelin Kanchev, 46, the burly, avuncular founder of Bulgaria’s Euroma Party. With his black limousine, earpiece-wearing bodyguard and personalised DVD of Bulgarian folk songs, he comes across at first glance as just another garrulous Roma strongman.
He claims, for example, that his family put the original curse on America’s Kennedy clan, after one Patrick Kennedy refused to marry one of his ancestors in Ireland in 1836. However, the former petrol station boss is nothing if not upwardly mobile. His son Gyorgi, 16, was educated at boarding school in Suffolk, and speaks in perfect English of his desire to become a stockbroker. And the aim of his father’s party is to improve the Bulgarian Roma’s lot to the point where they no longer need to head west in the first place.
“In the towns where we have a presence, our people get equal rights and we improve the infrastructure,” he says during a tour of the ghetto in Sofia that is his power base. “Ninety per cent of children here now go to primary school, for example, And you should see one of our towns on the Black Sea coast — it looks so nice nowadays, we call it Beverly Hills.”
It is inspiring stuff — until Mr Kanchev makes it clear he only really speaks on behalf of Bulgarian Roma. He is rather less complimentary about the Kalderash, a caste predominant in Romania, whom he describes as born thieves.
“According to the Kalderash’s tribal mythology, a Kalderash kid stole the nails when the ancient Romans were about to crucify Jesus,” he said. “They had to postpone the crucifixion, and as a result, they were blessed personally by Jesus to be thieves. The problem you British will face is from the Kalderash of Romania, believe me.”
Could that be true? Fortunately, most other Roma say the story bears as about as much truth as Mr Kanchev’s claims about the Kennedy curse. “To say all Kalderash people are like that is to use the language of Nazi scientific theory,” said Mr Tahir.
But with their peers still willing to peddle such stories, it is perhaps not surprising that the image the Roma have had since medieval times looks likely to follow them west. As Mr Kanchev points out, though, every community has its bogeymen. “We have some Britons in jail here in Bulgaria for sex offences against children,” he said.
“We don’t lump them together with Shakespeare. And you shouldn’t judge us Roma by our criminals.”