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LEADERS OF THE MINORITY ARE UNHAPPY WITH THE MEASURES PROMISED BY THE CABINET

Roma outbreaks calm, relief demanded

ROMA leaders insist that the measures approved by the cabinet last week are insufficient and will not help disadvantaged Roma communities out of their financial and social strife, sharpened by the cabinet's recent social reform.
Roma and other long-term unemployed people have witnessed considerable cuts in social benefits. The Labour Ministry says its changes to the social system are an attempt to motivate people to seek work rather than continue to live off the state.

ROMA leaders insist that the measures approved by the cabinet last week are insufficient and will not help disadvantaged Roma communities out of their financial and social strife, sharpened by the cabinet's recent social reform.

Roma and other long-term unemployed people have witnessed considerable cuts in social benefits. The Labour Ministry says its changes to the social system are an attempt to motivate people to seek work rather than continue to live off the state.

But a Roma protest movement rose against the cuts, escalating in some cases into riots in which shops in several eastern Slovak towns and villages were looted, and clashes with the police.

Police arrested about 200 people in relation to the looting and the majority were taken into preliminary custody.

The Roma Parliament, an unofficial Roma umbrella organisation, threatened to block highways last week unless the cabinet did not release imprisoned Roma. They also demanded that the state withdraw strengthened police forces and assisting soldiers from the areas of major unrest.

"We wanted legal deadlines for keeping people in custody to be adhered to because we suspected that some people were held longer than is allowed by the law," Ladislav Fízik of the Roma Parliament told The Slovak Spectator.

"We now have information that these people are being released from custody and they can be investigated out of jail," Fízik said.

But the threats of blocking highways and borders are reason, according to Interior Minister Vladimír Palko and Attorney General Dobroslav Trnka, to start proceedings against Roma leaders under charges of abetting a breach of public order. Palko's spokesman, Boris Ažaltovič, said that the possible penalty on these counts would be a fine or a sentence of up to two years.

"They want to lock us up, but we have a right to express our discontent by blocking roads and borders," Fízik said.

On March 2, Jozef Červeňák from the Roma Parliament's crisis committee said at a press conference that the Slovak cabinet could avoid further unrest by cooperating with the group.

"People are hungry and they don't see a way out of their problems," Červeňák said.

He also said that another crisis could be triggered when social benefits are paid out at the end of this month and he appealed to the cabinet to look for solutions. He expressed pity over the fact that none of the constitutional officials met with the Roma Parliament except for President Rudolf Schuster.

"The state's social policy is bad. We are not fighting for higher social benefits - we are fighting against the critical position of Roma," Červeňák said.

At a coalition council meeting on March 1, the ruling parties agreed that they would not back off from the social reform measures and expressed happiness that the situation in eastern Slovakia had calmed down.

Deputy PM Pál Csáky, who is responsible for minorities and human rights, and Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník are working on systematic measures to help the Roma community. The coalition parties agreed that the ministers would propose the measures at the upcoming cabinet session.

However, Csáky told the state-run news agency TASR that he was not responsible for the social reform, and rejected accusations that he was avoiding responsibility for the Roma community agenda.

According to Fízik, Csáky and Kaník are responsible for the poor situation of the Roma and should leave the cabinet.

"For a long time, Csáky has not solved the problems [of the Roma] and now heads should be rolling. Csáky and Kaník should leave their posts," he said.

In defence of his social reform, Kaník said in an interview with the private TV Markíza on February 29, "there is no cabinet that would be able to secure long-term social benefits that are higher than the wages for which working people must work hard every day."

He said that the new system encourages and motivates people to work and would help the Roma community in the long run.

Klára Orgovánová, the cabinet's plenipotentiary for Roma communities, disagreed with some aspects of the social reform. She argued that its architects did not sufficiently consider the impact it would have on the largely unemployed and undereducated Roma community.

"The cabinet's principles in the integration of the Roma communities stem from the premise that not all citizens in this state are equal in terms of opportunities and we certainly cannot say that a Roma child living in a settlement has the same chances as a child living in Bratislava.

"Nobody is against the reforms but for certain groups of people, primarily socially dependent families in the Roma settlements, equalising steps must be approved," Orgovánová said.

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