Sometimes it takes an earthquake to shake us out of our complacency and that's exactly what happened yesterday [July 11] at 4:45 am. At first I thought I was having sex, but there were no other indications of that apart from the bed moving back and forth. I got out.
I'm used to small earthquakes after nine years in Southern California, three of them spent living 100 feet from the San Andreas fault, but there was still a moment of disbelief when I heard the express train coming and felt the room shake. Later, I thought maybe I'd gone to bed too early and not had enough to drink the night before. I had to jump in the bathtub and drink a cup of hot tea to get the adrenaline back down to normal levels.
Hopefully the Slovak government was shaken out of its own complacency by the scandal of President Schuster's treatment at the hands of Slovak doctors. It's shameful for the head of state to be air-lifted to Austria to be brought back from the brink of death. It's a disgrace that his son and daughter had to hammer on the plate-glass windows of Kramáre Hospital to have the doors opened. If Slovak hospitals haven't got the hang of how to open the doors to emergency cases - not to mention for the president after someone had called ahead - what are the chances of good medical care once the patient's inside?
Well, the Schuster scandal made the health care crisis very clear, but it still took the health minister a week to resign.
Which makes me wonder what this government and its successors will do about the Roma problem. There clearly is a Roma problem, although it's not PC to say so unless from the liberal viewpoint, in which case it's a question of racial discrimination, so that's the line I'll take.
In the meantime, the Roma population explosion continues, and their total number is expected to exceed 1.2 million by the middle of this century. In 1960 they numbered fewer than 100,000, and by the turn of this century, assuming there's still a Slovakia, the Roma population will outnumber the rest of society and the total population will have risen to about 10 million from the current 5 million. This is not a sudden earthquake, but given the jobs and housing problems it's a crisis which Slovakia is ill-equipped to handle.
What can be done? Well, the European Union insists that racial discrimination should stop, in particular in education and law enforcement, and clearly the EU is right. Increased foreign investment may help cure the chronic unemployment which afflicts core Roma communities. The economic plight of the country has depressed the birth rate amongst non-Romas but has done nothing to decrease the Roma birth rate, and given the employment disparity between the two groups, has imposed a bigger burden on a smaller number of taxpayers. It's a problem not dissimilar to that in the West, of lower birth rates and increased life expectancy, with a smaller workforce supporting a huge army of pensioners.
There must be radical solutions. May I offer two suggestions? One is that the European Union cease to try to keep Roma out of western Europe. Its present policy is overtly racist, although no-one seems to have noticed, despite the fact the EU is always preaching to Slovakia about the need to bury its racist attitudes.
The second solution is affirmative action. Roma must be brought into the economic and political mainstream, quickly. I believe that, given that all racial groups are equal in ability, there must be hundreds if not thousands of Gypsy Einsteins, Freuds, and Albrights waiting to be given the chance to shine, in the fields of physics, psychology and politics, for example. Of course, more money should be spent on Roma schools than on non-Roma schools, but it will take too long for the new elite to graduate, so the EU and the Slovak government should be looking now for suitable Roma candidates to sit on the boards of banks and other strategic companies in order to ensure that Roma interests are served in at least equal portions.
I believe that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should throw its weight behind my Roma Programme, with special funding for Roma projects and posts on the board for Roma officials. To help get the ball rolling the World Bank should fire the present incumbent and appoint a Roma president.
Unless at least some of my suggestions are taken up the West will be guilty of racism on a vast scale. That's clearly unacceptable. Let's start with the first small earthquake - the abolition of visas for Slovaks wishing to travel abroad. Or maybe I haven't had enough to drink?
17. Jul 2000 at 0:00 | Jeff Daniels