SLOVAK governments, in their treatment of the proxy for the Roma community, have typically acted like a theatre director who is in charge of the cast but has completely misunderstood the script and insists on treating one of the key characters as though he were playing a non-speaking part, confined to moving the odd prop before disappearing without comment.
In Slovakia, 105,738 people identified themselves as Roma in the last census. But in reality the number of the Roma people in Slovakia could well be three times that number. The complexity of the situation in Roma communities is beyond the comprehension of most politicians, whose only contribution is to occasionally offer a comment or slur in the guise of a “solution”.
Slovakia has had five proxies since the office was established back in 1999 by the first government of Mikuláš Dzurinda. Some of them have had rather short-lived careers and others were replaced within the ‘good old’ reshuffling tradition that is observed whenever the government changes. Now Peter Pollák, the first Roma ever to sit in the Slovak Parliament, is likely to replace his namesake Miroslav Pollák in the proxy job, at least according to Igor Matovič, the chairman of Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO), who said that the ruling Smer party had offered the post to his party.
Pollák, who has not yet been officially confirmed, has already suggested to the media that the “the proxy itself is just a figurehead… without challenges and real power”. He also suggested that only politicians can change the system and that neither activists nor proxies are able to solve the problems faced by Roma. Meanwhile his party boss Matovič hopped on a caravan with fellow MP Alojz Hlina and hit the road for six days to tour Roma settlements, with the ostensible aim of learning more about the lives lived there.
The fact that it was Matovič, an incurable exhibitionist with an alarming lack of understanding of the weight of words and his wider responsibilities, who signed up for this six-day study-tour makes the whole effort – which if done correctly could be one way to try to bridge the schism between the conjectural world of politics and the real life of real people – a little less credible. Let’s assume that Matovič’s motives are more dignified than the usual reasons why politicians turn their sights on Roma settlements (especially during the run-up to elections, when Roma are seen as a source of easily harvested votes).
Of course Matovič’s Tour de Roma goes further than politicians who are driven to the villages in their big fancy cars and spend part of an afternoon among locals merely to confirm the prejudices that inform their covertly – occasionally, overtly – racist messages to supporters.
Yet Roma rights watchdogs have also confirmed that there is a tendency for the rhetoric of politicians who now are rediscovering the Roma to become more radical, nervous that someone else is harvesting votes in these gardens – and assuming that the only way of attracting support is to flex muscles and utter ‘strong’ words.
Sometimes, society also assumes that shifting from the basest sorts of racism to soft and more concealed racism is good enough. But the truth is that it does not change the core of the problem, because while such people learn that it is forbidden to ban Roma from entering their restaurant, for example, somewhere deep down they still regard it as an act of generosity to let them in and even serve them, rather than regarding this as an elementary and non-negotiable human right.
The UN Committee for the Removal of Racial Discrimination is now being asked to deal with the case of Ľubica Adamová, Tibor Kešela and Lucia Pužová, who are dissatisfied with the verdicts of Slovak courts: though the Košice Regional Court decided that the three Roma suffered discrimination on racial grounds when they were barred from a Michalovce café back in 2005, the court did not order any financial compensation. They are also complaining about judicial procrastination: the case has dragged on for four years.
More Roma should be encouraged to seek justice when they encounter discrimination, but far too often they are not even aware that there is such an option open to them, because in many cases they have accepted the approach of the majority non-Roma as something given, as part of the social order. Bridging this schism will certainly require many more tours and dialogues with the settlements once politicians actually start comprehending how deep the rabbit hole is.