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SURVEY - SLOVAKIA: Progress of Roma may determine entry to EU: MINORITY RELATIONS by Lucy Smy: In spite of renewed efforts by the government, recent reports say that Slovakia has yet to match its intentions with actions

(London) Financial Times; Jul 4, 2001

By LUCY SMY

Few places are at their best in the rain. The Roma settlement on the outskirts of the village of Svinia is no exception. Within minutes of the downpour the area is deserted and the broad dirt square collapses into a soup of mud.

Around 650 Roma live in the settlement, either in four crumbling apartment blocks, some portable cabins or a smattering of low huts. There is no running water or sewage system. The gas supply which runs to the village stops before the settlement. There is 100 per cent unemployment.

The settlement at Svinia, is one of an estimated 590 Roma settlements in Slovakia. Conditions in the settlements have shocked international observers and the European Union has made improving the situation of the Roma the political priority in talks with Slovakia over accession, not least because of the recurrent waves of emigrants seeking aslylum in western Europe.

The Roma are the second largest minority population in this heterogeneous country after the Hungarians. Unlike the Hungarians, who are estimated to make up around 10.7 per cent of the population, the Roma are heavily discriminated against, significantly poorer and politically disorganised.

The Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) is one of the five parties in the ruling coalition government.

Pal Csaky, SMK deputy prime minister in charge of development and minority affairs, is himself an ethnic Hungarian. He points out that one of first things that the government did when it was appointed in 1998 was to acknowledge that it was the government of a multi-ethnic society not just a society of Slovaks.

Slovakia also includes small Czech, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, and German minorities, which together make up around 2 per cent of the population, but figures for the Roma are more difficult to come by.

The last published census of 1991 suggests that officially they make up 1.6 per cent of the population, but this figure is thought to underestimate the population substantially. Simply put Roma were so scared of discrimination they marked themselves as Slovak. Mr Csaky's ministry instead puts a more realistic figure at around 8 per cent.

Not all of the country's Roma live in the sort of squalid circumstances seen at Svinia. Michal Vasecka, program director for Slovakia's Institute for Public Affairs, estimates that about a quarter of the Roma population live in settlements, the other 75 per cent live in lesser degrees of segregation, closer to or even within majority Slovak towns.

He says the problem is not so much an ethnic one but a problem of social exclusion.

Such exclusion starts early. Every six year old in Slovakia has an informal chat with a primary school teacher before they can start school. Roma children routinely "fail" this conversation - because they cannot speak Slovak, or because they have poor concentration - and it is recommended that they go to a special school, for those with mental or physical handicaps. Around 75 per cent of Roma children are educated in this way.

"Once a Roma child is admitted to a special school we absolutely know that those of us who work will be paying that person's social benefits for the rest of our life," says Mr Vasecky. "When I explain it to people like that they often become more keen on working out how to help."

Education is one of the key focuses of the government. They have started a "zero year" programme so that Roma children can go to pre-school for a year and learn basic Slovak, hygiene and socialisation.

Commenting on the progress that Slovakia had made to improve the situation of the Roma in its latest accession report, the EU said broadly that intentions were not being matched by action. The remarks stung the government, but were recently echoed during a row when Mr Csaky's plenipotentary for Roma affairs, Vincent Danihel, was fired.

Mr Danihel's successor, Klara Orgovanova, made it clear in her acceptance speech that if she did not feel she had 100 per cent support from the whole cabinet then she would not take on the job. Mrs Orgovanova has a tough 15 months ahead. The government would like to make progress towards the EU a big selling point in the run up to elections next September to make up for the pain of a two-year austerity programme. However without significant progress on the Roma issue, it will be difficult for the EU to show them a green light.

In Svinia the hand of the national government is barely discernible. Self-help projects to train men with carpentry skills, start bag weaving and book-binding are all run by non-governmental organisations.

Alexander Musinka, an anthropology student who works closely with the Svinia settlement, says change will take time. "In anthropology we say that change usually occurs over two generations (where a generation is taken to be 27 years)".

When the rain stops in the settlement dozens of children burst outside. Most are barefoot, half of them naked, all are filthy. They skip in the puddles and drag each other around for rides on an old pram base screaming with laughter when it flips over on a rock. Mr Musinka's theory suggests when these children are 60 they ought to be living somewhere with electricity and running water, where hand washing will be a normality for their grandchildren, not the favourite lesson at kindergarten.

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited


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