Slovakia is slowly becoming a less xenophobic country, with the passage last year of a minority languages law and the presence of Hungarian minority political representatives in the government. But as the recently renewed exodus of Slovak Romanies has shown, there's still plenty of work to be done before questions of ethnicity are dealt with rationally.
According to press information, a Czech Airlines plane took 73 Slovak Romanies to Helsinki, Finland on December 31, 1999. More Slovak Romanies have been arriving since then to apply for asylum, and the Finnish government was to decide on January 13 whether to re-apply a visa restriction for Slovaks.
From the reactions of Slovak public officials last week, it was clear that the government simply had no idea what to do about the 'Romany problem', which seems to have been constantly in the news for over a year. Deputy Foreign Minister Jaroslav Chlebo suggested crossly that Czech Airlines might be penalized somehow for saddling the government with the cost of ferrying the footloose Romanies back to Slovakia. Member of parliament Róbert Fico opined that any Slovak who applied for asylum in another country should have his social benefits stopped permanently. Less gentle solutions were probably muttered in pubs across the country.
Although foolish, these public pronouncements are still a vast improvement on the drivel spouted by former nationalist leader Ján Slota, who last year urged Slovaks to climb into tanks and fix "those Hungarian assholes." When one considers also that it was only five years ago that, as a member of the Mečiar government, Slota proposed "a small courtyard and a long whip" as the solution to the Romany problem, it is clear that public discussion of ethnic problems has moved to a far higher level.
And yet, Slota and Fico and Chlebo may not be accurate weathervanes of public opinion, just as the relatively more civilised statements being made by politicians cannot be taken as proof that Slovaks in general are becoming more tolerant of their Romany compatriots.
A recent and highly controversial opinion poll conducted in December by the Taylor Nelson Sofres Institute claimed to show that over 60% of Slovaks were in favour of segregating Romanies from the mainstream population. The poll was immediately attacked by sociologists and government officials as having almost begged a positive response to the one question posed: "Are you in favour of measures that would have Romanies living separated from the majority population, with their own schools and so on?" Taylor Nelson Sofres, meanwhile, said that the exercise had meant to "map opinion" rather than provide accurate sociological data.
It is interesting, however, that less than 10% of Slovaks gave a "definitely no" response to the 'opinion mapping' pollsters. After all, native Slovaks make up only 85% of the population, so some minority respondents must also have been unsure whether segregation wasn't the best thing after all.
It is also instructive to note an October, 1999 poll by the respected Focus institute, which found that 87% of Slovak inhabitants would not want to have a Romany as a neighbour.
While sociologists debate the fine points of the polling methods used, the rest of us can surely agree that a disturbing number of even the educated, liberal and cosmopolitan inhabitants of this country (foreign and Slovak) still harbour some rather unattractive thoughts about the Roma.
We might also agree that public officials should realise how inflammatory amateurish, short-necked pronouncements on ethnic issues can be. Even if they don't have a clue how to stop Romanies from migrating, they should agree on a common (preferably tolerant) line and stick to it.
Perhaps the best approach to the issue was the one taken by Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, who begged European countries to tighten their asylum laws and thus discourage Romanies from leaving their homes. Kukan's line is tailor-made for the cabinet, for it deflects anger at Romanies for the visa regimes being slapped on Slovak nationals, and directs it towards sloppy asylum legislation in other countries. It also gets the government off the hook and neatly turns the tables on the EU, a body accustomed to giving rather than receiving lectures on minority policy.
What Kukan's solution does not do, however, is fix the main problem - the poverty, ignorance and joblessness in which most Slovak Romanies live. Changing those realities will take time and tolerance, two things Slovakia seems short of at the moment.