IN THE run-up to September's parliamentary elections, with EU and Nato ambitions hanging in the balance, parties and non-partisan organisations are trying more than ever to involve the Roma politically, through integration of leaders in traditional parties, training in political candidacy and local government procedure, and grassroots efforts to get communities thinking and talking about their future.
However, a real dialogue on the Roma - the ways that Slovakia can break the cycle of unemployment, poverty and suspicion - has yet to take place, with pre-election rhetoric seemingly aimed at manipulating the Roma, or the backlash anti-Roma vote.
While some parties, particularly Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS and Pavol Rusko's Ano, are actively courting Roma voters by including representatives on candidate lists and instituting in-house talking shops on Roma issues, others are playing to the nationalist sentiment that is never far from the surface of Slovak politics.
Robert Fico, head of the Smer party and odds-on favourite to be the country's next prime minister for example, has voiced proposals to limit the number of children in a family supported by state benefits, as well as eliminating benefits to deportees who had been denied asylum abroad.
More extremist politicians have more extreme views, such as Real Slovak National Party (PSNS) leader Ján Slota, who in 1999 said: "I am from Žilina, and in absolutely no instance will I agree with any opinion that there is any such thing as a Roma nation. There are gypsies, who steal, rob and pillage."
Slota's PSNS party has recently pleased nationalists by leading a successful petition drive to block the construction of flats for Roma in the east Slovak village of Dobšiná. However, it seems that a number of the 2,100 names collected belonged to the Roma for whom the flats were to be built.
"Some gadžovia [non-Roma] came and said that 500 Roma from Poprad would move into Dobšiná and that the mayor would build new flats for them, not for us. They told us to sign a declaration that we don't want other Roma to move in here," said one Dobšiná resident who signed the petition. "They've deceived us again."
What is missing in the frenzy of pre-election fact manipulation, however, is constructive and realistic discussion on how Slovakia will deal with its impoverished and increasingly marginalised Roma population under a new government.
Understandable, considering the depth and complexity of the interwoven tangle of economic and social issues faced by the Roma. In the years following the collapse of communism, Roma were the first to lose jobs as state companies shed excess workers and the last to be hired for new openings.
Their children were systematically funnelled into 'special schools' for the mentally handicapped, and their access to health care was curtailed by unofficial but routine segregation.
What this situation has created in the most problematic areas is a population that is chronically unemployed raising children who are shamefully uneducated, thus in future unemployable, and sentenced to a life of state dependency.
Complicating the matter is the fact that the Roma Community, as such, cannot truly be said to exist. While the 2001 census reported a Roma population of fewer than 90,000, estimates of 400,000 are much closer to reality. Many Roma, say activists, responded to the census as members of the Slovak or Hungarian ethnic group, feeling that there could be no possible advantage to being counted as Roma.
However, it is clear that an overwhelming majority of Slovakia's poorest people is Roma, but there is little practical contact or organisation between troubled settlements. In addition, there are a number of Roma groups and sub-groups that do not share even a common language.
Among this diaspora are individual leaders who, much like their Slovak political counterparts, seem to prefer enriching themselves and bickering with immediate rivals rather than addressing key issues in their communities or building bridges to other communities.
Fortunately, a number of programs are running at the local level to involve Roma, particularly women, in public life, and even public service. But Slovakia cannot afford to rely on the third sector to take care of its most neglected members.
What is needed from the state is clear, if difficult for government to stomach. Development logic and extensive application show that people everywhere who are better educated have fewer and healthier children, have them later, and those children reach a level of education equal to or higher than their parents.
This means schools, as well as teachers specially trained to deal with students from a radically different background and holding radically different cultural values than the majority - an idea that has been successful in limited implementations, but which needs to be expanded.
However, with many of Slovakia's schools currently unable to cover bills for heating, let alone educational materials, massive spending programs on education for Roma are not a top priority of politicians, especially considering that the economic and social payoff from such programs are generations away.
The state must also find ways to include the Roma in public life - to give the society's most neglected people a stake in the greater national community. Without these efforts, Slovakia will be condemning another generation of its citizens to hopelessness and idle poverty
12. Aug 2002 at 0:00