Friday, May 22, 2020

Remember the Romany

The Romani don’t exist in the collective conscience of America, and where we exist at all it’s in a caricature wrapped in medieval pejoratives.

“Regions more affected by the pandemic may have gravitated towards political parties aligned with anti-minority sentiment,” writes  Kristian Blickle of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York

What does that portend if you’re already hemmed inside a ghetto by a military cordon? Or walled off in a compound without running water? Tear gassed by paramilitaries to confine you to hovels made of refuse on a toxic landfill, or forced to “shelter in place” without any basic amenities in metal containers dumped next to a sewage plant? 

These are  realities for thousands of Romani people in Europe, where  racism is omnipresent in their daily survival, but is only one of a litany of human rights abuses catalogued by Amnesty International.

Six months prior to COVID-19 devastating Italy, in the capacity of Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini was formulating a Romani “eviction plan.” Salvini’s political ascent was fueled by hate-laced press events with Romani settlements as a backdrop, his promise for “mass cleansing, street by street” undiminished by high office. When criticized for waking the specter of Benito Mussolini he welcomed the comparison, and in 2018 vowed to complete a registry of all Romani in Italy, something his extremist counterpart and predecessor, Roberto Maroni, began in 2008, when even Romani children were fingerprinted, solely because of their ethnicity. Salvini remains president of Lega Nord, the third largest party in the Italian parliament, and the country’s largest in the European Parliament.

Should Salvini successfully navigate kidnapping charges brought against him for denying asylum-seekers permission to disembark from a coast guard vessel, if past is prelude, it is clear which stigmatized minority Lega Nord will persecute for the pandemic and its economic aftermath. Years before coronavirus emerged to foment it, The Independent in the UK reportedthat this “anti-Roma fury” had “echoes of Mussolini.”

“We will bring parasites in settlements and thieves in neckties to order,” said Marian Kotleba, leader of the Kotlebovci-People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS), of the Romani. Kotleba, a pro-Putin neo-Nazi, either didn’t need or couldn’t find an escalator to come down to unleash his xenophobic bile as a political platform, and instead mass-produced leaflets promising measures to target “gypsy parasites” and eradicate “gypsy criminality.” Slovakia’s Supreme Court subsequently ruled that “gypsy parasites” was not “racial defamation,” which further emboldened Kotleba as he eyed a presidential campaign. Now the head of the fourth largest party in Slovakia’s National Council, Kotleba continues to blame “immigrants” and the Romani for “running around Europe, many of them totally unchecked, bringing coronavirus here.” The fact that the Romani have been surrounded by Slovak military units to restrict their movements hasn’t stemmed Kotleba’s traction “where polls show more than half of people believe conspiracy theories.”

“The truth is that we need to undertake a complete program for a solution to the gypsy problem,” is a common refrain from Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Krassimir Karakachanov. Let’s pause for a second: “solution to the gypsy problem.” Does that rhetoric sound familiar? Like December 8, 1938, familiar? Karakachanov’s “program” and “solution” includes the suspension of all benefits to the Romani who endure nightmarish conditions in derelict Soviet-era wastelands like Stolipinovo where, states Amnesty International, “adequate access to water, sanitation, food, hygiene products and health care” is lacking. According to Karakachanov, severing assistance would “eliminate the profession of the ‘socially weak.’”

Erasure of Romani identity would be achieved through “dismantling clans,” and “given the poor hygiene and low health culture of a large part of the Roma” vaccines should be mandatory. “In view of the indiscriminate birth rate in the ghettos” his plan calls to “limit the possibility” of multiple pregnancies, which implies sterilization, and advocates for abortion which he classifies as “free measures.” This is coming from the Deputy Prime Minister of a European Union member nation, circa now, not Heinrich Himmler or Robert Ritter in the 1930s.

“Roma are brazen, feral, human-like creatures,” maintains former Deputy Prime Minister, Valeri Simeonov, who with Karakachanov, was a co-leader of the now disbanded United Patriots coalition in Bulgaria’s Trump-embraced Borisov administration. Karakachanov and Simeonov remain aligned in government, Simeonov being elected Vice President of the Bulgarian National Assembly. Bulgaria’s Supreme Court buttressed Simeonov last year when it acquitted him on anti-Romani hate speech charges for an address to parliament in which he called Romani children “street pigs” and Romani women “street bitches.” Like Kotleba in Slovakia, the country’s highest court emboldened Simeonov and sanctioned bigotry.

In Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, infant mortality among the Romani is twice that of each respective national average, but seemingly that wasn’t enough to impact the tribespeople’s birthrate for these self-proclaimed “conservative,” “Christian,” “family values oriented” movements in the Balkans, and so coercive sterilization was inflicted upon Romani women in all three countries until the early 2000s, with cases also cataloged in Romania and, unsurprisingly, Bulgaria.

“I would say that coercion is needed in certain situations, because we are obliged to protect the rest of the population,” said Interior Minister, Mladen Marinov, of the Bulgarian government’s approach to the Romani during COVID-19. But what happens in its wake? In Hungary, that “coercion” is embraced by the country’s leading opposition party in parliament, Jobbik – Movement for a Better Hungary. Another neo-Nazi rabble aligned with Putin, Jobbik established its vote-share on the basis of anti-Semitic, anti-Romani extremism. With a nod of deference to Third Reich collaborator, Miklós Horthy, Jobbik organized the Hungarian Guard to counter alleged “Gypsycrime.” Akin to Kotleba’s Hlinka Guard inspired unit in Slovakia, the Hungarian Guard parade in Horthy-era uniforms bearing the World War II Arrow Cross Nazi insignia. “What then is Gypsycrime? Let’s not deceive ourselves: a biological weapon in the hands of Zionism,” said Jobbik’s former Vice-President, József Tibor Bíber, after the formation of the paramilitary force.

Under the veneer of “a people’s party,” of late Jobbik has sought to present itself as the friendly face of neo-Nazism, choosing to define itself simply as “nationalist” while its former leaders organize more extreme splinter groups. “Viktor Orbán has adopted the style that we used to have years ago,” said Jobbik MEP, Márton Gyöngyösi, just before Prime Minister Orbán received “extraordinary powers”  in Hungary’s “coronavirus bill.” Orbán claims he might relinquish the mandate at the end of May. The Atlantic ran the headline, “The EU Watches as Hungary Kills Democracy.” As Orbán’s anti-Romani incitement escalates, so does the humanitarian disaster. “People are chronically ill,” warned an aid-worker from the European Anti-Poverty Network, citing malnourishment, obesity and pre-existing respiratory conditions among Hungary’s Romani. “When the virus comes to the slums it will be brutal.”
In a statement on May 16, Romani Resistance Day, Željko Jovanović, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, reminded the global community that Orbán’s Fidesz Party “spreads racism and white supremacy across Europe without repercussion” as “the EU cannot uphold the rule of law in Hungary.” May 16th, 1944, was the day Himmler’s Auschwitz Decree was to be fulfilled. Approximately 6,500 Romani victims confined in the Zigeunerlager, the “Gypsy Camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were to be “liquidated.” Surrounded by the SS, the Romani refused to exit the barracks that paid mute witness to 17,000 of their relatives who had already been murdered in the gas chambers or Mengele directed “medical” experiments, worked to death as slave laborers, slowly starved, or succumbed to disease. 

On Romani Resistance Day 2020, sanctioned by the Croatian parliament Archbishop Vinko Puljic, the senior clergyman of the Catholic Church in Bosnia, led Mass in Sarajevo to commemorate the Ustaša Movement, Croatia’s Nazi-inspired World War II regime that condemned thousands of Romani and Jewish people to the death camps.

“Our struggle and resistance to oppression is continuous,” concluded Željko Jovanović. “We can recognize the same evil in its various incarnations as it hunts us today—ethnic violence and killings, forced sterilization, evictions, segregation, impoverishment, paternalism.”

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