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Vol 2, No 41
27 November 2000
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Vying for Position
Peter Vermeersch

Slovakia's inability to create better living conditions for its Romani communities continues to mar the country's international reputation. This is especially painful for the incumbent coalition government led by Mikuláš Dzurinda of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK). His government has tried to enhance Slovakia's standing in the international community, and one of the ways of achieving this has been to prioritize minority issues.

When, at the end of 1998, the government announced that it would show more "empathy" with regard to the situation of the Roma, many Romani activists were expecting solid progress in the area of Roma-related policies. Today, they have rather mixed feelings about the government's post-1998 political initiatives.

Old and new approaches

One of the crucial political challenges for the Dzurinda government has been the task of leading Slovakia toward European Union accession negotiations. Among other things, this has meant getting rid of the image of the previous coalition government (1994 to 1998) led by Vladimír Mečiar of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Both the HZDS and its then coalition partner, the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), were repeatedly criticized for attempting to win political support by stirring up anti-minority sentiments during their term in office.

Concretely, many Romani activists were especially disturbed by the 1996 resolution that formed the basis of the Mečiar government's Roma policy. Much to their frustration, this plan did not contain any measures to prevent and combat discrimination. Moreover, the resolution in itself could be seen as a document that promoted a discriminatory way of looking at the Roma. It named them "citizens in need of special care" and made an explicit link between Romani ethnic identity and social inferiority.

The Roma themselves were simply portrayed as the chief cause of these problems. Romani activists also perceived the government's approach as paternalistic, because it did not acknowledge the responsibility of the majority nor did it plan to address the under-representation of the Roma in the policy-making process.

After 1998, issues related to minorities became the responsibility of the newly created position of Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights, Minorities and Regional Development. Pál Csáky of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) filled the position, and, from the beginning of his term in office, he stressed that "a solution to the Romani question" could only be designed with the participation of Romani representatives.

He held talks with Romani activists from a number of Romani political parties, first and foremost with members of the Romani Intelligentsia for Coexistence (RIS), a party which before the elections had signed an agreement for future cooperation with the now ruling SDK. However, it proved a difficult exercise to select a "representative" from a minority that has no elected representatives.

A direct result of Csáky's talks was a rise in competition and tension among a number of politically active Roma. In the end, Csáky appointed Vincent Danihel to the position of Government Commissioner for Romani Affairs. Danihel was an MP in the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly and chairman of the Slovak Helsinki Committee but was not a member of RIS. Subsequently, his appointment was contested by Slovakia's two most active Romani parties, RIS and the Roma Civic Initiative (ROI). The contention surrounding the selection also created quarrels within RIS over the chairmanship of the party, eventually leading to a split.

The Government Commissioner for Romani Affairs is essentially an advisory body and has the task of preparing documents that can form the basis for concrete policy initiatives. Ideally, the commissioner listens to concerns coming from the Romani communities and brings these concerns to the attention of appropriate ministries and regional authorities. The first result of that activity was presented in October 1999, when the government approved the first part of a long-term policy plan entitled "Strategy for the Solution of the Problems of the Romani National Minority," followed in May 2000 by a set of measures for the implementation of the strategy.

Unlike the resolutions of the previous government, the present strategy aims not exclusively at the development of the Romani communities, as it also plans to change the attitudes of the majority population toward the Roma. In general, both the establishment and the work of Danihel's office and the strategy itself have been applauded by the international community.

However, the strategy has also received some criticism. For example, EU members have been especially worried about the slow pace of implementation. More fundamentally, in its latest report on Slovakia, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has signaled that the Slovak authorities still do not recognize the role discrimination plays in the difficulties faced by the Roma. ECRI has accused the Slovak authorities of attributing the problems facing the Roma solely to social disadvantage, which, in turn, many people attribute to a reified notion of the "Romani way of life."

The Romani perspective

Not surprisingly, it has been a difficult time for the Slovak Romani activists to decide on their political tactics. To be sure, they acknowledge that there are positive aspects to this government. For example, anti-Romani statements are now more clearly condemned by politicians of governing parties than in the past. Consider, in this respect, the reaction to the racist statements made last summer by MP Víťazoslav Moric of the SNS. Moric said that Roma are "idiots" and that a humane way of dealing with them is to put them on reservations. In response, the Parliament decided in September 2000 to strip Moric of the immunity from prosecution he normally enjoys as an MP. This move demonstrated at least that politicians in Slovakia are increasingly aware of the damage anti-Romani statements can have on their country's reputation.

Many Romani activists today also recognize that the government has taken an important step by attempting to give the Roma a voice in politics. However, most of them have by now completely rejected cooperation with the Government Commissioner for Romani affairs. Part of the problem is that Vincent Danihel has not been elected to this position; so many people question his legitimacy.

Danihel has also been criticized by many Roma for his support of the official government viewpoint that Romani migration to the West is only economically driven, and not—as Roma activists and international human rights organizations have emphasized—the symptom of a larger problem in society. This has led to a great deal of mistrust, with many Roma believing that both Danihel's position and the whole strategy in which he is involved are merely declaratory.

Some of the activists also state that it is problematic that only one government commissioner now defends the Romani perspective in national politics. They fear that the institution of the government commissioner
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can easily serve as an excuse for not promoting the inclusion of Roma in non-ethnically based politics. Mainstream political parties have, in general, not been concerned with the minority perspective. They have been reluctant to include ethnic minority candidates on their lists, in fear of losing votes from their regular constituencies.

On the local level, ethnically based Romani political activism has been to some extent successful; following the 1998 local elections, six mayors and 86 council members have been elected from Romani political parties. In national politics, however, one of the big difficulties of ethnically based Romani politics is that voters are difficult to mobilize. Especially in the quite isolated villages, where the majority of the Slovak Roma live, Romani parties and candidates are relatively unknown. It is as difficult for them to campaign there as it is for bigger parties.

Hence, chances of passing the five-per cent threshold for parliamentary representation have remained very slim. As a result, Romani parties have continued to look for cooperation with stronger political allies. The total Romani population in Slovakia is estimated at approximately eight per cent; thus, it could, in theory, form a large group of voters. The HZDS, for example, has been aware of this fact and during past election campaigns has frequently attempted to attract this part of the electorate, without wanting to defend Romani interests, however.

Is there a future for Romani politics?

Already preparing modestly for the next parliamentary elections, Slovak Romani activists are now on the verge of making crucial strategic decisions. The possibilities are limited, however. A first possibility might be to support the initiatives of the current government parties. As illustrated above, a number of problems with the present institutions for Romani representation have made Romani activists very reluctant to do so. In addition, the relationship between the government and the Romani activists has been severely damaged by the way government officials have reacted to the wave of Roma leaving Slovakia as asylum seekers.

A direct result of the refugee crisis was that international media started covering the deteriorating circumstances in which many Slovak Roma live. Romani activists have tried to utilize the resulting international criticism to persuade the government to take more decisive steps to change the current situation. However, the reactions of the receiving countries were not beneficial to the Roma's domestic lobbying efforts. Only a very limited number of people were granted political asylum in the West, a fact that was used by the Slovak government to support its assertion that there was no "political problem" in Slovakia.

For the Slovak government, this was a purely "economic" migration, involving the abuse of welfare systems in Western countries. In July 1999, Minister Pál Csáky even appealed to the media to stop using the word "exodus"—as the refugee wave had been labeled in the press—on the grounds that this word implied a violent act of forced eviction. Instead, Csáky described the phenomenon as "ethno-business," which was taken as an offense by many Roma.

Another possibility might be to try and find support from current opposition parties. Although it is no doubt true that the HZDS is able to attract a large number of Romani voters, it remains very questionable whether this is the party from which to expect a firm commitment to addressing the problems facing the Roma. Finding political allies in general will most likely be a difficult task. Mainstream politicians still easily capitalise on popular anti-Romani sentiment. For example, at a press conference of the new political party Smer in June 2000, the popular party chairman Róbert Fico advocated the reduction of family allowance for large families as a measure to solve the "Romani problem."

Given these circumstances, it seems likely that many Romani activists will prefer a third possibility, which is one of political unification in an ethnically based electoral coalition. Although this certainly will not be an easy process, the first step in this direction has recently been made on the initiative of Gejza Adam of ROI and Ladislav Fízik of RIS. On 22 October, representatives of 14 Romani political parties and 29 Romani associations reportedly signed an agreement committing them to a joint political program and cooperation during the next parliamentary elections. The question remains whether they will be able to mobilize enough voters to gain parliamentary representation.

Peter Vermeersch, 27 November 2000

photo courtesy of Oltiţa Stiuj, Monitorul de Braşov

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Kicking the Habit

Bernard Nežmah
Yugoslav Obscenities

Mel Huang
Terrorism in Latvia

Yuri Svirko
Press Security

Brian J Požun
Minorities in Vojvodina

The Roma

Balázs Jarábik
Slovakia's Minority Policy

Tiffany G Petros
Roma Rights

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Europe's Beggars

Peter Vermeersch
A Bad Reputation

Matilda Nahabedian
Bulgaria's Tolerance

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Radio Roma

Asylum-seeking Fallout

Katharine Fletcher
Ignoring the Problem

Wojtek Kość
Learning History

Roma on Film
James Partridge
Skupljači perja

Niobe Thompson
Gadjo dilo

Peter Hames
Contemporary Czech Film

Christina Manetti
Polish Fiction

Rob Stout
E H Carr

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

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After the Rain

The Arts:
Catherine Lovatt
Body of a Woman

Press Reviews:
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The EU's Army

Andrea Mrozek
Discussing Dayton


Mixed Nuts

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