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Ways to address Roma issues

MAYBE there is a valid hypothesis, which the politicians might not want to hear, suggesting that people wait for political visionaries who will bring hope and perspective to these interracial relations, suggests Laco Oravec, a programme director of Milan Šimečka Foundation. He posits that policies should be made based on personal knowledge and, thus, more direct contact between politicians and the Roma population might in the end be beneficial. Yet, Oravec is aware of the dangers that populism might pose but adds that only results will show how useful the politicians’ trips to Roma settlements are.

MAYBE there is a valid hypothesis, which the politicians might not want to hear, suggesting that people wait for political visionaries who will bring hope and perspective to these interracial relations, suggests Laco Oravec, a programme director of Milan Šimečka Foundation. He posits that policies should be made based on personal knowledge and, thus, more direct contact between politicians and the Roma population might in the end be beneficial. Yet, Oravec is aware of the dangers that populism might pose but adds that only results will show how useful the politicians’ trips to Roma settlements are.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Oravec about the recent visits of Slovak politicians to Roma settlements, the initiative of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) party’s Tour de Roma, as well as a Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) press conference held at a Roma settlement, and covert racism in Slovak society.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): OĽaNO deputies Igor Matovič and Alojz Hlina recently visited five Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia for what they claimed was an effort to better understand the problems of the community to prepare better draft laws. Then, Pavol Frešo of SDKÚ summoned a press conference over prepared changes to the construction law in a Roma settlement in the Záhorie region in western Slovakia. How do you assess the fact that politicians decided to go “directly to the spot” to talk to the public?
Laco Oravec (LO):
In the case of SDKÚ it was obviously kind of a demonstration of power and one of the most primitive [examples of] populism. The message was not an attempt to help the Roma, but it was intended to demonstrate the power and radicalisation of the SDKÚ in relation to Roma communities and the approach they choose. Generally I would say that it is obvious that after years of silence over Roma issues, the parties are now focusing their attention on [these issues] and starting to understand and articulate them. But one of the biggest dangers is that under the pressure of expectations of the majority of society, they will present only proposals which punish the Roma and in some way throw the Roma into social exclusion.

I have certain sympathies and certain reservations [regarding what OĽaNO did]. The sympathies are for the courage to show an effort [in solving] the problems of the Roma, especially in a kind of calculation with their voters’ base. OĽaNO also did this before the elections when they nominated a Roma candidate [Peter Pollák] to a relatively high position, which led to [his election to parliament].

Maybe this has convinced the party and Igor Matovič that since it did not reduce the number of votes, it is not as delicate of an issue as [one] might have thought. Maybe there is a valid hypothesis, which the politicians do not want to hear, that people wait for political visionaries to bring hope and perspective to these interracial relations. This gesture [by OĽaNO] with the settlements and the Tour de Roma is meaningful in the way that it shows that we often speculate and discuss the Roma in pubs with beer and in front of the television, instead of [trying to get] information first hand and to understand their lives in the context of social exclusion or within the sense of social dependency. Policies should be made based on personal knowledge. I am a supporter of this kind of tourism.

TSS: And what about the reservations you mentioned?
LO:
It is certainly a kind of populism, but populism should be evaluated only after the results and impacts emerge. So we will see whether it was just a skilled media campaign or whether it will lead to concrete steps. I negatively assess the way they talked about [the visits] though.

TSS: How do you assess the choice of the settlements the politicians visited? Could it support the stereotypes about lives of Roma often presented by media?
LO:
The truth is that it might slightly deepen stereotypes. But when the primary motive is to solve the problems then it is necessary to visit problematic localities, and perhaps the inclusion of one better functioning [settlement] points to the variation and plurality of the situation. The four problematic villages were different from one another and it is obvious that our vision for the future has to offer something even to the most complicated localities and settlements; even the most desperate ones and the most segregated ghettoes. I suppose that Peter Pollák, their colleague and MP, helped them to [select the locations] and, thus, the role of someone who knows the environment might be very positive and meaningful.

TSS: Is a five-day tour around Roma settlements enough for politicians to learn about problems of the Roma?
LO:
Yes, and no. It was a sort of first attempt and it would be fine if they keep returning and if the politicians institutionalise other means to acquire information and inspire action. Of course, it would be ideal if standard methods for the creation of public policies are applied, which represent continual and in-depth monitoring and evaluation, so that we can draw information from more detailed studies and more precise surveys. Politicians must have a wider focus and must also get a picture of reality through meeting with people.

I hope that OĽaNO will follow this trend and that it will even inspire other parties. This year there is an interesting situation with the Most-Híd party which de facto defines itself as a pro-Roma party, but they are toothless in relation to Roma issues. Even though they are able to define various measures in their election programmes, which is partly true about the Christian Democratic Movement, they do not have the actual drive to work on those Roma policies.

TSS: Are you not concerned that politicians might abuse this trend of visiting Roma settlements?
LO:
Of course, everything can be abused and we have to judge the steps of politicians at both the factual level, and also at the level of motives, approaches, and real objectives. But the fear of possible misuse should not lead to a total refusal of the idea. One has to say that Slovakia is still very far from quality governance of its society; good democratic participation and listening to the problems of the citizens and everything that is done in this area can be done with good or ill intentions. But then it is really up to the critical view of the public and electorate to say whom they trust and whom they do not.

TSS: In the past mostly radical and nationalist parties were visiting the Roma settlements. Do you assume that in Slovakia there is a shift towards more extremist attitudes towards Roma?
LO:
Yes, something is really happening here. But it is not only the case with Slovakia, but also in other countries. The situation in Roma settlements is becoming more hopeless, frustrating; the tension at the local level is increasing. Issues supported by extremist groups have become part of the mainstream discourse. Extremism also penetrates the mainstream parties which in turn adopt the language or solutions defined by extremist parties. They seem [to use it] to pick up voters, and then they push these [extremist] political subjects towards the edge.

In centrist or mainstream parties I more frequently encounter very dangerous and more sophisticated covert racist statements and I will only refer to the [opinion] of the current prime minister suggesting the necessity to limit human rights, which obviously was intended as [a statement for] the majority of the population and not as an actual political tool or proposal. And it is clear that the sensitivity of common people to such statements, the scale of deeply rooted societal racism is reflected in [the discourse], with which the politicians [influence] society. And this is then one of the biggest complications and a vicious circle, as the politicians to a large degree use language which the society expects while deepening society’s rejection of Roma through negative stereotypes.

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