The murder of Anastázia Balážová, a gypsy mother who was struck in the head with a baseball bat as she was trying to defend her daughters against three male housebreakers, has all the makings of a cause célebre for people fighting racism in Slovakia.
For starters, the brutality of the crime has caught the attention of foreign media and human rights groups, which is always a catalyst to some kind of official response. An article in the Washington Times and a strong statement from New Jersey congressman Christopher Smith have helped to turn up the heat on the Slovak government, which has been convulsed in an unprecedented condemnation of racial violence.
What is more, the crime comes at a time when each of the players in the 'Roma question' has a strong motive for using the incident to serve its own ends. This self-serving behaviour makes it unlikely that the Balážová murder will be swept under the carpet.
The government, for one, sees the crime as a soapbox from which to declaim its West-oriented policy of racial tolerance. With one eye cocked towards Brussels, luminaries such as Prime Minister Dzurinda, President Schuster, Catholic Archbishop Rudolf Baláž and chief EU negotiator Ján Figel have either visited the bereaved family, sent along a cash gift or promised personal engagement in solving the crime. Slovakia's EU ambitions have rarely had such a direct and tangible influence on domestic affairs.
The crime is also a perfect opportunity for the ruling coalition parties to distance themselves from the nationalism of the opposition HZDS and the racism of the far-right SNS. For all that Žilina mayor and former SNS boss Ján Slota has sent condolences to the Baláž family, no one is fooled; after all, it was only a fortnight ago that SNS deputy Viťazoslav M-ric was denouncing Slovak Roma as "idiots impregnating idiots", and urging that they be herded onto reservations. By distancing themselves from this kind of drivel, the coalition can ride the wave of popular revulsion at the crime for as long as it lasts.
Which may be a considerable time indeed. The Roma themselves certainly stand to gain from keeping discussion alive, to judge from the words of Balážová's bereaved husband. "I'm going to apply [to a Western country] for political asylum so I can raise my children in peace," he said at one moment; "I went down to the Labour Office and they still had no work for me, even after what happened," he complained at another.
The right to equal opportunities to work and to live free from the fear of violence are what the Roma have been demanding for a long time, and although white Slovaks have long turned a deaf ear - 'they don't really want to work', 'they commit many crimes themselves' are typical responses that come to mind - it is getting increasingly difficult to repeat these arguments with a straight face. Two of the 'crimes' for which Roma have been vilified this year - stealing potatoes from farmers' fields and chopping down trees in national forests - almost beg the question of why the hell gypsies would resport to such petty theft unless they were driven to it, by lack of work and hungry mouths to feed. And if the answer is that 'it's in their nature', give them access to jobs and see which they choose.
Equal opportunity - this was precisely the message sent by Emil Šťuka, president of the World Roma Congress, in a speech he made to an anti-racism demonstration in Žilina on August 30. "Wherever Roma are, they are unwelcome guests. What right does Mr. Slota have to say the things he does without being criminally prosecuted? Were his parents any different from ours? Or does he think the sun should shine more brightly on him than it does on us?"
The tone of this speech, and of the government apologies, reminds one almost of Martin Luther King and his 'I have a dream' address. King's call moved American society because the time for change had arrived; in Slovakia, too, a unique constellation of factors means that Anastázia Balážová's murder may be the spark that ignites the tinder. It's not that the Roma are any worse off now than they were five years ago - viz. the 1995 incident in which skinheads doused gypsy youth Mário Goral with gasoline and burned him to death - but that the government has been forced into leading rather than following public opinion, while the public, mindful of the pathetic images of Balážová's bruised little girls, is for once in a mood to listen.
4. Sep 2000 at 0:00