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High hopes and hard truths for Slovak Romanies

"Romanies are ready to play ball," vowed Jan Kompuš, leader of Slovakia's strongest Romany political party, the Romany Civic Initiative (ROI) at the beginning of March. "We cannot be bought cheaply, and we will support only the party that promises 100 percent to reserve Parliamentary seats for us."
Fighting words indeed, but Kompuš's brisk confidence is not shared by many Slovak Romanies these days. Politically and socially fragmented, the Romanies are losing their grip on even the bottom rung of Slovakia's economic ladder. Many Romany activists now say they have little hope of gaining representation in Parliament during September national elections, since Romanies are unlikely to reach a compromise either among themselves or with established political parties.


Agreeing to disagree. For eight years, the leaders of Slovakia's Romany parties have been unable to come up with a united front with which to approach national elections.
TASR

"Romanies are ready to play ball," vowed Jan Kompuš, leader of Slovakia's strongest Romany political party, the Romany Civic Initiative (ROI) at the beginning of March. "We cannot be bought cheaply, and we will support only the party that promises 100 percent to reserve Parliamentary seats for us."

Fighting words indeed, but Kompuš's brisk confidence is not shared by many Slovak Romanies these days. Politically and socially fragmented, the Romanies are losing their grip on even the bottom rung of Slovakia's economic ladder. Many Romany activists now say they have little hope of gaining representation in Parliament during September national elections, since Romanies are unlikely to reach a compromise either among themselves or with established political parties.

The skeptics have a solid case, judging from the February 21 Romany political conference in Košice. Organized by ROI, the meeting of 40-odd Romany parties and associations was supposed to have produced a long-awaited 'united front', which would at last capture the 5 percent of the popular vote needed to enter Parliament.

But the conference ended in a shambles, with Romany political leaders declaiming contradictory views. "We discovered at the meeting that most Romany parties are dysfunctional," said Kompuš. "ROI is the only functional party."

According to Zuzana Kumanová, program director of the Slovak NGO Inforoma, the Košice mess was nothing new. "These parties never come to meetings with the will to work together or make concessions," she said.

Klára Orgovánová, Program Director at the Open Society Fund, explained that Romany political movement has so far lacked an overall plan of political action. "They don't have a systematic, organized political campaign - it would take another 5 years to get to this point," she explained.

This political disunity reflects a far more profound social fragmentation among the Romanies. In contrast to primarily urban Czech Romanies, most Slovak 'gypsies' live in isolated settlements on the outskirts of villages, each of which is governed by a vajda (chief). Poverty, illiteracy and social alienation have prevented many of eastern Slovakia's 300 Romany settlements from establishing ties even with one another, much less with Slovak society as a whole.

Furthermore, those few educated Romanies who do make it out of the ghettoes, and who manage to find a measure of acceptance among whites, are all the more reluctant to risk their precarious social status by extending a hand to help their outcast compatriots. But as one Romany activist predicted, "if a strong person from the Romany intelligentsia does not get involved, the situation will never change."

Romanies have not been getting much help in their quandary. Inactivity has characterized the government's response to racially-motivated violence against Romanies, an issue that every Romany party puts at the top of its political agenda. Stanislav Penc, of the Documentary Center for Human Rights in Prague, said that "the problem of racism [in Slovakia] is much more serious than in the Czech Republic because it is defended by representatives of the governing parties." Ján Slota, Chairman of the Slovak National Party (SNS), a member of the ruling coalition, has said that the best policy for Romanies is "a long whip and a small yard".

Michal Vašečka, with the Open Society Fund, said that white Slovak society also bore some responsibility for the hopeless disarray of the Romany political movement. "The Slovak majority must also be prepared for dialogue," he said. "If the SDK were truly a representative party, they would have a few Romany candidates. But September's elections will be a battle about the nature of democracy, a fight in which Romanies will have no place."

Nothing daunted, Kompuš talked encouragingly of ROI's prospects for September. "We are prepared to work with any party except the SNS," he said, "but we are not going to approach them. We will wait for them to address us, and if they want to cooperate, we will expect them to fulfill our demands."

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