Concern over proposal to let villages split

MANY socially-excluded Roma communities that are home to poverty, frustration and recurrent social problems could more easily be separated into independent villages. That is one possible scenario that human rights activists say could flow from an amendment proposed by the Interior Ministry that would make it easier for groups of citizens to take action to subdivide their municipalities.

A Roma community in eastern Slovakia. A Roma community in eastern Slovakia. (Source: TASR)

MANY socially-excluded Roma communities that are home to poverty, frustration and recurrent social problems could more easily be separated into independent villages. That is one possible scenario that human rights activists say could flow from an amendment proposed by the Interior Ministry that would make it easier for groups of citizens to take action to subdivide their municipalities.

Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic was first reported to have mentioned his intention to seek modification of the law on municipalities during a visit in October 2010 to Žehra, a village that lies near Spiš Castle. Non-Roma residents of Žehra have been complaining about actions taken by the mayor and the local council, which is composed primarily of Roma citizens.

“Today it’s a problem of Žehra, in five years it can be a problem of dozens of other villages in Slovakia,” Lipšic said at that time, promising to propose an amendment to the law in 2011.

The Interior Ministry has now followed through on this promise and in early June 2011 submitted a draft amendment to the law on municipalities for interdepartmental review, scheduled to run through June 21.

The amendment would change the rules that currently require a minimum of 3,500 residents to petition for subdivision of a municipality. Instead, residents who seek to separate from a municipality must prove that the mayor and local council are “violating financial discipline and thus are negatively influencing fulfilment of the needs of the municipality’s inhabitants”, the ministry wrote.

“The change is being proposed in the interest of the rights of the inhabitants,” the ministry’s statement continued. “The current conditions for dividing a municipality are too limiting, particularly in relation to cases in which division of a village would better ensure the rightful needs of its inhabitants.”

According to the draft amendment, which would become effective in January 2012, the part of a municipality that seeks to break away must first submit a petition with the signatures of at least 30 percent of the total number of residents and then a referendum would be held only in that part of the municipality seeking separate status.

The situation in Žehra

The village of Žehra, with some 2,000 residents, has three distinct parts – the central part and two outer parts, Hodkovce and Dreveník, which are about two to three kilometres from each other. The Nová Žehra civic association has been active for two year; its efforts are directed at dividing the central part and the Hodkovce part from Dreveník, a Roma community where about two-thirds of the residents of Žehra live.

“The inhabitants of the central part of Žehra, through the civic association Nová Žehra, have complaints not only against the mayor, who we believe to be incompetent for his post, but also against the actual functioning of the municipal office,” Miloš Pacovský, the head of Nová Žehra, told The Slovak Spectator. His biggest complaint was the uneven division of public resources among the three parts of the village.

Pacovský said the residents of Dreveník have had a majority on the local council for two consecutive terms and accused them of using all the municipality’s finances to fulfil only their needs – such as paying for housing and maintaining low-standard flats. The association has also frequently voiced concerns that the local council has disregarded petitions submitted by residents not living in Dreveník, has forgiven debts that Dreveník residents owe on rent and electricity, and has passed big bonuses for the mayor.

In response, the office of the government’s plenipotentiary for Roma communities asked the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ) to conduct a review of municipal finances in Žehra, the office’s spokesperson, Iveta Duchoňová, told The Slovak Spectator. She added that since last November’s municipal elections Žehra has a new mayor, Ivan Mižigár, “who has an interest in being more responsible than his predecessors and in cooperating with the non-Roma inhabitants in the administration of public affairs as well”.

In an interview with The Slovak Spectator Mižigár said that if the ministry’s draft amendment is passed and Žehra is divided it would come as a surprise to both Roma and non-Roma citizens.

“We’ve been together all these years and now not anymore?” he said. “That’s just not right.”

But the Nová Žehra association says residents of the central part of the village welcome the draft amendment that could enable them to break away.

“We will do everything so that our citizens are not prevented from exercising their right to self-government and we will make maximum efforts to divide the village in line with the law,” Pacovský told The Slovak Spectator.

Proxy says it is bad solution

Human rights activists and the government’s plenipotentiary for Roma communities say they will oppose any such efforts, stating that the amendment drafted by the Interior Ministry is not a solution to the real problems of people living in places like Žehra.

“I admit that non-Roma residents living in these locations are the main victims of the long-term negligence of Roma problems,” Laco Oravec, the programme director of the Milan Šimečka Foundation, told The Slovak Spectator. “They are people to feel empathy for, but listening to their calls which lead to erecting walls or to dividing villages is a road to hell and betrays total resignation from any further efforts to search for new solutions.”

The government’s proxy believes that the real purpose behind the draft amendment is to enable certain parts of municipalities to separate from areas inhabited by Roma citizens and considers it at odds with the declared aim of the government to integrate Roma communities into society. Duchoňová said this is one of the objections that the proxy’s office will submit during the interdepartmental review.

The Association of Towns and Villages of Slovakia (ZMOS) is also reviewing the draft law and has stated that the amendment would not solve the real problems facing many villages, such as hunger, poverty and social exclusion in a part or parts of a community.

“The proposed change would keep a basic problem open – the fact that the division of a village doesn’t guarantee any increase in financial and economic responsibility,” ZMOS spokesperson Michal Kaliňák told The Slovak Spectator, adding that some new municipalities that might be created on the basis of the amendment could be governed by those who had caused the municipality’s unfavourable economic situation before being subdivided.

The government’s proxy also argues along similar lines, saying that some of the newly-emerging municipalities might be dysfunctional, which may in turn have a very negative impact on marginalised Roma communities that, as Duchoňová stated, “when classified as socially-excluded communities, are extraordinarily dependent on the effective fulfilling of the municipal tasks by the municipality”.

Pacovský of the Nová Žehra association believes that residents in both municipalities that have been separated from each other would benefit from such a division.

“They will thus have a real possibility to influence the happenings in their own respective municipalities,” he stated, adding that it could help such local governments to function better and even straighten out problematic relations between groups of citizens.

ZMOS, the government’s proxy and human rights activists are warning that if this amendment is passed, demands to divide villages, like in Žehra, could spread to numerous other municipalities, even though there are currently no specific examples of villages with similar situations which might attempt to subdivide.

“Several years ago such tendencies occurred in Bystrany [also in the Spiš region] but the situation has since calmed,” Duchoňová said.

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