The debilitating cycle of apathy

ONLY 11 percent of Roma men and barely 5 percent of Roma women are employed in Slovakia, while nearly three quarters of Roma households receive social assistance, said a recently released UNDP report on the living conditions of Roma in Slovakia.

ONLY 11 percent of Roma men and barely 5 percent of Roma women are employed in Slovakia, while nearly three quarters of Roma households receive social assistance, said a recently released UNDP report on the living conditions of Roma in Slovakia. The report provides "path-breaking data on the debilitating cycle of poverty which traps so many Roma," said Ben Slay, director of UNDP's Bratislava Regional Centre, when introducing the report.

No Slovak political party so far has come up with a sustainable, genuine and convincing plan of how to break this "debilitating cycle of poverty" and how to erase the Roma stereotype which so often remains the only perception that many Slovaks have of the country's 350,000-strong Roma community.

Although most political party programmes include some rhetorical exercise all about their good intentions to integrate Roma into mainstream society, the Roma community's situation does not dominate the tops of to-do lists. This is how each Slovak government that has ruled the country so far has continuously failed to fulfil its responsibility toward the ethnic group often described as the "pariah of Europe".

It is highly probable that the Robert Fico government will also take the easy road. If nothing else, the presence of controversial partner Ján Slota and his Slovak National Party (SNS) in the ruling coalition makes the civil society sceptical about the possibility of a sensitive and effective cure for the Roma's decades- if not centuries-long pain.

The SNS recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Roma civic association Roma Parliament suggesting that there is a will within the SNS to finally resolve the Roma issue. One only hopes that the solutions they find will be different from those that the SNS boss has offered so far. While part of the Vladimír Mečiar-led ruling coalition in the spring of 1996, Slota said that all that is needed to deal with the Roma is "a small courtyard and a long whip", and he suggested that the best thing that society could do for the Roma is to build them indestructible houses.

Prime Minister Robert Fico also advocated taking a rather tougher line with the Roma during those times he was only dreaming about power.

Year after year, international organizations warn about the Roma's "debilitating cycle of poverty". In 2004, it was the International Organization for Migration, which said that the situation of the Slovak Roma continues to deteriorate and in some cases takes a dimension of humanitarian catastrophe, and in 2006 the US State Department said in its annual human rights report that the situation of the Roma was rather worrisome. It seems that many Slovak politicians have learned to absorb the unsettling words, offer a couple governmental measures and then simply forget about the Roma and their social trauma.

Nobody is really shocked; it almost seems as though society has learned to live with watching the Roma's "debilitating cycle of poverty".

The dismissal of cabinet appointee Klára Orgovánová was not shocking either. If anything was surprising, it was the fact that a nominee of the former Dzurinda government had kept their position for this long, one year after the elections, in a political environment where the change of political leadership always brings along a massive reshuffle of state administration, regardless of the need for stability and continuity in certain departments. Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights Dušan Čaplovič listed a colourful assortment of reasons why Orgovánová should go: she was arrogant, she comes from a higher Roma caste (making it impossible to relate to poorer Roma) and she focused on housing the Roma instead of education.

"I go to every house, in every environment," said Čaplovič in an interview with The Slovak Spectator. "I am even able to eat with them; she was not able to do that...it is important so that they feel that they have nothing to be ashamed of because equal sits with equal."

Let's hope that the solutions that Čaplovič will offer to the Roma will be more intelligent than his explanation of Orgovánová's recall, otherwise the Roma will continue to be trapped in their "debilitating cycle of poverty" and the rest of the society in its debilitating cycle of apathy and political incompetence.

By Beata Balogová

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