Like other far-right politicians of the moment in Europe, Kotleba has inveighed against the supposed perils posed by immigration and seeks to ban Islam from Slovakia, where the majority of the population of 5.4 million is Catholic. But before he championed anti-Muslim sentiment, Kotleba's political success was in part anchored in the demonizing of another group of people: the Roma.
He came to prominence in regional elections in 2013, leading marches against "Gypsy criminality" and grandstanding over Bratislava's supposed coddling of the community. "We don’t like the way this government deprives polite people in order to improve the position of parasites," he said at one rally.
Kotleba tapped into prejudice that is widespread throughout much of Europe. The Roma, the descendants of an ancient migration from India who number about 10 million to 12 million people across the continent, still face considerable discrimination in virtually every country where they live. The bias against the Roma is both systemic and societal, stepped in centuries of distrust. Recent polls in different parts of Europe have found that huge proportions of people hold unfavorable views of the Roma.
Those attitudes have dovetailed with growing anti-Muslim sentiment. A survey published last week in Germany found attitudes hardening against differing minorities in the country. "The focus of resentment toward asylums seekers, Muslims as well as Sinti and Roma, increased," the study's authors said.
It's perhaps most acute in nations where the Roma are most populous, including Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, despite concerted E.U. efforts to promote Roma inclusion.
In Hungary, for example, the far-right Jobbik party has pushed the envelope for years against minorities, including the Roma. Its brand of ultra-nationalist populism has led more mainstream politicians, such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to also inveigh against the perils of Islam and refugees.
“The reason why Hungarians are anti-immigrant is that we live in a place where people who speak our language and share our religion have not integrated with the rest of society," Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik lawmaker, wrote in a 2015 op-ed that spells out the link between anti-Roma and anti-Muslim views. "It’s natural that we don’t want to integrate with some sub-Saharan immigrant who might be a member of a terrorist organization and could have some disease I’ve never even heard of before.”
Unlike countries to the West, Eastern and Central Europe have little experience of Muslim immigration. When warning against Syrian refugees, Orban had to resort to talking about the invasions of Ottoman armies hundreds of years ago.
"Both Muslims and Roma are seen as barbarian, as non-modern," says Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist and author of "On Extremism and Democracy in Europe," which examines the present gains of the populist far right. "The threat is in the numbers rather than the individual."
Still, there are, of course, huge differences between the experience of the Roma in Europe and that of other migrants attempting to find work and asylum in its major economies.
"It is highly likely that Romaphobe people are also Islamophobes, but it is a different type of sentiment," Mudde says. Anti-Muslim views are "a much more ideological argument, an argument about what a nation-state is, an argument about a clash of civilizations, a thesis which has always been popular in Eastern Europe."
He concludes: "They are two different debates which largely talk to similar types of people."
Those types of people are nationalists and populists of various stripes, tapping into a vein of ill-will toward Europe's political and sometimes cosmopolitan elites.
"Anti-Roma sentiment is something organic, shared with society," says Michael Privot, director of the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism, "whereas anti-Muslim hatred has really been manufactured" for political gain in recent years.
Author: Ishaan Tharoor