Over the past few years, they’ve been among the most prominent targets of conservatives and nationalists aiming to prove they’re as anti-crime and anti-multicultural as any of their competitors. The Roma — Europe’s largest minority — have had a rough time in recent years.
In 2008, fresh from receiving his fourth mandate from Italian voters, Silvio Berlusconi declared "zero tolerance" for "Roma, illegals and criminals".
Responding to what were seen as a series of crimes perpetrated by Roma, Berlusconi’s "zero tolerance" policy entailed a series of exceptional laws applying to Roma camps. Earlier this year, Turin’s La Stampa revisited the powers granted to Italian local governments under the laws, revealing it’s now stipulated that "the whole family must be free of judicial convictions, even if contact has been lost [with other family members]".
La Stampa continues that Roma camps are now strictly controlled by private police forces. "[Inhabitants] have to show an ID to use their camp’s eating area, they’re not allowed to invite friends home and aren’t allowed to circulate in the camp after 10 pm."
Zero tolerance laws targeting Roma then crossed into France in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy announced the evacuation of "all irregular camps". Sarko claimed that violent incidents in the French town of Saint-Aignan "underline the problem posed by the behaviour of certain travellers and Roma".
As French broadcaster TF1 reported at the time, the 2010 violence occurred after Roma attacked a police station in protest against the killing of one of the members of the camp by a police officer. The French government’s response led to the deportation of thousands of Roma back to the Eastern European states from which they’d originated.
Over a year later, the expulsions are continuing, reports French public policy watchdog Europe: Liberté, Securité, Justice. The association’s blog quotes French Interior Ministry figures putting the number of expulsions of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens at 4714 in 2011, compared to 9529 in 2010, when "three quarters of 714 illicit camps" were dismantled.
Yet one of those Eastern European countries to which the Roma have been expelled — Bulgaria — saw major anti-Roma riots last week. In some cases, the violence resembled early 20th century anti-Jewish pogroms in the region, with demonstrators calling for Roma to be "turned into soap".
Roma constitute 5 per cent of the Bulgarian population, and the Eastern European country has had little history of racial violence in the past. Indeed, Bulgaria was recently cited by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as an outstanding example of a country where "different cultures and religions exist peacefully side-by-side", according to German daily Die Welt.
But that reputation has been besmirched just months later after rioting against Roma minorities spread across Bulgaria. German weekly Die Zeit says more than 2200 Bulgarians participated in the violence, "the largest demonstrations in Bulgaria for years".
What caused the violence? Die Zeit reports that it all began after police in the southern Bulgarian town of Katuniza arrested a prominent ethnic-Roma mafiosi there, charging him with making threat to a family member of a teenager he’d allegedly hit and killed with his car.
From there, says Die Zeit, "reports of supposed crimes committed by Roma that never really occurred" started circulating on social networking sites. This appears to have led to last week’s violence, which saw at least 168 people arrested "carrying knives, clubs and explosives".
And the protests midweek continued into the weekend, with around 2000 demonstrating in the Bulgarian capital Sofia against what they described as "impunity" and "false tolerance" shown toward "parasitic communities, toward the mafia," reports Spain’s El Mundo. The agency photo accompanying the paper’s dispatch shows members of a youth nationalist organisation saluting Nazi-style at the demonstration.
Meanwhile Roma living in the town at the centre of the riots, Katuniza, are "arming themselves and organising patrols at night," while remaining confined to the Roma quarter of the town during the day according to a blog post by Le Monde’s correspondent in Sofia.
Le Monde says the man arrested by police, known by his nickname King Kiro, was the only rich member of the Roma community in Katuniza, most of whose members are "poor and illiterate". Kiril Rachov owned a zoo, five houses with "a hacienda look" and sold spirits and the bloc-votes of the Roma community in the region to the highest bidder.
Unfortunately, concludes the paper, Rachov is all too typical of Bulgaria’s political class, too many of whom are "oligarchs causing terror" among the country’s citizens but who "at least aren’t Roma" — unlike Rachov.
The Bulgarian riots are not isolated phenomena. Across Eastern Europe, ethnic violence against the Roma has escalated in recent years.
Multilingual European magazine Café Babel’s Italian service revisits the Hungarian town of Gyöngyöspata, where ethnic Hungarian paramilitaries close to the extreme rightist party Jobbik staged "training exercises" in March.
Marching through the Roma quarter of the northern Hungarian town, the Véderő ("for a better future" in Hungarian) claimed they were revenging a Hungarian pensioner who committed suicide after alleged robberies by Roma. The militia returned over summer, once more training in the Roma quarter of Gyöngyöspata.
Café Babel says the Véderő militia originated after Hungarian courts banned the Jobbik party’s then official militia, causing it to regroup as several smaller fractions. Jobbik is supported by around a fifth of Hungarians.
And in the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Petr Nečas paid a visit this week to the area around the German border, where there have also been anti-Roma riots in recent weeks. Nečas promised he’d find solutions to "crime problems" in Northern Bohemia, says German/ Czech website Tschechien Online.
There have been anti-Roma riots in the region for weeks, after violence between Czechs and Roma. German weekly Der Spiegel observes that the incident, just like those in Hungary and Bulgaria, followed a familiar pattern: "They start off with a private, apparently banal argument … ending in injury and sometimes even death. Afterwards, riots and violence ensue that have little connection to the apparent trigger."
Der Spiegel opines that the Roma aren’t the real problem: instead, the issue is the "failure of civil society" in a region where the rights of those with "better connections and those who can bribe with the largest sum" rule. The Hamburg weekly concludes that the Roma are "mere scapegoats" used by corrupt elites to avoid responsibility.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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