Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar revealed on October 29th that the Slovak government was sending buses to London and Calais to bring back the Romany families who have recently fled the country. "They're our citizens, they are a part of our society," he said, and promised that their political and civil rights would be "respected."
Mečiar's coalition government has not always had such conciliatory words for its Romany citizens. SNS leader Ján Slota has produced such nuggets of wisdom as "with gypsies you need a small courtyard and a long whip," while Mečiar himself has warned Slovaks that "if we don't deal with them now, then they will deal with us in time."
Statements like these belie the government's assertion that the flight of Slovak Romanies was "not politically motivated." They also give the Romany families camped in Dover reason to doubt that the buses laid on by the government will return them to a country where their rights are suddenly enshrined.
The truth is that the Slovak government presides over a society in which discrimination against Romanies is an accepted fact of daily life. Racially-motivated attacks on Romanies are rising. Unemployment in some Romany communities reaches 90%, and many say that private firms are refusing to hire 'gypsies'. If the government has not made political refugees of the Romany directly through persecution, it has certainly done so by perpetuating a hostile social environment. Free bus tickets and promises of "respect" will not, by themselves, bridge the gulf that now exists between Romanies and white Slovak society.
It is certainly unfair, however, to lay all of the blame for this state of affairs on the doorstep of the Mečiar government. Many Romany activists say that the efforts of the previous communist government to assimilate Romanies during the 1960's destroyed their sense of independence and responsibility. Romanies were required to work at state jobs and to live in state-provided housing, to ride white buses and to attend state schools. Their needs - social, political, economic - were not only met but were even determined by the white government without reference to Romanies themselves.
Years of dependence under the communists encouraged Romanies in the belief that it was the duty of the state to solve life's most pressing problems. It is precisely this belief that has handicapped Romanies in coming to terms with democracy and their sudden abandonment by the current central government. Slovak Romanies lack not only the ability but also the readiness to take care of their own needs.
There is an old proverb which says that hungry people should not be given fish, but should instead be taught to catch food on their own. Slovakia's Romanies, long dependent on state seafood hand-outs, are living testimony to the wisdom of this advice. Since 1993, government fish have grown smaller while life has grown tougher; the Dover exodus was as much about a better life as it was about bigger fish.
Romany political groups and citizens initiatives say that the time has come for their people to learn how to catch their own food. One plan, hatched by Romany businessmen in Prievidza, proposes that the government allow them to privatize state construction companies scheduled for liquidation. The reinvigorated companies would then hire exclusively Romany employees, and set them to work building houses for Romany families. The project would address the problems of both unemployment and housing, and would also provide the basis of a national political organization.
Whatever it thinks of the merit of such proposals, the Mečiar administration would now do well to bend an ear to them. The Dover exodus showed the government's Romany policy to be politically, socially and morally bankrupt. In relinquishing some measure of power to Romany groups, the government would break the cycle of dependence that has crippled Slovakia's Romany communities. It might also save itself the cost of future bus trips from Dover.
We will miss a friend
On a winter's day early in 1995, a bespectacled middle-aged man named Paul Zendzian bounded into our office proposing to review restaurants with fellow American expatriate Madeline Vadkerty. Starting with a rave about Modra Hviezda's "hearty Beef Rača with a robust wine sauce" in our inaugural issue, readers of The Slovak Spectator relied on Paul and Madeline's judgement for nearly two years. One reader even said he followed the pair around from one restaurant to another each fortnight.
But Paul's judgement was well-regarded for more than culinary critiques. A lawyer and former mayor of Bangor, Maine, Paul came to Slovakia as a volunteer for the American Bar Association's Central and East European Law Initiative. Following two years of advising Slovak lawyers and judges, he was hired in 1996 by Central European Media Enterprises (CME) to help launch their Slovak television station, Markíza.
It was during a recent business trip to CME's Slovenian station that Paul suddenly had trouble breathing while at dinner with associates in Ljubljana. He was rushed to a local hospital, where he died on October 2. Paul Zendzian, a father of two and friend of many, had a great influence over more people than he could ever know. We at The Slovak Spectator will miss him. Paul Zendzian 1944-1997.
6. Nov 1997 at 0:00