* Baia Mare mayor wins more votes than any mayor in country
* Criticised for creating "ghettos" for Roma families
By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST, June 14 A Romanian mayor, criticised
by rights groups for relocating Roma gypsy families and building
a concrete wall to separate off a Roma neighbourhood, scored the
biggest share of the vote in local elections, official data
showed on Thursday.
Catalin Chereches, the incumbent 33-year-old mayor of Baia
Mare, won 86 percent in Sunday's election, which was held just
days after local authorities relocated dozens of Roma families
to the administrative buildings of a dismantled copper plant.
Rights groups have criticised Chereches's policies and
accused him of trying to set up a ghetto.
They say the construction of the 1.8 metre (six feet) high
wall last year between a Roma neighbourhood and a main road
amounted to institutional racism and the new housing for
relocated families was of poor quality and lacked sufficient
kitchens and bathrooms.
Chereches, a member of the ruling left-leaning Social
Liberal Union alliance (USL) which won most of the votes in
local elections, said the relocation was not discriminatory and
was only a temporary solution.
"This is just the first step in a project that aims to
become the way, at an European level, of integrating the Roma
people," Chereches told Reuters by telephone from Baia Mare in
the far north of the country.
"It's just for one to three years until we identify land
plots for those people to build houses."
MARGINS OF SOCIETY
About 620,000 Romanians describe themselves as Roma. Rights
groups say many do not declare their background, some of them
fearing discrimination, and the true number could be as high as
2.5 million. That would be the largest Roma community in Europe.
The vast majority live on the margins of society in abject
poverty and pro-democracy groups say the state does not do
enough to prevent discrimination.
Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, hundreds of
thousands of Roma have flooded European cities, complaining of
racism and poverty at home.
The EU in May called on member states to do more to
integrate their Roma populations and bring them closer to the
economic and social mainstream.
Local Romanian media said authorities in Baia Mare began
moving dozens of families in May from poor neighbourhoods where
they had lived in 20-year-old improvised buildings with no
water, sewage or power supplies.
"There must be a process in place that gives all residents
the chance to participate in any decisions that will affect
their lives, and allows for them to genuinely participate
without fear, harassment or intimidation," rights groups Amnesty
International and Romani CRISS said in a statement.
Roma have a long history of being persecuted and during
World War Two they were targeted by the Nazis. Although
estimates vary, it is thought several hundred thousand died in
concentration camps alongside millions of Jews.
France's repatriation of Roma in 2010 prompted one European
Union official to recall the Nazis' persecution, overshadowed an
EU summit and sparked a row between former French President
Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Earlier this month, French authorities dismantled a Roma
camp on the banks of the river Garonne in Toulouse.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Sophie Hares)