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2001 census: will Roma stand up to be counted?

For most Slovaks, independence from the communist regime began on Nov. 17, 1989, the day that party leaders in Prague announced they would step down from their posts. But for Slovak Romanies, another date stands out as equally important in their own struggle for recognition: April 9, 1991.
It was on that day, a year and a half after the actual revolution, that the Czechoslovak Federation reversed its former policy of ignoring Romany culture and officially recognised Romanies as a national minority. After decades of assimilation policies, money suddenly became available for state-supported Roma theatres, publications, and cultural societies.
Within a year, state-owned Slovak Radio was broadcasting 30 minutes a week in the Romany language. Seven regional cultural institutions were founded. A Romany newspaper began publishing, headed by a Slovak woman interested in the Roma cause. A new Roma faculty received funding at Nitra University.


A dozen new houses outside Spišská Nová Ves were opened for displaced Roma this year. Residents complain they have been segregated.
foto: Sharon Otterman

For most Slovaks, independence from the communist regime began on Nov. 17, 1989, the day that party leaders in Prague announced they would step down from their posts. But for Slovak Romanies, another date stands out as equally important in their own struggle for recognition: April 9, 1991.

It was on that day, a year and a half after the actual revolution, that the Czechoslovak Federation reversed its former policy of ignoring Romany culture and officially recognised Romanies as a national minority. After decades of assimilation policies, money suddenly became available for state-supported Roma theatres, publications, and cultural societies.

Within a year, state-owned Slovak Radio was broadcasting 30 minutes a week in the Romany language. Seven regional cultural institutions were founded. A Romany newspaper began publishing, headed by a Slovak woman interested in the Roma cause. A new Roma faculty received funding at Nitra University.

On some levels, things were going well for the Romanies. But this flurry of activity was not to last.

Of those first government-sponsored activities for Roma, most today have either failed to flourish or have disappeared altogether. At Slovak Radio, Igor Tužda still broadcasts the same weekly half-hour programme he has narrated since 1992, despite promises to increase programming to three hours per week by the year 2000, he said. The Roma faculty at Nitra accepts only 40 full-time students per year, and only one other adjunct programme - in Spišská Nová Ves - has been opened. Six of the seven original cultural institutions have closed, due to Roma and government mismanagement and neglect.

Roma culture did not melt off the map after former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar rewrote funding policies in 1994, but the fragile unity the Roma had achieved was lost. Under Mečiar, in lieu of state-sponsored activities, a scattering of local non-governmental organizations sprang up. A reported 64 such community organizations now exist, most of which spend substantial time warring for private, foreign or state funding.

Politically, between 13 and 16 disunited political parties have arisen, the two largest of which supported opposite sides in last year's parliamentary election. Disunity and conflict have been the hallmark of the Romany leadership in the post-socialist period, helping - along with a lack of government support - to freeze Romany social development in its tracks.

On the eve of the new millennium, the picture for most Slovak Roma is grim. Though the current government is trying to improve the Roma's cultural situation, economically the average Roma is now far worse off than he was during communism. During communism, all Roma held jobs, at least nominally; now, 95% of the population is unemployed.

During communism, skinheads were dealt with severely by the government. Now, reluctance to pursue assailants and lenient court sentences have made skinheads bolder, increasing fear among the Roma population. "The skinheads," International Roma Committee member Eddie Muller said September 11, "are more organized than we are."

But perhaps the most disturbing trend is the continuing refusal of Roma to identify themselves as Roma. Athough NGO's and Roma experts estimate that about 500,000 Roma actually live in the country, only 85,000 Slovak citizens officially described themselves as Roma in the 1991 census. The result of this reluctance had been that the Roma's power as a voting block and lobby group is nearly nullified. While some leaders think that more Roma will declare their ethnicity in the 2001 census, others, citing examples of well-off Roma who deny their own heritage, are not too sure.

Slow steps

The current government's moves to help the Roma are the most aggressive the country has seen since the federation years. The positive steps and new programmes are under the leadership of Pál Csáky, Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities.

Since taking office in November, 1998, the government has held two round table discussions on the Roma issue, inviting experts and NGO leaders to give advice on the problem. Of the 60 programmes deemed worthy of receiving state support, 15 were granted funding on August 18, in the amount of eight million crowns ($190,000). Another seven million crowns will be distributed to projects which should be announced in October, Csáky said.

Thanks to the funding, 10 elementary schools will have new pre-school programmes for Roma five-year-olds. A Roma textbook for children called 'The Roma as We Know Them' will be published. Elected Roma mayors and other officials will receive training, and Roma programmes will be broadcast on Slovak television.

The government, Csáky said, is also going after a potential 1.8 million Euro PHARE grant which would be specifically slated for Romany projects.

"To improve the Roma situation, the government needs three things; the will, the money and the time," Csáky said. "In this government, we have the will. We are trying to get the money. But we need to be given the time. Already, for the first time in the history of Slovakia, we have a separate budget for Roma projects."

Despite his department's efforts, Csáky's programmes are criticsed by some Roma, who say that the government is not doing enough. Helping Roma culture, some say, does not get at the roots of the problem: prejudice, poverty, and a lack of jobs.

While Csáky acknowledged that Roma face prejudice in many walks of Slovak life, he added that discrimination in particular cases was difficult to prove. He also said the government could not support special programmes to help Roma find work at a time when many Slovaks, Romany and non-Romany, were suffering. Affirmative action programmes at universities, he added, were not on the cards for similar reasons. Unemployment among the general population stands at 19.1%.

Csáky's reasoning has won few converts among the Roma. "One billion crowns are needed for Roma projects - 8.5 million is too little," said Tužda, the Roma radio announcer. "The government is trying to show we have a government representative [Plenipotentiary for Roma Issues Vincent Danihel, who serves under Csáky] to appease us, and to show Europe that they are dealing with this problem. But it is an illusion. Only a few representatives can actually talk to him [Danihel], he can't really make a change, we still have no decisive voice. Does the government really care about this problem, or are they just pretending to care?"

Though funding is supposedly on the way, the Nitra faculty, which trains Roma and non-Roma to work with Romanies as social workers and teachers, is planning to cut back admissions next year from 40 students to 20 for lack of funds, said faculty head Eva Poláková.

Foreign observers also acknowledge there is still a long way to go. After a flood of Slovak Roma attempted to gain political asylum in Finland last June and July, a group of Finnish advisors came to Slovakia to examine the state of Roma affairs here. They found a society that was taking some steps to improve Roma conditions, but which still refused to acknowledge that discrimination was at the root of the problem.

"Government representatives deny the occurrence of systematic discrimination and play down criticism presented by the Roma against the actions of the police, among other things. Nevertheless, we could not avoid the impression that the Roma in Slovakia are being victimised," wrote the Finnish Advisory Board on Romany Affairs after visiting Slovakia July 13-16, 1999. "In addition, Slovakia does not understand why the representatives of Finland issue such harsh statements on the situation in Slovakia," the report added.

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