"It's true what they wrote about the position being just formal, but Orgovánová herself is anything but formal. We saw what we needed to see today from her."
Peter Pollack of Otvorené Dvere
Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Issues Klara Orgovánová has little real power, says a recent report.
photo: Ján Svrček
The results of monitoring carried out by the Open Society Institute (OSI) were published on October 11 and described minorities, Roma in particular, as suffering discrimination in most areas of society.
The OSI brief will shape an EU country report on Slovakia, expected this November, and thus is expected to play an important role in how the EU will evaluate Slovakia's progress towards full Union membership. The country has said it aims to be ready to join at the end of 2002.
The OSI report said its authors were disappointed with the Slovak government's failure to carry out a comprehensive plan for dealing with minority issues, and claimed the Roma were systematically being segregated from the majority population in schools, housing and health care.
It was also highly critical of a Roma-related post created by the current government - the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Issues - which the OSI called a "merely formal" position. "No power exists [for the plenipotentiary] to carry out the job effectively," the report says.
But Klára Orgovánová, the incumbent Roma plenipotentiary, dismissed the report as being "on a level between inaccurate information and opinion".
The release of the report came as Orgovánová was touring Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia. While agreeing that segregation in housing, education and health was common, she criticised other aspects of the report as inaccurate.
Orgovánová said in a statement: "In connection with the legitimate criticism of the Slovak government, it must be pointed out that reports on government activities and public administration organs compiled by NGOs are usually critical."
Roma activists accompanying Orgovánová on her tour of the settlements said they were unsurprised by the report's findings. They added that actual conditions in Slovakia were even worse for the Roma than the report suggested.
However, they viewed the plenipotentiary as a real power in solving Roma problems. "I believe that she will successfully fight for the Roma and against the government to gain real power in solving these pressing issues," said Peter Pollack of Otvorené Dvere (Open Doors), a collaboration of Spiš region NGOs dealing with minority issues.
"It's true what they wrote about the position being just formal, but Orgovánová herself is anything but formal," he added. "We saw what we needed to see today from her. She's direct and unambiguous, not like politicians who have toured Roma settlements and left behind nothing but useless words. She's not a politician spewing rhetoric, she's a real expert, and I believe she will succeed."
The OSI monitoring recorded racist statements made by politicians and local government officials. It quoted one town mayor as saying: "One of the solutions to the gypsy problem is to shoot them all".
The report also found that the leader of the Smer party, Robert Fico, and the former Deputy PM for Integration, Pavol Hamžík, had adopted anti-Roma stances in the past.
Anna Malíková, leader of the opposition Slovak National Party, dismissed the report as "biased", "unbalanced" and "one-sided". She said it gave an unclear picture of "ostensible xenophobia" in Slovakia. She also warned European Parliament members that such reports gave rise not just to false beliefs about Slovakia, but also to false hopes for a solution to the problem of "integrating Roma into civilised society".
Jozef Kalman, a Member of Parliament (MP) for the largest opposition party, the HZDS, and a former Deputy PM for Minority Issues, agreed that many Roma faced discrimination and segregation, but argued the majority of Slovaks were not racist.
He added: "The report's findings are a result of the fact that the current cabinet did not achieve continuity in solving the Roma problem."
The document also highlighted what the OSI said was its "grave concern" over reports it had received that Roma women had been sterilised without their consent.
An exodus of Roma to Finland in 1999 saw many asylum seekers examined by Finnish gynaecologists. Following the examinations, Slovak media carried reports that there was evidence Roma women had been sterilised without their knowledge during gynaecological procedures, such as caesarean section births, at state hospitals.
The reports have never been confirmed.