Anti-Roma bias, job fears aid far-right in central Europe

Sun Jan 5, 2014 11:45am EST
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By Jan Lopatka

CIERNY BALOG, Slovakia (Reuters) - The people of this peaceful village at the foot of the Slovak mountains vented their anger by electing as their regional governor a man who calls his Roma compatriots "parasites" and admires a wartime figure who collaborated with the Nazis.

Marian Kotleba's landslide victory in November exposed pent-up frustration over unemployment and neglect by mainstream parties, together with a deep-seated animosity towards the Roma, factors that have built support for extremist politicians in Slovakia and elsewhere in central Europe.

Still, many were shocked when Kotleba - a former high school teacher who looks back fondly on the Slovak state that was allied with the Nazis during World War Two - came from nowhere to win 77 percent of the vote in Balog, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Bratislava, the capital.

Overall, in the central Slovak region of Banska Bystrica, he won 55 percent, enough to become regional governor and a further sign that some European voters frustrated with the economic crisis were willing to take chances with extremists.

Nationalist sentiment is increasingly directed against Slovakia's Roma, a minority of 400,000 in the country of 5.4 million who live on the fringes of society, suffering from poverty, poor education and limited job prospects. In some settlements they have no access to running water.

With European Union expansion opening borders, deprived regions have seen waves of departures, including some of Europe's 10 million Roma, to countries such as Canada and Britain, where immigration has again become a hot issue.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has imposed new regulations on migrants amid fears of an influx of poor people from Romania and Bulgaria, for whom restrictions on free movement within the EU expired at the end of December.

Kotleba, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, ran on a platform that derided "Gypsy parasites". Some Roma, whose forebears arrived in central Europe from India in the Middle Ages, see Gypsy as a derogatory term.   Continued...

Jozef Bartos (R), a 20-year-old Roma, is pictured with his wife and child in their shack that has no running water or sewerage in Cierny Balog December 11, 2013. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa