BAIA MARE, Romania (Reuters) - Building a wall that closes in a Roma neighborhood and rehousing families in a dilapidated communist-era office block have earned Catalin Chereches accusations of racism.
But the actions have also helped the mayor of the northern Romanian town of Baia Mare to become the country's most popular local politician and shown how central Europe's lackluster economies and widespread poverty can trigger radical solutions.
Chereches, 33, an urbane Vienna-educated economist, says he is trying to improve the lot of Baia Mare's impoverished Roma. Rights groups counter that he is enclosing the population in ghettos and making the situation worse.
He says living conditions have improved by moving families away from a slum where naked children play in the dust with stray dogs and cats. But it still keeps Roma separate from other people and lacks space and bathrooms.
"It's clear, conditions there are not similar to the Hilton or Marriott. But this doesn't mean this is not a step forward towards their civilization and emancipation," Chereches told Reuters in his tidy and modest office.
Roma is a term for various groups who have migrated across Europe for centuries and are now the biggest ethnic minority in the European Union, most of them from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. There are an estimated 10 million across Europe and one in five lives in Romania.
The vast majority live on the margins of society in abject poverty, which makes them easy targets in troubled times, and pro-democracy groups say post-communist governments in the region have not done enough to improve their plight.
"Moving people belonging to a single ethnic group together is called ethnic separation," said Robert Vaszi, director of Roma rights group Asociatia Sanse Egale.
"This is breaching human rights."
As central Europe's economies flag in their attempts to catch up with western Europe, there are signs voters may be turning away from mainstream politics towards more radical groups, or moving to support those individuals, like Chereches, who take action against the perceived problems of their society.
The mayor built a wall in one Roma neighborhood which he says was to keep children safe from a main road, and started to relocate 1,600 Roma from improvised buildings in Baia Mare's "five pockets of poverty" - including the Craica slum - in June to the offices of a former copper factory, Cuprom.
The concrete wall, up to 1.8 meters high, is built on one side of a Roma neighborhood of crumbling apartment blocks but because it links with other buildings and walls, it encloses the area with few access points. Built on an embankment, it appears much taller.
Those who have moved to the Cuprom offices, near the area with the wall, signed papers to agree, but others still in their old homes fear eviction. Chereches won 86 percent of the vote in June's local election, just days after the rehousing started.
"He's done a great job by putting up the wall," said Michael Szinn, a 74-year-old pensioner in the main Freedom Square. "Gypsy kids were on the streets before and threw stones at cars. Moving others to Cuprom is an even better thing for our city."
Outbursts of anti-Roma sentiment are common across central Europe and hundreds of thousands have flooded western European cities since these countries joined the EU. According to police, many beg and are often involved in crime and trafficking rings.
A European Commission study showed one in four EU citizens would be uncomfortable with a Roma neighbor against six percent if the neighbor was from a different ethnic group. Human Rights Watch says forced evictions are common across the EU.
"Policymakers in Europe prefer to yield to, and in some cases exacerbate, public concerns at the expense of an unpopular minority rather than saying loud and clear that Europe's values demand rights for all," HRW said in its 2012 world report.
Support for Hungary's far-right Jobbik has risen to 11 percent, and in a sign that economic hardship is feeding radical nationalism, about 1,000 Hungarians attended the unveiling of a statue of World War Two head of state Miklos Horthy.
Anti-Roma riots broke out in Romania's southern neighbor Bulgaria last year and a policeman went on a rampage shooting in Slovakia in June, killing three and wounding two Roma. Locals in one Slovak village built a wall around a Roma area.
In the Czech Republic, right-wing militants have staged marches where riot police had to prevent clashes. Recession has pushed many Roma to move to low-cost housing in the poorer north of the country and heightened tensions in areas with already high unemployment.
A deep recession, austerity and the perceived impunity of politicians have turned many Romanians away from mainstream parties. But support for militant groups remains low and charismatic figures like Chereches, a member of the governing Social Liberal Union (USL), can become focal points.
"Poverty, a sentiment of personal helplessness, lack of trust in political parties' desire to fight crime are all boosting the danger of extremism. Individuals with extremist stances may benefit from that, not small party groups," said Sergiu Miscoiu of the CESPRI think tank in Cluj, some 150 km (95 miles) from Baia Mare.
"Roma gypsies can easily become a new target blamed for most of society's ills," said Miscoiu. "Scapegoats like the Jews in World War Two."
Baia Mare is an old mining city of 150,000 in a bucolic region 60 km (40 miles) south of the Ukrainian border. Like many Romanian urban centers recovering from the ravages of Nicolae Ceausescu's communist regime, it has its share of problems.
The dismantling of communist-era industries meant many people, including Roma, were laid off and have since not been able to find new jobs. Many were forcibly moved out of communist factories' blocks by new owners when state assets were hastily sold 20 years ago.
The rehousing in Baia Mare has focused so far on a narrow stretch of land on its outskirts between a creek and an abandoned railway line, scattered with improvised huts made of clay, cardboard or plywood, some of which have been bulldozed.
About 980 Roma lived in Craica before the rehousing started in June. Some 100 families have so far been relocated to three administrative buildings of the former plant.
"This is completely wrong. We need to find solutions that integrate, not segregate," said Dezideriu Gergely of the European Roma Rights Centre. "There is a danger because dealing in such a manner with Roma issues only triggers the resentment and prejudices that already exist."
Craica is a sharp contrast to the rest of the city, which has a well-preserved medieval center generously dotted with gothic churches, cafes and artisan shops.
"It's been a mess there at Craica without toilets, the gypsies poop on the grass and have built huts of nylon," said Szinn, the pensioner. "It's a piggery, a mess. Our mayor has done something that nobody has ever done for our city."
THE OUTDOOR LIFE
Some Roma from Craica work as garbage collectors for the municipality and some at a furniture plant. Most are jobless, seasonal laborers or eke out a living from selling scrap metal.
Living conditions are so grim that many of those who have been moved say they are thankful to Chereches, even though their new housing at the Cuprom offices leaves much to be desired, with only two bathrooms on each floor of several apartments.
"I lived in a single room with six children and my wife at Craica," said 40-year-old Sandu, a seasonal construction worker rehoused to a small apartment with wooden furniture and an LCD television, bought with his own money. "My wife is jobless. I thank the mayor for giving me this place."
Craica has no sewerage, indoor water or power supplies, and ramshackle huts lie between heaps of rubbish. Some residents admit to drawing electricity cables from nearby blocks. Even so, there are many who want to stay and are resisting being moved.
"I lived here for the last 20 years. My woman died here and I want to also die here," said 59-year-old Trandafir Varga, one of the oldest residents and a community leader, surrounded by younger Roma who nodded their head in approval.
"There, we would be isolated. Here, we have horses, pigs," Varga said. "It's like a concentration camp there at Cuprom, we aren't going there. We want to stay outdoors and cannot stay in blocks."
Chereches maintains he is doing the best thing both for the Roma and other city residents. Eventually, he plans to offer rehoused families plots of land.
"The relocation is only a temporary solution. I envisage we build social, one-storey houses made of concrete with a small yard, and we would seek to place these buildings in several areas," Chereches said.
"I only want to integrate those people. I don't have anything to lose, I'm interested only in integrating them in a system based on three components: work, education and housing. That's all."
(Additional reporting by Sam Cage in Bucharest; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Sonya Hepinstall)