Castle blaze sparks ethnic tension in Slovakia
(KRASNOHORSKE PODHRADIE) - A blaze that engulfed a historic castle in Slovakia has ignited ethnic tensions, with a far right party out to evict Roma blamed for sparking the fire from a nearby shanty town.
Marian Kotleba, leader of the small Our Slovakia ultra-nationalist party, has acquired land on which the Roma live in the shadow of the once picturesque Krasna Horka castle earlier this month.
The 14th century landmark nestled in the rolling hills of south-eastern Slovakia went up in flames just weeks earlier, after two Roma boys smoking cigarettes accidentally started a blaze.
The children were not prosecuted, but the incident upped tensions between residents of the nearby village of Krasnohorske Podhradie and local Roma.
A tourist magnet, the castle suffered extensive damage to its roof and parts of its interior and tourism -- a cherished sector in this poor region where one in three people are unemployed -- has since waned.
About half of Krasnohorske Podhradie's 2,600 residents are Roma. Some have integrated, but about 900 live in the nearby illegal shanty town.
Kotleba, who appears in public dressed in a replica black uniform of WWII-era Slovak Nazi collaborators, acquired the rights to the land from previous owners, after he vowed, in his own words, "to put things right."
Local mayor Peter Bollo is worried.
"After the fire, the atmosphere grew tense and I feel bad about it. It's a lose-lose situation for both Roma and the ethnic Slovaks -- it's hard to live in fear," he told AFP.
"Roma and ethnic Slovaks have coexisted peacefully for decades -- there were no problems with crime," he added.
Roma resident Dezider Horvath was visibly ill at ease as he stood in front of the two-storey brick house he built himself 18 years ago.
"I'm scared and I don't want to live here anymore," he told AFP. "When I started to build, nobody said anything. If I had known the land belonged to someone else, I wouldn't have built here," he added, aware of Kotleba's eviction plans.
Miroslav Belicka, who introduced himself as "Kotleba's real estate advisor", told AFP the property in question figures as a "green field" in the land registry.
"We plan to put the actual state of the parcel in line with what the documents say," he said, insisting "the law is on our side."
Some in Krasnohorske Podhradie have joined up with "Our Slovakia" in establishing an association called "Clean out and Use" intent on turning the Roma settlement into a park.
"The association already owns some 7,000 square metres (75,350 square feet) of land in the settlement," Stefan Szanislo, an association founder and the first resident to donate his own plot of land to the project, told AFP.
"I donated the land to Mr. Kotleba to draw attention to the problem that both local and national government have neglected for years," Szanislo told AFP.
"Extreme problems require extreme solutions," he said, claiming he was not a racist. "If an ethnic Slovak built a house on my land, I would do the same," he added.
An ex-communist state of 5.4 million which joined the EU in 2004, Slovakia is officially home to around 106,000 Roma, according to the 2011 national census. But the real figure is believed to be much higher.
"The actual number might be approximately 350,000," says Arne Mann, an ethnologist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Slovak Roma rank among the poorest communities in the 27-member European Union.
According to recent research, just one in six of Europe's young Roma have studied beyond primary school, while half of the population lacks toilets, showers or electricity.
Sixteen percent of Roma in Slovakia live in more than 600 settlements without electricity, sewerage or running water.
Peter Pollak, the first ethnic Roma lawmaker in the Slovak parliament, insists Roma shanty towns grew amid a long legacy of neglect on the part of state authorities, no matter their political stripe.
"Historically, it's the state that is responsible for the emergence of Roma settlements. The state has accepted the situation for too long," he told AFP, adding he intends to draft a law designed to help Roma gain legal title to land they live on.
"The Roma must repurchase the land under their houses, possibly through monthly installments over a longer period of time. The bottom line is the Roma can't be given anything for free," Pollak said.
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