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INHABITANTS MAY LOSE PERMANENT ADDRESSES AS LOCAL OFFICIALS HAGGLE

Letanovce Roma losing ground

ON THE northern border of Slovak Paradise National Park sits the dismal settlement of Letanovský Mlyn. It is one of the least developed communities in Slovakia, and is a reminder of the country's failure to confront the worst problems of its Roma minority.
With an estimated population of over 700, Letanovský Mlyn lacks electricity, heat, telephones, running water, transportation services, and other basic infrastructure standard in modern European countries. Unemployment is universal.
Now, with a case being heard in the Spišská Nová Ves district court, the inhabitants of the settlement may also lose their permanent address and be forced to move.
Permanent addresses are required in Slovakia to vote, work, attend school and receive most state services.

ON THE northern border of Slovak Paradise National Park sits the dismal settlement of Letanovský Mlyn. It is one of the least developed communities in Slovakia, and is a reminder of the country's failure to confront the worst problems of its Roma minority.

With an estimated population of over 700, Letanovský Mlyn lacks electricity, heat, telephones, running water, transportation services, and other basic infrastructure standard in modern European countries. Unemployment is universal.

Now, with a case being heard in the Spišská Nová Ves district court, the inhabitants of the settlement may also lose their permanent address and be forced to move.

Permanent addresses are required in Slovakia to vote, work, attend school and receive most state services.

With Slovakia's human rights and minority record under scrutiny because of recent minority attacks and a continuing exodus of Roma seeking asylum, the case presents some thorny human and civil rights issues.

Peter Pollák, vice-chairman of the Spišská district office for Roma problems, said: "If the court decides that those Roma have no permanent residence, it will mean that they have no right to vote. There will also be a question of what municipality they belong to, and thus where they will go to school. There will be a problem distributing social benefits, as well as other issues connected with permanent residence.

"It will be a big problem because we will have citizens of the Slovak Republic who don't have legal residence anywhere in the Slovak Republic."

Edmund Müller, head of the Košice-based Roma Rights Centre, agreed: "They can't vote. Their civil rights have been violated."

The jurisdiction dispute is being waged by two municipalities and a national park.

Tomáš Repčiak, who spent two years covering Roma and national park related issues for the Spišský Denník local daily, said: "The problem has existed since under communism, because the Roma had residence in one village, but the land belongs to a second village."

From its founding before the second world war, the settlement was under the jurisdiction of Letanovce, 2.5 kilometres away. However, in June 2001 the Letanovce village council decided to cancel the permanent residence of people in the settlement, citing the fact that the land on which the settlement is built is registered as belonging to nearby Spišské Tomášovce.

Officials from Spišské Tomášovce then decided in September not to offer residence to the Roma, and ceded the area to Slovak Paradise.

The park, with the aid of civic organisation Let's Save Letanovský Mlyn, has since proposed to move the settlement to Mečedelovce, a former collective farm, which falls under the jurisdiction of a different district and a different regional government.

"There are three players in this game, and of course, none of them want the Roma," said Müller.

According to Milan Barlog, director of the Let's Save NGO, "we would like very much if the settlement, which is now in a completely unacceptable condition, could be moved to a place we have already selected. The problem is that everyone around the area is refusing. Everyone would rather leave them where they are now."

Pollák explained that the plan to move the Roma to Mečedelovce would make them part of the village of Spišský Štvrtok, under the jurisdiction of the Levoča district office and the Prešov regional office. "But Levoča doesn't agree with the plan, nor does Spišský Štvrtok," he said.

Other ideas include putting Mečedelovce under the jurisdiction of Spišská Nová Ves or Letanovce, or even creating a new municipality for the site.

Pollák warns against the last option. "I don't agree with creating an independent Roma village because it's the same as a legalised ghetto.

"Another proposal is to rebuild the Roma settlement in Letanovský Mlyn, to put new houses, facilities and so on. But the national park doesn't agree with this idea," he said.

Letanovský Mlyn has long been viewed as a problem. Park officials say the Roma illegally cut down trees, and in August 2000 deputised 30 local Roma to guard the forest. The guards were paid from the budget of the state public works program (VPP).

In spite of the project's success, problems with VPP's budget, which shrank from Sk2 billion in 2000 to Sk604 million this year, led to this and other public projects fizzling out.

The NGO's Barlog said: "The Roma are once again cutting the wood. It's just like before. We tried to find other money for funding the project outside of VPP, but we were unsuccessful."

At the moment the court case is still pending, and a verdict may be a long way off. As Repčiak points out: "All we can do now is wait. It may take months or a year, but however it ends, it's a step towards segregation, towards absolute ghettoisation."

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