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Roma issue generates more heat

ANTI-RACISM activists rallied Europe-wide, from Denmark to Bulgaria, on October 7 under the “Roma Pride” banner to draw attention to hostility and discrimination against Roma people. Roma communities in Slovakia were also in the spotlight recently, but the main reason was not Roma Pride’s celebration of their culture but instead two anti-Roma marches which took place in late September. They suggested that tensions between the country’s Roma and non-Roma populations, at least in some places, need urgent attention.

ANTI-RACISM activists rallied Europe-wide, from Denmark to Bulgaria, on October 7 under the “Roma Pride” banner to draw attention to hostility and discrimination against Roma people. Roma communities in Slovakia were also in the spotlight recently, but the main reason was not Roma Pride’s celebration of their culture but instead two anti-Roma marches which took place in late September. They suggested that tensions between the country’s Roma and non-Roma populations, at least in some places, need urgent attention.

Several senior Slovak politicians have since joined the debate by tabling solutions, but Roma rights watchdogs have dismissed their contributions as nothing but political point-scoring.

Centre-right parties, specifically Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), have so far attracted the most criticism for what Branislav Oláh, a Roma activist, in an interview for the Sme daily, called “restrictive and irresponsible statements without any knowledge of the problem”. He warned that they might end up further radicalising society.

Peter Pollák, the first Roma ever to sit in the Slovak parliament (as an MP for Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO)), who has now taken over the job of government proxy for Roma communities, is expected to present his ideas, dubbed the Roma Reform, on October 15. This will be built around the philosophy that state assistance for individuals will depend on their approach to society, the state and the family, he said.

The key problem of the Roma community is education and work, Pollák declared at a meeting with Roma rights activist and non-governmental organisation representatives held on October 8. He said that his reform would also seek to address this issue, the SITA newswire reported.

According to Pollák, the current education system is not suitable because it produces people “who are unusable on the labour market and are professional receivers of state subsidies”.

Yet even before Pollák could introduce his plan, SaS rushed to announce its own solutions for Roma on October 4.

“Oftentimes, political correctness has been more important,” SaS leader Richard Sulík said at a press conference, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “The state has consistently failed to show that it can – and wants to – address the situation at hand, which opens the door to extremists.”

As part of its Jobs Instead of Welfare programme, the party proposes to set up a public works agency to provide minimum-wage jobs to everyone interested in working.

“If anyone refuses the job offered, well, too bad – they will be entitled only to one cooked meal a day,” Sulík said, adding that subsistence benefits of around €60.50 a month would be cancelled for such people.

The party is also proposing to limit welfare benefits to a maximum of four children and to withhold payments if parents neglect the care of their children. The benefits of such measures, according to SaS, would be considerable savings in welfare payments for the state, savings in salaries for jobs that the state currently pays for, and the fact that inhabitants of Roma settlements would start to develop working habits and find a way out of their current vicious circle of poverty, while also reducing crime.

SaS argues that Slovakia would look better and cleaner as a result of their work and the majority population would see with their own eyes that “inadaptable Roma can also contribute something towards the betterment of Slovakia”.

The rules must be valid for all; working must pay more than getting social benefits; and work must be found even for people with few qualifications, SDKÚ leader Pavol Frešo argued at a press conference on October 8, as he presented what he said were the fundamentals for solving the Roma issue.

“The SDKÚ is glad that with its legislative proposals it has managed to open up a debate over Roma issues, which so far have not been at the centre of the media’s interest nor, unfortunately, politicians’,” Frešo told SITA, adding that parliament had previously rejected his party’s proposals only for political reasons.

Frešo insisted that the proposals that his party is offering are based on experience that comes from the regions.

Earlier this year, Frešo and some of his party colleagues organised a press conference in front of a Roma settlement in the village of Plavecký Štvrtok, in western Slovakia, to introduce a proposed amendment to the construction law that they said would simplify the demolition of illegally-built structures.

“It is a practical solution which solves a long-term problem related to the flooding of the whole territory of Slovakia with illegal structures,” Frešo told the press conference, as quoted by SITA.

Frešo and SDKÚ MP Ľudovít Kaník insisted that the state should remove newly built illegal buildings by what they said was the easiest possible means: allowing the owner of the land to order such buildings’ demolition. The cost of this would be borne by the constructor of the building. They proposed that the whole process would last no more than 90 days.

Kaník insisted that such measures would help to deal with the problem “uncompromisingly, easily, and in short order – which is the only way to end this malady, which [is] spread[ing] massively around Slovakia”, SITA reported.

But in a recent blog posting, another SDKÚ MP, former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská, announced to all her colleagues in the opposition parties that she would henceforth be boycotting votes on any “better or worse opposition proposals which, with a wave of the hand, miraculously solve the Roma problem in Slovakia”. Žitňanská said she was not willing to participate in “fratricide” – an apparent reference to opposition parties’ attempts to outdo each other with ever more severe Roma policies – while Smer, the ruling party, looks on calmly and with amusement.

She set out her reasons: that the problem is far too serious; that the situation is becoming radicalised; that where tension emerges, those who bear responsibility must take action; and, most importantly, “because there is no quick, simple and cheap solution and thus it is dangerous to evoke unrealistic expectations which only deepen frustration”.

“It is as though there was nothing until tomorrow and there was no genesis and the Roma built thousands of shacks overnight and now this has to be fixed,” Laco Oravec, programme director of the Milan Šimečka Foundation, a think tank, told The Slovak Spectator in an earlier interview. “I do not know what is going on, but it seems as though politicians are running a race [to propose] the most extreme solutions, most of which are completely unrealistic, while radiating hate. This is not dignified.”

Irena Bihariová of People Against Racism, a human rights watchdog, who attended the October 8 meeting with Pollák, said that Roma policies have declined to the level of internet discussions. She criticised the proxy for not acknowledging in his comments the “historical poverty and marginalisation” of the minority, nor the problem of social subsidies, which she said the Slovak public does not understand in its wider context, SITA reported.

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