ANDRYCHOW Poland (Reuters) - The Roma have never got on particularly well with their neighbors in this Polish town, but they cannot remember things being as bad as they are now.
What has changed is that radical nationalists showed up in Andrychow last month in what may be start of efforts to emulate allies in the Jobbik party from Hungary, which has exploited anti-Roma sentiment there to widen its electoral appeal and become the most powerful far-right movement in eastern Europe.
The Polish gameplan involved Robert Winnicki, a far-right leader from Warsaw with personal ties to Jobbik, attending a protest in Andrychow where he said all the 100 or so ethnic Roma living in the southern town of 20,000 should be driven out.
At the rally, 30 km (20 miles) from where the Nazis killed over a million Jews, Roma and others at Auschwitz, supporters of a local soccer club chanted “Cyganie raus!” - an echo of the German “Juden raus”, or Jews out, using the Polish for Gypsy.
Jobbik and Winnicki’s Ruch Narodowy, or National Movement, deny inciting racial hatred in Andrychow. And they dismiss suggestions that Jobbik, which took 21 percent of the vote in April’s parliamentary election, is pushing its agenda in Poland. But they do call it an inspiration to its small Polish ally.
Roman Kwiatkowski, head of the Association of Roma in Poland, says Andrychow is the first case he has seen in Poland of far-right parties stoking anti-Roma feeling in this way:
“It is very dangerous,” he told Reuters. “It does not allow us to look to the future with confidence.”
Roma residents said they had kept their children from school in recent weeks and stayed home after dark for fear of attack.
Few see Ruch Narodowy, which took 1.4 percent in May’s EU election, gaining the kind of clout Jobbik has in Budapest. It tapped in to resentment of Hungary’s 6.5 percent Roma minority - part of an ethnic community of some 10 million scattered across Europe and long discriminated against. Poland’s Roma number only about 50,000, or 0.13 percent of its population.
Nonetheless, events in Andrychow indicate that Jobbik - snubbed even by many west European far-right parties as anti-Semitic and racist - is spreading its ideology beyond Hungary’s borders, in this case to Poland, by far the biggest and most influential ex-Soviet bloc state in the European Union.
Jobbik, now Hungary’s second strongest party, has been using its domestic success to build contacts and share tactics around eastern Europe, alarming rights campaigners. [ID:nL4N0MP3P3]
Yet until now there has been little hard evidence of the implementation elsewhere of tactics that including seize on incidents of violence in poor towns between Roma and others.
Jobbik’s usual tactic has been to hold rallies blaming Roma for crime and other social grievances. And they recruit local youths into vigilante patrols with the stated aim of protecting citizens from the Roma.
In Andrychow, the Jobbik playbook from Hungary seems to be being implemented almost move for move. Early in June, locals say, a pregnant Roma woman was attacked as she walked in the street. Soon after, two young ethnic Poles were beaten up in what many residents assumed was a Roma revenge attack.
Anger erupted. Supporters of the local soccer club, Beskid Andrychow, set up a page on Facebook. It published accounts of what it said were violent attacks by Roma, and photographs of ethnic Poles it said had been beaten up. The page has now been “liked” by 14,182 people.
One post read: “We’re not going to sit quietly and pretend that everything is OK. We are shouting long and loud: enough of Gypsy impunity!”
On June 13, about 200 people, many of them young soccer fans, held a rally in a tree-lined square in the center of Andrychow. It was there that some chanted “Cyganie raus!”
Winnicki of Ruch Narodowy said at the protest: “We have been dealing here for several years with a terror by the Gypsy minority for which the town authorities and the police have no answer.
“The town should expel the whole Gypsy group.”
In the days that followed, groups of men in white shirts began “civil protection patrols”, roaming the streets each evening. One student and soccer fan who took part said they had been discontinued after succeeding in ending violence by Roma.
“They have seen that they cannot get away with everything like it was before,” he said. He did not want to be identified for fear he might be penalized for his part in the patrols.
Party officials from Jobbik and Ruch Narodowy said that the events in Andrychow were a spontaneous, grassroots upsurge of anger. The politicians were only there to help, they said.
But they acknowledge that the example of how Jobbik grew on the back of anti-Roma sentiment may have been an influence:
“I think that the organizers may have viewed certain successes in Hungary as an inspiration,” said Winnicki.
Andrychow holds an election for mayor later this year and Roma community leaders fear the far-right may use the tensions to get their candidate elected - as Jobbik did in Hungary. Winnicki said he could not rule out that the party might bid for the office.
Tama Fodor, a Jobbik activist who was in Warsaw this month for meetings with like-minded Poles, said his movement was not giving recommendations to anyone in Poland.
“But if they see something that worked in Hungary, they can use it,” he told Reuters.
Who inspired the far-right surge in Andrychow does not matter much to the Roma families gathered in the backyard of their apartment building on Stefan Batory Street, on the outskirts of the town. They are just scared.
They said the patrols by soccer fans were still going on at weekends. They only went out at night to get essentials from the shops and then never alone. One man, Rafal Strauss, said the community had started keeping their children home from school.
Two Roma woman said they had heard that ethnic Poles in at least local two apartment blocks had submitted petitions to the city authorities asking that Roma neighbors be moved out - an assertion that could not be verified.
Another Roma man, Mieczyslaw Pankowski, said he was now too scared to take his 7-year-old disabled daughter for treatment in a nearby town and the family lived in fear of attacks at night: “We take it in turns to keep watch,” he said.
“We’re frightened to go to sleep in case someone throws a bottle through the window.”
Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest