Slovak town says: Fascism? Not here!
The town of Banská Bystrica had reason to celebrate this month even before Christmas or New Year's. The town marked Human Rights Day on 10 December in grand style as part of a festival of humanity, solidarity and tolerance with the telling name "Not in Our Town".
This was no accident. Currently the infamous Marian Kotleba is Governor of the Banská Bystrica Regional Authority, a man whose opinions are sometimes openly Fascist and racist.
"We have direct experience with political extremism in our town and in our region. That is why Banská Bystrica is the best place to celebrate human rights and the prevention of extremism," wrote activist and journalist David Kapusta on the eve of the celebration.
This was not, however, just about fun, because most of the program of the "Not in Our Town" festival was of an academic, working nature. The cultural program took place in the evenings and included interesting guest performers such as actress Zuzana Kronerová, the Israeli band Lola Marsh and the Bratislava group Živé kvety with singer Lucie Piussi.
Democracy at risk?
A conference called "Democracy at Risk?" was held at the local university as part of the festival, during which an international forum was asked to respond to the following questions: What is going on in Slovakia that is contributing to the dissemination of radical sentiments and how, precisely in the town of Banská Bystrica, which experienced the fight against Fascism during the period of the Slovak State, has a politician come to power whose past is linked to the neo-Nazi movement and whose present is linked to unacceptably racist rhetoric predominantly targeting Romani people?
"Democracy is always at risk because power is delicious and those who are hungry for it can exploit democratic means to take it," said Slovak Ombud Jana Dubovcová, who gave her auspices to the event. "The only barrier between those who want to govern and the democratic form of government is the force of public opinion."
Ján Koper, Dean of Matěj Bel University's Political Science Faculty, which hosted the event, said the problem of the current democratic crisis in Slovakia was the societal distinction between an active or a passive majority. "A passive majority is not a neutral concept, it's not a zero-value on a scale. It does not mean we do not care about politics. On the contrary, it is an expression of resistance. For those who see no alternative, it represents a negative value on their scale," the Dean emphasized in his presentation, "and therefore it is possible that, temporarily, an extreme politician can become their alternative choice."
Racism produces fear and stress
One of the organizers of the event, Ingrid Kosová, the director of the Quo Vadis civic association, responded in the affirmative, without hesitation, to the central question of whether democracy is now at risk in Slovakia."The sign of an advanced democratic society is how it manages to stand up to poverty, to what degree people are capable of reflecting on differences in a cultivated way, and what the degree of our mutual tolerance for one another is," she said.
Kosová believes one of the main roles in the radicalization of society is played by emotions such as fear or stress. "Imagine a person who has lost his job after 10 years, he comes home, he sits down in front of the television, and he thinks: I'll get EUR 200 in benefits, I have two children, how will I make a living? The first thing that occurs to him is that his life will now be permanently in stress. Then comes the fear, the frustration, the hopelessness. After that it's enough for him to read some fabricated report, some racist hoax, on Facebook about how a Romani mother of many children in some forgotten Romani settlement gets EUR 900 a month in welfare. Not everyone realizes that most people in Slovakia today are living in frustration, under stress because they are not managing to make a dignified living," she emphasized.
Kotleba is no accident
"The situation in Slovakia could continue to deteriorate because people still are incapable of, unwilling to, call things by their proper names," Michal Havran, a Bratislava journalist who systematically covers the topic of extremism, said at the conference. He believes this has to do with the fact that political elites are obsessed with the notion that voters must not be irritated by being reminded of their failures or their past.
His example was that of the current discourse around the history of the Slovak State, in which strange voices are continually growing louder for the Slovaks to stop putting on sackcloth and ashes and thinking only of the past. There are calls for people to stop criticizing the clerical fascist regime so loudly, claims that it allegedly had its positive aspects too, such as low unemployment and social benefits.
In Havran's view, of course, this is the road to hell. "We can't make progress because one of the reasons we have people like Kotleba here today is the fact that we still haven't put this to rest. Even now we are unable to come to terms with that past," Havran said.
The problem with the current dissemination of radical ideas bordering on racism and their growing popularity is our benevolence toward them, Havran emphasized. "The election of Kotleba is not a onetime accident," Havran said, adding that the danger of Kotleba and those like him is the fact that once they hold office, they become interesting to sponsors who want to invest capital into them.
"That means Kotleba is already today potentially interesting to people who considered him nothing more than a street brawler just five years ago," Havran said. He also warned that Kotleba is planning to infiltrate his people further into the political mainstream and at national level.
"He is working on this intensively," Havran said. "When he is abroad, for example, he often secretly has coffee with leading Slovak politicians."
The bloody 1990s
Slovaks became convinced that the distance between racist slogans and violence is a dangerously short one during the 1990s. "That was a cruel period. The majority part of society may not have been as strongly aware of it, but people from various subcultures were frequently attacked and mutilated by neo-Nazis," stressed the founder of the "People against Racism" association, Laco Ďurkovič.
"We often went out to monitor neo-Nazi activity. We also managed to bring the first such case for prosecution. However, we filed the criminal report secretly, without a return address, because we knew those people would find us if we revealed it," Ďurkovič said.
In the year 2000, the murder of Romani woman Anastázie Balážová, a mother of seven, in Slovakia was a sad end to the violent 1990s - neo-Nazis beat her to death with a baseball bat, shouting: "We'll kill you, you black rubbers!" Before this incident, a 17-year-old Romani boy, Márius Goraľ, became the victim of a racially motivated attack in which neo-Nazis doused him with fuel and burned him alive.
The problem with this new wave of racism, according to Ďurkovič, consists of the indifference of people who are only concerned about protecting their own personal families, privacy and property. That creates room for extremists to operate with impunity.
Peter Pollák, the Slovak Plenipotentiary for the Romani Community, also considers majority-society indifference to be the main reason racism is spreading: "Indifference makes it possible for displays of racism in mainstream, official politics. One of the problems that is becoming a pretext for aggression against Romani people is the dissatisfaction of those who now own the land on which Romani settlements have been built."
"It is the easiest thing to say that Romani people have illegally appropriated land that doesn't belong to them. However, when you ultimately research the source of these problems, you learn that what lies behind this is someone from outside the Romani community who, in the name of a town or village, once permitted the Roma to settle on that land years ago. Often this was because that same person had pushed them away from somewhere else. This is precisely the topic that catapulted the current Governor of the Banská Bystrica Region, Kotleba, into politics," Pollák said.
The fight isn't over, it's just beginning
The mere fact that the "Not in Our Town" event has been realized in Banská Bystrica can be considered a significant success for the part of Slovak society that is against neo-Nazism and racism. The presence of guests from abroad and from Slovakia who brought inspiring ideas with them is another success.
"I'm very glad that I don't have to be ashamed of my beautiful town anymore. For the last year, Banská Bystrica has only been spoken of in the context of Kotleba and racism. However, I firmly believe that this event will bring that to an end. All of Slovakia now knows that Kotleba and his fascist skinhead comrades are not the only people living here, but that a large number of open, tolerant people live here too who are able to clearly say no to racism!" said Peter Janček, who was born in the town, studies at the local university, and considers himself a local patriot.
Organizers are hoping they will succeed in holding similar events under the same name in other Slovak towns in collaboration with local civic associations. At a time when a wave of racism is once again dangerously rising in Slovakia and xenophobic opinions are spreading not just online, but also through television broadcasts, when Kotleba's nationalists are planning to move from the regional to the national level of politics, this movement is badly needed.
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