Thinkers react to intolerance

THE ESCALATION of anger, violence and hatred against Roma recently witnessed in Europe is a problem, but it is not a ‘Roma problem’. The problem, suggest European thinkers who gathered recently in Bratislava, is actually fear – fear of others, of the otherness of which Roma are only a symbol, the tip of an iceberg.

THE ESCALATION of anger, violence and hatred against Roma recently witnessed in Europe is a problem, but it is not a ‘Roma problem’. The problem, suggest European thinkers who gathered recently in Bratislava, is actually fear – fear of others, of the otherness of which Roma are only a symbol, the tip of an iceberg.

“What form does this fear take and how did it become so omnipresent and gripping?” asked Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian writer, during the opening panel of the most recent Central European Forum, an event that brings together intellectuals to talk about current social issues.

After the success of the first Central European Forum, which was held in Bratislava in November last year to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the communist regimes in central and eastern Europe, organisers rushed to make the open debate an annual event. So it was that the second forum took place on November 5-6 in Bratislava’s City Theatre. Panellists from around Europe met to discuss issues such as corruption, organised crime, nationalism, and the role of the central European region in a globalised world, all under a leading idea – how to stay free?

The forum was opened by Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, who as an academic formerly belonged to the community of central European intellectuals. In her opening speech she heartily greeted friends from Poland, Germany, Hungary and other parts of the region. The panellists and participants then had the chance to follow four panels, entitled, respectively, The Roots of Anger, a debate on the Roma minority in central Europe; The End of Politics, on power shifts between politics and economics; The Square of Dissent, a meeting with eight people who in August 1968 protested on Red Square in Moscow against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; and Which Way Forward Central Europe?, a panel on how central Europe should deal with its experience as a passive victim of history.

Anger against Roma

The 2010 forum’s opening panel was an attempt by six intellectuals from different parts of Europe to answer Drakulic’s question. As well as posing it, she also moderated the debate.

“After years of relative prosperity and high hopes, the habitual foundations of security trembled, cracked, fell apart,” said Professor Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most prominent panellists, who has been described as one of the most original and inspiring contemporary social scientists.

“The prospect of steady jobs and income dimmed at once. A lighthouse, trustworthy and reliable, suddenly stopped being reliable. It collapsed,” he said.

In that situation governments, expected to “make the insecure secure” and “put disorder in order”, failed to do so.

Bauman offered the example of France, where in 2002 Nicolas Sarkozy, then the country’s interior minister, won the support of the French population after he had located the roots of the insecurity of people in the suburbs of the French cities where immigrants from the Maghreb lived. Years later, in 2010, the camps of Roma who had arrived in France from central and eastern Europe became the sources of insecurity, Bauman said.

“I suggest, in other words, that a crisis of legitimacy is behind this problem,” Bauman said.

According to Bauman, through creating enemies and then promising security, politicians regain the loyalty of citizens and hence the legitimacy that they feel they are losing. But this is security understood not in terms of the threat from some stranger in the street, but the essential security of one’s position in society – the security that one will be needed by, useful to and respected by society.

“The essential idea of security has been reduced to the most televisual, the most visible and most handy aspect of it: personal safety,” Bauman said.

“Let’s remember that whenever we want to promote tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and dialogue between different people who can participate in a common life without surrendering their different identity, we have a very powerful adversary,” Bauman said. “The adversary is the political body seeking a new legitimacy of its own.”

The rise of the right

Slavenka Drakulic noted in her remarks on the topic that, looking at a map of Europe, one can see some 15 states in which right-wing parties are riding the wave of fear, attaining political influence and power even in such bastions of social liberalism as Sweden.

“Big tectonic changes came in Europe 20 years ago,” Drakulic said. “The end of communism, unification, EU expansion, wars in the Balkans on the one hand – and also the process of globalisation, especially in economics, on the other. The reactions were unexpected: xenophobia, nationalism and Islamophobia.”

According to Drakulic, support for far-right politicians like Jörg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France should have been warning signs for mainstream politicians that the people’s anxiety was real, as was the feeling of insecurity in the face of such big changes, as well as loneliness and the desire to belong to a group of people, a nation.

“So if established parties, parties in power, do not deal with this anxiety and fear, someone else will,” Drakulic said. “That was the lesson. But has the lesson that there is no vacuum in politics come too late?”

Thinkers express hope

Czech writer and journalist Jáchym Topol pointed to good news about the Roma community in the Czech Republic; he is convinced that public opinion has changed and is continuing to change gradually.

Topol referred to a recent court verdict in which men found guilty of a racist attack on a young Roma girl were sentenced to very long sentences of about 20 years.

That, according to him, suggests the winds of change are blowing through central Europe too.

Bauman said that what Europeans need to learn is to live permanently with variety, with cultural difference.

He added that this ability is beginning to develop, and said he had high hopes in this respect, since on the streets of Leeds, the city where he lives, he only meets mixed groups of school-children – of various races, cultures and religions – bearing no signs of segregation.

That is the message for the peaceful coexistence of the majority and the Roma minority, but also other minorities who have arrived in Europe in more recent waves of immigration.

“We do need not to assimilate, but to learn to live peacefully, profitably, interestingly and excitingly with difference,” Bauman said. “Without one side trying to suppress dialogue and force the other to accept an imposed consensus. Something like this is probably the way, but there is a long way to go. The only problem I want to mention is that the problems which are caused by the mixing of strangers is not a temporary situation, it is something that will remain. The only way is to start enjoying the difference in everyday life.”

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