SLOVAKIA’S AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: WILL THE ROMA REALLY BENEFIT?

The recent announcement that Slovakian MPs had passed an amendment strengthening the country’s anti-discrimination legislation was billed by some national newspapers as “good news for Slovakia’s minorities.” But how “good” is it really?

Described as “temporary equalizing measures” it was clarified by the Ministry of Justice that these are short-term measures designed to help minorities achieve equal chances in employment..

Anti-discrimination law in Slovakia is a relatively recent phenomena, with the first parliamentary act passed ten years ago, shortly before EU accession. And despite its promise for minorities, it soon attracted critics most audibly the then governing Christian Democratic Movement.

Indeed, by 2005,  article 5 covering positive discrimination had been scrapped by the Constitutional Court and only now has the country returned to some form of affirmative action Yet it remains unclear how effective the current framework will be. Local NGO programme director Laco Oravec described the new law as “an open door, without concrete steps.”

Situation of Roma in Slovakia (photo: Romedia)

Situation of Roma in Slovakia (photo: Romedia)

This legislation uses the vague term ‘minorities’, but it is the Roma who are believed to be its main target. The only other minority in Slovakia that is larger in number than the Roma are the Hungarians living near the Slovak-Hungarian border.

The Roma have been living in the lands that today comprise Slovakia since the early 14th century and, as in other parts of Central Europe, they have had to fight oppression for many centuries. In the 18th century, Joseph II of Habsburg tried and failed to ban Roma dress and customs. More recently, in Ostrovany a wall was erected to separate the Romani community from the rest of the village. Mundi Romani- Slovakia

Following the Second World War and the Roma Holocaust (Pharrajimos), many Roma communities were relocated to Czech regions. In addition, when a census is conducted many Roma are reluctant to ascribe to their ethnicity so the number of Slovakian Roma is difficult to quantify precisely.

In July 2012, the World Bank’s Policy Advice on the Integration of Roma in the Slovak Republic claimed there were around 320,000 Roma living in Slovakia. That is roughly 6% of the country’s population.

The same document also released some harrowing employment figures for the whole country, but the statistics for Roma were especially alarming. Employment for Romani men is only 20% while for Romani women it is a mere  9%.Naturally, such figures have a bearing on the conditions in which many Roma live.

The World Bank has described these conditions as comparable to that of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In other words, Roma in Slovakia live in conditions of deep poverty, with a lack of basic resources like sufficient shelter, food, healthcare, and educational opportunities.

The report concluded that Roma integration is in the economic interest of Slovakia.

But looking to the Parliament for solutions seems futile for Slovakian Roma, given that it was less than a year ago that the first Romani MP, Peter Pollak, was elected to office.

Peter Pollak

Peter Pollak

Upon his election he criticized the way in which state funds were spent on the Roma minority. He claimed: “As a Roma, I am irritated when I hear how much money supposedly went to ‘support Roma’. And of course, it irritates the majority of people of the country – they hear how much money went for the Roma and do not see results.”

Pollak cited the example of the building a cycle path which, although could be used by Roma, should not be categorized as money spent on the Romani community as leads to published figures on minority spending being distorted and misleading.

Slovakia’s treatment of its significant Romani population has been widely criticized in recent years with particular attention paid to school segregation and forced sterilizations.

Many Romani schoolchildren in Slovakia are placed in ‘special’ classes kept away from the mainstream and are often treated as mentally disabled.

In 2011, Jezerca Tigani, Deputy Director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Programme, stated that “Segregation in Slovakia’s schools is a huge obstacle for Romani children to access a quality education.”

Jezerca Tigani (photo: http://www.rp.pl/)

Jezerca Tigani (photo: http://www.rp.pl/)

She continued: “Besides violating their right to a discrimination-free education, in the longer term it deprives them of a wide range of other human rights, including the right to health, work and freedom of expression.”

Last November, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a Romani woman’s claim that she had been sterilized against her will in Slovakia. The case was initiated eight years earlier and the victim blamed the Slovakian court’s absence of trust in the Roma for such a long delay in justice

With such a longstanding history of marginalization and racist policies, can affirmative action change the situation of Slovakian Roma in any substantial way?

Pollak, the Romani MP, said the new law could ease access to helping professions (such as social work, and counseling) but made a strong statement by voting against the legislation. The fact that a Romani politician did not see enough worth in a law aimed at minority inclusion to vote for it speaks volumes about the “token” status of such measures.

People Against Racism’s Irena Bihariova claimed the “change could help aid to be better and more correctly addressed.”

However, she added that she was skeptical as to just how ‘equal’ the Roma would be in applying for a job in the country.

Bihariova warned: “Saying that people who lost their job a month ago, live in a block of flats and have some savings, are competing for a job for the same position as a Roma from a settlement living without drinking water and unemployed for 10 years, is nonsense.”

The Slovakian government adopted the National Roma Integration Strategy in 2012 which focuses on four main areas: education, employment, health and housing.

For employment, it stated that “the general objective is to decrease disparities in employment and unemployment rates between the Roma and the majority populations.” Yet with few specific policy instruments, and unclear measures of success, how will this “general objective” be realized?

While it is a hopeful sign that Slovakia’s government is speaking openly about minority inclusion, skeptics are not in short supply.

Walled communities, segregation in schools and the threat of violence mean that the conditions for Roma in Slovakia are similar to those of black South Africans during Apartheid.

Slovakia Ostrovany's Wall

Slovakia Ostrovany’s Wall

There, following the end of Apartheid, affirmative action legislation was introduced known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and already South African commentators are forecasting a quick end to what many see as an unbalanced and ineffective policy.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a notable critic. He said that it “dehumanized poverty” and benefited only the elite among the black community.

Slovakia, you have been warned.

By Alastair Watt