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Vol 3, No 7
19 February 2001
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Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn
Discrimination and ethnic identity in Slovakia
Jessica Houghton
and Balázs Jarábik

Before 1989, racism and discrimination were issues which rarely found their way into the consciousness of most Slovaks. When people thought about these issues, they usually thought about them as occurring in other places far removed from themselves. The idea that the Communist regime successfully froze conflicts rooted in ethnic or sexual identity is an old one, but that does not make it any less true. This concept, which is generally accepted as truth in the Balkans, is rarely spoken of in Visegrád countries.

Historically, Slovaks have always had to adapt themselves to the rule of others, but they have never had ultimate responsibility for that rule nor have these adaptations traditionally resulted from a display of will from the Slovak people. Now they are trying to adapt themselves to democracy. Like its neighbors, Slovakia is slowly making this painful transition, but with the added challenge of making the transition to a society which is, for the first time, responsible for itself.

This has been made especially difficult by the fact that Slovaks are also in the process of discovering their own national identity. As they go through the process of governing their own state for the first time, they are being confounded by issues concerning ethnic minorities and social minorities, domestic abuse and sexual identity. There has never been a significant civil rights movement or a sexual revolution in Slovakia. There has been no opportunity for Slovaks to naturally evolve the kind of values and social structures that are expected of them by liberal, western governments at the turn of the century.

The quest for an identity

As the Slovak government struggles with these expectations, the rest of the population is still concerning itself with the search for an identity. Frustration with high levels of unemployment, visa restrictions and feelings of condemnation and rejection from Western Europe as a result of racial and social problems for which they do not feel at fault, is causing many Slovaks to retreat into a culture of conservative traditionalism and to begin rejecting western values. Instead of continuing to seek what it means to be Slovak, they are satisfying themselves with identifying themselves by what they are not. In order to find what it is to be Slovak, they are excluding others.

Slovak society is working to discover its identity at a time when it is also trying to stabilize itself economically and reform its social and governmental systems in preparation for entry into the European Union and NATO. Minority issues have become the hot topic for all accession countries at the very moment tensions are at their highest. Western countries like Britain and Finland have imposed visa restrictions on Slovak citizens as a result of the large numbers of asylum seekers among the Roma minority. These restrictions often only anger and frustrate Slovaks even more and cause them to blame the Roma for their own increased feelings of isolation.

Much work is being done in the area of improving relations between the majority and minorities or disadvantaged groups. After the 1998 Parliamentary elections resulted in the formation of a new government, an office on Human Rights and Minorities was created. A campaign is being organized in east Slovakia to destigmatize schizophrenia among the majority population. Another campaign against all forms of racism was organized last fall.

Many NGOs are conducting seminars and training sessions for both the majority and minority populations on conflict resolution; cooperation among government, NGO and business sectors; human rights monitoring; education; employment; etc. Unfortunately, much of this activity is uncoordinated. Many organizations are running similar training programs. Donors are failing to communicate with each other and with their grantees. Many organizations are being funded because they have "good" reputations and long-standing relationships with donors, and many start-up NGOs are finding it very difficult to find funding regardless of their commitment to their work.

There are countless NGO projects working with the Roma minority in all areas of development as well as legal advocacy. Many of these projects fail because of lack of communication between the donor and the NGO or between the NGO and the target group. Projects also suffer due to lack of long-term goals or vision, lack of capacity of NGOs, mismanagement of funds, insufficient cooperation with the majority or the local government as well as jealousy within the Roma community, which stems from some communities with "good" NGOs receiving a lot more funding than others.

Unchallenged myths

Billions of Slovak crowns have been spent on the improvement of the Roma situation alone in Slovakia with very few positive results. Many Slovaks look at sums like these and combine it with their notion that Roma don't want to work and prefer collecting social benefits, which Slovaks pay for with their taxes. They look at low numbers of Roma in schools, and what they see as high rates of crime. These societal myths, which are rarely challenged, allow most Slovaks the comfort of blaming the Roma for problems that Slovaks see as being the fault of the Roma themselves.

Similar myths about other disadvantaged groups and ethnic minorities allow Slovaks to deny the existence of racism and discrimination in their society. Jokes, television, radio, newspapers, magazines as well as segregation in schools, long-held notions about other ethnic groups passed from one generation to the next and a general tolerance in public places of derogatory comments about others all serve to reinforce and perpetuate these myths.

These myths about Roma and other ethnic minorities as well as disadvantaged groups make room for Slovak myths about themselves. They do not identify their long-held beliefs with racism and discrimination, but with truth, which members of this society constantly reinforce for one another and rarely challenge.

Compounding the problem is the lack of will from the Slovak people to understand and identify what racism and discrimination are. Most segments of society refuse to hear the debate on racism. In spite of louder and louder clamoring from disadvantaged groups, discrimination is not considered as important as other problems such as health care or education. Pressure from groups inside and outside of Slovakia (the European campaign against racism since 1997) seems to have failed to affect the majority of Slovak people. As Slovaks do not believe that their attitudes are racist or discriminatory, it follows that they cannot feel that they are the target group of an anti-discrimination campaign.

Affirmative action

Before any such campaign can be successful, it will be necessary to talk openly about racism and discrimination in addition to Slovak attitudes towards these subjects as well as towards disadvantaged groups. The idea of "affirmative action" (as Americans have labeled it), as much as it may be necessary in Slovak society, has done nothing but increase tensions between groups because it is perceived to produce unfavorable conditions for the majority population. To Slovaks who do not believe that discrimination exists in their country, affirmative action seems unfair.

A form of affirmative action was practiced under the Communist regime through the introduction of quotas for minorities, which started in the 1950's. This practice helped to strengthen the Hungarian minority's political position in Communist Czechoslovakia. It also helped to bring a handful of Roma political leaders to the forefront. Ordinary citizens perceived this practice as politically unfair. A debate is needed in society and in the government to discuss how this concept and others could positively affect the situation of disadvantaged groups in Slovakia as well as Slovak society as a whole.

Thus far, the government is as yet undecided about whether or not to change the legislation concerning discrimination, despite the fact that discrimination is clearly everywhere in society. This is the most definitive step the government can take to make progress on this issue as well as send a message to the people that this is an important issue in Slovak society.

Living up to the EU accession criteria

The government should take its lead from the newly adopted EU Race Directive and the so-called Framework Directive. Since these directives became part of the European acquis communautaire, the inability of the Slovak
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government to adopt measures which fall in line with the directives will greatly damage Slovakia's accession process. It is hardly imaginable that the European Union will open its doors to a country which is faced with growing social and ethnic problems regarding minorities, but is unwilling to think about changing discrimination legislation.

The government states that Slovakia's existing minority-related legislation fulfills the requirements of the EU, but this is not so. Arguments that all Slovakia needs is better application of its existing laws instead of creating new ones moves the problem into an argument which is both legal and philosophical, which does not lead towards EU accession.

To combat racism in the age of globalization, those who choose to fight must utilize sophisticated strategies of communication and advocacy. In utilizing these tools, awareness can be raised at all levels of society by challenging citizens and their notions, challenging the government and provoking the decision makers into debating and taking appropriate action on matters concerning discrimination. This could be civil society's most exciting contribution towards building a modern Slovakia.

Jessica Houghton and Balázs Jarábik,
19 February 2001

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