Slovakia's Romany minority, which numbers some 300,000 people, has been given new hope that its biggest concerns - social welfare and unemployment - will be tackled by a new team of cabinet-appointed officials.
Romany representatives say, however, that the cabinet's accelerated efforts to solve the country's minority problems are designed more to fulfill EU accession criteria than to help the troubled ethnic community.
"The cabinet's will to solve Romany issues is positive, but they've done too little to make a real change," said Klára Orgovánová, a leading Romany activist and Programme Director with the Open Society Fund.
After taking office in October 1998, the cabinet of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda declared its intent to cooperate with the Romany community on solving long-standing problems. For this purpose, cabinet established a Council for Minorities and Ethnic Groups in December 1998, the statutes of which will be approved at the beginning of February 1999.
Juraj Hrabko, general director of another newly created body, the Human Rights and Minority Issues Department at the Office of the Government, told The Slovak Spectator that the new Minorities Council would consist of 15 representatives of different minority groups, including two Romanies. "The new idea is that only the minority members of the council and its chairman and vice-chairman would have the right to vote," Hrabko said, adding that such an arrangement would give direct power to minorities to solve their own problems.
According to Hrabko, the cabinet has also decided to name a Romany to the post of Government Special Representative for Groups Which Need Special Care, as well as to establish a separate government department for Romany issues. The Romany appointee would take over from Slovak Branislav Baláž, who was appointed by the former cabinet of Vladimír Mečiar and whose work was widely criticised by Romany groups.
But Orgovánová said that the cabinet's latest moves were a matter of form rather than substance, and complained that the cabinet was in too much of a hurry to fulfill the EU accession criteria. "If the government is doing these things just to fulfill the EU criteria and show the world how cleverly they have dealt with the country's minority problems, they are making a big mistake," she said.
Orgovánová was mostly concerned with the cabinet's intention to appoint Romany politicians to post which she argued should filled by experts on social affairs.
"These posts require experts on minority issues and not politicians. It's important that these positions be filled with people who are familiar with these problems and know how to solve them, not with political nominees who supported either this or that party in the [September] elections."
Whatever the true intent of the cabinet's flurry of action on Romany issues, its efforts to unite the fragmented Romany community have not been received well.
On December 8, Pál Csáky, Deputy Prime Minister for Human Rights and Minorities met representatives of the two largest Romany political parties, the Roma Civil Initiative (ROI) and the Roma Intelligentsia for Coexistence (RIS).
Csáky said that the cabinet's main philosophy was to cooperate with Romanies on improving education, reducing nemployment and eliminating Romanies' social and racial segregation from the rest of the society.
But, on January 28, RIS Vice Chairman Tibor Loran told The Slovak Spectator that he was unhappy with the slow pace of concrete change.
"What are these state officials doing?" he asked. "We had concrete proposals for Special Representative position ready three months ago. Dzurinda hasn't kept his word."
Loran said at a press conference the same day that "the new government is much more devious than the Mečiar government. They say one thing and do another."
According to Hrabko, however, most of the problems that still occur between Romanies and the Slovak state are simple failures to communicate, because "in many cases their opinions are very polarized and they don't have a clear vision of how particular problems should be solved."
The 1999 state budget proposal estimates that some 30 to 40 million Sk ($810,000 to 1.1 million) will be spent on programmes for the betterment of the Romany situation, while further finances will be secured from the European Union's Phare programme.