A SINGLE poorly chosen gesture can extinguish a person’s hopes, illusions or confidence. A single ham-fisted statement can sometimes do more damage than negligence or inept attitudes. Such a gesture or sentence can also ruin the utterer’s career, depending upon its context. Sometimes it deserves to, especially if the utterance is made by a politician. But that is not likely to happen in a country where a politician who deliberately makes anti-Semitic comments can continue to serve as justice minister.
And though politicians sometimes lash out at journalists for extensively covering what they call their tongue slips or well-meant but simply misinterpreted thoughts, the words that politicians use do matter because they often signal more about a politician’s true nature than a thick dossier.
Recently, it was Slovakia’s Deputy Prime Minister for National Minorities Dušan Čaplovič who made statements which, even if one ascribes the best intentions to them, cannot be considered respectful of others.
“I am saying it unambiguously, it must be a man and he must be a forceful person who will put things in order and will fight against loan sharks in Roma villages,” said Čaplovič when commenting about the kind of candidate he envisions becoming the next cabinet proxy for the Roma community.
Just to add one more important piece to Čaplovič’s mosaic – he is also responsible for gender equality in Slovakia. Čaplovič made things even worse when in his defence he said that “if someone has two daughters and would wish to have a son, that isn’t sexist either”. The saddest thing, though, is that Čaplovič just doesn’t get it. Obviously, it would be sad if a politician who is responsible for, say, agriculture policy didn’t get it. But if the person who is supposed to be the utmost defender of the correct approach towards races, genders, and nationalities makes statements like this, which belong in a backwoods pub, it speaks volumes about our political culture here in Slovakia. The Roma Institute, the Milan Šimečka Foundation and the Roma Public Policy Institute have all said it: they believe Čaplovič’s statements are sexist and racist.
“Apart from the fact that with his statements he is evoking negative reactions, he has also been failing on the diplomatic side because in his position he simply cannot afford to make such sexist and racist statements,” Štefan Šarkőzy of the Milan Šimečka Foundation told The Slovak Spectator.
Paradoxically, Čaplovič uttered these words just as Slovakia assumed the presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005–2015, which is an unparalleled commitment by European governments, in cooperation with the World Bank and the Open Society Foundation, to work towards social and economic inclusion of the Roma community in their countries’ mainstreams. Non-governmental organisations have also been warning that the situation of Roma in Slovakia has been deteriorating, as measured by the daily realities they face.
No Slovak political party has ever come up with a convincing, sustainable and genuine plan for how to break the devastating cycle of poverty in which the majority of the estimated 380,000 members of the country’s Roma community live. It was always unlikely that the government of Robert Fico, which welcomed into office the Slovak National Party (SNS), would be the one to tackle this Herculean task. A sustainable plan obviously needs to be more than a continuing exercise in populist rhetoric.
There are some Slovak politicians who spit out their recipes for better inclusion of Roma in mainstream society at every opportunity, as though they were talking about disciplining first-grade school children. If nothing else, statements by SNS boss Ján Slota long ago eliminated any expectation of a dignified approach towards Roma citizens.
“Under the administration of this government the number of Roma villages has increased from 300 to 1000,” said Šarkőzy. “We in Slovakia still have villages without drinking water, without electricity and without infrastructure. ”
How will Slovakia use its year-long presidency of the Roma Decade? The Roma activists say that first the bureaucrats would truly have to understand and identify with the larger idea behind the programme and then they might come up with a plan. The government still lacks a functional national action plan, though its presidency of the Decade is already up and running.
Probably so too will the political parties next year when they start their get-out-the-Roma-vote campaigns ahead of the parliamentary elections. They will become more willing to search out the Roma villages, to visit and seek ways to talk to members of the Roma community. They will even bring them little presents: a pen with the party’s logo, or a T-shirt with an outdated slogan. Most importantly, they will shower Roma citizens with promises, hefty and grand promises, that they will surely never keep.
6. Jul 2009 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová