Roma fear recently elected Slovak governor with neo-Nazi roots

Roma children play with a ball near their home in Brezno, central Slovakia on Feb. 5, 2014.

Five little Roma boys braving the February chill in just T-shirts kick around a football in front of a ramshackle building in Brezno, central Slovakia, as their worried parents look on.

Dasa Bucekova, a 40-year old mother of two, has had trouble sleeping since Marian Kotleba, an ultra-nationalist known for anti-Roma vitriol, was elected governor of the sleepy region of Banska Bystrica two months ago.

"We're worried that he'll come and kick us out of our homes," Bucekova, who has no running water and shares one bedroom with her husband and children, told AFP.

"He calls us parasites living off benefits, but I would gladly work if he offered me a job," she added.

More from GlobalPost: 14 unbelievably racist things European (and Canadian) politicians are saying about the Roma

Tough economic times have triggered a rise in far-right extremism across Europe and eurozone member Slovakia is no exception.

Kotleba, who has neo-Nazi roots, is gaining political traction by casting Slovakia's large and impoverished Roma minority as a scapegoat for, rather than victim of, a sluggish economy.

Around 60 percent of Slovakia's 400,000 Roma — in a country of 5.4 million people — are fully integrated in society, according to the labor ministry.

The remainder live in abject poverty in some 650 shanty towns without electricity, sewage or running water, mostly located in the south and east of the country where salaries are low and one in four people is unemployed.

A recent opinion poll showed that for the first time ever, his far-right Our Slovakia party could make it into parliament in the 2016 elections.

Kotleba, 36, scored an unexpected victory in a November gubernatorial poll, defeating an incumbent backed by Prime Minister Robert Fico's Smer social democrats.

His victory came as several European nationalist parties including France's anti-immigrant National Front and Hungary's far-right Jobbik mulled joining forces ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

Kotleba refused to be interviewed by AFP, but a spokesman confirmed that his party will run in May elections to the European parliament.

"Nationalism has been on the rise in Europe and Slovakia — which so far has not had such an openly xenophobic party — is no exception," Slovak political analyst Marian Lesko told AFP.

"The demand for a nationalist party has always been there in Slovakia," he said.

Turning a blind eye

Kotleba appears to be picking up the votes from a more moderate nationalist party ejected from parliament in 2012 when voters turned against all right wingers tainted in a widespread corruption scandal, Lesko observed.

Even the popular leftist Premier Fico has used populist anti-Roma rhetoric to woo voters, but Kotleba has gone a step further.

Demanding cuts in unemployment and social benefits for the Roma, his party manifesto reads: "Parasites who refuse a job offer will receive no benefits, no money, no house."

"Kotleba sells himself as the protector of 'decent' people against 'Roma parasites' and corrupt politicians," Alena Kluknavska, an expert on extremism from the Bratislava-based Commenius university, told AFP.

Mainstream politicians turning a blind eye to the destitution of Roma have only served to deepen their marginalisation and the social backlash against them, she notes.

Kotleba's tactics worked on Ondrej Vegh, a 53-year old pensioner from the central Slovakian town of Hronec.

"I voted for him (Kotleba) because something needs to be done about the Roma," he told AFP.

"They don't work, the government gives them benefits and houses, while non-Roma slave for low salaries and get nothing for granted."

Besides ditching the euro and quitting NATO, Kotleba also proposes "employing the jobless constructing schools, hospitals, housing and roads instead of hiring expensive private firms."

But local businessman Vladimir Petro isn't impressed.

"Ditch the machines and have the unemployed with hammers and shovels build the roads? That's naive, a return to 18th Century," laughed the 40-year old flower shop owner.

For now, Kotleba's powers as governor are limited since he is isolated in a regional assembly dominated by social democrats.

Sporting a thin black moustache, he likes to be called "vodca" (Fuehrer) in Slovak and has repeatedly been detained and charged with hate speech although never convicted.

Originally a high school teacher, he founded the now-banned far-right Slovenska Pospolitost (Slovak Community) party ten years ago.

Its members used to sport Nazi-style uniforms at rallies commemorating Slovakia's World War II Hitler-allied fascist puppet regime. The party was banned for stirring racial hatred in 2006.

"Kotleba has changed his strategy since then, abandoned the criticism of Zionists, Americans, liberals and focused instead on anti-Roma rhetoric and slamming the corrupted mainstream politicians, which impresses frustrated voters more," analyst Alena Kluknavska said.