LATELY Slovakia has been teeming with self-declared ‘experts’ on marginalised Roma communities with an uncontrollable desire to share their opinions with the public regardless of the fact that their ideas, ranging from proposals to move Roma to abandoned military barracks to calls for cleaning up land where Roma dwellings are built, only deepen the schism that divides Roma and non-Roma. Indeed, if at least every second Slovak with a passion for fast-cooked and radical solutions for minorities would create a job for a single Roma, the country would indeed come much closer to a solution.
Unfortunately some politicians who use the Roma issue to score political points with their constituencies are calling for a repressive approach towards Roma, despite warnings by human rights watchdogs and observers that repression will not help, and that the state must first offer an alternative to Roma who live in the most impoverished areas of Slovakia, places where even non-Roma often cannot find work. Even more disturbing, however, is that some public figures generously offering their comments to the media reaffirm this ‘sense’ that it is okay to endorse approaches towards Roma communities which they themselves would never think of applying towards their own families or friends if they happened to get lost in the downward spiral of poverty and despair.
Many people who otherwise tend to display reasonable attitudes exchange them for bold statements about the need for an iron fist by the state to tame “inadaptable citizens” and “anti-social elements” who steal, irritate and destroy.
On September 29, Marián Kotleba, the controversial leader of the extremist People’s Party – Our Slovakia and about 300 followers marched on a Roma settlement adjoining Krásnohorské Podhradie, a village in Košice Region. Earlier this year Kotleba announced his intention to demolish an illegal Roma settlement there shortly after he had acquired part of the land on which the houses of several Roma families currently stand. He had obtained it after nearby Krásna Hôrka Castle was devastated in March by a fire, which police later concluded had been started inadvertently by two Roma boys smoking a cigarette near the historic site.
“A citizen of the Slovak Republic owns some land and wants to execute his ownership rights while the Slovak Police protects those who have built on his land a black [illegal] structure, and takes the owner to the police,” is how the boss of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity Richard Sulík starts his blog, offering a summary of Kotleba’s passage to Krásnohorské Podhradie. He called it a “great shame for the police and a legal state”.
Even with the best intentions, while disregarding all anti-Roma statements that Kotleba has ever disseminated to the public, one could hardly assume that the extremist leader intends to build a summer cottage or a getaway spot to contribute to local tourism. His appearance in the village and his declared intention to survey his land was merely a show for the benefit of his 300-some extremist followers and the frustrated locals who live near marginalised Roma communities, with the frustration making them more susceptible to the populist discourse.
The marginalised Roma did not move to the settlements because they enjoyed the scenery or wanted to be closer to their families or the loan sharks that make their already desperate situations even worse. As Irena Bihariová of the People Against Racism NGO pointed out, the Roma dwellings, even if built on land they do not actually own, are not “garbage” and back in the 1970s were built with the blessing of the state. Human rights watchdogs say that unless there is a change in the tone of the discourse, relations between Roma and non-Roma could deteriorate to the point where there is no hope of them ever reconciling. For example, Bihariová suggests that until politicians seek ways to more effectively penalise them for the behaviour, which is a consequence of social exclusion, no progress will be made and the situation will only deteriorate.
“If poverty disintegrates your basic humanity and starts changing you into animals, the state will not return this humanity by punishing you socially even more for its loss,” Bihariová told The Slovak Spectator. “The poverty and its consequences simply cannot be solved by further deepening it.”
Perhaps those well-off non-Roma politicians who periodically stage appearances at Roma settlements could, at least for a moment, imagine how their lives might have been if they had been born right there to a Roma mother, with the prospects that hundreds of thousands of Roma children face if there is no change.