The 'Roma problem' in Slovakia intensified on April 13 when Belgium issued visa requirements for Slovaks travelling abroad. Fearing that the situation could harm the country's European Union ambitions, Slovak officials have been at their wit's end trying to come up with a solution to the problem. Meanwhile, the Roma minority continued complaining of persecution and poor living standards which they said were forcing them to seek a better life elsewhere.
Hampering the situation has been the Roma's inability to unite into one political party and thereby create a unified voice. While estimates place the Roma population as high as 450,000 - which under one party could therefore secure nearly 10% of the electorate - attempts at unification have repeatedly failed.
Roma leaders and observers say that reasons behind the failure to unite include a natural inclination to identify only with their local villages. Furthermore, a stigma is placed on any Roma who attempts to join 'white society'. As a result, even the best attempts at securing government representation have been futile - one case in point was the Slovak Roma party known as the RIS which had two party officials lay claim to the party chairmanship. Unable to settle the matter, the case was passed on to the courts where it will be decided which leader was elected in accordance with party rules.
According to Dagmar Kusá of the Slovak Helsinki Committee, the Slovak Roma have been unable to ally because of their poor social situation and traditional beliefs inside the community. "It's a part of the Roma mentality," she said. "For example, when one Roma 'upgrades' and becomes an educated and financially secure person, other Romas exclude him from their community and call him a 'white Roma'."
Wolf Bruggen, President of the Belgian NGO Roma Rights League, said that the Roma failure to unite was a main reason why they were unable to defend their rights in the same way as the Hungarian minority living in Slovakia does. By forming a coalition of all the Hungarian parties before the 1998 elections, the Slovak Hungarian Coalition (SMK) secured nearly 10% of the vote and were included in the new government.
"Had they not united, I'm sure that the Hungarians would suffer the same amount of discrimination as the Roma do now," Bruggen said. "But Hungarians are able to defend their rights more effectively through their functioning political party."
Another problem, Kusá added, was that the Roma did not respect authority, be it governmental or Roma. "They traditionally identify themselves only within their village or settlement," she said. "In older times, they were used to respecting just one authority - the Vajda [a natural leader and mayor of the community]. But those structures have since been broken and were never replaced by another respected authority. That's why they feel ousted from society."
Slovak Romas began attempting to organise political parties immediately after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. During the ensuing decade, no less than 16 Roma political parties came into existence. Unable to join forces through four elections, none have ever been able to secure the necessary 5% of votes an individual party needs to win parliamentary seats.
"There are too many political factions within the Roma community," said Gejza Adam, the head of the Roma Citizen Initiative (ROI) on April 25. Adam said he wanted to change this by leading another movement aimed at unity. Although no Roma parties score more than 1% in political polls, Adam remains optimistic: "I'm sure we could become a parliamentary party after the next election," he said.
But keeping in-line with the post-communism trend of disunity, other Roma activists don't agree with the idea of creating a strong ethnic Roma political party. "I would rather see some Romas on the candidate list of some Slovak political parties," said Roma activist Edmund Müller.
Müller said that during the past 10 years, no Slovak political party except the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) had ever given the Roma representation. "But even the HZDS gave [Roma leaders] such low positions that they had no chance of being elected to parliament."
Müller's words were roundly criticised on several fronts. "I strongly disagree with such misleading statements," said Ivan Šimko, senior MP of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and now a member of Prime Minister Dzurinda's party the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKŮ). "There are now Roma politicians acting on the regional level with the KDH."
The ROI's Adam added: "Mr. Müller is a man without any support from the Roma community."
As the internal squabbling continues to render Roma unity as nothing more than a dream - a dream not shared by all in the community - the plight of the minority look to persist. Viliam Farkaš, a 28-year-old Roma from Galanta, summed up his feelings of frustration when he said, "Why do we need political parties? We are Gypsies and we don't care about politics."