This year’s remembrance of the extermination of Roma in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 is given added poignancy by the recent death of Roma man Stanislav Tomas after an incident involving the Czech police.
Monday, August 2 is Roma Holocaust Memorial Day.
Stanislav was an EU and Czech citizen, former army soldier, worker and a family man whose life was mired in the humiliation and vices of poverty. The brutality of his death, and the state’s response, exemplifies the long-suffering of Europe’s Roma, which peaked in the WWII genocide and continues in various forms through to today.
The silence of our political leaders in Europe to his death stood in contrast to the vocal statements that surrounded the death of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, last year.
For example, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was awarded the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma earlier this year, condemned the US police involved in the murder of George Floyd but remained silent on the death of one of Europe’s own minority citizens in the case of Tomas.
The same approach was taken by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.
In reaction to Floyd death’s the European Parliament adopted a resolution. Yet, in the case of Tomas, no party group leader in the European Parliament has made a statement, let alone push for a resolution.
The Council of Europe’s Secretary-General, Marija Pejčinović Burić — who took a stand on Stanislav’s death — has been a noble and yet exceptional example among the European leadership.
What can explain this apparent silence?
An anonymous spokesperson of the European Commission gave a bureaucratic justification that they cannot comment on ongoing judicial procedures and investigations in EU member states. It is absurd that EU political leaders can take a stand about a US citizen while the justice process was still ongoing, and not make them about EU citizens they claim to represent.
So, what other reasons could be behind it?
Ignorance? Not quite. The international media covered this story surprisingly well. Compared to the death of Miroslav Demeter five years ago, which was largely invisible in the media, the story of Stanislav Tomas garnered widespread media coverage.
The Roma-organised protests in the Czech Republic and in front of the Czech embassies in Austria, Germany, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania also generated attention.
The European Parliament’s antiracism intergroup as well as the trans-European campaign Proud Roma, Free Europe addressed the EU leadership asking for their support in claims justice for Stanislav.
Perhaps this silence was born from a lack of geostrategic stakes? The EU had a clear geostrategic interest to speak up on George Floyd, in the context of the US elections. The last US presidential election provided an important stage to proclaim the EU values of equality and anti-racism. However, proclamations are one thing and deeds another. Russia despite their lack of regard for human rights- seized this opportunity and spoke out on the death, putting the EU, which had gained some upper hand vis-à-vis the US, in an embarrassing position of self-inflicted harm.
Could October’s parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic explain the silence? Two days after Stanislav’s death, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš gave his full backing to the police and stated they had acted entirely correctly. In a wider milieu, he also refused to join 18 other EU member states in disapproving Hungary’s anti-LGBT legislation as a sign of support to his anti-EU ally, Viktor Orban. Such signals might restrain the EU leaders worrying that a high-profile condemnation might provoke Babiš into an anti-EU attack a la Viktor Orban, especially as his EU funds corruption scandal seems to be a challenge he faces three months before the autumn elections.
Maybe all, one or none of these reasons can explain the silence, but its consequences are both dangerous for Roma and damaging for the EU. At home, it is hard to believe the EU’s anti-racism policies can ever make a difference if the EU leaders remain quiet even in such an extreme case like this one. This discourages pro-European forces and motivates the far-right and its deeper infiltration among the police forces. Whatever the rationale for their silence may be, Europe’s leaders are setting a dangerous precedent and undermining the EU’s credibility at home and abroad. In the EU foreign policy realm, this silence is a good example for Russia and any other EU’s challenger to showcase the EU’s duplicity.
In a bigger picture, at least on August 2, Roma genocide commemorations offer an opportunity to reflect beyond the daily calculus of politics and pose a question about what has enabled the genocide: resistance or silence? The EU leadership’s rightful standing up on George Floyd and wrongful standing down on Stanislav Tomas gives a demoralizingly ambivalent response.
For us, 12 million Roma in Europe — and more than 20 million across the globe — the remembrance of our ancestors killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. That obliges our struggle despite the silence of the EU leaders that reminds us of Dr Martin Luther King’s words: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Zeljko Jovanovic is the director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office.