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MINORITY ACTIVISTS DISMISS THE GESTURE

Government extends a hand to Slovakia's Romanies

The Slovak government's "Conceptual Plan for the Solution of Romany Problems", approved by the cabinet on November 4, has shown once again how a tough audience can find discord in even the sweetest of music. The plan, more than a year in preparation , calls for 1.646 billion Sk ($49 million) to be spent on the education, housing and "integration" of Slovakia's Romanies over the next five years. The state heralded the plan as a serious attempt to confront some of the country's most glaring social and economic inequities.
Instead of applause, however, the program has met with cold reserve both from minority rights groups and from the Romanies themselves. Critics have pointed out that the 'conceptual plan' does not actually set aside any specific budget funds, and calls for only 26.39 million Sk to be spent in 1998 while postponing virtually every major initiative until the year 1999.


Little enthusiasm for funding Romany projects.
Daily Pravda

The Slovak government's "Conceptual Plan for the Solution of Romany Problems", approved by the cabinet on November 4, has shown once again how a tough audience can find discord in even the sweetest of music. The plan, more than a year in preparation , calls for 1.646 billion Sk ($49 million) to be spent on the education, housing and "integration" of Slovakia's Romanies over the next five years. The state heralded the plan as a serious attempt to confront some of the country's most glaring social and economic inequities.

Instead of applause, however, the program has met with cold reserve both from minority rights groups and from the Romanies themselves. Critics have pointed out that the 'conceptual plan' does not actually set aside any specific budget funds, and calls for only 26.39 million Sk to be spent in 1998 while postponing virtually every major initiative until the year 1999. Instead of tackling concrete problems, they say, the government has simply passed them on to future state administrations to deal with.

"The situation in Slovakia is tense," said Jacek Paliszewski, Director of Warsaw's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). As a subsidiary of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ODIHR's mandate includes scrutinizing the treatment of Romanies in formerly communist countries.

"The Slovak and Czech Republics are places where Romanies are facing some of the worst problems right now," continued Paliszewski. "The Slovak government is continuing the line that there is no political and racial discrimination (against Romanies), but we know from counting acts of violence that this is not true."

But Dr. Branislav Balaž, the Slovak Government's Representative- in charge of solving the problems of Citizens Who Need Special Help, and the architect of the new Romany scheme, bristled at such suggestions. "I have seen no equal in Europe to this government's systematic resolution of the Romany problem - this new plan has been more than a year in preparation, during which time we were going out into the community and talking with ordinary people."

Among the "ordinary people" Balaž consulted was Romany entrepreneur Marek Balaž (no relation) of the western Slovak town of Prievidza. At a November 17 meeting between the two men, Marek Balaž expressed cautious optimism for the success of the plan, but stressed that it had to include the active participation of Romanies themselves. "We came here today to make sure these fine ideas are realized in practice," he said. "We want to make sure solutions aren't just imposed from above, like they were in the past [under communist governments]."

Balaž said that his scheme, which has 42 measures, would focus "most of all on higher quality education and care of Romany children, and better motivating them for their future careers. Another priority will be health education and arrangements in the sphere of health care, followed by social assistance and the prevention of criminality among Romanies."

Balaž stressed that the plan relied on empowering regional and autonomous bodies to come up with their own solutions. "These priorities will be carried out not only by the state administration," he said, "but especially by autonomous bodies, where it will be a question of working together, with individual representatives of the Romanies."

Balaž also insisted that Romany demands to participate in the project would be met. "The plan will lay stress on the idea that Romanies too will work in these autonomous, police and state bodies," he said. "Marek Balaž is a man I can talk with, and today we have found a road together."

But many minority rights observers remain doubtful that the government's plan will amount to anything more than brave words. "Things are so catastrophic right now for Romanies in Slovakia that any help would have been welcome," said Michal Važeška, Program Coordinator at the Open Society Foundation in Bratislava, "and this program incorporates a lot of good ideas." But the problem, Važeška warned, lay in the fact that "the money for the project hasn't actually been allocated in the state budget."

"This plan doesn't really mean anything concrete," agreed Zuzana Kumanová, program coordinator for Inforoma, a non-governmental organization. "Balaž's problem is that he doesn't have any official powers, no budget money that he can disburse; he is a functionary of the Ministry of Work, Social Affairs and Family, and the Ministry can refuse any suggestion he makes."

As a result, Kumanová explained, 'conceptual plans', like the latest affecting the Romanies, can be approved by cabinet and then be ignored by the various government ministries whose participation was expected. "Look at the [Balaž plan's] new measures regarding education," she said. "According to the law, school programs and subjects cannot be reoriented without the central approval of the Ministry of Education, and that post belongs to the [ultra-nationalist] Slovak National Party (SNS)."

Not only would the presence of the SNS in important government posts prevent cooperation on solving Romany problems, Kumanová said, but it would even endanger funding efforts. "There might be some state investment into Romany programs in the future," she predicted, "but this will always be tough when the SNS is in the coalition."

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