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Roma not all in Agreement

Demanding the ouster of a government appointee and boasting of nearly 20% potential voter support, the political leadership of Slovakia's Romany (gypsy) minority flexed its muscles last week in a display of apparent political unity. But NGO experts who have tracked the political fortunes of the Roma cautioned that the bold behaviour did not mean the ethnic minority had overcome its history of crippling discord.
The leaders of 17 of Slovakia's 18 Roma political parties seemed to bury the hatchet last October under the Agreement of Roma Parties initiative, aimed at uniting Roma politicians for the 2002 national elections. The Agreement also had the backing of 76 Roma NGOs.
As a single political entity, the leaders said, the Agreement could attract the united support of the estimated half million Roma living in Slovakia and thus gain representation in parliament, allowing the Roma to take their fate in their own hands, rather than having to rely on promises from Slovak politicians.


Geiza Adam (left) at the signing of the Roma Agreement union, Oct. 22, with world Roma head Emil Ščuka.
photo: TASR

Demanding the ouster of a government appointee and boasting of nearly 20% potential voter support, the political leadership of Slovakia's Romany (gypsy) minority flexed its muscles last week in a display of apparent political unity. But NGO experts who have tracked the political fortunes of the Roma cautioned that the bold behaviour did not mean the ethnic minority had overcome its history of crippling discord.

The leaders of 17 of Slovakia's 18 Roma political parties seemed to bury the hatchet last October under the Agreement of Roma Parties initiative, aimed at uniting Roma politicians for the 2002 national elections. The Agreement also had the backing of 76 Roma NGOs.

As a single political entity, the leaders said, the Agreement could attract the united support of the estimated half million Roma living in Slovakia and thus gain representation in parliament, allowing the Roma to take their fate in their own hands, rather than having to rely on promises from Slovak politicians.

On February 10, the Agreement put this collective voice to work, calling on the cabinet appointee for the Roma community, Vincent Danihel, to resign, and also demanding a greater voice in the distribution of state money for the Roma. The Agreement leaders said they regarded the demands as the clearest sign yet that the Roma were a political force to reckon with.

"We can get into parliament," said Gejza Adam, the leader of Slovakia's oldest Roma party the Roma Civil Initiative (ROI), which heads the Agreement. "Because we represent the Roma community and our programme is to improve the social situation of the Slovak Roma, we can achieve even 10% support in the 2002 elections [5% is the requirement for parliamentary representation - ed. note]."

But given the history of discord on the Roma political scene, political scientists have doubted the staying power of this latest attempt to unify. Indeed, while the goal is one of community concord, signs have emerged that the Agreement is already breaking down.

"It's great that they managed to sign the Agreement, but the Roma still have a long way to go [to get into parliament]," said Miroslav Kusý, a political science professor at Bratislava's Comenius University. "Considering the incoherence of the Roma community, which is caused by the existence of many different Roma tribes and strong traditional family links, the Agreement would be lucky to get into parliament at all."

"The only way for them to succeed is to unite, but the Roma are unable to unite," agreed political analyst Ľuboš Kubín of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, adding that the only hope for the Roma was to follow the lead of Slovakia's other major minority, the Hungarians, whose three parties banded together before the 1998 elections. The resulting Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) won 9.1% of the vote, and today is part of the ruling coalition.

"Unfortunately for the Roma," he said, "this [result] is still two or three elections down the road."

Lingering division

The unity of the Agreement of Roma Parties was imperfect from the outset as the Roma Initiative of Slovakia (RIS) - traditionally the main opposition to the ROI - refused to sign the pact. Instead, one day after other Roma parties signed the Agreement, the (RIS) inked a deal with the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).

The HZDS pact guaranteed that the RIS would support an upcoming referendum on early elections in November last year, promised RIS cooperation in the HZDS' election campaign for the 2002 national elections, and committed the HZDS to focus on Roma issues should it get into government.

The RIS said it hadn't signed the Agreement because it hadn't been invited to do so; it added, however, that it wouldn't have signed even if it had been asked. "The Agreement serves the political interests of the ROI," said RIS head Alexander Patkolý. "Why would we support our rivals?"

Despite the Agreement's claim of equality between members, Roma activists say that the deal indeed favours Gejza Adam's ROI. While admitting that "the ROI [and not other Roma parties] will nominate potential members of parliament for the Agreement," Adam added that "we pledge to include members on our candidates list from all Roma parties which sign the Agreement."

Klára Orgovánová, head of the Roma information NGO InfoRoma, said that the Agreement had been doomed from the outset because it was, in effect, an ROI scheme to get rid of its main rival while bolstering its own support.

"The ROI gets all the media attention as the main player behind the Agreement, while other organisations and member parties must stay in the background," she said. "I doubt the Agreement will hold till the elections. As much as I think it would be great, I don't know if the Roma can hope to become members of parliament [under the Agreement]."

Vincent Danihel, governmental appointee for Roma issues, was even more critical. Danihel, whom the Agreement wants ousted for "incompetence" in dealing with Roma issues, said February 20 that "the Roma have very little experience in defending their interests in politics. It's very dangerous to think that any one single party can now solve the Roma issue."

Danihel added that Roma politicians like Patkolý and Adam "sit in their offices instead of promoting Roma consciousness in Roma villages. They are causing a further split among the Roma rather than promoting unity."

Objective: parliament

The weakness of the Agreement, say observers, is not only that it does not overcome rivalry among Roma politicians themselves, but also that it does not unite Roma voters behind parties representing the minority rather than the Slovak majority. As long as Roma voters could be wooed by promises from Slovak politicians, Kusý said, their support would continue to be abused by the latter

"The Roma represent the easiest voter target," he said. "Big parties like the HZDS know very well that when you make promises to the Roma, they give you votes."

In 1998, the RIS signed a treaty of mutual support with the then-opposition party Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), but withdrew from it July 8, 2000 after complaining that no pre-election promises had been fulfilled. It's a pattern of betrayal Orgovánová says has been repeated in every Slovak national election during the 1990's.

But the RIS' Patkolý defended his recent deal with the HZDS, saying his party had learned its lesson and would not be fooled again. "We're not afraid of being misused. We've learned from our past experience, and I'm confident that we'll appeal to 80% or 100% of the Roma community in 2002."

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