By Michael Winfrey - Analysis
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Street battles between far-right protesters and police in a Czech town and the killings of two Roma in Hungary point to old animosities that may worsen as the financial crisis takes hold.
Such violence is rising in parts of central and eastern Europe, disappointing leaders who had hoped the prosperity tied to European Union entry for some countries and economic growth in non-members could help mend nationalist and ethnic divisions.
Rights activists say that although the right wing remains on the fringe of politics and racism does not appear to be rising across society as a whole, small pockets of far-right supporters have become bolder and better organized.
Racist violence is not exclusive to Europe’s eastern wing -- Italian locals set fire to two Roma camps in Naples earlier this year -- but many governments in the region are struggling to contain increasingly aggressive outbursts, particularly against the large, marginalized Roma minority.
“It’s clear that there’s an uptick in violent attacks at this stage. There does seem to be more activity in extremist groups and neo-nazi groups,” said Robert Kushen, managing director of the European Roma Rights Center, a rights group.
Experts say a big threat is that far-right ideas could gain a foothold in the mainstream and lead to political inroads. Some cite gains by Austria’s far right in a September election, less than a year before a European Parliament election in June 2009.
The tightening squeeze of the financial crisis could also exacerbate strife in areas left behind in the economic boom that has swept across much of central and eastern Europe this decade.
“It is tied to... economic worsening not only in the Czech Republic, but also in the rest of Europe, because all kinds of attacks have happened in a number of other countries,” Czech Prime Minister Miroslav Topolanek said this week.
“There is unrest in society.”
Earlier this month, assailants firebombed two homes and shot dead two Hungarian Roma. This week, a Roma couple was killed by a grenade blast. A public dispute followed over whether police had been too quick to rule out racism as a motive.
On Monday in the Czech Republic, 500 black-masked people shouting racist slogans tried to attack a Roma ghetto in Litvinov, a town in the country’s northern rust belt where unemployment, at 12 percent, is double the national average.
Backed by the nationalist Czech Workers Party and supported by members of the town’s dominant white community, the crowd threw cobblestones and petrol bombs at police, who fought back with teargas and mounted officers. Fourteen people were injured.
John Dalhuisen, a researcher at rights group Amnesty International, said extremism was rising in areas passed over by the economic boom that has transformed the region’s once soot-caked capitals into vibrant European cities.
“Particularly (it is) in the rural provincial areas ... in the third or fourth category towns that haven’t seen the economic growth that the capital cities have seen and that the rest of the world is impressed by,” he said.
“There are pockets of entrenched poverty in these countries that haven’t been addressed.”
It is that disappointment and a will to return to “traditional” family values that has led to wider acceptance of organizations such as the Hungarian Guard, a 1,500-strong group backed by the right-wing Jobbik party.
Jobbik denies it has racist aims and says the Guard’s frequent marches -- mainly in neighborhoods of Roma, a largely impoverished group that lives on the fringes of society -- are to protect the Hungarian nation and “fight Roma crime.”
Such words are repeated in several countries.
“People say the Czech Workers’ Party is racist, but they aren‘t. They’re just trying to help other people who are afraid,” Anna Frankova, a Workers Party member, told Czech TV after the Litvinov riot. They are planning another march soon.
According to think tank Political Capital, similar sentiment has boosted the potential social base and political room of maneuver for the far right.
This trend is also evident in anti-gay protests in the Baltics, attacks against immigrants in Ukraine and Russia, and more aggressive manifestations of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma feelings across the region in general.
The problem spilled over borders this month when Slovak police detained more than 20 Hungarian far-right activists after they marched through villages in Slovakia’s largely ethnic Hungarian south in uniforms that police said bore Nazi symbols.
A meeting between the two countries’ prime ministers ended in acrimony when Slovakia’s prime minister accused the groups of exporting fascism. Hungary criticized the Slovak government, which includes the anti-Hungarian, anti-Roma Nationalist Party.
“Many of us think in Hungary that Slovak politics is not only flirting with nationalism, but has become engaged to it,” Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said.
Slovakia has banned a group similar to the Hungarian Guard, and the Czechs have proposed the same for the Workers Party, but rights groups tend to agree that many governments are still doing too little to condemn radicalism.
They also say more must be done to end the marginalization of Roma, who at around 10 percent of the region’s population, often live in squalid settlements with little access to jobs and public services such as education, healthcare and utilities.
“There’s just such deep resentment and hostility toward the Roma,” said Kushen. “And government policies throughout the region still encourage segregation, and sometimes actively foment discrimination. Violence is never far around the corner.”
Political analysts say the incorporation of rightist rhetoric by more mainstream political parties can fan xenophobic attitudes, but it is not exclusive to the former communist bloc.
Pascale Charhon, director of the European Network Against Racism, pointed to Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attracted condemnation from other EU governments with a plan to fingerprint Roma as a way of fighting crime, and the 28 percent garnered by Austrian far-right parties in September’s election.
Charhon said an EU framework decision meant to fight discrimination in the bloc that is stalled in parliaments could help, but called for a more unified and vocal approach.
“The next question here,” she said “is what is the kind of Europe that will turn out at the polls next year in the European Parliamentary election?”
Additional reporting by Krisztina Than in Hungary, Gareth Jones in Poland, Martin Santa in Slovakia