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Klára Orgovánová: Solutions for Roma issues 'must exist'

In 1998 when The Slovak Spectator went to a weekly format, the paper published a feature entitled Seven for the Future, in which we profiled seven Slovaks holding the promise to positively influence the country.
One of the seven was Klára Orgovánová, presented in the article as The Activist. At the time she was a programme director for the Open Society Foundation, director of the Foundation for Romany Children, and director of the InfoRoma foundation.
Herself a Roma, Orgovánová has been a leading activist on behalf of the country's much maligned minority since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which brought about the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.


Orgovánová says that despite the inability of Roma political parties to band together, "they are united in that they all want the same thing."
photo: Ján Svrček


"The fact is that people are leaving, and I don't believe that those who flee take pleasure in having to borrow money or sell their flats and belongings just to leave the country."

In 1998 when The Slovak Spectator went to a weekly format, the paper published a feature entitled Seven for the Future, in which we profiled seven Slovaks holding the promise to positively influence the country.

One of the seven was Klára Orgovánová, presented in the article as The Activist. At the time she was a programme director for the Open Society Foundation, director of the Foundation for Romany Children, and director of the InfoRoma foundation.

Herself a Roma, Orgovánová has been a leading activist on behalf of the country's much maligned minority since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which brought about the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia. In 1991, she took a job as a minority issues consultant with the Government office. Ten years later, (as of July 1, 2001) she begins her new job as the cabinet-appointed plenipotentiary for solving the Roma issue.

Orgovánová replaced Vincent Danihel, who was forced out of his job May 9 amidst accusations from Deputy Prime Minister for Minority Affairs Pál Csáky that he had been ineffective in his post. With the daunting task of finding ways to improve the living conditions of the Roma now her responsibility, Orgovánová says: "I can't be the plenipotentiary for all problems of the Slovak Roma. I need to have specific tasks, to solve specific problems."

Orgovánová sat down with The Slovak Spectator June 26 to discuss her history, the Roma, and her new job.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You studied psychology and you've said that when you were younger you wanted to be a doctor. How did it come about that you started working on Roma issues?

Klára Orgovánová (KO): I certainly never thought I'd be doing what I'm doing today, but in 1989, when the first Roma activist groups were formed, I was contacted by Daniela Šilanová [a journalist who is today Editor-in-Chief of the Prešov-based Roma newspaper Romano Lil Nevo - ed. note]. We sat down with other Roma from the region to discuss what we could do to help the community. At that time I entered Roma settlements for the first time. Like many citizens, I had no idea what these settlements looked like.


TSS: What was your first impression of the living conditions?

KO: It was quite bad, I was very touched by what I saw. I was shocked and I thought that it was a hopeless situation, that nothing could be done to improve their lot. But as I visited the settlements more and met the people and became friends with them, I realised that solutions must exist.


TSS: As a Roma growing up in Prešov, did you experience any kind of discrimination?

KO: Not really. My family was always open about our Roma ethnicity, but nothing worth mentioning ever happened to me.


TSS: In some elementary schools, Roma children have in the past been forced to sit separately from the rest of their classmates. Sometimes teachers would punish white children by having them sit next to the Roma. Do such practices still take place in Slovak schools?

KO: Yes, it still happens. Roma children are usually made to sit in the back of the room, teachers don't give much of their time to the Roma children, and even some parents don't want their children to sit next to a Roma child. But, thank God, I know many teachers in this country who don't do such things, who create a friendly atmosphere in their classrooms where Roma and non-Roma get along.


TSS: What was the approach of the Communist regime to the Roma?

KO: If you ask the Roma whether their lives were better then or now, the majority would probably say that it was better under Communism. Many Roma families felt that Communism guaranteed a certain level of protection, social security, jobs, certain social advantages and so on. When the system changed, these people lost a lot of security.

But Communism affected all of us. Under the regime, we were taught to think that someone else would do our thinking for us, that we were better off that way. We never realised that everything should be in our hands. We didn't realise that we should have an influence on community life. Today it's tough - not just for Roma, but for all of Slovak society.


TSS: In 1958 the Communists passed a law on the 'permanent settlement of travelling persons' and moved nomadic Roma into blocks of flats. How did this change to their traditional lifestyle affect the Roma?

KO: Even before the law there were many settled Roma in the region. Those who travelled were known as the Olašskí Roma. For them, the law brought dramatic changes to their lives. But today, if the Roma were given the chance to resume their nomadic traditions, few would do so. They've grown accustomed to a settled life.


TSS: Slovak media has in the past reported that Roma who were moved into new blocks of flats completely demolished the buildings within a couple of weeks, saying that they destroyed the wooden floors to make fires in their living rooms, and so on. To what extent are these stories true?

KO: It happens. Such things are common, for example, in Košice's Luník IX [Roma ghetto], or in Rimavská Sobota.

I don't want to apologise for the Roma, but it has to be said that they lived a completely different lifestyle before they were moved into those blocks of flats. They lived in huts where there was no running water, no electricity... many of them had never seen a bath tub before.

Then they suddenly had such things and they just didn't know what to do with them. Before being moved into those flats, the Roma should have been trained, someone should have explained to them how to use appliances, how to live in a flat. Instead, they were just thrust into a strange environment they knew nothing about. It should have been explained to them that they were responsible for their flats.


TSS: For many Slovaks, the fall of Communism represented hope for a better life. How was the Velvet Revolution received in the Roma community?

KO: I think many Roma weren't prepared for the changes because they didn't know what was expected of them. But everybody was happy that something promising was at hand. The enthusiasm soon faded away, but at least many NGOs were created which are now trying to help the Roma.


TSS: In 1991, you were a government consultant for minority issues. What progress has been made since then?

KO: That's a difficult question. We have moved forward, but the progress is tough to see. Ten years ago, we had people who would listen to us, but we didn't know what we wanted. Today, we know what we want, but it seems no one is willing to listen.


TSS: What will your first steps be as the cabinet plenipotentiary for Roma issues?

KO: I need to find a supporting staff of qualified, active, English-speaking, and competent people to open a branch in eastern Slovakia. I have to give the office clearly defined responsibilities and create a system of communication with other [government] posts. I want to establish a commission where individual ministries will sit down and listen to the Roma.


TSS: In many Roma communities, there is nearly 100% unemployment, poor housing, high crime rates - do you have a concrete plan of action to bring about change?

KO: I can't be the plenipotentiary for all problems of the Slovak Roma. A well-off family of Roma musicians in Bratislava will certainly not need my services. Instead, I need to have specific tasks, to solve specific problems.

Usually when there is a plenipotentiary, he is named to solve a specific problem, like the public administration reform plenipotentiary [Viktor Nižňanský - ed. note]. There should be no such thing as a plenipotentiary for an entire minority group. There are too many problems.

I will try to help those who have nowhere to live, or who have no jobs, and so on. But, this should be the role of individual ministries or other competent state organs. When I spoke with [former plenipotentiary Vincent] Danihel, he told me that everything which involved a C or an R [Cigáň, meaning 'Gypsy', or Roma] was automatically sent to the plenipotentiary for a solution. I can't let this happen.

We want to help individual villages and municipalities. If we help a few municipalities where there are Roma settlements every year, we will improve the Roma's living conditions step by step.


TSS: What do you bring to the table as plenipotentiary?

KO: Many Roma and non-Roma who are active in this sphere asked me to run for this post. I said to myself that with my 10 years of experience in the NGO sector, my experience at the government office, and my contacts, I could help create a vision and set concrete goals, such as changing the negative public opinion concerning the Roma.

TSS: Roma exoduses to western European countries have exasperated the problems between the Roma and white Slovaks. The Roma say the Slovak majority is racist, while the majority accuses the Roma of leaving Slovakia for 'economic tourism' - as a way to make a financial gain by collecting social benefits offered to asylum seekers in some European countries. Can the two sides be brought closer together?

KO: There are no clear answers. The fact is that people are leaving, and I don't believe that those who flee take pleasure in having to borrow money or sell their flats and belongings just to leave the country.

The majority of these people leave because they just don't have the opportunity to live a normal life here. They rarely find anyone willing to employ them. Roma here are not equal partners with the rest of society.

Furthermore, they have less internal limits, meaning that it's easier for them to move about the world. They've never had a problem with leaving their settlements in search of a better life. Roma are travellers, world-citizens.


TSS: How could Slovakia's EU integration ambitions be affected by the Roma situation?

KO: At the start, the EU said, "You have to solve the Roma problem." Later, they realised that it's a complex, central European-wide issue. Solving the situation will not be a strict condition for Slovakia to join the EU. However, we must show that we are gradually solving the issue, and that we are making reasonable use of EU funds dedicated to this purpose.


TSS: Why haven't the Roma been able to unite politically?

KO: They are united in one sense, in that they all basically want the same things. They want human rights, better social conditions, employment opportunities, and so on. But, of course, problems arise because everyone wants to be the leader of the party, to be visible in the media, to have influence.


TSS: Slovaks hold many stereotypes about the Roma, that they are lazy and dishonest. The Roma, meanwhile, accuse ethnic Slovaks of being racist. What are the roots of these stereotypes?

KO: For one, there are almost no Roma on TV, no Roma guests on TV shows. We have to show the Roma to the white Slovak nation and explain to them that many of them are capable of achieving great things. The positive examples have to be presented, not just the negative ones. The media must play a big role in this respect.

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