Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

EUROPE: Roma Pay the Price for Far-Right Rise

Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Dec 29 2008 (IPS) - The alarm bell is ringing in Central Europe: as the region braces itself for an economic crisis, extremism grows and gains popular sympathy by targeting the Roma.

The collapse of social rights in post-communist central-eastern Europe has been most harsh on the Roma, a minority that is believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.

While anti-Roma prejudices are strong in Central Europe, so far no political force has managed to garner support by rallying the population against them. But extremists now see a window of opportunity in mobilising anti-gypsy feelings.

“The gypsy theme doesn’t create political divisions, it’s an everyday thing for people on the left or right, and they (extremists) are trying to use this to gain some power outside of politics,” Hungarian anthropologist Gergo Pulay told IPS.

This is the case with the Hungarian Guard, a quasi-paramilitary group created in August 2007 and whose 2,000 or so members get physical training and promise to preserve Hungarian traditions and protect its citizens.

In October Czech extremists followed suit, setting up the pseudo-paramilitary National Guard, also about 2,000 member strong.

Conditions are set for a spiral of violence: extremists accuse their countries’ police forces of failing to protect citizens from “gypsy crime”, while members of Roma communities say they are ready to set up their own militias to protect themselves.

Several provocative marches by Hungarian Guard members in Roma-inhabited settlements have coincided with sudden new attacks on Roma inhabiting Hungarian villages. The Roma constitute 6 percent of Hungary’s 10 million population.

In one incident in November, grenades were launched into a Roma-inhabited house in Pecs, 250 km south of Budapest, killing two adults and injuring two children. The Hungarian police was criticised for ruling out the possibility of a racist motive in the attack before launching an investigation. They later retracted the statement.

Such scenes are also becoming familiar to Czechs following successive clashes between extremists and the Roma in the Janov housing estate in Litvinov in the northern Czech Republic.

In one incident, supporters of the far-right Workers Party tried to invade the heavily Roma-inhabited estate Nov. 17. Policemen, extremists and locals were involved in the clashes where Molotov cocktails were thrown and police cars put on fire.

Many were appalled by the large number of elderly locals who sided with the extremists, signalling that far-right extremism is not isolated. Encouraged by signs of local support, Czech far-right supporters have spoken of further action.

There are some 300 Roma ghettos across the country. Many of them have appeared as a result of a recent spree in evictions. Approximately 80,000 inhabitants of these ghettos are often unemployed, welfare-dependent and uneducated.

Often they are moved to better quality but more isolated flats, hindering their integration in mainstream society.

In the neighbourhoods where they are placed, they are usually received with fear and suspicion by locals, feelings fed by the many Czech politicians who express blatantly anti-Roma opinions.

“I am absolutely disgusted by the latest events in Litvinov and especially by the lack of reaction from the Czech political elite,” Cyril Koky from the government council for Roma affairs told media in November.

Politicians in the region, and especially in the Czech Republic, have reacted mildly to anti-gypsy incidents. They tend to depict the Roma as living off welfare and as having been overprotected under the defunct communist state.

“If they take welfare benefits and don’t work, they are more likely to keep stealing from people,” Istvan Kovacs, one of the few protesters willing to speak to journalists at one of the far-right rallies in Budapest told IPS.

He denies that the clearly anti-Semitic and anti-gypsy utterances of younger protesters around him are fundamentally racist. “We just need to help them become better Hungarians,” he says with a kind smile.

The Hungarian Guard denies any involvement in the latest incidents. It boasts some “honorary” Jews and Roma among its ranks, and handed out Christmas presents to Roma children to fence off accusations of racism.

Extreme-right movements are beginning to relinquish Nazi symbols, opting instead for more home-grown imagery and ideological patterns, while increasing international cooperation with similar movements.

In a region where left-wing politics is stigmatised due to a failure to deal with the heritage of socialism, the anti-globalisation mood has been channelled by a nationalistic right that accuses domestic elites of selling out state property to multinational corporations.

Authorities in the region have promised to monitor the activities of such groups, especially paramilitary ones, but they have become highly skilled in avoiding breaching the law, and legal shortcomings mean that even a ban can be easily circumvented.

Moreover, far-right groups like those in Hungary intimidate opponents by publishing the full names, telephones and addresses of lawyers, judges or journalists who get in their way.

In Slovakia a far-right party has even made it into the governing coalition in 2006, and since then racially motivated crimes have increased exponentially in what some consider the result of the state legitimating xenophobic views.

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