Moldovan squatters, Latvian and Lithuanian rotters, Romanian cadgers, Bulgarian choppers – the British tabloids have gone bonkers in recent weeks with scare stories about Eastern European riff raff and ne'er do wells, with the odd psycho thrown in.
A recent story about a Bulgarian gangster might have sent me running for a crucifix every time I see a Bulgar man – if I didn't know better. Nobody denies that the "gentleman" in question – known as "the Beast of Bulgaria" – was clearly a nasty piece of work. The 43-year-old, a boxer and former henchman to a mafia boss, reportedly has a fearsome reputation for slicing off the ears and fingers of his enemies, a bit like Joe Pesci in Casino. The hoodlum in question was eventually seized at a gym in London.
Strangely, the abiding image of the cold-blooded Bulgarian gangster tearing off fingernails – in between sips of rakiya – refuses to budge. Presumably this started with the Georgi Markov murder in 1979 when the Bulgarian dissident was poisoned on London's Waterloo Bridge by an umbrella-wielding assassin. Just before Bulgaria's joined the EU, I remember an irate British caller on Sky News protesting against Bulgaria's inclusion in the select club. "The KGB used Bulgarians as hit men - they're Europe's professional assassins." Then he added for good measure. "At least Poland was on our side during the war." Ah well, 'nough said!
Most Bulgarians are eminently pleasant and hospitable. The women are, as everyone will attest, eminently delectable. There is actually a civility to everyday life in Bulgaria lacking in the UK. In five years of living in Sofia, I have never been threatened or abused by anyone. People have even apologised to me after I bumped into THEM.
The nearest I've come to an altercation was with an inspector on the 76 bus when I was new in town and could not understand why he wanted to examine my talon (packet of 10 tickets, not underpants). I tried to get off the bus but the burly fellow (all Bulgarian authority figures seem to be burly) stopped me. If I believed many of the UK's tabloid preconceptions the inspector would have rammed my face into the perforator, gouging out my eye in the process before throwing my corpse out of the window to be dismembered by street dogs on the Tsarigradsko Chaussee. In reality he never touched me.
'On the wrong side'
Small countries, in particular, have problems throwing off negative perceptions, perhaps because they lack the necessary clout on the world stage to dispel political incorrectness. The UK, for some strange reason, still manages to preserve an image of rectitude and gentlemanly behaviour despite its drunken holidaymakers and rioting urban dwellers. Young people still want to move to London.
And the Bulgarian tabloids do not run stories about "the beast of Britain" who came and sullied the Bulgarian landscape. As I say, nobody questions the veracity of the Beast of Bulgaria story itself – he was clearly an unsavoury character – but take this almighty leap into blatant Bulgaria-bashing in a recent issue of the Fife Times. "Bullets which killed a businessman had come from a Bulgarian weapons factory, a murder trial heard," says the headline.
"The nine millimetre rounds were not usually associated with gun crime in Britain because they were designed to fit Eastern European pistols and sub-machine guns, said ballistics expert Martin Connolly. Millionaire landlord Toby Siddique (38), was gunned down in a flat in Glenrothes. His brother, Mo (42), is accused of arranging the murder with the help of Bulgarians Tencho Andonov (28), and Deyan Nikolov (27)."
The story implicates Bulgarians in the shooting but leads with a headline that suggests the bare fact that the bullets came from Bulgaria somehow makes the crime worse. Being shot with a British bullet, it is implied, is somehow infinitely preferable to being shot with a Bulgarian one. The latter, it seems, is simply beyond the pale, not cricket.
The alliterations conjured up by Bulgaria have deadly connotations: bastards, beasts, bullets, bloody. So it is that Bulgarians will always be associated with violence. "Mad" Frankie Fraser can get on British TV and brag about how he pulled the teeth out of a fellow villain who had offended him. Dave Courtney can write about allegedly killing underworld rivals but nobody would say "the Beast of Bermondsey" or such like.
The truth is, of course, that the UK has just as many vicious gangsters as Bulgaria. It is simply that they keep a lower profile. Unlike in Bulgaria, where flaunting ill-gotten gains and flouting the law is a matter of pride, British lowlifes like to be inconspicuous. The UK courts, once they catch up with the organised criminals – and assuming that terrified witnesses agree to testify – are also more effective in delivering just retribution. In spite of this, many gangsters rule by sheer terror and are beyond the reach of the law.
Roma or Romanians?
Romania, a country generally lumped in the same category as Bulgaria, seems to have acquired a different reputation. It is for small-scale skullduggery: benefit cheats, beggars and sly scumbags undercutting British workers.
The Daily Mail, in particular, likes to harp on about this: "Romanians living in Britain send home nearly 500 000 pounds every day," said the tabloid last year. "A total of 41 million pounds left the UK for the Eastern European country over a three-month period, said the Romanian Central Bank. Last year alone, the Romanian economy was boosted by 2.5 billion pounds sent from abroad," it added. Or take this more recent headline. "UK firms advertise thousands of jobs in Romania despite growing jobless toll."
The latter article goes on to tell us that Britain's precious few remaining job vacancies are being eyed by outsiders. "British bosses are offering thousands of jobs to Romanian workers as unemployment in the UK soars. Just days ago, officials revealed that the number of British unemployed had reached a 17-year high of 2.68 million. But apparently more than 2400 vacancies, including roles for nurses, engineers, chefs and other skilled workers are being advertised in Romania."
The paper helpfully gets reactions from angry Brits. "I'm furious they're advertising Gatwick jobs hundreds of miles away. It's just around the corner for me. I could get there on a bus. Why are they bringing in people from other countries?" says Stephanie White-Brown. Another quote from Jamie Caller: "I've applied for anything I can, sometimes filling out seven application forms a day. The government needs to crack down on these Romanian jobs and give its own workers a chance."
Another recent headline told us that one third of Big Issue sellers are now Romanian and that "a job once reserved for Britain's homeless has been swamped by Eastern European immigrants". We are told that many of them have homes AND claim benefits.
"Over the past year or two, there has been a noticeable change in the appearance of the typical Big Issue seller, with women from the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, in their long skirts and head-scarves, increasingly replacing the male, native British homeless people. The situation was brought into focus last week when Romanian Firuta Vasile, a mother of four who sold the magazine in Bristol, was given the legal right to claim housing benefit on top of the other aid she already receives."
We are also told by Big Issue owner John Bird that even Romanian groups in the UK refuse to work with many of the people in question because they are Roma. We ring them up and say, "Look, we’re working with a lot of Romanians now. Can you help?"
"They tell us, 'These people aren’t Romanians. They’re gypsies.'"
The new blacks
Next up are Moldovans. Tricky one – they really have such a low international profile that it's difficult to get at them. So if in doubt let's go for a bunch of invaders defiling an Englishman's castle which is - as folklore always tells us - sacrosanct. Janice Mason, according to the Daily Mail, owns a house in Walthamstow, East London, which had been her childhood home. She was about to sell it when she suddenly discovered that it had been occupied by a family of Moldovan squatters – four adults and four children – who have changed the locks.
Max Hastings took up cudgels on behalf of the aggrieved owners. "Moldovan squatters and a week that showed how good citizens suffer while parasites flourish," wrote the veteran journalist in the Daily Mail. Wait a minute, was he equating Moldovans with parasites?
Then there was the case of the Lithuanian man Rimvydas Liorancas awaiting trail for the murder of Carole and Avtar Kolar. The newspaper informs us that he had twice made his way into the UK illegally, once without a passport.
I could go on. Most British people do not know the difference between a Bulgarian or Romanian or Latvian. Eastern Europe is just one large amorphous mass. Most will not know, for example, that Moldova was part of the Soviet Union. I'm sure that few would be able to distinguish between Bucharest and Budapest yet it does not stop them making generalisations.
It seems that the tabloids have to whip up feelings towards outsiders. There's truth in the old adage that they function best when they get people frightened or angry. Thirty or 40 years ago headlines to the effect that we were being "swamped" by Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants were once deemed acceptable.
Now it seems that the Eastern Europeans are the new blacks. The Brits, in particular, may come to regret making such stereotyping about Eastern Europeans. It may backfire on them. Perhaps some Bulgarian tabloids will soon be writing about "the scourge of Scotland" after a recent case.