By Jonathan Lee

On Saturday 1st June more than a thousand anti-Roma protesters took to the centre of the small city of Čakovec, in Međimurje, Croatia. Nationalist banners, flags, and signs were dotted throughout the large crowd made up of racists from all walks of life, all declaring the same message – “Želim normalan život” – I want a normal life.

The Čakovec organisers stressed that their protest (originally called “anti-Roma Protest” on Facebook before it was changed) was not, in fact, against people of Romani ethnicity but against criminality in the region. The protest had one single goal, they said, to “point to the catastrophic, irresponsible, dangerous and criminal behaviour of many in our region, especially belonging to the Roma minority.”

Aside from a smattering of skinheads wearing camouflage-print, three-quarter length shorts, and suspicious, runic lettered t-shirts, it all started relatively benignly. Old men sported Croatian football shirts, families with young children enjoyed the sunshine, and a ceremonial guard of honour accompanied the politicians into the square, beating drums and blowing little horns. The speakers began by pointing the finger at the institutions – the police, social services, the central government – for not dealing with the supposedly high crime rates in the region. In fact, the number of crimes in the region has been steadily falling year on year according to local police statistics. Nonetheless, speakers insisted that the region is plagued by a small but persistent minority of Roma, whilst also admitting  that “there are good people amongst the Roma”. There was even a token Romani man brought out (who had recently lost his elected position as head of the Roma self-government), who told the crowd about how “brave” he is to live in a Roma settlement.

When 17-year-old high school student and protest organiser Tin Hrgović took the stage, the atmosphere changed. The carefully coded, dog-whistle politics being used to incite the crowd without using overtly racist language soon gave way to outright hate speech.

Our rights are violated! Not the rights of this primitive and criminal minority!” the wannabe-teen-firebrand boomed across the square.

What can we expect from their children when they grow up in a few years? These children will be reflections of their parents. Who are the role models of these kids? Abusers of drugs. People who can’t take care of themselves or their children. People who think its normal to steal, beat, lie and curse. Is it even possible that their children who grow up in such an environment, become responsible members of our society?” The baying crowd released a chorus of “Noooo!”s. The pantomime continued.

For security in Medimurje

One after another, each speaker recited the unwieldy “we just want a normal life” line, juxtaposed with their own individual brand of racist vitriol. Alen Pancer, from the “Right to a Normal Life” civic initiative said: “the Roma will tell you that we are making this up. But the statistics from the police say that 7% of them are responsible for 70% of all the crime in Međimurje.

Of course there are no such statistics on ethnic crime committed by “them” from the police, and Roma only make up 4.49% of the population according to the UN Development Programme. But Alen didn’t let numbers stand in his way, further asserting: ”they will tell you only a few individuals are responsible, but how can only a few individuals account for 70% of crime? Clearly it is not just a few individuals.”

So much for the “not all Roma” line.

One speaker expressed his fear that, because of their high birth rate, Roma will soon become the majority and Croats will be the minority in Međimurje. His musings on far-right ethnic replacement conspiracies, and whether Romani people’s time in the region should come to an end, were cut short by a panicked Tin Hrgović, who told him off-mic to change topic.

As the morning became afternoon and the hot sun beat down on thick, white necks and shaved heads, the character of the protest took a turn for the worse. A Romani man and his son who wanted to peacefully observe and film the protest were removed from the square by burly private security. Young men and teenagers dressed in black, with Generation Identity’s “Defend Europe” slogan emblazoned on their chests, policed the crowd. When two anti-fascist counter protestors unveiled a banner, the same young men were quick to remove them and their banner with the help of police officers. That afternoon there were reports of Romani people walking in the town centre being verbally assaulted.

The various mayors who had thrown in their support all stood up and said their piece. One observed how Croatian police were not tough enough on Roma, and that in the USA the police would shoot them for crimes such as trespassing.

The protest ended, and the crowd dispersed. The head of Međimurje County Police, Ivan Sokač, declared the event a success. Though Romani activists had requested permission to hold a counter demonstration the day after, he denied receiving such a request in writing. He also repeated the dubious statistic that “six to seven percent of the population is responsible for 70% of crimes”, which the European Roma Rights Centre are investigating to ascertain whether the police are collecting data on crime according to ethnicity.

The protest occurred at a time of rising intolerance against Roma in the region, and across Europe, fuelled by far-right groups and populist movements. In neighbouring Hungary, a similar protest took place the week before in Törökszentmiklós, organised by far-right party “Our Homeland” whose manifesto includes sending Romani petty criminals to Siberia. Just two days before the protest in Čakovec a Romani home was burned down in Podravska Sesveta, just outside of Međimurje County. Elsewhere in Croatia, recent protests in Zagreb against Romani families moving into social housing were reminiscent of the anti-Roma protests in Italy in April this year.

Roma don’t f**k you, capitalism f**ks you!

In a time when far-right politics are surging in popularity across the European Union, this protest – though peaceful – sets a concerning precedent for the Balkan state not long recovered from the horrors of war, nor reconciled with its history of ethnic cleansing. Truth and facts have become subjective and, though Roma have fought and died for an independent Croatia, they are now denied even the demonym of ‘Croatian’ and are referred to by a 17-year-old neo-fascist as ‘primitive’.

At the police press conference after the protest had finished, Sokač announced without a trace of irony “Međimurje has proven to be, as always, a tolerant region. There was no hate speech or incitement to ethnic or religious hate…Most of the things that were said are true.”