“ROMA. This, too, is their true story,” reads the slogan of an NGO campaign which uses the Facebook timelines of successful members of the minority, who started-out in slums or orphanages, and made it to the top.
But if you want to understand the dominant narrative of the Roma story, there is a different Facebook status you should check out – that of Prešov mayor Pavel Hagyari. It encompasses almost everything a foreigner needs to understand about where the majority stands on this issue.
The original version of the status read: “Today, since 4am, we’ve been getting rid of a ‘black’, really black, Roma settlement. We ask the government’s plenipotentiary for the Roma community to come get his sheep.” Pictures of municipal police with a German shepherd dog, and Roma cleaning up garbage in the dark were added.
It later turned out that the “settlement” comprised six adults and one child living in three tents. Following criticism, the mayor claimed the status had been written by an assistant, who refused to comment, and the second sentence was removed. The part about the “black settlement” (čierna osada) obviously passed the test. Strong language, few real solutions, a tendency to find excuses and lay the blame on someone else – this one incident sums up everything that has been wrong about the state’s approach to the problem in recent years.
A further perspective is provided by a short look at the reactions of Hagyari’s virtual friends. One of the early ones reads “Pavel to the castle!” indicating he would make a perfect president. The mayor of Prešov, who previously ran a successful legal firm in Bratislava, and back in the 1990s chaired the reformist Democratic Party, is no extremist. He is just riding the same wave of anti-Roma sentiment many right-wing politicians desperate for attention and an agenda have been trying to catch in recent weeks. Opinion polls show no indication of its actual appeal. But at least some Facebook friends like it.
From the comments, one can witness the wide spectrum of popular nicknames for Roma: “leeches”, “settlers”, “protected animals”, “strongly pigmented co-citizens”. And there is a wide range of ideas about what should be done with them – let’s send them to the village where they came from. Or to India. Or let’s shoot them to Mars. Someone even asks whether we should consider a World War II-like option. But most suggest sending them to Bratislava. There the government and the activists can “try out their ideas and dreams”. To be fair, there are some people with a more sensible approach. But, as in real life, they are in a minority.
What we’ve been discussing is no extremist platform. It’s the public profile of the mayor of one of the country’s largest cities. And the debate is full of regular folks, debating the issue under their real names. So yes, it’s going to take a lot of Facebook campaigns to get this right.