Roma in Slovakia

by Klara Orgovanova

As in all post-Communist countries, the danger of national and ethnic conflicts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is becoming increasingly evident. An state of uncertainty has arisen--a state of nervousness, of indefinitude, of insubstatiality--in which old rules are no longer valid, everything is changing, and the new rules do not yet exist.

The Roma (also known in English as "Gypsies") form the second largest minority group in Slovakia. In 1991, the Roma of former Czechoslovakia obtained the right to freely proclaim themselves as members of a distinct minority in the census. In Slovakia, 80,627 Roma (1.52% of the citizens of Slovakia), officially declared themselves as such. According to estimates of the urban and communal offices of the state administration from 1989, however, as many as 253,943 Roma live in Slovakia, thus constituting 4.8% of the population. Since these statistics did not include Roma who have a standard of living comparable to that of the majority population, Roma political and cultural activists estimate that the number of Roma in Slovakia is even higher, citing a figure of 350,000 to 400,000 in Slovakia.

The Romany population tends to suffer disproportionately from higher rates of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, crime and disease. When discussing "the Roma problem", most references focus on the part of the Romany population living in very poor rural and urban conditions. The number of Roma living in unbearable conditions in rural communities and devastated central city zones is agglomerating and represents a potentially very serious societal, social and economic problem. Roma often live 2-3 kilometers outside of a village in camps of settlements with only a few dirty houses without facilities, in cellars, or in cardboard or wooden shacks. Some of the camps, such as the one near Rudnany in Eastern Slovakia, were built on dumping grounds or other areas containing materials such as mercury and arsenic.

In order to understand the present situation of the Roma in Slovakia, the problem must be considered historically. Early in this century, the Roma in Slovakia, as elsewhere in Europe, formed an ethnic community, living on the social periphery of the mainstream population. State policy nearly always focussed on the Romany population not as a distinct ethnic minority, but rather perceived it as a particularly anti-social and criminal group. This attitude was reflected in the policy of collecting special police evidence--fingerprint collections of members of Romany groups (1925), a law about wandering Roma (1927), and so on. During the Second World War, approximately 6 to 7 thousand Roma from Bohemia and Moravia died in a special concentration camp at Auschwitz. The Slovak State also copied the racist legislation of the German Reich, establishing special labor camps for the Roma, who were forbidden to travel with public transport, were allowed admission to towns and communities only on limited days and hours, had their settlement units separated from public roads, and so on. After the occupation of Slovakia by the German army, mass killings of Roma occurred in many places.

After World War II, the policy of the state was oriented toward one of assimilation of the Roma--in 1958, Law No. 74, "On the permanent settlement of nomadic and semi-nomadic people", forcibly limited the movement of that part of the Roma (perhaps 5%-10%) who still travelled on a regular basis. In the same year, the highest organ of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia passed a resolution, the aim of which was to be "the final assimilation of the Gypsy population". The so-called "Gypsy question" was reduced to a "problem of a socially-backward section of the population". The solution to the high number of children in Roma families took the form of financial incentives for Roma women to undergo sterilization. State arrangements were also oriented to solving the problem of housing by the liquidation of backward Romany settlements and resettlement of the Roma to urban settings. Although Romany cultural and ethnic identity was denied, organs of the state administration in communities and towns gave annual accounts of "the Gypsy population". This evidence was collected without the knowledge of the Roma, who were categorized according to the criteria of the social services. Similarly, when there was a census, people were not able to proclaim their Romany ethnic identity, but census officers nevertheless marked the forms without the respondents' knowledge to indicate that they were in fact Roma.

In April 1991, the demand for the equalization of the Roma with the other ethnic minorities in Slovakia was accepted by the Government of the Slovak Republic. The Declaration of Basic Human Rights and Freedoms accepted by the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia on January 9, 1991, also secured the Roma's right to freely decide their own ethnic affiliation. Individual ministries were developing initiatives for the Romany minority, securing their rights in the fields of culture and education.

The disintegration of Czechoslovakia has created new problems for the Romany minority in both newly-formed countries. Since 1992, Czech society has been increasingly apprehensive about mass migration of Roma from Slovakia to the Czech Republic. This fear persists despite a sociological study completed in Summer 1992, which found that no concentrated migrations to the Czech part of the country had appeared until that time among the Slovak Roma.

In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, responses of local authorities to increasing crime and social unrest have led to the passing of local regulations and decrees which embody a peculiar kind of discrimination against minorities. These regulations have disproportionately affected Roma. After the dissolution of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, some of its residents automatically acquired Slovak citizenship, even though they were born in the Czech Republic, had been living there for a long time, and had their places of permanent residence there (a condition accorded importance by the law). By this legal act they became aliens in their current homes and would have to apply for Czech citizenship if they wished. The procedures required were particularly difficult for the Roma, who were handicapped most seriously by the condition that citizenship could be obtained only by a person without a record of criminial activity in the previous five years. This five-year limit is equal to the requirements in other countries for refugees who have never had citizenship rights there. It was not so difficult to acquire Slovak citizenship: everyone who had a permanent residence in the Slovak Republic before dissolution of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic became a Slovak citizen.

Another example of these decrees was the so-called Jirkov Decree of December 3, 1992, which empowered that municipality to dislocate persons from their residences without a judicial order or other legal action or court decision primarily because of violations of norms and regulations for hygiene. This would surely have facilitated and simplified the process of getting rid of "unadaptables", predominantly the Roma. Jirkov's representatives were asked for the text of their decree by their colleagues from several other northern Czech towns (e.g. Ust on Laba, Chomutov, Most, etc.).

These events inspired the proposal of an extraordinary anti-immigration bill in the Czech Parliament, which in many aspects went further than the local decree of Jirkov; e.g. it instructed citizens to contact a registration office if they wished to accommodate in their flats persons without permanent residences of their own, while police officers and other qualified persons would have been entitled to enter homes and inspect them. Ultimately, the bill was not passed in the Czech Parliament, but had been discussed; this fact alone clearly expresses the negative attitude toward the Roma. The Romany Civic Initiative lodged a protest, but this did not prevent the occurrence of several instances in which Roma citizens were forced by police officers to relocate to Slovakia with their families.

A similar tendency has developed among local state organs in Slovakia as well. In Spissk Podhradie, a small town in Eastern Slovakia with a high concentration of Roma, the Mayor signed a decree in July 1993 which explicitly denied the Roma and other "suspicious" persons of certain basic rights. Allegedly an attempt to reduce Romany criminality, this decree was contradicted not only the Slovak Constitution but also international civil rights standards. Although the National Council condemned and abolished the decree the next week, before it could go into effect (two weeks were necessary), comparable measures were taken by the government: the police presence in Spissk Podhradie was increased. Many other mayors had agreed with the original decree and had wished to use it, had it not been found unconstitutional.

Similarly, on August 7, 1993, in a televised interview, the mayor of the town of Kezmarok stated that city police would be empowered to require Roma to show identification documents at any time in any place. He was asked, "What measures would be used, hypothetically, if someone's documents were not in conformity with the law?" He answered, "for example, permission [would be granted the police] to detain suspected Roma criminals for 2-3 days for examination; if the Roma were given welfare, they should do some work for public purposes,etc.".

The affair was also complicated by an implicitly anti-Roma statement made by former Slovak Prime Minister Meciar at a meeting with local representatives in Spissk Podhradie in early September. He talked about socially unadaptable persons, but everybody knew he meant the Roma. Indeed, there is general anti-Roma sentiment among Slovak officials at all levels. The mass media carry a similar bias and suggest few specific solutions except reinforcing the police presence in these regions. Ironically, an all-powerful police was also a primary tool of the previous totalitarian regime.

It is apparent that in general people in Slovakia, even those elected as local representatives, are not aware of their human and civic rights. They do not understand what measures are acceptable, what are appropriate attitudes, or what kinds of behavior lead to racial prejudice.

Ideally, the problems of the Roma and other minorities should be solved on regional and community levels. It is essential to create mechanisms for constant consultation between communities' leaderships and minority representatives and organizations. Solutions to the problems of a region's minorities must be integrated with that region's overall development. Ideally, the central government should create effective administrative and judicial mechanisms to remedy discriminatory acts against Roma and other minorities. Furthermore, it should provide services to the regions to help them more comprehensively integrate the development of Roma and other minority communities. Without a more decentralized approach to regional development (e.g. a better-functioning banking system to provide loans, more local authority in real rather than formal terms), even the most well-intentioned local governments will be unable to seriously address these problems.

Klara Orgovanova, a Slovak psychologist, was a member of a Roma delegation hosted in the U.S. by the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) in Princeton, N.J. Other members of the delegation included Nicolae Gheorghe, a Romanian sociologist and Coordinating Secretary of the Federation of Roma in Romania; and Andrzej Mirga, President of the Roma Association in Poland. His report, entitled, "Roma Ethnopolitics", describes conditions for the Roma in Poland. It was also delivered to the Congressional Subcommittee and is available from the ECEP.