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Anti-Roma protests draw thousands

THE UNSOLVED problems of Slovakia’s Roma communities are a ticking time-bomb, the explosion of which will affect the whole of society: this view has been expounded in various forms and contexts by people from very different background across the country. Two recent anti-Roma rallies indicate that the time-bomb is ticking louder than ever, and human rights watchdogs are warning that tensions between the Roma and non-Roma population in some places need urgent attention. However, they also warn that these frustrations can easily be abused by politicians who use the Roma issue merely to score political points.

THE UNSOLVED problems of Slovakia’s Roma communities are a ticking time-bomb, the explosion of which will affect the whole of society: this view has been expounded in various forms and contexts by people from very different background across the country. Two recent anti-Roma rallies indicate that the time-bomb is ticking louder than ever, and human rights watchdogs are warning that tensions between the Roma and non-Roma population in some places need urgent attention. However, they also warn that these frustrations can easily be abused by politicians who use the Roma issue merely to score political points.

Several thousand people joined a rally organised by the Say Stop to Anti-Socials in Your Town civic initiative in Partizánske, Trenčín Region, on September 29, to campaign for what they called “the rights of decent people”. ‘Anti-socials’ is a Slovak euphemism for Roma.

The rally was attended by Partizánske’s mayor, Jozef Božik, who commented that his town had no other option but to urge politicians in Bratislava to focus their attention on the issue, the Sme daily reported. About 200 neo-Nazis also joined a march towards houses in the town where Roma live. After the march, Božik said that he regretted the neo-Nazis’ involvement. But the organisers were defiant, claiming that non-Roma locals have to endure vulgar behaviour, arrogance, threats, damage to their property and even endangerment of their health or lives from Roma.

“This ‘solution’ to the problem is absolutely unfortunate, partly because through the march itself, especially if it is assisted by aggressive extremists, the problem not only cannot be solved but can even be worsened,” Irena Bihariová, the head of human rights watchdog People Against Racism, told The Slovak Spectator. “Tensions are culminating and animosity is growing even among Roma in the town who are integrated. Instead, the mayor could have explained what strategy for the integration of Roma he has prepared and how much money from EU funding he has used to finance it.”

Bihariová warned that the impacts of such marches are “horrible for both sides”, adding that scared Roma have been writing to her organisation asking for assistance, while “on the other hand, the majority, under the pressure of despair, are finding allies in populist politicians and extremists”.

Laco Oravec, programme director of the Milan Šimečka Foundation, a think tank, says the protests are like a barometer that shows that something has gone wrong within society and the fact that “violence is not yet taking place should serve as a warning”.

“This is neither the first case nor the first incident,” Oravec told The Slovak Spectator, adding that rallies in support of such sentiments are more frequent. He noted that they do not tend to culminate in physical attacks, unlike their equivalents in some neighbouring countries where violence has occurred. “But it is clear that the atmosphere is boiling in society and that the co-existence of Roma and non-Roma is a pressing concern for many citizens.”

According to Oravec, if it continues, no one can really tell how many more months or years the situation will take to develop into “very sharp encounters”.


Kotleba and his “clean-up”


On September 29, the same day as the Partizánske rally took place, Marián Kotleba, the controversial leader of the extremist People’s Party – Our Slovakia, and about 250 extremist followers marched on a Roma settlement adjoining Krásnohorské Podhradie, a village in Košice Region. Earlier this year Kotleba announced his intention to demolish an illegal Roma settlement there shortly after he had acquired part of the land on which the houses of several Roma families currently stand.

First, Kotleba’s group was halted by riot police; Kotleba at the time was not present as he had been arrested and taken to a police station for questioning. He was subsequently released and police then allowed him to survey the land in question. He had obtained it after nearby Krásna Hôrka Castle was devastated in March by a fire which police later concluded had been started inadvertently by two Roma boys smoking a cigarette near the historic site.

While surveying his land Kotleba was accompanied by some journalists and no immediate clashes occurred, the TASR newswire reported. Kotleba had claimed that he wanted to remove “garbage” from his property and his companions had earlier called on supporters to bring axes, shovels and other tools. However, there was no evidence of such implements in the marching crowd.

Village mayor Peter Bollo told TASR that no gathering had been officially announced to the local authorities.

“These constructions are not trash and this is why it is not possible to apply the regulations that apply to removal of waste dumps,” said Bihariová. “These are regular homes which emerged in the seventies, at the time with the blessing of the state. It is the state which has the legitimacy to solve the collision of rights that emerged with the restitution of land after 1989.”

Kotleba did not have a permit from the construction office or a court, and he did not have an execution order, Bihariová said, adding that by demolishing property he would have contravened the rights of the state, while committing the crime of damaging someone else’s property.

“I consider the goal of Marián Kotleba, whose aim is the removal of the homes of a marginalised Roma community in Krásnohorské [Podhradie], an act that is at odds with the legal order of Slovakia as well as international laws,” Peter Pollák, the government proxy for the Roma community, told The Slovak Spectator. (See pg 3 and 9 for our full interview with Pollák.)

Pollák also said that a proposed ‘Roma reform’ which offers more systematic solutions, is needed to limit any space for the presentation of simplistic solutions by Kotleba’s party and similar groups. The reform, which the government will introduce in mid-October, is built around the philosophy that state assistance for individuals will depend on their approach to society, the state and the family.

Pollák’s office proposes that the state reimburses the owners of land on which illegal settlements are built and subsequently offers to sell the land at the same price to its current occupiers. If they do not purchase the land they are using, their dwellings would then be removed.


A shared vision


In terms of measures that could work to ease the tension, Oravec says that anyone who wants to talk about solutions must consider whether they are long-term. There is no one-week solution for Partizánske, Krásnohorské Podhradie or Malacky (another place which has seen tension between Roma and non-Roma communities) which will suddenly improve co-existence between Roma and non-Roma and which would mean that Roma no longer feel themselves to be the victims of injustice, he said.

“It will take decades until the Roma community can be integrated,” said Oravec, adding that momentum could be created by publishing a vision or concept. “Society could start believing, via a shared vision, that this is the way to solve these problems. Emotions would not calm immediately, but the situation would gradually improve.”

However, Oravec argues that good solutions will not come out of a strategy built on generalisation of the problem.

“It will work if we are able to get rid of the finger-pointing at enemies and replace this repressive language with the language of a shared vision and acknowledgement on both sides in the name of a restart for finding a harmonious co-existence between Roma and non-Roma,” said Oravec. “But so far I do not see the voices of those politicians who would be carriers of this new mental turn.”

Oravec has called on Pollák to offer such a vision as opposed to the warning finger and strong hand of the state.

Meanwhile, groups of frustrated citizens are calling more frequently for the application of an “iron fist”, i.e. repressive solutions.

Bihariová says this is a “strange paradox, because it is precisely this type of solution that has been applied over the past 20 years and it is empirically provable that the politics of repression and social restriction have failed”.

Repression cannot enforce integration, Oravec agrees: “Repression is complete resignation from seeking the reasons and roots of problems.”

Radka Minarechová contributed to this story

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