RECENTLY, Slovak politicians have added "affirmative action" to the list of their frequently used expressions, though many Slovaks do not have a clear understanding of the term. This gap in their understanding gives rise to many myths about its practice.
Born out of the civil rights movement over 30 years ago and defined as a temporary practice, affirmative action calls for minority groups and women to be given special consideration in employment and education.
The actual phrase "affirmative action" generated from US President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Executive Order 11246, which was significantly expanded in 1996 to include affirmative action requirements to benefit women.
US President George Bush also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that formally endorsed the principle of affirmative action. It traditionally enjoyed parity of support by both Republicans and Democrats.
There is an ongoing debate on whether to preserve affirmative action in the United States. Its opponents argue that the playing field is already level and that favouring members of one group over the majority simply goes against equality of opportunity.
Slovakia too needs a sophisticated debate to decide whether it is enough to have "colour-blind laws" for adopting a "colour-blind society", especially when the field is not yet even.
The latest version of the Slovak cabinet's strategy from 2003, to integrate the Roma community, which was passed in 2003, is built on the philosophy of "temporary balancing strategies."
It defines the steps that certain departments should take to balance the situation of different groups within the Roma community.
Recently, Slovak Justice Minister, Daniel Lipšic, protested vigorously against "positive discrimination" and the various quotas designed to help certain groups, especially the Roma, to gain greater access to jobs and education.
Lipšic even said that this kind of "preferential treatment" might harm their human dignity.
His message certainly resonated with those Slovaks who worry that a large percentage of Slovaks will lose out if affirmative action is widely applied in the country.
Such reasoning, however, could ultimately lead to the perpetuation of myths if the public is not properly informed as to how these strategies would be applied.
It needs to be made clear from the outset what form and direction affirmative action might take, how many people it would affect, who would benefit and who might be disadvantaged.
The advocates of the initiative should also make certain that it in no way supports preferential selection procedures that favour unqualified candidates over those who are qualified.
Slovakia's Deputy PM for Minorities and Human Rights Pál Csáky considers affirmative action to be in line with the country's constitution. He has stressed that it is only a temporary measure to "ensure unfairly disadvantaged groups have a chance to match the rest of society".
And yet, understandably, affirmative action might deepen the feeling of injustice on the part of poorer and unemployed Slovaks and widen the gap between them and those Roma who benefit from it, and who are often perceived as being better off anyway, or undeserving of whatever good fortune comes their way.
Kálmán Mizsei, the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, rightly noted that the Roma population in Slovakia is so much behind the mainstream, and is so much a target of prejudice, that its problems cannot be solved exclusively on the basis of the civil principle that all people are equal.
Lipšic argues that he is against any kind of discrimination, be it positive or negative, and that affirmative action would only deepen the stereotype that some groups cannot achieve success without special protection.
Advocates of affirmative action, however, claim that while job discrimination is grounded in prejudice and exclusion, affirmative action is an effort to overcome prejudicial treatment through inclusion.
Undoubtedly, Lipšic has a point when he says that affirmative action practices might create the impression that without "preferences" certain groups would be shut out of the higher education system, whereas if they are there, it might not be on account of their achievements, consequently leaving a taste of injustice in the mouths of many.
But the truth is that without initial help these groups will continue to be excluded from the higher education system; and it any event might take many years before the majority of the population will see increased number of Roma studying at universities, working in state administration, or in parliament.
Still, opponents might argue that now that Slovakia can finally guarantee equal rights for all citizens, favouring members of one or two specific groups would go against Slovakia's commitments to freedom and equality.
But in Slovakia the issue of equality is a relatively new concept, given the many years of discrimination that benefited certain privileged groups.
And if affirmative action becomes a reality it will surely be scrutinised by the public to such an extent that it is imperative that good intentions do not turn bad, and ultimately causing more harm than good.
This would be especially the case in some poorer parts of Slovakia, where resources are limited, and the system might weaken the chances of success for those who are born outside those groups to which affirmative action applies.
By Beata Balogová
20. Sep 2004 at 0:00