The mornings in Banská Bystrica tend to be quiet. Maybe it is the week just starting; maybe it is the summer. The air smells of rain and the pleasant breeze chills the skin. The Slovak National Uprising Square is almost empty; not a living soul stirs except for a several gardeners in green vests and a couple of people drinking coffee in the restaurants before the opening hour. A candle slowly burns out on the St Mary’s Pillar, right next to the clock tower striking the hour. The pillar is originally a memorial of the plague but now there is a photo laid on its side: the picture of a recently murdered journalist and his fiancée. An old lady, around sixty, put the candle there yesterday. I wanted to speak to her but her long black dress invoked a sense of humility in me. She just struck the match, said a little prayer and quietly left.
A cursed square
Just a couple of steps away from the clock tower, there is the state office of the Banská Bystrica region. After the elections in 2014, it was put under the control of Marian Kotleba, a far-right politician and the founder of the nationalist People’s Party for Our Slovakia (LSNS), which obtained 14 mandates in the parliament. A great admirer of the Nazi collaborator Jozef Tiso – the president of the first Slovakian State between 1939 and 1945 – Kotleba never bothered with hiding his radical opinions about the Roma, Jews and immigrants.
The square where, seventy-four years ago, Tiso gave out commendations to German soldiers for suppressing the Slovak uprising, has been rebuilt and turned into a pedestrian-only public space. But this is a public with a catch – the Roma who live here do so in territorial and social isolation.
“We have lived in fear since 1993 – that was when we, as the Romani nation, stopped going to the square and using the services and space held by the majority. The Roma were being attacked, thrown out of restaurants, no one wanted to do anything about it. But over the last four years, when Kotleba got elected, the fear got even worse: it was there was a curse on the square. The Roma only dared to visit the post office, to get social security. Shopping had to be done during the day, only a few brave souls would try to visit the square. It was not safe. I fear for the future – his party keeps getting stronger.” The words of Jolana Natherová, a fifty-year old Roma activist who works in the Banská Bystrica Community Center. She works with the Roma who live at Cementárenská street.
It is not easy, being born a Roma here. “When I was about to start high school in Banská Bystrica, I stopped sunbathing and going out in the sun. I wanted to start school as a white. I denied my Romani roots – and back then, I succeeded; those were the happiest days of my life. They did not last long, my classmates quickly found out that I was a Roma,” she talks of her childhood.
“I know the truth, I don’t tell it to just anyone”
Marian Kotleba is often referred to as an extremist but he was never convicted for his opinions in court. In 2009, during his first election campaign, he published a flier promising “to remove the unjust preferred treatment of the parasites, gypsy and others”. I am about to start finding out whether he succeeded. It is shortly after midday and the air keeps getting hotter. This is my first time in Zvolen, so I start chatting with the taxi driver. “You’re Czech? Czechs have got it better, their quality of life is way above ours. Once, I had the idea that I would try to make something out of Slovakia; I wanted to join Kotleba’s communal party. As soon as I showed up for the interview, they shouted: “On guard!” (Slovakian Nazi salute established during the WW2 period) and then they started asking me about Jewish and Romani history,” the twenty-five year old taxi driver Martin remembers with an outrage as he drives me to the hotel.
The person I want to talk to, the head of the civic movement Soul of Fujara (Slovakian traditional musical instrument) Lýdia Milanová, works as a receptionist here. From the start of our conversation, I sense distrust in her. “I know the truth, but I don’t tell it to just anyone,” she warns me. So we talk about folklore.
“I was inspired by the work of my late friend Dušan Holík. He was a famous fujara player and we dreamt about organizing international fujara festivals. Now that fujara is considered a UNESCO heritage, we wanted to give space to foreign artists to spread it across the world. But the folk scene wanted the space for traditional players and so it boycotted us. We did not want to be conservative fascists and keep the fujara within our borders,” she recalls.
Milanová continues. “I am a patriot and most of all I am afraid of Muslims. I’m not saying that our government isn’t dirty and doesn’t steal, but the most important thing is that I can walk this city in safety and not have to be afraid like the people in the West. Our government protected us from them, the opposition would surely welcome them. Can you imagine what will happen if smugglers bring Muslims here?” she asks and immediately keeps going without waiting for a response. “Thank God for Kotleba! He’s got this fascist label but the real fascists are the ones that talk about him this way.” She is convinced that Kotleba saved a lot of money for the region. People here like him, he often comes to them and talks. Long before he became a politician, she heard he helped people as a lawyer. “He was here for the white people when the gypsies attacked them. Gypsies cannot be allowed to think they can get away with everything,” she tells me.
“I know what it is like to be an outsider when they never let in and you do not get any space on the stage, when you get ignored and passed in favor of those with connections. It is really hard. Even Mr Kotleba has it hard, because he does not function in the same way the others do. I trust him the most out of all the politicians,” she concludes.
I walk through one of the walkways in Banská Bystrica and realize that Milanová is not the only one who feels threatened – inscriptions like this can be found on a lot of the city’s buildings.
“I want to feel safe here”
For God and the nation
The people here are afraid to talk about extremism. If someone does speak, it is only with the promise of anonymity. I am currently in Rimavská Sobota: a small town with a huge unemployment rate, with a center you can walk through in a few minutes. It feels parched. Instead of people, I pass recruitment posters for the Slovakian Renewal Movement. “We want Slovakia to belong to Slovaks again. We are looking for patriots,” they say. I enter a small shop in the square, where I am supposed to meet a woman around forty, let’s call her Kristýna. We go to the back part of the shop, where customers are not allowed. “On this year’s Mothers’ Day, the mayor Jozef Šimko organized an even in the local culture center. No one knew who was supposed to perform there, not even the employees. The Russian ambassador showed up, accompanied by the former Minister of Justice Štefan Harabin, who wants become the next President. He said that several thousand immigrants will come to Rimavská Sobota. The mothers stood up and booed him away from the stage. Then the people here started getting radical. About a month later, my boyfriend saw his neighbor organize a party where the people stood in a circle, listened to Ortel (a Czech nationalist band) and did the Nazi salute.”
“They are people over forty, with families. I do not understand,” she tells me, her voice anxious..
It is getting dark and I am going for a walk around Banská Bystrica. Only the red clouds light the sky after the sun set. But the day is not over yet. I am opening the door of the “Mefisto” pub where I am supposed to meet my friend Erik Lešek. I can only see silhouettes of people through the clouds of thick cigarette smoke. I pass drunks sitting at the bar. “Pour us another one!” they shout at the bartender. She elegantly blows cigarette smoke in their faces; they are not getting any more drinks today. I walk to the back of the pub, where Erik sits among his friends at a patina-ridden table. I do not even need to ask for a beer, it just arrives. The discussion is starting.
“I went to a high school where Kotleba taught computer science. Back then he was the leader of National Party for Slovak Community. Whenever there were celebrations of the Slovak Uprising’s anniversary, Kotleba would gather a group of followers – sometimes hundreds – and they marched against the celebrators with torches and uniforms. Sometimes the police intervened, they even detained him a couple of times. After that, he was banned from teaching, so would not influence the political opinions of students,” Erik recalls. Kotleba went on to work at the school as a technician. “I remember that he always walked around the school with a big computer under each arm. He stopped carrying computers, but the position of arms stayed the same,” he laughs. From the other end of the table, Martina joins the discussion. “A lot of his voters live in an environment where gypsies bully people. They cracked my head with a rock when I was in elementary school. He looks for lonely people who want to belong, he gives them a sense of community. But a lot of my friends voted for him simply as a protest against this government,” she says. No one here seems to know her but she appears to know everyone.
National Community was dissolved by court order. In 2008, Kotleba met up with the then-chairman of the Czech Laborer’s Party (now Laborer’s Party for Social Justice, do not be fooled by the name – textbook Neo-Nazis – translator) Tomáš Vandas in Litvínov, Czech Republic. Together with five-to-fifteen hundred people they “defended the whites from gypsies” by attempting to lay siege to the Janov residential district. It was one of the biggest conflicts between police and radicals in modern history. It was also when Kotleba realized that in order to change Slovakia back into Tiso’s wartime Slovakian State, he needs to go about things in a different way. He founded a new political party, he gave up the heavy boots, changed his uniform for a green shirt and a suit and his torch for a Bible. “When he spoke to people in Turzovka in 2009, he looked and talked like them. In a casual jacket, he made the “gypsy problem” seem more common,” Daniel Vražda writes in his book about Kotleba.
The Myth of Equality
In a stark contrast to Banská Bystrica, the mornings in Nitra are chaotic. People running around, shouting and the noise of car-horns everywhere. Milan Uhrík picks me up at the train station; the thirty-three years old MP for Kotleba’s LSNS is wearing polished shoes, ironed shirt and blue trousers. He looks calm and confident. We enter his big black Mercedes and all the speakers play the Myth of Equality: “We have to defend this country/so everyone who comes here knows/they will bow before us/ Our laws are in force here/ People pray in churches/ Crosses on the tables/ Tell all the vagabonds/ This country bongs to Slovaks!” sings Ondřej Ďurica, a Nitra-born singer who tours with Ortel.
Uhrík explains where we are going. “I need to get something in the pharmacy for my son, so let’s go to Mlýny. That’s a big shopping center, do you agree?” he asks politely. The atmosphere is calm, we talk about weather and politics. A few minutes later, we are sitting at a luxury café on Mlýny’s highest floor. Uhrík tells his story. “Marian Kotleba asked me to come work for the state office in Banská Bystrica five years ago. I had a good job in Bratislava, but I said to myself, if everyone was such an egoist, we’d never change Slovakia. So I moved with my family to Banská Bystrica.” Uhrík also took part in the election campaign; while the surveys predicted two to three percent of votes, LSNS ended up with more than eight. “In the parliament, we are quarantined and subjected to censorship by the media. No one writes about us, journalists ignore our press conferences. The other parties – except for Kollár’s Sme Rodina – have an aversion to us and tell the cameras that we are extremists and fascists. But the aversion is just acting, in the cafeteria they talk to us as usual,” he explains.
Against the European Union
In his inauguration speech in December 2013, Kotleba promised that he would reduce the region’s dependency on European money. He stopped several projects that concerned road repairs, school modernization or reconstructing social housing, as well as grants for international festivals and a high school puppet theatre project called “Stop Extremism”. “We are against the EU and we do not respect the immigration crisis. We did stop some projects paid from euro-funds, but those were just soft projects – studies, analyses, papers. Some can be useful, but most of the times they are pointless or copies of previous projects,” Uhrík reassures me.
In February 2014, Kotleba’s local government refused to participate in financing modernization of fourteen high schools in the region. Ninety-five per cent of the expenses would have been covered by European money, only five per cent would come from the region’s coffers – and the money allocation was already approved by the EU. “We were so happy that we finally managed to pitch the modernization project; we have been trying for three years. And now we won’t get the money,” one of the headmasters, who did not want to divulge his name, told the journal Pravda in 2014. “There is no way we will be able to finish using money from parents of our students, this is not a rich region and people cannot afford that”, he added.
“The development of the region basically stopped for four years, you could see it easily on schools and social services. In 2016, the headmasters of schools in the region received a letter where Kotleba strongly recommended against any activities cooperating with non-profit organization. It was a ban on anything dealing with human rights and fighting extremism. Teachers used anonymous e-mails to ask us what were they supposed to do when they wanted to take their classes to Auschwitz, but now they could not,” I am told by Martina Strmenová, a member of the Banská Bystrica Community Center. “We try to work with minorities, the city, the local government, so they would not support extremism,” she adds.
Near the end of 2014, two social centers for the old and handicapped lost their state support of four million euro. It was intended to rebuild to reconstruct twelve buildings supporting about a hundred retired people with various stage of handicapping. “The project was too expensive, it was supposed to build two tiny houses, but we could build ten for that money. We did not like the deinstitutionalization. They want to scatter people from one big house to smaller buildings because they say the old folks feel better that way, but the healthcare is much harder to reach from there. It is simple: if someone does not want to be in a social house, no one forces them to,” claims Uhrík.
Pickaxes and Shovels
The region is responsible for two thousand kilometers of road that need to be repaired and cleaned. This work is usually done by the regional office or contracted firms. “We managed to reduce the average cost of road repairs by half and all the public services by a third,” Uhrík states proudly. Kotleba decided to hire the long-term unemployed for road maintenance, creating the Pickaxes and Shovels initiative. “They are parasites on the social regime, making kids and taking social security, we call them asocials. When we offer them work, they do not want to do it. We never claimed all gypsies are the same – we employed thirty of them,” Uhrík explains. The initiative was short-lived, however, supposedly due to the changes in labor laws. Still, the region managed to fix the roads – right before the next elections. Drivers liken the job done to just plunking three centimeters of concrete on top of a broken surface.
My accomodations are in a cozy hostel right under the National Uprising square, on the Kapitulská street. I sip coffee and chat with the thirty year-old Matouš, who is currently busy trying to slice a hot but. “I’ve been working as a paramedic for six years and we often drive to the Romani towns. Since Kotleba came up with the Pickaxes and Shovels; we need to change the equipment on our ambulance every two months – it just gets broken, the roads are in a disastrous state,” the Banská Bystrica paramedic who prefers to stay anonymous tells me. “I’ve seen seven Roma who drunk themselves to death. I pity the naked children. The environment turns them into animals – but when they are young they should have the same opportunities as us. But the system ignores them. Their parents get high on toluene and drink wine from paper boxes. I voted for Kotleba, he promised to deal with the Roma issue. It was a mistake,” he admits, and wonders how many other voters consider their decision a mistake too. While Kotleba lost the next communal elections, his party is predicted to hold ten percent of the votes across all of Slovakia and even an extremism lawsuit failed to damage his popularity.
“This is the kind of politician that lives with us”
I enter the Banská Bystrica regional office, which Kotleba passed on to the last election’s winner Ján Lunter a couple months ago. For the last four years, no journalist was allowed to set foot in here; now a smiling man takes my ID card and explains where to go. A volunteer who worked on Lunter’s campaign is expecting me. “Kotleba had a good strategy: on every weekend from June to October he went to traditional events – cooking, football, firefighting competitions. His followers always showed up with their families, they all had the green LSNS shirts which they also gave out. People got the feeling that this was the kind of politician that lived with them, shared their worries. It made it easy to identify with them; politicians from traditional parties would not mingle with people in this way,” explains Zuzana Úradníčková.
Kotleba is not the head of this region anymore, but he has bigger fish to fry. He announced he will attempt to become President. The money he gained for getting his party into the Parliament and the region was used for PR – he bought cars, minibusses and marketing materials. He also managed to abuse the publicly financed regional journal Náš Kraj (Our Region), he published texts glorifying the wartime fascist Slovakian State. And he happened to build himself an illegal fitness room in what used to be the regional office’s archive.
I am leaving Slovakia and coming back home, to Brno. I keep thinking on how the country I was born in keeps succumbing to extremism. Paradoxically, among Kotleba’s voters – as Uhrík confirmed – there are Romani and Jews. He had the biggest successes in towns that were razed by Nazis. The reason is simple. Despite everything, people remain moved by fear, anti-system ideology, and hatred.